Juan Williams: Why Trump needs to stop ditching the press pool


I heard those scary words from a Secret Service agent on October 23, 1983. I was covering President Reagan for The Washington Post and happened to be near the tiny group of journalists -- the so-called “presidential press pool,” as he attended the Master’s golf tournament.

Then, as the president was leaving the Augusta National Golf Club the news broke that 241 American servicemen had been killed when terrorists bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

Those were chaotic moments. The world wanted to know if the president was safe. They soon also wanted to know if he would react to the later attack on the Marines.

The primary source of information was the presidential press pool. That memory came to mind late Tuesday as President-elect Trump decided to ditch his traveling press pool and go out to dine with his family at a fancy Manhattan restaurant.  

Since the election, Trump has promised to keep a pool of reporters with him as witness to any significant meetings or events involving him, the nation’s next leader. But it is beyond worrisome that he still seems to feel it is optional, at least for now.

All day, my friends who supported Trump have responded to my alarm with some version of “What’s the big deal? He just wanted to have dinner with his family.”

It is a big deal on three counts:

First, the safety of the next president – future leader of the world’s major economy and preeminent military – is a concern for Americans and people around the globe. His well-being affects the nation’s political stability along with stock prices, and direction of U.S. policy. And after Mr. Trump is inaugurated his well-being will be central to an uninterrupted chain of command for response to any military threat.

Since the early 20th century every president-elect and president has a pool of reporters with them if they leave the White House.

Second, there is the matter of the president-elect’s words, the people he meets with, and his actions, especially as he forms his cabinet and makes critical decisions about the future of the government. Keeping a record of the future American leader’s public actions is critical to open, transparent operation of government – even as the president-elect.

Trump campaigned with promises of a tax cut. But it was telling that without a press pool the populist hero of blue collar workers made a point of shouting to upper income diners as he was leaving: “We’ll get your taxes down.”

The world knows that he said that only because someone in the press happened to be eating at the restaurant, tweeted out the news and cameras soon arrived to watch as Trump departed.

And, finally Trump’s current indifference to the importance of a press pool comes as he is taking shots at The New York Times and other news outlets he apparently feels are unfair to him. He has not held a press conference in months.

Trump’s aides told reporters there was a “lid” on the future president, meaning he was not going anywhere for the night. But then he took off.

Similarly, Trump did not take a press pool with him when he went to the White House last week for his first sit-down with President Obama. He did not have reporters on the plane he used during the campaign.

Since the election, Trump has promised to keep a pool of reporters with him as witness to any significant meetings or events involving him, the nation’s next leader. But it is beyond worrisome that he still seems to feel it is optional, at least for now.

Jeff Mason, head of the White House Correspondents Association immediately reacted to the incident by calling on Trump to keep his word about traveling with a press pool -- “the time to act on that promise is now…” Mason added, “Pool reporters are in place in New York to cover the president-elect as he assembles his administration. It is critical that they be allowed to do their job.”  

That job is not done for any specific network or newspaper. The point of allowing eyewitness accounts of history with pool reports is that they create a record of the president at work and even during what is planned as downtime. By the way, the small size of the press pool actually serves the president-elect well by keeping a larger mob of reporters and cameras from following him around.

One final note: Presidents often use their traveling press pool to their advantage.  I remember I was once covering President Reagan when he made an unscheduled stop at a Washington greeting card store across from what is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). He wanted to buy Valentine for First Lady  Nancy Reagan. He didn’t have any cash on him and asked me if I could lend him some money. I did.

There was no news there. But the president is the leader of the free world. Even the smallest things could lead to really big deal.

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.