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The Washington Post’s Dan Balz On The “Rules Of The Road” Re White House Press “Sprays” And Taping of Conversations

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The audio:


The transcript:

HH: Pleased to welcome back Dan Balz, longtime Washington Post reporter. He’s covered ten presidential campaigns, the dean of D.C. reporters, and just last week was named as the first ever senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, which is a great thing for the Institute and the students who attend it. Dan, congratulations. That’s quite an honor. That’s a great thing for both of you.

DB: Well, thank you, Hugh. I’m very pleased. I was up there last year as a resident fellow for three months and really enjoyed the experience and was able to work out an arrangement with them to continue a part-time affiliation. So I’ll be up and back with some regularity while continuing to do my day job.

HH: Everybody wins, and I’m glad. Now I have on today you, Dan, Chuck Todd and Bob Costa, because I want my generally pro-Donald Trump audience to understand something I tried to make an argument with them about last night on Twitter, that the press spray and the noisy yelling of questions, however inconvenient or ill-mannered, and by the way, Kaitlan Collins was not, she’s, you know, pretty standard fare yesterday…

DB: Right.

HH: …is a totem of the 1st Amendment. And it’s not just press freedom, but free exercise. Everything matters there. But people don’t understand it. They only get little glimpses of it. Can you explain what that ritual is and why it was so shocking that Kaitlan Collins was then banned from the Rose Garden?

DB: You know, it’s something that is done constantly at the White House, and has been done the same way over as many years as I can remember. The president is in the Oval Office or he’s in the Cabinet Room or the Roosevelt Room having a meeting, and they bring in photographers and some reporters, a pool, to shoot pictures, and they get to shout questions or to ask questions of the president. And it is an utterly routine exercise in which everybody understands what the rules of the road are. And what happened to Kaitlan Collins yesterday was an outrage, because she was doing her job. There was news of the day to ask the president of the United States. As we know, he often responds to shouted questions whether he’s on the South Lawn or whether he’s in the Cabinet room. And sometimes, he will go on for a very long time. It’s reporters’ job to ask about things. The Michael Cohen-Donald Trump tape had been released overnight. There were things that needed to be asked of the President, and Kaitlan was doing her job. And for that, the White House retaliated against her. And it was, as I say, it was an outrageous act. It may seem as though the press is unruly in those situations. But frankly, the 1st Amendment says the press can and should be unruly. That’s one thing. And that’s simply the way it works. You have to shout questions at the president. There is a lot of noise. There’s a lot of clamor sometimes in those exercises. And somebody’s voice, you know, gets a little above the fray and the President often responds. Yesterday, he chose not to. But the White House officials who told Kaitlan that she could not later attend what was an open press event available to any reporter was you know, a total breach of the rules that we have followed for years.

HH: Now I want to emphasize to people, Dan and I have been around long enough that we can remember the great Sam Donaldson actually establishing the standard of yelling at Richard Nixon. Now that has endured for many years with the purpose of making it clear, I think, to the world that our leaders get shouted at and you don’t get shot by the leader. That’s really what it’s all about. And they may or may not want to respond, Dan, but what was Bill Shine and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, what were they thinking, because you can’t, if you want to change practice, you can’t do it sua sponte singling out an individual.

DB: No, exactly. And what I mean, you know, Sam Donaldson set the standard. I remember back in the, it must have been the ’88 or maybe the ’92 campaign, I can’t remember which. My colleague, David Hoffman, who was as aggressive a White House reporter as Sam Donaldson, literally on the campaign trail at some points was carrying a bullhorn in order to shout questions at the president. George H.W. Bush did not retaliate by you know, denying David the opportunity to be at open press events or anything else. So you know, Hugh, there, I wanted to read a quote from Hugo Black. This is from the Pentagon Papers case. And I think this is relevant. This may seem like a small episode to people, but it was not, because it’s, you know, it’s the kind of thing that one things leads to another. But at any rate, Justice Black in the Pentagon Papers said the press was protected so that it could bear the secrets of government and then inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would forever remain free to censure the government. And I think that, I mean, I think that quote sums up why we in the press feel so strongly about things like this and why the 1st Amendment is so cherished. And the other thing I would say is that you know, as you saw last night, there was solidarity across the media world on behalf of Kaitlan and what she had done. There was no crack in the solidarity of reporters from news organizations across the board saying that the White House was wrong and Kaitlan was only doing her job.

HH: Now I want to emphasize as well you don’t get to pick and choose. And so the 1st Amendment includes the Free Exercise Clause, which I am adamant about having its full muscular, robust exercise. It also includes the freedom of the press, which Kaitlan was involved in yesterday. And past practice informs both of those freedoms. And so if you’re going to change past practice, you’ve got to expect this sort of blowback. But I want to emphasize, Dan Balz, a couple of years ago, Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller had a reporter at the press pool who interrupted President Obama and got a lot of flak for that, because the rules of the road are pretty well established. You don’t interrupt, correct? You wait until the statement is done.

