With Chinese officials expected to impose press restrictions, he will be called upon to defend the same journalists he often criticizes.
As President Donald Trump prepares for his first trip to China, reporters are wondering whether he will set aside his war on the media and stick up for First Amendment principles — or let a country notoriously hostile to free speech run roughshod over the American press.
On previous presidential trips, the Chinese government has often sought to limit the access of the U.S. traveling press corps, attempting to bar reporters from events or limiting their ability to ask questions. Past U.S. leaders have typically set aside whatever beefs they had with the media to push back on their Chinese counterparts, but no president has attacked the press like Trump.
“It’s just a matter of how hard they’re going to fight,” Washington Post White House correspondent David Nakamura said. “If they’re talking publicly in the way they do about the press here, how much are they going to really negotiate tooth and nail with the Chinese for the access we expect and hope to have?”
Another reporter said that, though administration officials have been saying the right things about the upcoming trip, “That doesn’t mean we’re going to get all the access that we want or should get.”
The White House said that it does not expect any problems. “We are working with our counterparts in China to make sure there is press coverage where appropriate. At this time, we do not have reason for concern and are very much looking forward to being there,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in an email. “Multiple members of the press corps including individuals from the NYT and Wash Post have publicly said how much access this administration has given. We may have disagreements with the press, but I don’t think this is one of them.”
Dozens of reporters typically accompany the president on this type of trip. The level of access they’re allowed in China is often viewed as an indicator of the two countries’ relationship.
Margaret Talev, a senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg and the president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in an email that her group was working closely with the Trump administration on the trip. “For the past couple of months, the WHCA and the White House have been in regular communications, often several times a day, preparing for the trip,” she wrote.
“As has been the practice with past administrations from both parties, the White House included a WHCA representative in a preview visit to planned stops several weeks ago,” she continued, referring to all five countries Trump is scheduled to visit. “We have been advocating for robust coverage that meets or exceeds the norms of past presidential visits to those countries, including news conferences, bilateral meetings, speeches and cultural stops, and inclusion of all traveling press whenever possible and the full pool when space must be limited.”
While any presidential foreign trip presents challenges for reporters, those in China are unique. For instance, when President Barack Obama landed for his final trip there in 2016, his national security adviser, Susan Rice, had to intervene when Chinese officials tried to restrict reporters on the tarmac from observing Obama disembark from Air Force One.
And in 2011, while Vice President Joseph Biden was speaking in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, for reasons that were not entirely clear, Chinese officials linked arms and began shoving reporters out of the room.
“China historically has been, if not the worst, one of the worst places, when the White House press corps travels,” said New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. “They are constantly trying to limit our access, to keep us out of rooms, sometimes there are instances where they get physical, there’s shoving.”
During his first visit in 2009, Obama appeared at a news conference with China’s then-president, Hu Jintao, at which the two leaders did not take questions — leading to Obama being scorched in the American press. “In six hours of meetings, at two dinners and during a stilted 30-minute news conference in which President Hu Jintao did not allow questions, President Obama was confronted, on his first visit, with a fast-rising China more willing to say no to the United States,” The New York Times wrote in the lead of its report.
When Obama returned five years later, his administration pushed hard for Chinese President Xi Jinping to take questions with him at a joint news conference. Pointedly, Obama called on a reporter from The New York Times, whose website is banned in China. The Chinese government had also recently kicked some Times reporters out of the country after stories exposed corruption in the ruling Communist Party. Much to Xi’s consternation, the Times reporter asked a question about China’s denial of visas to foreign journalists. That encounter was viewed as a win for Obama.
“They were reluctant at first to do things exactly how we wanted to do them. And they’re hosting, so it’s at their house,” said Johanna Maska, who worked eight years for the Obama administration, including as White House director of press advance. “By the end of our work together, we had a much better understanding of where each side was coming from and would try to do what we could to make sure that everything was done in good standing.”
