Covering The Donald Trump White House In 2020: Reporters Look Back At The Most Tumultuous Year, And What’s Ahead With Joe Biden

Donald Trump berated the press as “the enemy of the people,” but no correspondent in the White House has ever experienced a whirlwind like the past four years. And no other 12 months played out quite as unpredictably as 2020, which is ending with Trump’s refusal, despite facts to the contrary, to accept the presidential election results.

The pandemic gave Trump a nightly platform, until it all came to an end after an ill-advised riff on the use of disinfectants to eradicate the virus. The killing of George Floyd triggered nationwide protests that Trump seized upon to launch a law-and-order campaign, but it backfired when peaceful demonstrators were cleared before a presidential photo op in front of a Lafayette Square Park church. The White House itself was used as a backdrop for Trump’s re-election campaign, but his Republican National Convention speech was a jumble of grievances and harsh rhetoric.

The wild aspects of Trump’s year overshadowed some of the administration’s successes, including peace agreements in the Middle East and the acceleration of Covid-19 vaccine development. That will remain an unending source of his complaint; he’ll hardly be alone among past presidents to have gripes about the media.

What’s easy to forget is how the year started: The president was in the midst of impeachment proceedings, with a Senate trial leading to his acquittal. As Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, said, “There was a sense of when impeachment was happening that this was the biggest thing that was going to happen in the current presidency, that we had finally reached the pinnacle of chaos in the Trump presidency. And then only a few weeks really later, do we get this global pandemic that I think will be the defining thing that will be the Trump legacy, his handling and really his mishandling of the virus.”

Correspondents of the major networks share their stories of covering a year like no other, and how they think things will change in the Biden administration.

March 13: The White House starts nightly coronavirus press briefings

JOHN ROBERTS, Fox News: It became an opportunity for the president to get out in front of the cameras every day. And a lot of what the president said was grounded in fact, and a lot of what the president said could be questionable in terms of its grounding in fact. But I think what he was really trying to do, in the absence of the ability to be able to get out in public and campaign, was get himself in front of the cameras every day.

JON KARL, ABC News, and then president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which limited attendance in the briefing room to just 14 correspondents: For the most part, people were not able to be there, and this was the biggest news story for some of us for of our entire lives, and we are telling people to stay away. So it was a really challenging time. What happened though, is after a few weeks, the president became increasingly irritated anytime he looked out and he didn’t see what he considered friendly faces in the briefing room. So there were days when there was no reporter from Fox News, or certainly many days where there was no reporter from other other outlets that he preferred, including OAN and Newsmax. Of course, there were many, many days when there was no New York Times or Washington Post. NBC. So these things got very intense, combative.

The challenge became when the White House decided to invite OAN to come on days when they didn’t have a seat. And the OAN reporter would stand in the aisle, crowded right behind whoever was sitting in the back row, and when we would raise it with them, she would say, “I’m a guest of the White House.” I tried to say, “If you’re a guest of the White House, sit in the staff seats next to the podium. Because if you’re a guest of the White House, you’re not a reporter.” But they defied that and it became a point of contention. Then later on, they kept on coming and coming. The the only place on White House grounds where masks were mandated … was in the White House briefing room. And frequently the president’s guests would be back there not wearing a mask. So it became it became incredibly frustrating and maddening to see the White House not taking the safety of the people working there seriously, not taking the basic precautions that the Centers for Disease Control and the president’s Coronavirus Task Force had suggested. We had a feeling that they were putting our lives in danger. I don’t mean to sound too dramatic, but that’s what it was, and there was a feeling that this was a dangerous place to go.

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC News: I asked the president if he had a message for Americans who were scared, and I think this is when there was only a small number of people who had died, and in the hundreds I think, and the cases were in the thousands. And he looked back at me and he said, “I say you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.” I think it was just a defining moment for a lot of Americans, in that it was indicative of this opportunity for us to try to all come together in a time of crisis and challenge for so many, when you’re really frankly rooting for the success of the president and the administration, because nobody wants to go through this pandemic. In that moment he chose to attack me, as a member of the media, instead of speaking directly to the camera and delivering a message of sort of strength and support. In my own personal experience what makes it resonate is that you come home that night and you walk in the door and your 7 year old looks at you and she says, “Dad, I don’t think you’re a terrible reporter. I think you’re a great reporter.”

