BY PAUL FARHI & FELICIA SONMEZ
WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST)--A CNN reporter said she was blocked from an open media event at the White House on Wednesday after officials objected to questions she asked President Trump at an event earlier in the day.
Reporter Kaitlan Collins said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Bill Shine told her she was banned from a late-afternoon announcement in the Rose Garden involving Trump and European Union president Jean-Claude Juncker a few hours after she sought to question Trump during a press-pool “spray” in the Oval Office.
Blocking a credentialed White House reporter from an event open to all members of the media is highly unusual and possibly unprecedented, and it marks another low point in the Trump White House’s highly strained relationship with the news media.
It wasn’t clear whether Shine and Sanders were acting on their own against Collins or were carrying out a directive from Trump himself. In a statement Wednesday, the White House said: “At the conclusion of a press event in the Oval Office a reporter shouted questions and refused to leave despite repeatedly being asked to do so. Subsequently, our staff informed her she was not welcome to participate in the next event, but made clear that any other journalist from her network could attend. She said it didn’t matter to her because she hadn’t planned to be there anyway. To be clear, we support a free press and ask that everyone be respectful of the presidency and guests at the White House.”
Trump has a particularly fraught relationship with CNN, which he often blasts as purveyor of “fake news.’
During the Oval Office event, in which the president also met with Juncker, Collins sought to question Trump about the release of an audiotape involving then-candidate Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen in October 2016. On the recording, which was first aired on CNN Tuesday night, Trump and Cohen appear to be discussing a hush-money payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she had a year-along affair with Trump more than a decade ago.
“Did Michael Cohen betray you, Mr. President?” Collins asked Trump as reporters shouted questions and White House press aides tried to usher them out of the room.
She repeated the question after Trump declined to answer. After receiving no answer, she asked, “Are you worried about what Michael Cohen is going to say to prosecutors?” She also asked Trump if he is worried about what might be on any other tapes recorded by Cohen, and why Russian President Vladimir Putin had not yet accepted Trump’s invitation to come to Washington.”
CNN said in a statement that Collins was told by Sanders and Shine that her questions were “inappropriate.”
It added: “They were not. Just because the White House is uncomfortable with a question regarding the news of the day doesn’t mean the question isn’t relevant and shouldn’t be asked. This decision to bar a member of the press is retaliatory in nature and not indicative of an open and free press. We demand better.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents reporters seeking access to the White House, also issued a statement protesting the action.
“We strongly condemn the White House’s misguided and inappropriate decision today to bar one of our members from an open press event after she asked questions they did not like,” wrote WHCA president Olivier Knox. “This type of retaliation is wholly inappropriate, wrong-headed, and weak. It cannot stand. Reporters asking questions of powerful government officials, up to and including the President, helps hold those people accountable.”
Collins, who referred questions to CNN representatives, detailed the episode on CNN, prompting anchor Wolf Blitzer to say the White House should issue a formal apology. “This is outrageous,” said Blitzer, a former White House correspondent. “It doesn’t happen and shouldn’t happen in the United States.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who was on CNN when the news was announced, said, “This kind of, really, violation of a reporter’s rights is an offense against the First Amendment interests of all of us.”
In response to the incident, Fox News anchor Bret Baier tweeted his support: “As a member of the White House Press pool- @FoxNews stands firmly with @CNN on this issue and the issue of access.”
Pool sprays are typically short opportunities for news photographers to take photos and video of the president and a visiting dignitary. Collins was the pool reporter, representing the TV networks during the Oval Office event. The president sometimes takes questions during the sessions.
Shine, who was ousted as co-president of Fox News last year over his handling of sexual harassment allegations, joined the White House as deputy chief of staff for communications earlier this month.
Correction: The Cohen recording first aired on CNN on Tuesday, not Monday. This story has been updated.