Greetings, dear Banterers, and welcome to another edition of A Day at the White House, in which I take you behind the scenes of my coverage of the People’s House, and all of its contents. This week’s edition covers the span of Wednesday, Jan. 28 through Thursday, January 29, which were the precise days my supply of fucks ran out where the Secret Service and the press office are concerned.
Things went pretty well on Wednesday, although Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz didn’t call on me during the briefing. He and I have corresponded via email, but I don’t think we’d ever been introduced, so I don’t think he put a name to my face. After the briefing, I had some lengthy discussions with various White House officials, the main purpose of which were to gather background and what we call guidance for my reporting.
Guidance is where they tell you about things that are publicly known, that give you an idea of where they’re coming from, but that aren’t attributable the way direct quotes are. It’s the public relations equivalent of research.
What’s nice about this kind of session is that it gives you the opportunity to knock down that guidance in real time, if need be, and to identify trends and inconsistencies across several sources. You can also look them in the eye in a way that you can’t in other settings. That’s particularly useful for someone like me, who does commentary as well as reporting.
The drawback is that it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t deliver content the way a briefing question, or an on-camera Q&A, would, and a lot of it is just plain off the record.
Josh Earnest is much more accessible than either of his predecessors were, but he’s also a serial off-the-record abuser. For reporters, on the record is the default setting, but Josh will automatically resist being on the record, no mater what. For most sources, the remedy here is just to turn down the meeting, but here, the access is too valuable. In this case, that meant that my entire trip, and hours of briefings and meetings, netted me exactly one on the record quote. You just have to take my word for it that the exercise is more than worth it in the depth of understanding it gives me, and in the influence it allows.
Over the course of two days, I learned a lot, and even though it’s not spelled out in my stories the way that one quote is, but it all ends up in my reporting and commentary.
I’m going to let this week’s video pretty much speak for itself, except to say that at the end, when Major Garrett walk me out to the northwest gate, I did that thing where you think you’re recording, but you’ve actually pressed “pause,” so you guys missed out on a whole long conversation about my misadventures, plus an extended bit about the horrible cheating Patriots. Sorry about that. It was the perfect way to complete my transformation into Abe Simpson. Also, I promised to show you all a Marine One departure, but the weather on Thursday was crummy, so the President motorcaded it to Andrews, but I will take you to a chopper departure and/or arrival at my first opportunity.
Until then, enjoy this look at two days at the White House, plus a brief glimpse at the Banter offices and its captain, Ben Cohen. After that, you can read the Secret Service story if you still want to:
So, I’m mainly telling this story because I promised I would, even though I’m no longer all that worked up about it. Not many people know this (because it’s not interesting), but White House reporters who are from out of town have to pass a Secret Service background check every day they go to the White House, which I have been doing for six years now. About every tenth time I request clearance, someone in the press office fucks it up, and I end up waiting at the Secret Service station for them to fix it, a process which takes about ten minutes for someone who knows what they’re doing, or which can take up to infinity for someone who doesn’t. It’s kind of a crapshoot. It’s like when you call the cable company and miraculously get a helpful person, but in reverse.
Over the years, I’ve tried several ways to mitigate this, to minimal success. Since I request clearance a day in advance, I tried asking for an email confirmation, which they usually send without you even asking, but if you ask them to send one, they’ll say “We don’t send email confirmations,” all snotty. The other thing you can do is call the next morning, at which point they will invariably ask you, real snotty, “Did you get an email confirmation?”
That’s what happened Thursday morning when I called, two hours ahead of time, to make sure I was cleared for the day. The kid on the other end of the phone assured me he was resubmitting my request, and it would all be fine by the time I got there. After awhile, you just know when someone is going to shit the bed on you (usually indicated by a testy, overconfident tone), and I was not surprised when I showed up at the northwest gate and I still wasn’t cleared. Two more phone calls and about an hour later, I finally got a young woman on the phone who knew what she was doing, and actually did resubmit my request, and had me cleared in five minutes.
This same sort of thing has happened to me maybe half a dozen times, but this time, it was about 20 degrees out, and I was about to be late for the briefing. Once I was cleared, the uniformed Secret Service agent, a smirking ginger I’ll just call Officer No, insisted that I needed an escort from the press office. There’s a whole lot of boring background on that, too, but long story short, no I fucking didn’t, he was just being a hardon. Let me be the first to say that most uniformed Secret service guys are very friendly, professional, and courteous, but about every 20th one thinks he’s Bobby Brady, Hall Monitor, and will make shit up to bust your balls about.
So, I’ve been through this escort nonsense before, and even though I know it’s nonsense, and even though I’ve been freezing my ass off for an hour in reporter jail, I’m being a good sport. I call for my escort, and I ask Officer No if I could please wait in the security building for her to arrive. “No, we aren’t allowed to do that,” Offocer No says, and I am Keyser Soze shocked.
Still being a good sport, I don’t tell him he’s fucking full of shit and that every time I’ve ever seen anyone cleared in and waiting for an escort, they’ve done it inside the security shack, I plaintively ask “Really? C’mon, man, it’s like 19 degrees out here, and I’ve been waiting over an hour.”
“Hey, I was just outside for an hour,” Officer No says, adding “There’s nothing I can do about it, it’s policy.”
“No it ain’t, you’ve got discretion,” I grumble at the guy, and shoot a “Whatever, I’ll be over here freezing some more” to his weak protestations. Then, an few minutes later, I see my escort coming up the drive about a hundred yards away, and she’s signaling me to go through security because, like me, she can’t believe that this asshole hasn’t already screened me so she can get on with her day when she gets there.
I try to tell Officer No that she’s on the way, and wants me to go through, and he starts looking around going “Where? I don’t see her!”
Yes, because having already cleared a Secret Service background check, I am, for some reason, attempting to deceive my way onto the White House grounds using a variation on “Got your nose!”
This is when I turn into a cross between John McCain and Jack Woltz in The Godfather. As I’m going through the magnetometer, I just go the eff off on the dude, asking him for chapter and verse on the waste everyone’s time regulation, and wondering why the fuck I’m supposed to care that he was outside for an hour, which is his job, when I just wanted to stop freezing to death because I only dressed for a two-block walk, which is my right, and my press office escort is there trying to smooth things out, but she’s doing it by pointing out that it was the press office’s fault that I had to freeze for the first hour, without actually apologizing for that.
For some reason, she was also really committed to making me believe Officer No’s flat lie, standing outside on the northwest drive arguing the point with me while I missed the start of the briefing. The Secret Service, apparently, can be real hardons to the press office if they want to be, and make everything take longer, so I really needed to not be right. Eventually, I got her to let me get on with my job, and for the rest of that day, I came and went from the White House grounds repeatedly, and with no escort, and every other Secret Service agent was super nice and professional.