WASHINGTON — I followed the routine on Tuesday that I had hundreds of times covering the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies.
I flashed my White House press pass at the guard at the northwest gate, cleared security and walked unmolested up the North Lawn driveway to the West Wing. I entered the press room, dropped my briefcase at the Post desk, then crossed into the briefing room to see the president’s press secretary take questions from all comers.
Over the decades, thousands of other journalists have performed this ritual, a potent symbol of the unparalleled freedom of the press in America: journalists freely accessing the very seat of power — the West Wing of the White House — and demanding answers of high officials.
Now, Donald Trump is considering putting an end to this. Over the weekend, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus confirmed that they were weighing a plan to kick reporters out of the West Wing in favor of a larger site elsewhere in the White House compound. That they are even considering such a move is shocking, yet not surprising.
Journalists have had a regular place to work and to question officials in the White House proper since the McKinley administration, and presidents and White House officials of both parties and journalists of all varieties have honored the custom. Journalists were there the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and evacuated side by side with Bush officials when it was thought a hijacked plane was headed for the building
Tuesday was Obama press secretary Josh Earnest’s 354th and final press briefing, and the first since the talk of evicting reporters from the White House. Earnest was at least as alarmed as the journalists.
“Was there ever any consideration by anybody in this White House of shutting this briefing room down, of taking reporters and moving them out of the West Wing?” asked ABC News’s Jon Karl.
“No,” Earnest said, “there was not.”
“The fact that all of you represent independent news organizations and have regular access to the White House, have regular access to … the briefing room at almost any hour and can hold people in power accountable is really important,” he said. For White House officials, “sometimes that’s a little inconvenient, sometimes it’s uncomfortable,” he said, “but it’s necessary for the success of our democracy. … And your ability to do that is going to be affected if you don’t have regular access to the White House.”
Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry used to note that his office was 50 feet from the Oval Office and 50?feet from the briefing room — an important symbol of the American free press. To this day, journalists can walk into Earnest’s office, mere steps from the president’s, and pose questions.
The Trump administration’s talk of discarding a system that endured through two world wars suggests more substantive changes are not impossible. During the campaign, Trump banned news organizations he didn’t like (including The Post) and kicked a disfavored journalist out of a news conference. During the transition, he has sometimes ditched the “pool” of journalists traveling with him in case of crisis. Will he now ban unwanted organizations and reporters from presidential events and Air Force One and slip the “protective pool” of journalists assigned to follow him? Will he prosecute reporters for guarding their sources, attempt (as he threatened) to roll back First Amendment protections and use the Justice Department to go after owners of news outlets he doesn’t favor?
At Tuesday’s briefing, Earnest gave a sentimental valedictory, and Obama dropped in to praise his spokesman. But the topic kept returning to the Trump transition’s talk of carting reporters out of the White House.
Earnest encouraged the White House press corps to “protect the things that are worth protecting,” including the daily briefing. “The symbolic value of this podium in this room in front of all of you is powerful, and it sends a strong message not just to the American people, but to people around the world,” he said.
CBS News’s Mark Knoller asked whether there were days Earnest dreaded the briefing.
Earnest admitted there were. Still, he said, “it will take some getting used to seeing somebody else standing up here doing it.”
“Or not,” he added.
There was laughter, but it wasn’t really a joke.
“Do you feel like this is the last briefing of this kind that we might see for a very long time?” asked CNN’s Michelle Kosinski.
“I hope not,” Earnest said. “But I don’t know.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group