President Donald Trump escalated his criticism of the news media Friday, taking direct aim this time at the use of anonymous sources.
“A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being, let them say it to my face,” Trump told a large crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Let there be no more sources.”
The president has chafed at a number of anonymously sourced stories, including numerous reports describing contacts between his campaign advisers and Russian intelligence agents, which the White House has sharply disputed. The Associated Press, like many major media organizations, uses anonymous sources only if the material is factual information, not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said such arrangements are “essential to good reporting” in many cases.
Members of Trump’s White House team have demanded anonymity when talking to reporters. That was the case Friday morning when Trump officials briefed reporters on chief of staff Reince Priebus’ contact with top FBI officials concerning media reports of contact with Russia.
After Trump’s speech, several news organizations including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN and Politico were blocked from joining a White House media “gaggle,” a nontelevised informal briefing, according to news reports.
The White House said the decision was not made to choose news organizations sympathetic to Trump and exclude media sites considered more critical when adding additional reporters to join a “pool” of news organization selected to share reporting with the larger press corps.
Breitbart News, Fox News and the Washington Times — all considered more supportive of Trump — were among gaggle invitees, but so were The Wall Street Journal, NBC, ABC, CBS and The Associated Press. The AP chose not to participate to show solidarity with those excluded.
“We decided to add a couple of additional people beyond the pool. Nothing more than that,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said the group was “protesting strongly” against how the gaggle was handled by the White House.
Priebus and the FBI
Later Friday, Spicer defended Priebus against accusations he breached a government firewall when he asked FBI Director James Comey to publicly dispute media reports that Trump campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.
Spicer argued Priebus had little choice but to seek Comey’s assistance in rebutting what Spicer said were inaccurate reports about contacts during last year’s presidential campaign. The FBI did not issue the statement requested by Priebus and has given no sign one is forthcoming.
“I don’t know what else we were supposed to do,” Spicer said.
The Justice Department has policies in place to limit communications between the White House and the FBI about pending investigations. Trump officials confirmed contacts between Priebus and the FBI and discussed details of those private conversations.
Spicer said it was the FBI that first approached the White House about the veracity of a New York Times story asserting that Trump advisers had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign. Spicer said Priebus then asked both Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe if they would condemn the story publicly, which they declined to do.
“The chief of staff said, well, you’ve put us in a very difficult situation,” Spicer said. “You’ve told us that a story that made some fairly significant accusations was not true. And now you want us to just sit out there.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Priebus of “an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence” and called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into all conversations Priebus and other White House officials have held with the FBI on ongoing investigations.
The FBI would not comment on the matter or verify the White House account.
Amid the media turmoil, Trump turned his CPAC speech into a recitation of his top agenda items, promising bold action on health care, trade, immigration, energy and more before the enthusiastic throng of conservatives.
Trump reminisced about his victory in the Republican primaries. He vowed to “build the wall” along the Mexican border. He denounced Hillary Clinton’s characterization of some of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” The crowd responded with chants of “Lock her up!” just as they did at Trump rallies last year.
He told the conservatives the health care law he inherited from President Barack Obama threatens to bring about “total catastrophe,” reiterating his promise to repeal and replace it. On illegal immigration, he said that “as we speak today, immigration officers are finding gang members, drug dealers and criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out.”
He promised changes to the welfare system, saying, “It’s time for all Americans to get off welfare and get back to work,” adding that: “You’re going to love it.”
While conservatives aren’t always in sync with Trump’s views, they’re happy to have a scrapper in the White House who often takes their side.
“How good it feels to have somebody lead our country who knows how to fight,” American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp told the crowd in introducing Trump.
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