She said that preparations for ensuring news media access on this type of trip begin weeks in advance—and if there are problems for the Trump administration, inexperience or its depleted diplomatic corps could just as likely be the culprits as the president’s disdain for the media.
“I have been there, in their shoes when you’re brand new in an administration. You come in thinking, we’re working for the president of the United States and this is how things should go. You learn over the course of time, that’s not diplomacy and it’s not going to get you very far,” Maska said. “You start to listen a lot more and outline very clearly and sometimes on paper precisely what it is you need and go through the right diplomatic channels to ensure that happens. To the extent this administration has proven adversarial to the State Department, I think that could hurt them when they’re overseas.”
Whatever agreements exist beforehand may quickly evaporate on the ground, though, leaving it to staffers to sort things out. Stuart Siciliano, a former assistant press secretary to President George W. Bush, said, “They would do a lot of negotiating up to the day of and what would be very classic is the Chinese would put up a new hurdle or a new door that didn’t exist and everything would go to shit and you’d have to start over.”
In part because it’s up to midlevel staffers to negotiate those last-minute hurdles, the Times’ Baker believes that Trump’s war on the press won’t affect media access on the trip. “The people who end up shepherding us around on these kinds of things are usually not the people who are engaging in that kind of friction,” he said. “The younger press aides who are moving us from place to place and getting us in the rooms and make sure we get access are usually totally professional and they just want to do their jobs.”
Already, some reporters have said they’ve had trouble securing visas for the upcoming trip, though those with experience planning presidential visits to China say that’s not uncommon.
According to Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York who also plans on covering the trip for Vanity Fair, there is “every indication” that the Chinese government will be more aggressive toward the American press than it has been in the past. He said Trump’s attacks on the media and his inward, nationalist view of foreign policy provide an opening for Xi to assert his increasingly aggressive, outward-looking stance.
“As China becomes more autocratic and the U.S. becomes more chaotic, we have kind of a really strange clash of civilizations going on, and it’s a little harder for the United States to stand on principle,” Schell said. “That gives the Chinese a certain invitation.”
“China once was seeking only to control information flows within the country,” he continued. “Now I think we see them reaching out to having a much grander pretension to control information flows, particularly about them, outside the country.”
Nakamura, from the Post, believes that the Chinese will have noted how, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the country on a trip through Asia earlier this year, he brought just a single reporter from a conservative website with him. “What kind of statement does that make? The Chinese recognize what’s going on,” Nakamura said, “and I think it’s easier for them to probably push back against any kind of U.S. request for access.”
China has a fundamentally different view of the news media, of course, but both Baker and Schell believe that part of its government’s resistance stems from how, when a U.S. president visits, he is accompanied by a huge traveling party, including hundreds of people, multiple planes, helicopters and cars. “I think the Chinese, more than most, get their backs up at the idea that we, this big imperial power, have these expectations and demands,” Baker said.
“The Chinese are not accustomed and don’t welcome the kind of three-ring circus that travels with the American president,” Schell said. “They much prefer have three or four people from the New China News Agency, The People’s Daily and CCTV, who obediently report what they’re told.”
According to Tony Fratto, a former deputy press secretary to George W. Bush, there are reasons for the Trump administration, beyond advocating free speech, to strongly support press access. “You are communicating through the press corps,” he said. “If they’re not available to cover your events, then you’re missing those messaging opportunities. There’s a normal freedom of the press piece to this that we should all believe in and appreciate. But also just parochial interest from the White House.”
Nakamura said that, so far, reporters have received relatively few details about the China leg of Trump’s trip, including whether or not there will be an opportunity to directly question members of China’s leadership.
Schell said that what happens with the news media is, in a sense, a test for the Trump administration.
“If a president can’t have a press corps that’s freely chosen to accompany a president abroad,” he said, “that would be a tremendous failure of the most fundamental kind of American principles.”
By JASON SCHWARTZ