White House excludes CNN from Trump session, with no protest

NEW YORK (AP) — The White House excluded CNN on Tuesday from its annual off-the-record briefing with television news personalities prior to the State of the Union address with no public protest from the network or any other journalists who attended.

No news organization boycotted the event to show support for CNN, in contrast to the British journalists who walked out of a Monday meeting with an aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to back competitors who were being kept from the session.

The lunch on State of the Union day is a tradition that predates President Donald Trump. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper attended in 2019. Blitzer has been to some two decades’ worth of such meetings. CNN confirmed that none of its journalists were invited this year, but it declined comment on the action. The network has been Trump’s most frequent target in his complaints about journalists.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham declined to comment about the lunch.

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Although journalists who accept the invitation agree not to report on what is said there, details of the meeting inevitably slip out. In 2017, it was reported that CBS’ Scott Pelley asked Trump about whether his attacks on journalists could put some in danger. A year later, Trump reportedly upbraided NBC’s Lester Holt over an interview he was unhappy with.

On Tuesday, Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier was interviewed on the air shortly after the lunch — with the White House in the background — giving two details that Trump allowed to be on the record: that his State of the Union address would be “extraordinarily low key,” and a prediction that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would challenge Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in a primary.

Asked by colleague Dana Perino whether impeachment would be talked about during the speech, Baier said, “I think it’s going to be a slight mention but not a big mention.”

Journalists who have attended the lunches generally consider them a chance to convey things that are uppermost on a president’s mind, while it’s an opportunity for the White House to hammer home talking points.

This year, CNN was denied any of those insights.

“It is just outrageous that the White House is doing what they’re doing,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief. “It ratchets up the war with journalists and, as far as I’m concerned, the general public.”

Bob Schieffer, former evening news anchor and host of “Face the Nation” on CBS, said he attended many of these State of the Union briefings in the past and didn’t think CNN was missing much.

“To be quite honest about it, it was a fun thing to do and I always got a kick out of going,” Schieffer said, “but I don’t think it made much of a difference in the coverage.”

That’s one of the reasons that Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said other journalists should have taken a cue from their British counterparts and boycotted the White House meeting.

“If the stakes are as low as they are in a case like this, why not use this as an opportunity to take a stand?” Kirtley said.

British journalists who turned up for a briefing with Johnson’s trade negotiator on a meeting were told that some, like those representing the BBC, Sky News, Financial Times and others, could go in and others could not. Those allowed in refused to attend when they saw colleagues were being barred, saying they objected to the government picking and choosing who its message would be delivered to.

“We should be doing that, too,” Kirtley said. “You should be sending a message that we’re not going to play on those terms. There needs to be a line drawn in the sand.”

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said that he was disappointed that other networks didn’t take a stand in favor of CNN.

“There’s value in solidarity and not allowing this or any other president to pick off journalists or news organizations one at a time,” Rather said.

One anchor at the meeting prefaced a question by saying it was being asked on behalf of a CNN journalist, according to a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was off the record.

Some networks whose journalists attended the event Tuesday reasoned privately that although what Trump did was wrong, the president was looking for a fight and they didn’t want to engage. There was some thought that it would be different for an official government briefing.

“As a media organization which covers the president, this event provides a valuable opportunity to better inform our audience about tonight’s State of the Union address,” said Howard Mortman of C-SPAN, whose correspondent, Steve Scully, attended the lunch. “We don’t dictate who’s invited. Any credible journalist would take the opportunity to sit down and question the president.”

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AP White House correspondent Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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