ROBERTS: [Joe] Biden had suggested that maybe there was an opportunity to work together, and so I asked the president if there really was, given what they were saying about each other. And one of the things that the Biden campaign was saying about the White House was that the president had gotten rid of the pandemic office in the National Security Council. And before I even got the question half out of my mouth, he jumped on me and asked me if that was a “CNN question” that I was repeating. That wasn’t my point to ask him why he got rid of the pandemic office. My point was to say, “Can you work together, given the heated rhetoric that’s flying back and forth between the White House and the Biden campaign and vice versa?” … The president likes to jump on points. He sometimes doesn’t wait for you to finish the question.

CECILIA VEGA, ABC News: Initially [the briefings] were really welcome things. We thought, “OK, finally we’re going to get some science, we’re gonna hear from some doctors, we’re gonna hear from some experts.” Even the president, but to ease the nerves of the American public as we’re in the middle of this pandemic and none of us understand what this means or what this is going to look like. If ever there was a time where we needed solid, sound information from an administration, let’s have one of these briefings. Let’s have them on a regular basis. But then they started turning into these endless, hours-long slugfests between the president and the press corps, and it got to the point where it felt like he was using us as a punching bag, because he wasn’t having rallies at the time. He needed a sparring partner. … And it got nasty. He was nasty with individual reporters. And, you know, frankly, a lot of networks, weeks in, just stopped taking [the briefings] because you couldn’t sit there and fact check so many mistruths in real time. It became a disservice to the American public to run those unedited.

Jon Karl, ABC News, former WHCA presidentWe had a feeling that they were putting our lives in danger. I don’t mean to sound too dramatic, but that’s what it was, and there was a feeling that this was a dangerous place to go.

ALCINDOR: It didn’t surprise me that he would lash out at me as the questioner, especially because the questions that I was posing to him were the questions that were part of the reason why he was struggling so much in his response. …. When I look back my days with the president and our exchanges… are the times where I was pressing the president and fact-checking him in real time. “You said that you think that they don’t need all of the equipment that they’re requesting when it comes to ventilators,” and the president would say, “No, that’s not true,” and I would say, “Actually, you said it on Fox News,” or I would say, “You just said that we have the best testing of the entire world when in fact, at that moment, we were behind South Korea,” he would again lash out at me. Or if I said, “You disbanded this White House office, and these people left the administration under your watch that were focused on pandemic,” he would say that I was making that up. So I think every single time I went to question the president, I had to come up with the research, and I think it served me well to have that research, because over and over again what we saw with the president [was] spreading disinformation from the White House and saying things that are simply not true.

WEIJIA JIANG, CBS News: [When Jiang asked Trump why the virus response was a global competition, he told her, “You should ask China.” She then responded, “Why are you saying that to me specifically?” He called it a “nasty question” and abruptly ended the press conference.] I didn’t have much time to react because in those situations, you are just thinking about what is the right follow-up question to try to get information and get context for what your interviewee is saying. And in that case, while it’s true that the president has brought up China to other reporters in other answers, the difference is their questions had something that was related to China. But mine was to try to excavate some of his thinking about testing, and why he viewed it as a global competition. If he had talked about that with regard to China as a competitor, it would be one thing. But the answer he gave was so much of a 180 that I had to try to understand why he asked me that. Obviously everyone saw the follow-up question I asked. Whether you’re interviewing the president or anybody else, if they veer far away from your original question, it is our duty to try to answer why.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN: We’ve been in this vortex for the last four years. The problem he ran into with the pandemic is that all of the sudden, this was a subject that mattered to every human being on Earth, and going into a room and lying to everybody, and spreading a bunch of false information and just flat out passing on misinformation to the public was just not going to work. … The shtick that he had grown accustomed to, using it to dominate the discussion and drive the news coverage, dominate social media and so on, was not going to work during a pandemic.

