President Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 9, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Media critic

Home Depot stocks dozens of different step ladders. The White House press corps isn’t far behind.

When the White House announces a presidential departure for Bedminster, N.J., or Mar-a-Lago or Hanoi, a platoon of correspondents marches out to a spot by the South Lawn — many of them equipped with stepladders. Too many of them, actually.

“The proliferation of ladders at South Lawn departures is creating an unsafe environment for everyone,” noted Olivier Knox, the now-former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) advised in a May memo to peers. “If you’re not a TV photographer or still photographer, please don’t add to the chaos and potential danger by bringing a ladder. I know that the incentives are there — getting a question answered by POTUS — but the risks of a ladder arms race outweigh the rewards.”

Those rewards flow from a president who maintains a steady dialogue with the media. “We have more access to him than any president … since I’ve been there,” says New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who has been at it since 1983. Whereas Trump’s predecessors often blew past reporters assembled on the South Lawn, 45 turns these occasions into something approaching a full-on news conference, albeit with helicopter noise and wind. According to Martha Joynt Kumar of the White House Transition Project, Trump has done 447 short Q-and-A sessions with the media since taking office — a stunning tally that also includes exchanges at other spots in the complex.

Just last Friday morning, Trump was scheduled to take a whirlwind tour through Midwestern states. Before a grueling day of travel, however, he found time to take questions on his allegedly ruptured relationship with Jeffrey Epstein — “I wasn’t a big fan of Jeffrey Epstein, that I can tell you,” he said. … former House speaker Paul Ryan — “So Paul Ryan was not a talent. He wasn’t a leader,” he said. … partisan politics — “The Democrats have caused tremendous problems,” he said. … and many other topics.

A horde of reporters, photographers and videographers were on hand for the half-hour exchange:

President Trump announces Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s resignation amid intense scrutiny of Acosta’s handling of the Jeffrey Epstein prosecution, on the South Lawn of the White House on July 12. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s very accessibility has fueled the ladder escalation. His departures are “open press,” in the lingo of the White House press corps, meaning that all media members on the grounds can assemble in the designated departure area. By contrast, space constraints for events in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, for example, require that access be limited to a much smaller “pool” of journalists organized by the WHCA. “It’s the best opportunity most of these people will have to ask the president a question or take a closeup picture of the president,” Knox tells the Erik Wemple Blog, referring to the “open press” departures.

Another factor is the disappearance of the White House daily press briefing, which hasn’t happened since March 11. “Because there are no briefings, there’s more of a desire to get anything the president says,” says Mills, who is an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA).

Such considerations account for why ladder deployment migrated earlier this year from still photographers and TV-camera folks to regular old reporters, prompting Knox’s brushback email. White House correspondents tell the Erik Wemple Blog that one of the non-photographic seekers of higher ground was Jon Decker, a correspondent for Fox News Radio. “He was just trying to do his job,” says Mills, noting that the elevation assists in getting a question directed at the president. “Then somebody thought, ‘Oh well, that works, let me get a ladder also.’ So then next thing you know, there were four or five reporters walking out with ladders, and they were lining up where the cameramen line up,” says Mills. Decker declined to comment.

Unsanctioned ladder use, says Mills, has diminished in recent weeks.

Ladders have been a media tool on the White House grounds for about two decades, says Mills. They’re a critical part of a crowd awaiting the president at his departures, with some of them coming from a “pool” of well-positioned journalists organized by the WHCA: At the front sitting on stools are sound people, often holding microphones on booms; two TV cameras sit at the center; the next level up is for pool still photographers sitting on 24-inch-high stools; behind them are print reporters, standing (on their feet); the tier of ladders holding photographers and TV-camera operators is in the back. “There would be at least 55 ladders out there,” says Mills, if all the reporters brought their own steps. Currently, there are 20 to 30 during a Trump departure, he says.

A lover of crowds, Trump has been drawing such a media crush that journalists pushed for more space. White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, says Mills, recently worked with media members to extend the media boundary for presidential departures. “We’re really appreciative of his working with us to try and make it more orderly and give us more space,” says Mills.

George Condon, a longtime White House reporter with National Journal, tells this blog, “There is just no physical way possible to accommodate all the reporters who come to the South Lawn. Most of us are still going to be listening later to the network feed because we know their equipment picks up what the president says.”

Anywhere from 75 to 100 ladders are kicking around the briefing room and other White House locales, says Mills. “People are grabbing any ladder they can find in the White House,” says Mills. Occasionally journalists will leave a ladder sitting out in the open, where it’s fair game for White House maintenance crews. One of the workers once told Mills: “’You know who has the best ladders? … Reuters. Reuters spends a fortune on ladders because we have a couple of the beautiful ladders they left out on the lawn.’”

Tripods and ladders on the driveway outside the White House West Wing on Feb. 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Earlier this week, the WHCA had a leadership transition, with Knox yielding the presidency to Jonathan Karl of ABC News. Asked last week about the ladders, Knox said, “I can state that when Jonathan Karl assumes the WHCA presidency on Monday morning, that will still be a problem.”

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