MAGA media looks to turn White House briefing room into a battlefield

Eric Bolling, the conservative host of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s “America This Week,” would travel regularly to Donald Trump’s White House, interviewing the former president seven times and occasionally attending press briefings.

Trump’s now gone and Bolling is facing a vastly different professional landscape. The current president is not a friend. His employer dragged its feet in declaring Joe Biden the winner. And Bolling said he’s concerned he could lose his regular credentials and be unable to tape from the White House.

And so, he’s taking steps to protect his standing. He recently submitted an application to become a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, he said in an interview.

“I hope to hold this administration as accountable as the media held the Trump administration,” Bolling said.

Trump showered his allies in the conservative media with VIP treatment, rewarding them with interviews and access, plugging their books and programs, and in some cases seeking their counsel on everything from immigration policy to military airstrikes. But they’re on the outside now — and looking to draw blood from the new administration.

That presents an early set of challenges for the Biden team, which is trying to learn from the Obama years. Back then, it was Fox News firing most of the spitballs at a newly elected Democratic president — personified best by Glenn Beck and his chalkboard. But now, there are a host of outlets looking to occupy that space, from the mainstream right (Sinclair and the Daily Caller) to the conspiratorial fringe (OAN and Gateway Pundit). And that, even for experienced hands like press secretary Jen Psaki, poses new and awkward conundrums for a White House vowing to restore normal relations with a press that has become anything but normal.

White House officials promise a sea change from how the Trump White House interacted with the press. Biden’s team plans to lay out clear criteria for qualifying for a so-called “hard pass” to access the grounds in consultation with the WHCA, officials told POLITICO. If current passholders in the media continue to meet the criteria determined together with the correspondents’ association, they will continue to have hard passes.

White House officials stressed that they won’t take steps to banish pro-Trump voices from the White House. They don’t, for example, anticipate proactively revoking hard passes from journalists who got them under Trump. And they seem keen on not going down the same path the Obama White House did, when it took steps to freeze out Fox, but backed off amid pushback from other networks. But Biden’s aides also promised not to allow outlets to use the briefings to spread baseless conspiracies.

“We expect reporters covering the White House to operate in good faith and tell their audience the truth, and this White House will do the same. We are moving forward with that mutual understanding,” said T.J. Ducklo, the deputy White House press secretary. “Organizations or individuals who traffic in conspiracy theories, propaganda and lies to spread disinformation will not be tolerated, and we’ll work with the WHCA to decide how to handle those instances moving forward.”

Coronavirus guidelines have significantly slashed access to the briefing room, curtailing crowded meetings where the full gamut of networks on the right could participate. Currently, just 14 of the briefing room’s 49 seats are filled. The WHCA and White House both want to expand that, but have no immediate plans to do so as Covid rages. While the WHCA has moved in recent days to cycle more outlets through the briefings, Trump-aligned hosts and right-leaning reporters who didn’t get into the room last week argue the current group of attendees went soft on Biden.

“It was an embarrassment for the press corps,” said Sean Spicer, the host of “Spicer & Co” on Newsmax and Trump’s former White House press secretary.

As evidence for his claim, Spicer, who like Bolling has submitted paperwork to join the WHCA, pointed to briefing room questions about the color scheme of Air Force One and Biden’s mood on Inauguration Day. Yet for all his complaints, Spicer did heap praise on Psaki’s performance, which several outlets compared favorably to his early outings — now remembered for his insistence on Trump’s record inauguration crowd size.

“She has done a very good job in her role and to some degree I’m a bit jealous,” Spicer allowed.

White House officials are sensitive to the argument that the press is taking it easier on Biden. They also stress that they aren’t worried about facing down pro-Trump hosts, including Spicer.

“Jen took questions from literal Russian propaganda outlets when she was the State Department spokesperson,” a White House aide shot back. “Former ‘Dancing with the Stars’ finalist Sean Spicer does not scare her.”

For the White House, the trickier challenge may be fighting their own way into a closed, right-wing ecosystem.

Tim Miller, a Trump critic and longtime GOP media operative, suggested that the Biden team find a few outlets and reporters in “MAGA media” and engage them on the White House’s own terms. “Some of these guys are access-mongers, others just aren’t that savvy, and going into the lion’s den and making a case has value,” he said.

“The downside to that is you are kind of legitimizing some of these outlets that have acted horribly and they obviously will go out of their way to smear Biden the rest of the time,” Miller said. “But there are no easy answers and I think the trade-off benefits Biden.”

