For Reporters on the Beat, Covering the President is Stifling and Rewarding

By Chris Adams

Tip No. 1 for covering the White House: Be prepared. Always.

For Peter Nicholas, a White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, that was never more evident than when he was in the West Wing’s press offices one day, looking for people to interview. The people he was hoping to see were gone, but a senior official caught his eye and said Nicholas (bio, Twitter) should come back in 20 minutes.

He did – and was ushered in for an impromptu interview with President Donald Trump.

He had no list of questions. He wasn’t wearing a tie.

Nicholas had told White House aides he wanted to talk to the president about a specific story he was writing. Trump spoke about that subject for a couple of minutes. Then he pivoted to what he wanted to talk about – the economy and the upcoming midterm elections. The interview lasted 20 minutes. (More details about the surprise interview here.)

Such is life on the White House beat, particularly under Trump. In related sessions with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, Nicholas and three other White House reporters explained the beat that comes with high prestigue, erratic and limited access, and daily frustrations. White House reporters know they’ll be there to witness and write history. They also know they need to be on their toes.

Tamara Keith (bio, Twitter), a White House reporter for NPR and a Paul Miller alum, had a similar experience for the president’s late 2018 trip to Iraq.

Her call came on a Sunday afternoon, and Keith – wearing gym attire, her hair up in a plastic scrunchy – was asked, “Can you come to the White House?”

There – still in her running gear – Keith was told to leave her purse and cellphone outside the office of press secretary Sarah Sanders. She was told the president would be heading to Iraq late Christmas night. Secrecy and security were paramount – she couldn’t tell anybody but her husband and one editor.

Christmas night, she left her husband and two young children for the trip. “Such is life,” she said. “There really is no option; this is our job.”

Francesca Chambers, senior White House correspondent for, detailed how reporters track the president and work to find out about trips such as the Iraq one if they aren’t in the pool of reporters on it. Sometimes, finding out where the president is headed is a matter of simply paying attention to flight restrictions put in place around locales such as Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Chambers (bio, Twitter) and Keith are both 2018-2019 officers for the White House Correspondents’ Association, the organization that advocates on behalf of reporters on access issues and helps coordinate logistics – right down to the seating chart at the White House press briefing room.

Fellows visited the briefing room, where Jeff Mason (bio and work, Twitter), a reporter for Reuters and past WHCA president, discussed logistics, such as how to get temporary or permanent access to the White House, and how the various “pools” work to share notes from the reporters on a trip with those who aren’t. He showed fellows the cramped quarters where reporters work and pointed out the spot where they can often catch the president for quick, informal Q&A sessions.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but also a lot of fun,” he said. “You see history being made.”

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