April 23: The president talks about researching the use of disinfectants and ultraviolet light to eradicate the virus

KARL: I immediately perked up, I was like, “What is he saying? Disinfectant?” And then he gets into his riff about disinfectant and suggesting that they could study whether you could inject it somehow inside the body…I just remember how completely insane it sounded in real time. I started getting text messages from all kinds of people about, “What? What did he just say?” Inside the room, we were kind of looking at each other, thinking, did we hear that correct?

ROBERTS: Having been pre-med in college and having been the chief medical correspondent for another network about 15 years ago, that jumped out at me immediately, and it struck me that the president made a connection that was not a logical connection. However, I did go back and do some research and found out that there was a company that was investigating embedding ultraviolet lights into the incubator tubes that would be put into patients in order to try to reduce the viral load in the upper respiratory tract. So as it turned out, while there have been many, many jokes about people drinking Clorox cosmopolitans, what he was saying about getting ultraviolet light inside the body was actually being investigated…. I mean he was obviously briefed about the need for for sanitation and disinfection of areas … maybe he just somehow in his mind he made the leap. He claimed afterward he was joking, but I have to be honest in saying that at the time, I didn’t see it as being a joke. Maybe I missed the joke. Maybe I didn’t quite get it. I often part ways with many of my colleagues because I understand his humor. And many times when my colleagues will jump on something that I have clearly thought was a joke, I’m somewhat surprised, but in this particular case it didn’t strike me as a joke.

JIANG: On the one hand, President Trump admittedly wants to offer hope and positivity to people, especially during hard times. That’s not a secret, but when he does that and then it includes shocking and and remarkable suggestions that are not based based on science and supported by evidence, that was really startling. I looked at Dr. [Deborah] Birx, because she was right in my view, and I could see from her reaction that she was startled. And she tried, I think, to hide it, but her body language was very clear. And so you have on display, on camera unfolding, the president saying one thing, and his task force coordinator reacting to it. He asked her about it, and she had to say she had never heard of something like that.

ACOSTA: One of the things that we were doing was coming out of these briefings and then fact-checking him.  And I remember sort of waving my hands and saying, “Wolf [Blitzer], we need to warn the American people not to listen to the president’s medical advice here.” I remember it vividly. I think it’s probably the only time I’ve ever gotten on TV and warned the public that listening to the president could be hazardous to your health.

… You talk to any American, I mean, you can go almost anywhere in the world, and you will find people who will say, “Oh, yeah, remember the day when he told people to drink bleach or inject themselves with Lysol? It is literally a moment almost every human being on the planet remembers. And that’s to me is why it was just kind of his Katrina moment. It was when the presidency unraveled for him.

May 29-June 1: Black Lives Matter protests and the St. John’s Church photo op

KARL: I was in the White House [the night of May 29], in the midst of the pandemic, when the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd got very intense and protesters started moving towards the White House and briefly breached one of the buildings on the White House complex. The White House went into lockdown, and I was with the other reporters locked inside. And I had heard that they had entered a essentially a “code red,” which was the highest level of security at the White House. So I left my booth in the White House press area, to walk up to the press secretary’s office to see if I could learn anything more about what was happening. And when I walked out of the briefing room, made the quick turn into the hallway that leads up to both the press secretary’s office and then beyond that the Oval Office, I saw that there’s there’s a uniformed Secret Service officer who normally sits at a desk in that hallway. And the Secret Service officer was standing, wearing a mask, and holding a long gun in her arms, like finger on the trigger. And I just it just struck me like I’ve I’ve never seen such a crazy situation like this. What we later learned was the president was briefly moved to a secure underground bunker at that moment.

On June 1, Trump summoned reporters to the Rose Garden to make a statement, as protests grew outside the White House grounds near Lafayette Square Park.

