WASHINGTON — A small change in President Trump’s travel plans on Thursday morning left some members of the press corps suggesting the White House literally lied about whether the sky was blue to avoid facing questions. The debate over the day’s weather was a dramatic illustration of the mounting tensions between the Trump administration and the reporters who cover it.
The latest controversy centers around whether canceling Trump’s helicopter ride to Andrews Force Base was a ruse to keep reporters away from the president. Trump’s walks to the presidential helicopter are one of the increasingly few venues where he takes questions from reporters.
Trump spent Thursday in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, where he toured local businesses, participated in a roundtable discussion on workforce development and delivered a speech on trade. His departure from Washington came after 9 a.m. on a gorgeous morning with blue skies, but the White House said bad weather forced Trump to skip the planned helicopter ride and instead travel by motorcade to Joint Base Andrews for his flight.
The White House’s claim that Trump was grounded by bad weather on what appeared to be a beautiful day prompted consternation from the press corps. Several reporters strongly hinted the travel arrangements were an effort to limit press access as the president faces a slew of issues, including the emergence of a taped conversation between Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen where they discussed a payment to a former Playboy Playmate who has alleged she had an affair with Trump.
McClatchy Newspapers White House correspondent Anita Kumar expressed skepticism in her press pool report announcing the president’s change of plans.
“On what appears to be the nicest day Washington has had all week, the White House has informed the pool that POTUS will motorcade to JBA because of bad weather,” Kumar wrote.
On Twitter, several other reporters speculated that the change was part of an effort to shield Trump from the shouted questions he would have faced if he had taken the presidential copter.
“The official reason, per the TV pool, is fog. But not having a Marine One departure to Andrews also means there won’t be an open press opportunity to try to ask the president questions on his way out,” wrote CBS News’ Steve Portnoy.
ABC White House reporter John Parkinson posted a photo of the clear blue skies outside the White House along with a pair of hashtags, “#noquestions #badweathercall.”
While the skies were clear when Trump left after 9 a.m., White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told Yahoo News the decision to nix his helicopter flight was made earlier.
“Weather calls are made over an hour in advance of the planned departure time. Following a routine test flight this morning, a bad weather call was made at 7:39 a.m. due to ground fog at JBA,” Walters said.
Though the skies did appear clear, satellite maps showed there was low cloud cover — which can be dangerous for helicopters — in the area during the 7 a.m. hour. Thursday’s weather forecast for the D.C. area from the Washington Post also noted there would be “morning clouds.” CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who initially accused Trump of dodging questions in a tweet, later posted a follow-up saying “our meteorologists note low cloud cover as well.”
In the end, Trump didn’t entirely dodge questions from the press corps. Before he boarded Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews. Members of the traveling press pool were allowed to wait by the plane’s wing and lobbed questions at the president as he boarded the aircraft. According to a pool report from HuffPost senior White House correspondent S.V. Date, Trump “ignored shouted questions about Michael Cohen, etc.” as he got on the plane.
The forecast fracas highlighted just how toxic the relationship has become between the White House and a press corps that Trump routinely derides as “fake news.”
Thursday morning’s cloud controversy came on the heels of an incident where a CNN reporter was banned from covering one of Trump’s appearances because the White House objected to questions she asked in the Oval Office. On Wednesday, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins was brought into the Oval Office to witness a meeting between Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as a pool reporter for the television networks. While there, Collins questioned Trump about Cohen and his invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington for a summit. Trump did not answer the questions, and afterward Collins said she was informed by White House communications director Bill Shine that she was “dis-invited” from a subsequent appearance with Juncker that Trump made in the Rose Garden.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement about the incident saying the administration took issue with Collins’s conduct, claiming she “shouted questions.” Sanders insisted, “We support a free press and ask that everyone be respectful of the presidency and guests at the White House.”
Reporters typically ask questions of Trump when they are allowed in the Oval Office.
The issues involving Trump’s Thursday White House departure and his meeting the day before in the Oval Office come as the White House has curtailed press access in other venues. Sanders has been holding few press briefings in recent weeks, and the ones that have taken place have been shorter than in prior administrations. Trump also has not held a solo press conference on U.S. soil since February 2017.
While the Trump administration has cut down engagement with the media in presidential press conferences and briefings, the president has regularly taken questions from reporters when he walks to helicopter flights and during pool visits to the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. The White House crackdown on Collins and the canceled flight raised the specter that the administration might be cutting down on these venues.
Yahoo News reached out to Sanders to ask if Trump will continue to take questions in the Oval Office and as he walks to Marine One.
“President Trump is the most accessible president in modern history,” Sanders said in response. “It’s absurd to suggest anything otherwise.”