he White House’s relationship with conservative media outlets presents a vexing challenge for the administration as President Trump approaches 100 days in office.
Trump has been a boon to the insurgent conservative media outlets that were routinely frozen out of the Obama White House.
Conservative media outlets have more access, power and influence in the Trump administration than they’ve had in any government before. Trump’s chief strategist is Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman.
Two other former Breitbart writers have also been brought into the White House, and the news site regularly scores exclusive interviews.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer routinely calls on conservative media outlets at press briefings, while right-wing outlets that were once on the fringe, such as the Gateway Pundit blog, have been invited onto White House grounds for press conferences.
Mainstream reporters have been known to rely on top conservative media figures as sources because of their close ties to some in the White House.
Trump has himself benefited from the proliferation of friendly outlets eager to tout his accomplishments or provide political cover on sticky political issues.
But that dynamic has also cut against the president.
When Trump greeted a few dozen conservative reporters and media figures at a gathering in the Roosevelt Room on Monday night, he softly pointed out that some who were present have been critical of his young administration, according to two sources in the room.
Conservative outlets have amplified White House infighting, raising the alarm over what they view as an ascendant “liberal” wing inside the administration, led by economic adviser Gary Cohn and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Trump also found many in the conservative media working against him as he sought to pass the House GOP’s healthcare plan, which was ultimately abandoned following a conservative revolt in the House.
Some at these conservative media outlets reasoned that they were holding Trump accountable, while others argued that they had the president’s best interests in mind as they worked to sink a bill that was reviled by the base.
But now that the administration has cracked the door open for conservative media, some are hungry for more.
“They’ve brought conservative media in to a small extent, but it’s mostly been window dressing,” said Lee Stranahan, a former investigative reporter for Breitbart.
There is grousing that Breitbart and the Christian Broadcasting Network are the only conservative non-cable outlets to have scored an interview with the president in his first 100 days.
“One exclusive every 50 days for conservative outlets,” said one conservative reporter. “Imagine if Rush Limbaugh started carping on that stat — the heartland unwashed would be very unhappy.”
Others argue that the Trump administration still holds the mainstream press in higher regard than the conservative press. They say the White House is tossing conservatives scraps as Trump feeds mainstream heavyweights such as The New York Times and Washington Post with a steady stream of interviews, scoops and top-level access.
Several conservative media figures interviewed by The Hill said they wanted to see Trump do more conservative talk radio. They are also badgering the White House for more access, more interviews, more questions at press conferences and for the briefing room to be reconfigured so that right-leaning outlets sit closer to the front or take over the seats of outlets they view as liberal, like BuzzFeed or The Guardian.
“Conservative media is big enough, strong enough, institutionalized and has enough credibility to step in and break these major news stories that are currently going to the mainstream press,” said one editor at a conservative outlet.
“Why do they keep running to Bloomberg or The Washington Post or New York Times? Why not one of us? We can handle it, and the people that read those places aren’t the ones that sent Trump to the Oval Office. If you want a dialogue with the American voters that sent him there, this is how you do it.”
To be sure, that view is not universal among conservative media.
“I think so far the Trump administration has had a stellar relationship with conservative media,” said Lucian Wintrich, the White House reporter for Gateway Pundit. “They have obviously given them more access and granted them more questions than the former administration. That is helping lead to an uptick of conservative readership and traffic, which in turn leads to more writers and better stories.”
Still, one White House official told The Hill they’d like to see the administration rely more heavily on conservative media.
Those tensions spilled into the open on Monday night when the White House hosted a few dozen conservative reporters, editors, columnists and radio personalities for what was billed as a background briefing with Trump, his top advisers and communications staff.
After Trump answered questions for about half an hour, the outlets were told that the briefing was on-the-record.
But reporters had to leave their phones behind before entering the room — the Roosevelt Room is a sensitive compartmented information facility where officials can view classified information — so there was no recording or transcript of the proceedings.
The president made news in announcing that the U.S. would apply a tariff to certain wood coming into the U.S. from Canada, but reporters were frustrated they had to share the scoop with 30 or so of their peers.
Afterwards, a handful of reporters privately lashed out at the White House communications team. Much of that staff was assembled by chief of staff Reince Priebus, who is still viewed with suspicion and outright hostility by portions of the base.
“The Trump administration has this fascination with New York and Washington media,” one reporter who was present at the meeting told The Hill. “That’s not the media that covered him fairly, and those aren’t the readers that elected him.
“We’re confounded as to why the Priebus-Cohn strategy continues to be to court these New England outlets. Why are they always picking up the phone and calling these people? Even worse, why are they always leaking to them?”
A White House official fired back.
“This is perhaps the first time I’ve heard of taking a meeting with a principal, in this case with the President of the United States, from background to on the record and seeing public outcry from reporters,” an official said. “It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of. Reporters who brought in pen and pad made news and others didn’t and probably had to explain to their editors why they didn’t break anything.”
John Fredericks, a conservative talk radio host from Virginia who was at Monday’s meeting, dismissed the “sour grapes” of those who complained about the nature of the gathering.
“This administration has done yeoman’s work in opening communications opportunities for other sources of media that are not connected with the legacy mainstream,” Fredericks said.
“Whether it’s digital or radio or anything, they’ve gone out of their way, and I applaud them for that. I have White House press credentials, and that never would have been done in the Obama administration. They’ve gone out of their way to accommodate.”
He defended the “cordial and professional” White House communications team and swatted down the notion that conservative outlets are not getting enough access. Fredericks said it would be “insane” to think the administration would suddenly freeze out The New York Times or Washington Post.