ACOSTA: We could hear in the Rose Garden the sounds of melee in the streets. You could hear the tear gas being fired, the pepper balls, as we were told they were being fired. Once we got out of the Rose Garden, I remember doing my live shot,  looking over my photographer’s shoulder and seeing military trucks rolling through the White House grounds, and thinking to myself, “What is this? This looks like a military occupation that’s that’s underway, a military coup that’s underway.” It had that feel to it. It was just extraordinary. These were military trucks filled with members of the National Guard, other members of the military who were being deployed to deal with the situation. And then you could hear all hell breaking loose on H Street, just across from Lafayette Square, right in front of the church. And then we saw the president, Jared Kushner, Mark Meadows, other members of the administration, walking out of the White House, right past us, through the gates, through the park and over to that photo op in front of the church. It was just one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had covering the White House, because it felt like something you would not see in the United States of America. It felt like something you would see in an autocratic, authoritarian country.

Oct. 2: The president announces that he tested positive for Covid-19

KARL: ABC has a system, when there’s a major breaking story, where we all get alerted, and it’s a rather excessive system. It’s only when there’s something major — [Osama] bin Laden has been killed or the president tested positive for Covid-19. So what happens is my cell phone rings, I get texted. My home phone rings. My wife’s cell phone rings because that is a backup number. They all go at once. So I was roused from my sleep, and it was the it was the quickest I had ever gone from dead sleep to being live on television reporting. It was like, “Boom, call, we’re on. Go.”

ALEXANDER: All I remember is I was at home, this was like a nine to 10 hour, and I was writing the piece for the next morning, and I got a heads up, “Hey, we kind of need you to be on standby. Something’s going on.” So I got changed back into into a suit, ran down in my basement and sat in front of a camera for two hours until we got the news, and Brian Williams went to me literally to just to speak of like this massive moment in a pandemic. He tossed to me, in the basement of my home, our home studio setup by NBC, to give the details and to help and to announce the president of the United States had just tested positive for Covid-19.

JIANG: I remember being on a call at 2 in the morning with our White House team as we tried to build a timeline and sort out what we knew about the president’s whereabouts and who he had been with. But that was truly a remarkable moment in covering the president because in one sense, it was surprising he hadn’t contracted the virus sooner, because of sort of his insistence on carrying on like things were normal when they weren’t. On the other hand, of course, it was still shocking that the president of the United States had Covid-19. And so I thought that this would be a real turning point for the president and for the White House to completely shift their messaging and what they had been saying, because remember this was just about a month before Election Day. There had been such an effort made to sort of downplay the virus that I thought this would change that. I wouldn’t say that that happened, but that is one thing that I thought might happen when he got sick.

ALEXANDER: Over those days, we started working on the lawn, so to speak. You weren’t even going into the West Wing at that point. You weren’t even going into our offices. We [thought] just go to your camera position, and just stay there for the entirety of the day, because you didn’t want to go inside because at this point there are so many positive cases, and now the president himself had tested positive. It wasn’t worth the risk. So from 6 in the morning, when you got there, until 7 to 8, maybe 9 PM when you left after a special report ended, you were working outside in a lawn chair and camping out for most of the day, working sources and the like. Sometimes sources would say, “Hey do you want to come up and meet me? I’m upstairs.” And I’d say, “If you decide to tell me, we can do it by phone, because I’m not coming in the building.”

VEGA:  I lived for the next four days outside of Walter Reed. And it was a zoo. It was one of those media events that you see on TV. And in fact, it made us look around as a press corps and go, is this even safe for us to be out here? Because we’re all jam-packed together on the side of a road, looking at the hospital in the background.

Throughout the course of his stay it was unclear how serious his illness was and frankly, we didn’t find out until after the fact. Or it would be hours after the White House doctor would give these press briefings, and they were not forthcoming. They were not actually accurate, and we were getting contradictory information from people who were close to the president. … It was whiplash because the doctor would say one thing, Mark Meadows said something else, and then we were having sources who were close to the president saying this is really bad. He’s actually really sick. And then the doctor would have to come out and correct the record the next day. It was like, who do we really believe here? What’s really happening?

ACOSTA: I go up to the lower and upper press areas of the White House because I’m trying to get information about whatever story I’m doing that day. And I go back there, and this is after their White House officials test positive for the coronavirus. I walked up to the upper press area right outside Kayleigh McEnany’s office and there’s a whole slew of young press aides sitting around next to one another without masks on. And I’m just thinking to myself, “This is bonkers. Why is it that even after there are people coming down with coronavirus inside the White House, there are these young staffers not wearing their masks?” And as it turns out, days later, several of them contracted the coronavirus. That became public.