Among those reporters that Biden’s team seems keen to engage is Peter Doocy of Fox News, who conservative personalities and media executives tagged as the lone standout for his questions last week. On Thursday, Doocy asked Psaki why the Biden family wasn’t masked at all times during an Inauguration Day photo shoot at the Lincoln Memorial, since Biden had signed an order mandating masks on federal property and stressed the importance of modeling good behavior.

Psaki said the Bidens were celebrating a historic day and are taking numerous precautions, referring to Doocy as “Steve,” his father and a co-host of “Fox and Friends.”

The younger Doocy’s approach was anticipated by Biden’s White House team. During the campaign, his questions repeatedly focused on Biden’s adult son, Hunter, and allegations over his foreign business dealings and personal life. At a Biden transition event last month, Doocy probed the then president-elect about whether he still believed that reports about Hunter’s emails and laptop were Russian disinformation.

Biden said he did and promised his Justice Department would act independently.

“God love you, man! You are a one-horse pony,” he added of Doocy’s interest in Hunter, fumbling the “one-trick pony” cliché.

Biden’s campaign, nevertheless, worked with Doocy through the campaign. Advisers characterized Fox News as a valuable component to the president’s messaging strategy. Top team members, including Kate Bedingfield, who now runs the communications operation at the White House, appeared on Fox’s airwaves. As did Pete Buttigieg, a top surrogate.

The Biden campaign placed major advertising buys on Fox and its website as well. They did so focusing on audiences that turned on Fox for the news, not for primetime hosts like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, who they effectively considered Trump surrogates.

For the Biden team, there was a belief that they could sell his talk of bipartisanship on Fox — a conviction that didn’t exist for outlets like OAN and Newsmax, several advisers said.

“If you’re leaving Fox News to watch those networks, you’re indicating that Fox News is too moderate to you,” a Biden senior adviser said. “We thought there were people who watched Fox News’ news programming and there were voters there who could be supportive of Biden.”

Now that Biden’s team is in the White House, it may be harder to ignore those other networks that are further to the right of Fox. Newsmax, the proudly conservative outlet owned by Trump pal Chris Ruddy, has a seat in the briefing room and will come up in the rotation soon.

“We’ve always adhered to the rules. We’re respectful to the president, and we appreciate being a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association,” said Brian Peterson, a senior vice president at Newsmax, referring to their White House correspondent, Emerald Robinson. Peterson also noted that Newsmax had a briefing room seat during the Obama years “and were treated well.”

Then there is the question of OAN, whose White House correspondent traveled to Ukraine with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to film a series promoting baseless conspiracy theories aimed at defending Trump during his first impeachment.

Inside the briefing room, OAN’s Chanel Rion came to be viewed as a lifeline for Trump and officials when they came under tough questioning. At one point, she asked Trump, who referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” because of where it originated, whether he considered it racist to call the cuisine “Chinese food.”

Last spring, the correspondents’ association booted OAN from the rotation after Rion twice defied social distancing rules. OAN continued to go to the White House as guests of Trump officials. The correspondents’ association then took away its workspace in the White House. An OAN executive did not respond to requests for comment about their approach to covering President Biden.

In recent days, the correspondents’ association has informed nearly 20 additional outlets that they are being brought into the rotation to cover press briefings. The list includes Bolling’s Sinclair as well as Breitbart, the far-right publication that in recent months focused extensively on alleged fraudulent voting and Trump’s legal campaign to overturn the election.

Elizabeth Moore, a Breitbart News Network executive, said the company’s reporters look forward to covering the Biden White House “just as we do any other —accurately, comprehensively, with an eye towards storylines that are resonant with our tens of millions of readers, listeners, and viewers who rely on us for the facts.”

WHCA representatives did not comment on the pending applications, though others outside the organization said it’s not customary for anchors and hosts who don’t cover the White House regularly in person to be granted full memberships.

Spicer said he originally applied to get a better sense of the inner-workings on the “other side” — “to see how the sausage is made.” He’s since taken issue with the WHCA, which had limited briefing seats back under Trump, for agreeing to the new coronavirus safety rules proposed by Biden aides that restrict the number of people on the grounds to 80 and indoors to half of that.

“WHCA bought into his idea of limiting access,” Spicer said.

Asked if he would consider running for a board seat, Spicer said he wasn’t thinking about it right now. But he didn’t rule it out.