When President Trump took the stage in Las Vegas Sunday night, it marked more than a resumption of his controversial indoor political rallies. It also signified a low point in six months of talks between the White House and a White House press corps struggling to cover a president who does not prioritize their health. Reporters willing to run toward danger in war zones, riots, and terrorist attacks drew the line on spending hours tightly packed in an indoor space with more than 5,000 cheering supporters, few of whom were wearing masks.
Given only a few hours notice of the surprise decision to move the rally indoors, reporters traveling with the president sought assurances of social distancing and masks. When those assurances did not come, coverage was left primarily to members of the pool, the small, rotating group of 13 reporters that travels in motorcades and aboard Air Force One—and enjoys some distancing because it works from a buffer provided by Secret Service. Also working the event was an ABC crew in what is called a transmission pool that provides a head-on camera shot and sound of the president for all the networks.
Notably absent were the network crews and correspondents who would normally attend to do their own stand-up shots. “They decided the crews would be in the building for more than six hours and that was dangerous,” one member of the pool told National Journal, adding, “We did not know it as an indoor rally until the schedule came out, and we were all surprised. This was the first indoor rally since Tulsa. It felt strange.”
Jonathan Karl, the ABC News correspondent who was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association at the time of that rally in Tulsa on June 20, said there were some organizations that kept their reporters out of the building in Oklahoma but that Las Vegas was “the first time that everybody stayed out except for the pool.”
“I can’t think of a precedent to this,” said Princeton professor Julian Zelizer, an expert on the presidency, noting that reporters rarely flinch from going into dangerous areas for stories. “This is nothing like that,” he said. “The president is simply creating a dangerous situation to prove some sort of point. He puts followers at risk, and then reporters who want to cover the story. There is zero sense to what he did.”
Karl, who has worked in war zones, said the contagious nature of the pandemic makes it different from shooting wars. “This is not like embedding with the Marines in Fallujah,” he said. “It is like you are taking your family with you to Fallujah.”
Charles Bierbauer covered the White House from Ronald Reagan through George H.W. Bush, serving as president of the WHCA from 1991 to 1992 before leaving to become professor and then dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. “It’s hard to come up with a precedent for what happened in Las Vegas because we’ve never had a pandemic like this before and we never had a president who was totally inconsiderate before,” he said. “The media are in a position where they are kind of torn."
A spokesman for the White House declined to comment, referring all questions to the campaign, which defended the Sunday rally. “If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino, or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States," campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Zeke Miller of the Associated Press, the current WHCA president, praised “the professionalism of the White House travel pool in a difficult and potentially hazardous situation Sunday evening,” pledging to keep pushing the White House “for necessary health and safety precautions.”
Those talks with the White House began in March and had a productive start, according to Karl, who said he found a willing collaborator in then-press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “It was the best few weeks of relationship with the White House press office that I had through my entire time on the board,” he said. “They worked with us. They were supportive. They sought our guidance.” Through this cooperative effort, the number of assigned seats in the briefing room dropped from 49 to 25 and then again to 14, enforcing distancing in what was always a very cramped room. But the changes did not sit well with the president, who was immediately unhappy both with the optics of a half-empty room and the absence of some of his more friendly interlocutors in the conservative media. He pushed, for example, for the Trump-supporting One America News Network to be given a permanent seat and bristled when the WHCA banned OANN's reporter for violating pandemic guidelines.
With that, said Karl, the White House “clearly stopped taking us seriously.” The pushback “came from higher up,” he said. “It came from Trump. Trump hated that there were fewer people in there. He never liked that. And then on days when he would go out and not see any friendly faces, it drove him crazy. That’s when he was saying, ‘I want OAN in there.'”
The two turning points that led to Las Vegas were June 5, when the White House rearranged the chairs set up for a morning Trump appearance in the Rose Garden. Originally set at a safe distance, they were moved close together. “We were purely props for him to make it seem like everything was getting back to normal,” Karl said. “It wasn’t us who moved the chairs close together, and we couldn’t do anything about it. I absolutely raised it and I got a shrug of the shoulders.”
Then, on the Monday after the controversial Tulsa rally, the administration abruptly stopped checking the temperatures of all who entered the White House. “I was just blown away by the fact that they weren’t even taking temperature checks anymore,” said Karl, noting that the action seemed at odds with the reports of Secret Service agents and staffers testing positive for the virus. Objections, again, were ignored.
It is why some reporters with preexisting conditions have stayed away from all White House briefings. “They just don’t care,” said April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. “It bothers me not to be there. I’ve even found myself shouting at the TV a question I wished were being asked. But we have families who depend on us. We are not immune.”