ROBERTS: We later learned that [Trump] got a lot of very good medications and very good care, and bounced back extraordinarily quickly in the fact that he was back on the campaign trail a number of days later, and in circumstances that I found very uncomfortable. I remember the first rally that I covered after the president was sick was in Lansing, Michigan. And it was 40 degrees and raining. It was just awful to be out there, and all these people were out there and they were cold and it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be. And then the president stood out there for almost 90 minutes in the rain giving a speech. I am thinking to myself, and I actually reported on the air, that it was just a little more than a week ago this guy was in the hospital with a potentially deadly disease, and now he’s out here in the freezing cold rain, giving a big stump speech. So I personally thought that it was quite impressive that he was able to do that.

Nov. 3: Election night and the aftermath

KARL: The whole Trump brand is based on being a winner and never losing. That was his posture, even as he was going through his bankruptcies. So he was never going to admit that he lost because it would destroy his brand. And in his mind, people wouldn’t follow him anymore. He has said this in the past, “If you’re a loser, nobody’s gonna follow you.” So in the immediate aftermath, it was just a matter of creating enough doubt. But I think he’s actually come to believe it.

ALEXANDER:  This is like, in effect, political theater, and he’s doing it like a performer, as he is, in many ways to help solidify his support over the course of the next several years to pursue whatever he chooses, whether it’s another run for the president — I’m sure he’d love to keep people in line for that. But the problem is, think about how damaging it is, just for people who are rooting for the country to succeed. The idea that you’ll have one president, President Biden, serving, and another now former president suggesting the whole thing’s illegitimate, and that means that 40% of the people that support this president are going to think that that he’s illegitimate from the start. Now, [Trump] would say, “Well, Democrats treated me like I was illegitimate from the start.” But I think people can see the obvious differences.

KARL: I’ve spoken to people close to the president who said, “I’m working. We’re coaching him and we’re getting him to the right place,” and then they will say, “And then Rudy Giuliani calls,” and Rudy Giuliani feeds him stories about what they think they’ve uncovered, and sends him videos, and these videos you see circulating, surveillance videos of counting. Anybody who looks at it is like, “Well, I don’t really know what that is.” But if you’re looking for the conspiracy, “Well look at the look at the lady in purple!” And you are like, “What? What am I looking at here?” And I think that he’s come to actually believe that it was stolen from him.

ALCINDOR: I think the biggest challenge of covering the Trump presidency, and this applies I think to his response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his denial that he has become the projected loser of the 2020 election, is that he overwhelms the system with misinformation and disinformation. It is not like he says one thing that’s not true. He says 70 things that aren’t true. And the challenge is, what do you pick out in that collage of lies that you can say you want to spend time on. That to me is the greatest challenge of the Trump presidency, and then looking at this election, there is also this real hard decision to be made about how much do we cover the president when he’s misleading the American people, when he’s doing things that are simply not true. And how much is giving it coverage also giving his misinformation and disinformation more attention than it deserves? There’s a really fine line between fact checking and then continuing to disseminate information that you know not to be true.

ROBERTS: The vitriol in America, and the divisions and the anger, it’s difficult to report. I’m not in this business for the accolades, but I’m also not in it for the criticism. Clearly both of those things are part of of what you do. But I have always through my entire career tried to walk the middle line, to say here’s what one side is saying, here’s what the other side is saying. …But the vitriol that has gripped this nation in the wake of this election is just so toxic that even if you try to report things right down the middle, you get the stuffing beaten out of you by both sides. I’m at the point now where I’ve turned off as many replies on my Twitter feed as I possibly can without banning comments altogether. And you just have to kind of remove yourself from it, but I mean there’s been extraordinary anger in the wake of this campaign, and that’s the thing that I find the hardest to deal with.

Jan. 20, 2021: The prospects for Biden

ROBERTS: I think that his availability will be far more diminished than President Trump’s was. Don’t forget President Trump built his career on publicity and availability. And he was willing to talk to anybody when he was a real estate developer, and he was pretty much willing to talk to anybody as the president.