DB: Right. Yes, you don’t start shouting while the president is speaking. And usually, these questions are done as the press is being escorted out. I mean, that is also the norm that there is the, you know, if the president is with a world leader, as he was yesterday and they’re sitting there, the president makes a statement, the world leader makes a statement, and then there is an opportunity for questions. The photographers are, you know, are snapping away all the time, and so there’s a lot of noise from the cameras going off. And reporters have to, at that point, have you know, a minimum amount of time to try to ask questions about something that may be newsy, but that was not raised by the president or his guest.

HH: All right. Now so we’ve got this established. I expect the White House to walk this back today. I don’t know if they’re going to apologize. If I were the president, I would invite Kaitlan in for a one-on-one. That’s what I would do, just to put this to bed and say sorry, we overreacted, it was a long day, the Cohen tapes are tough. And let’s turn to the Cohen tapes. I have never recorded anyone in my professional life, I’ve been doing this since 1990, without their consent. Have you, Dan?

DB: No, I have not. No.

HH: And so it is, it’s, for a lawyer to do it, I think, is a beach of the canon of ethics in almost every state with which I’m aware and the model code. So Cohen violated ethical responsibility. And I don’t think journalists ought to praise him for doing this, but they also can’t ignore what he recorded. Is that your assessment?

DB: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, you know, if he in one way or another violated the law, then he’ll have to answer for that. But the fact that this recording was put out in public means it’s fair game. And we have, we not only have every right, we have every responsibility to play it, to analyze it, and as you know, there is a debate going on as to exactly what the President said about cash. But it’s incumbent on the press to try to you know, air that debate as vigorously as possible.

HH: Now when, it is reported in Axios this morning that there are 100 Cohen tapes. So these, this is the most tape recorded material since the Nixon tapes with which I’m so familiar. And I want to try and get the Balz perspective on how the media ought to be dealing with these tapes as they emerge, because we’re going to find, because Cohen was frequently in touch with the media, that not just Chris Cuomo, but a lot of journalists were tape recorded. And journalists are often off the record more colorful than they are on the record or on screen. What do you think the rules of the road ought to be vis-à-vis these Cohen tapes as they emerge, if they emerge, Dan?

DB: Well, I think there’s, I mean, I think there are two levels, Hugh. One is if they involve the president of the United States in the context of something that has been in the public domain, i.e. payoffs, that’s news, that’s important news to get to the bottom of. If it is Cohen recording a reporter, it may be embarrassing to that reporter. We’ll see. I’m not saying or predicting, but it could well be, as you say, off the record conversations are looser, and people say things in those settings that they wouldn’t necessarily say if they were, you know, interviewing somebody on Meet the Press or Face the Nation or This Week or whatever. But to what extent are they newsworthy? I mean, I think, you know, it depends on the significance of the individual who has been taped. And we’ll see which of those come out, and how embarrassing or not they turn out to be. They will get some coverage, I’m sure, given the nature of social media. We know that these things will move around quickly. But whether they rise to the level of significance as opposed to embarrassment, I think you just have to wait and see what’s on them.

HH: You know there’s no more ubiquitous gesture in a green room than a guest moving to cover their microphone when they’ve already been mic’d up. Right? That’s like the, everyone knows that gesture, and it’s because we don’t want a lot to be known. And Dan, last question, if recording becomes, and surveillance becomes ubiquitous throughout this society, we’re going to all suffer if people do this. The Cohen breach here is not just of his client, the President’s confidences, but it’s of the rules of the road generally, and we’ve got to be aware of this, because it’s going to destroy public discourse.

DB: Well, and Hugh, I think that it goes beyond what Cohen did. I think the nature of having cellphones with cameras and video recorders has in fact changed the way a lot of people operate. I mean, I know reporters are in general, and I think a lot of people, public officials even before reporters started doing this. They are much more cautious when they are anywhere out in public. And the idea that you can be in a small or medium sized gathering that is “off the record” is foolhardy. You have to assume that there is a video being done at any public gathering, and you have to assume that things you say in a public setting, though you’re having a relatively private conversation, could be heard by others and repeated. So I think that, I think we’re in a different era. And the Cohen, I mean, the Cohen tapes will be one more iteration of that.

HH: And Cory Booker got caught in this yesterday saying that support for Brett Kavanaugh was complicity in evil. He was at a fundraiser. He got spun up, and Tom Cotton was generous towards his colleague yesterday saying he probably wants that one back. No one ever gets anything back these days, do they, Dan? Last question.

DB: You don’t get them back, and the worst things, the dumbest things, or the most embarrassing things often happen at fundraisers as we’ve seen over the years.

HH: Oh, yeah. It’s like cue stupid. With monies in the room, cue stupid. Dan Balz, congratulations. Harvard’s Institute of Politics, the same. My good friend runs that, and I’m so glad he brought you back up there.

End of interview.


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