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In his first full week in office, President Biden has made clear he wants to be transparent with the American public and press.
His new press secretary Jen Psaki vowed to hold daily media briefings, and the White House COVID-19 Response Team — complete with Dr. Anthony Fauci at the helm — plans to provide frequent updates.
It’s a stark contrast to the last four years under former President Trump, who often spewed targeted disrespect toward women and correspondents of color.
Weijia Jiang, senior White House correspondent for CBS News, has already noticed a difference between the two administrations’ attitudes toward reporters, calling the change “almost jarring.” She explains there is a mutual understanding between the Biden administration and White House press corps to work together in order to serve the public amid a harrowing pandemic.
“Now, that's not to say that we're friends,” she reminds, but notes, “there is a civility restored” in the press briefing room.
“And I think that helps everybody do their jobs better,” she says.
Jiang, an American journalist who was born in China and came to the U.S. at 2 years old, is no stranger to Trump’s rude and dismissive behavior. She’s experienced it on several occasions, once for simply asking a question.
In 2018, he called Jiang “obnoxious” and told her to be "quiet" when she inquired about North Korea. And then during a news conference in the Rose Garden last May, one of their interactions made headlines when Jiang asked how Trump could claim the U.S. is outperforming other countries in COVID-19 testing at a time when Americans were dying at an incredible rate.
“Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives?” she asked the president.
Trump snapped back, pivoting away from the original question.
“They’re losing their lives everywhere in the world, and maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” he said before attempting to move onto another reporter’s question. “Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK?”
Jiang quickly fired back: “Why are you saying that to me, specifically?”
Trump retorted, saying he would give the same answer to “anybody that asks a nasty question.”
But Jiang’s question didn’t have to do with China, she says.
“It was more to try to understand his mindset around testing,” she says. “And because he started asking me about China, I wanted to understand why and thought people deserve to know that context.”
If the president had framed his response in terms of the global competition between China and the U.S. and “what that means as we try to meet American’s plight” during the pandemic, then the situation would have been different, she says.
Trump didn’t randomly refer to China out of context in any other reporters’ questions that day, she recalls.
Afterward, Jiang’s colleague in the press corps, CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip, said Trump made assumptions about reporters based on their ethnicity. While Jiang says Trump “does not discriminate” when it comes to which reporters he finds conflict with, she did find covering Trump as a woman of color was an “unforeseen challenge because of the way he spoke to women and particularly women of color.”
At times, fellow reporters in the White House press corps have shown they have each other's backs during tense moments. It’s “basic protocol” among reporters to let a colleague conclude their line of questioning, Jiang says.
So when Trump tried to move on during that May news conference in the Rose Garden, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins tried to reroute the conversation back to Jiang’s question. Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, “who the president has disparaged many times,” also tried stepping in.
“Yamiche was doing the exact same thing that Kaitlan had just done for me,” Jiang says. “So that was a really memorable moment for me, because there were three of us who I think just had a mutual respect of each other.”
There’s a natural camaraderie in the White House press corps because often, they see each other more than their own families and friends — especially since the pandemic struck the U.S., she says.
Jiang has spent some time reflecting on the past four years covering Trump, something she says ultimately became a “once-in-a-lifetime assignment because Donald Trump is a once-in-a-lifetime president.”
She learned the art of handling heavy, intense amounts of news 24/7, a pace she says has already changed a bit since Biden took office.
Under the new administration, Jiang thinks Biden’s press team is going to engage with reporters more and have “carefully mapped out engagements,” unlike many of the Trump administration’s interactions with the media.
So far, the Biden team hasn’t contradicted itself, she says, a scenario that would often send journalists in a flurry under the Trump presidency.
But no matter who’s in office, she says the tension between reporters and politicians must exist to hold U.S. leaders accountable — especially during this “historic and critical time for Americans.”
“So I certainly expect there will be confrontations,” she says, “but I doubt it will be personal.”
This segment aired on January 29, 2021.
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