WASHINGTON — President Biden’s recent interactions with reporters in the spacious White House East Room have resembled press conferences, but with a twist: his staff selects which reporters attend, citing “spacing constraints” for why they exclude most White House correspondents.
The nearly 3,000-square foot event space is the largest room in the White House and can fit hundreds of people. But reporters interested in attending one of the semi-regular Biden forums must RSVP electronically and then White House staff pick a small number who are allowed to attend alongside the rotating daily press pool.
There have been eight such events in the East Room over the past month and they have emerged as one of the top forums to question the president, who, unlike his predecessor, rarely takes many questions on the White House lawn.
“This is all baloney. There is no space issue,” said veteran reporter Brian Karem, who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration. Karem says he has RSVPed and been denied every time. “This is unprecedented territory. It has never been as restrictive,” he said.
The East Room is much larger than the 49-seat White House briefing room, where COVID-19 spacing restrictions for daily briefings ended in June. Under former President Donald Trump, East Room events were usually “open press,” meaning any reporter on the White House grounds could attend.
“This president has never made himself available to the open press in an open atmosphere, and the East Room is where those usually occur. This administration is being disingenuous in telling us that there’s limited availability and therefore we can’t get in,” Karem said.
Karem, a longtime Playboy correspondent who sued the Trump White House for yanking his press badge, said “it equals or surpasses some of the stuff that Donald Trump did. Donald Trump was the guy who would hit you in the face with a sledgehammer. This group seems to be the kind that will embrace you and slip in the shiv silently while they smile.”
Biden’s aides “have told multiple stories about how they pick the people that they allow in the room,” including at one point claiming it was “first come, first serve,” before a seat was given to a reporter who RSVP-ed after him, Karem said.
“This is no different than Donald Trump trying to keep people from getting their press pass. They’re just a little more subtle about it. This administration has created another level of access without any type of transparency as to how this is being done,” Karem said. “It’s inconsistent with the ideals of a free press. They cannot pick and choose who they want to cover them.”
Biden has had just one solo White House press conference since taking office on Jan. 20, with severely limited access. He held additional press conferences while traveling in Europe in June and while hosting visiting world leaders.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Steven Portnoy, a CBS News Radio reporter, told Biden at a July 15 joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he hoped the East Room would return to its more open status.
“We’re looking forward to the day we can have even more reporters all the way to the back of the room,” Portnoy told Biden, before asking his questions.
Biden responded, “Obviously I know why they elected you president.”
Portnoy directed The Post to his prior remarks to Biden when asked for comment.
New York Times reporter Peter Baker, a longtime White House correspondent and author, told The Post that “in the old days (Clinton and Bush 43 for sure, and I think Obama too), any reporter who was in the briefing room when they did the escort could go up” to East Room events.
“The East Room hasn’t shrunk in recent years so it’s hard to imagine why space constraints would suddenly require restricting the number of journalists who cover events there,” Baker said.
“And it raises the question of what they base these decisions on — is it first-come, first-serve, or are they picking and choosing among reporters or news organizations based on some other criteria? If it’s the latter, that would be potentially troubling.”
Baker noted that the Trump White House started to do credentialing for events, often requiring an RSVP by a certain time, though there did not seem to be similar weeding out of reporters who met the deadline.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday offered a counter-intuitive defense of the pre-screening, seeming to say in response to a question from The Post that the White House was being fairer to journalists covering events remotely by limiting in-person attendance.
“I think we wanted to make it as transparent as possible and make the entire meeting available to everyone who isn’t just in this room. So we are actually not discriminating against people who are covering the White House from outside of the White House briefing room,” Psaki said at her daily briefing.
But Karem blames Biden’s staff for being overprotective of their sometimes gaffe-prone boss.
“I’ve been told by senior administration officials that they’re protecting the message. Great — I have more faith in Joe Biden than I have in this communication people,” Karem said.
“I’ve been in scrums with him and in the Senate. I questioned him numerous times over the years… And he’s handled himself fine. Every politician I know makes a misstep… there are people that are overprotective of the president for no good reason.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has some reporters wary about a return to Trump-era free-for-alls.
George Condon, a National Journal reporter who has covered the White House since 1982, said “other administrations have at times let so many reporters in that some have fainted because they were packed in so tight.”
Condon says all administrations have limited access to at least some East Room events.
“Every administration has had East Room events limited to just the press pool and others where you had to sign up in advance. What is different today is the pandemic. There just is no historical precedent for this at the White House,” Condon said.
“I think we would howl if this administration tried to hold any event where we were jammed in as tightly as some events in the past.”
Condon added, “I am more interested in arguing for open attendance at events in the Rose Garden and South Lawn. Those feel safer than packing the East Room or State Dining Room. I just don’t think we’re going to win that argument while COVID is around.”
Former White House press secretaries, whose jobs included controlling access to the president, also offered nuanced takes.
Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s longest-serving press secretary, said he doesn’t know enough about the current circumstances to comment on them, but that “the composition of the media in the 1990s was much different than now and the line between bona fide journalists and protagonists for various causes was much less blurred.”
Ari Fleischer, the first press secretary to President George W. Bush, said that Biden’s recent use of the East Room for curated mini-press conferences is much different than his days leading the press shop, when events in the room usually featured invited guests such as victorious sports teams, seated before the president, making them unsuitable forums for questions.
“Most events in the East Room had a crowd and were open press so I have zero clue why they would be making it pool only or saying there were space limitations,” he said.
Fleischer said he can’t recall “ever doing press Q&A in the East Room either unless it was a full blown press conference, which then everyone was allowed to attend, we made the seating chart, and the president took a dozen questions.”