KARL: First of all, what I hope is that we get back to the true role of a press secretary. A press secretary is a public servant, taxpayer paid. A press secretary is not simply a publicist for the president. A press secretary is speaking on behalf of the executive branch of the U.S. government. You cannot be overly political, and your credibility really matters. You can’t just make things up. You can’t just lie. So I hope and I am hopeful that a Biden press operation will get back to a more traditional idea of what a White House press secretary is and what a White House press operation looks like and does. There will be tension between the press corps and the press secretary. There always is. But restoring some of that credibility is really important, and I am hopeful that will happen.

But I am worried about press access in a Biden administration. As White House correspondents, we’ve taken a series of really tough measures to protect the health of the press corps on White House grounds, and the the press area I think has been the safest place. … But I think the instinct of the Biden administration is going to be to cut things back, and maybe dramatically, as part of their efforts to deal with the pandemic. I worry that they’ll go overboard, and that we will have insufficient access to the president, and that we’ll have a whole different set of battles, a very different set of battles than we had with Trump.

ALEXANDER: Whether you love or hate Donald Trump, you knew exactly where he stood on things a lot of times. Joe Biden has held a bunch of events but has taken very few questions. … So in many ways that’s a much more careful White House. They are going to be much more deliberate about the way that they do things. And I think it’s gonna be challenging for us, because with the president, you heard from him all the time. It was a vehicle he used to get his message out.

ROBERTS: It’s separated by a political fence, and I think that the mainstream media that tends to go left of center will be just fine with its audience. I think media outlets that are center and center right will have a little more difficult time getting the access that we had during the Trump administration. I think that there will always be, to some degree, distrust of media organizations that are center left among people who are conservative, and vice versa. I don’t think a whole lot is going to change from that standpoint, but I think in terms of the administration working together with news organizations, I think organizations like CNN and MSNBC will have an easier time than they did during the Trump administration. There’s the potential for organizations like Fox News and others to have a more difficult time dealing with the administration. … I’m just going back to how I’ve always done my job, and that is to be objective, to not come at my coverage with any type of bias.

ACOSTA: Biden has gotten snippy at times with reporters, and they don’t take questions from reporters quite as much as we’re accustomed to with Trump. And so we’re gonna have to approach that one day at a time, these access issues. If they’re trying to close off Biden from the press and hide him from us and so on, obviously, there’s going to be some friction that’s going to develop from that. But I think, just from just from a baseline standpoint, the press is in a better position, if the new president is not referring to members of the media as the enemy. That particular designation put on members of the press, including myself, by Donald Trump has put people at risk. I, along with many other of my colleagues, have received death threats and have been subjected to threatening language on social media and so on. And it’s just intolerable. And so we have to hope that we can get away from that, no matter who’s in the White House. We have to get away from referring to members of the press as the enemy. It’s just not something we should tolerate in a free country, in a democracy like ours.

ALCINDOR: I think we’re still going to maintain an adversarial relationship. Part of the reason why the press and the presidency are in the Constitution is because they’re both incredibly important pillars of American democracy, and to do them well they are going to have to be at times at odds with one another, because as reporters we’re going to be pressing for information that at times the Biden administration might not want to provide.

KARL: Donald Trump has spent four years telling people that real news is fake. He has spent four years telling people literally not to believe what they see with their own eyes. And he has spent four years trying to portray the press as just another arm of the opposition, of his political opposition. So I think that we do need to work hard to establish credibility. I think it’s a big challenge. I think one of the ways we do it is show that as we reporters it’s our job to ask tough questions, to be appropriately skeptical, and to hold public officials to account, regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or independents. You know we strive for fairness and accuracy and accountability regardless of who’s in the White House.

ALEXANDER: I think there’s a sense of pride by all the folks who do who cover the White House right now that by no means were we, or was it, perfect, but I think more than ever, I think the way that we conducted ourselves on good days and crummy days will be the defining moments of our professional experiences. This was a presidency and administration like no other, as it’s been said multiple times before, and hopefully the way we handled ourselves helped hold the president of the United States accountable.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *