Should the Press Boycott Trump? Political Strategists Weigh In

The CNN chief Jeff Zucker gave his troops unexpected orders the day after President Trump snatched the press credential away from Jim Acosta, one of the network’s White House correspondents.

The temptation to play it big was strong. Here was a CNN star in the middle of the action, and television news is nothing if not self-promotional. But at the regular morning meeting on Thursday, Mr. Zucker told his producers to stand down.

This time, CNN would not be led by the nose into giving significant airtime to another Trump attack on the news media, especially when Democrats were preparing to take over the House and Jeff Sessions was being forced out of the attorney general’s office.

It was a first step toward a revised approach in dealing with the president’s anti-media antics, which reached a new level last week when Mr. Trump went beyond mere rhetoric by taking away Mr. Acosta’s White House press pass and threatening to do the same for anyone else who failed to show “respect.”

Other news organizations appeared to follow Mr. Zucker’s lead, resisting the urge, for once, to allow the president to turn them into hapless characters in his never-ending national melodrama.

But the proportionate coverage did nothing to restore Mr. Acosta’s White House access. Nor did it keep Mr. Trump from threatening to bar other reporters whose questions he doesn’t like.

And so the press corps remained in a Catch-22.

Reporters could stage a group protest. But that would make them look like they’re at war with the president, just as he always says they are. Or they could do nothing and effectively “submit to his authority to determine who gets to hold him accountable,” as the former Republican presidential strategist Steve Schmidt put it to me in an interview on Friday.

Mr. Schmidt was on my call list as I polled strategists from both parties on how to handle the conundrum.

It isn’t my habit to ask political operatives to weigh in on journalistic matters. But in bringing a reporter’s notebook to a knife fight, the White House press corps has seemed overmatched in parrying attacks from a man who flummoxed rivals with catchy sobriquets like Low Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary.

The strategists have more experience with this kind of thing than newspaper editors or journalism professors.

“He’s Swift-Boating you guys,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John Kerry.

She was referring to “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” a group that undermined one of Mr. Kerry’s strong points, his stellar war record in Vietnam.

The false accusations presented the Kerry campaign with a classic campaign dilemma. To address them, even to dispute them, would only call more attention to them. And letting them go unmet would let them fester. (Mr. Kerry ultimately responded, but some Democrats complained after his loss that he did so too late.)

The Trump press corps has quickly debunked mischaracterizations, as its members did after the White House made the false claim that Mr. Acosta placed “his hands” on a young aide who sought to take his microphone away as he clashed with Mr. Trump on Wednesday.

But Ms. Cutter said that whenever possible, the press corps should starve the president’s attacks of attention and keep the focus on the issues.

“They don’t need to cover a man who is picking fights with them for the purpose of turning out his base,” she said. “It should be about the Justice Department and trying to thwart the Russia investigation.”

That still doesn’t get back the revoked press badge.

Mr. Schmidt, who helped manage John McCain’s 2008 campaign and served a stint in George W. Bush’s White House, said a boycott of the White House press briefings should “at least be on the table” until Mr. Acosta’s pass is returned — especially when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, so often uses the sessions to spread falsehoods.

“What they should say is the press briefing is conditioned and premised on the ability of a free press to hold government accountable,” said Mr. Schmidt, who has emerged as a critic of Mr. Trump on MSNBC and recently announced he was quitting the Republican Party.

John Weaver, a lead strategist for the 2016 Republican presidential campaign of Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, was more bullish on a boycott, even if means giving Mr. Trump the foil he seeks.

“If you’re going to catch hell anyway, do the right thing,” said Mr. Weaver. He cited not just Mr. Acosta’s revoked pass but also Mr. Trump’s personal insults against reporters last week, including three black women who cover him.

At this point, though, even the White House Correspondents’ Association has not threatened a walkout. The lack of a call to action may have something do with the fact that Mr. Acosta is a somewhat polarizing figure, viewed by some of his press corps colleagues as a showboat. But there is also the risk of a backlash if the reporters were to stay away from the next briefing.

As Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist and former White House adviser to Mr. Obama, told me: “That puts them in the middle of the story.”

“The more they personalize this, the more it becomes a fight between the press and the president, as opposed to the press doing its job,” she added. “When they are covering the story, as opposed to being the story, they’re on firmer ground.”

I found rare agreement between Ms. Dunn and a onetime opponent, Jim Dyke, a top strategist for the Republican National Committee during the George W. Bush years. He spoke to me from South Dakota, where he was hunting pheasant and where, he said, people “don’t give a flip” about Mr. Acosta’s credential.

When I asked him what advice he would offer members of the media if they were his client, he gave me an earful.

“It’s not about them, and they obsessively make it about them, and it’s not, and that’s step one,” he said.

In his view, reporters are too strident when they challenge the president, either in person or on Twitter. “If you’re running a campaign and your candidate is seething at the other person, and all they can talk about is, ‘That S.O.B. is an idiot,’ they typically lose campaigns,” he said.

His advice?

“Get back on track. Calm down. Show the office of the presidency the respect it deserves.”

Before I could jump in, he went on.

“Now they’ll say, ‘How can we respect it when he doesn’t?’ O.K., that’s his problem. You showing it respect further elevates you above him, instead of being dragged down to his level.”

But, but, but — the press badge!

Mr. Dyke said that if the administration were to deny access to other reporters, “and the press makes a substantial, thoughtful case, people will be outraged.” For now, though, he said, “Because Jim Acosta lost his hard pass, the press isn’t able to do its job?”

Mr. Acosta answered the question via Instagram on Friday as his network weighed bringing a lawsuit against President Trump. The selfie he posted showed him smiling in Ray Bans, the Eiffel Tower at his back.

“Greetings from Paris,” he trolled.

He had flown there on his own — as opposed to aboard Air Force One — to cover Mr. Trump’s visit.

He was showing that reporting without a license is not a crime. At least for now.

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