Ex-Obama officials blast Trump for not taking questions with Xi
President Donald Trump came under fire from reporters and former U.S. officials on Thursday, after his administration agreed that he would not take questions from the press at the joint statement he gave with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in Beijing that “It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today.”
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In response, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted, “They always insist, Sarah. The trick is to use diplomacy to extract that concession as a matter of principle, despite their resistance.”
On President Barack Obama’s first visit to China in 2009, he also did not take questions during an appearance with the Chinese president, and came under withering criticism in the press.
Former Obama officials say they quickly learned the importance of speaking up for press freedoms in China, and when he returned in 2014 insisted that the media be allowed to ask questions. Nonetheless, former Obama officials were pointed in their criticism of Trump.
Jay Carney, who served as White House press secretary under Obama from 2011 to 2014, said Thursday in a series of tweets that allowing China to “dictate press access” was “an embarrassing capitulation,” and told POLITICO that the onus to resist attempts to curb press access fell on the White House.
“The Chinese would often, at the last minute, change the format of the press avail to prevent Q&A,” he said in an email. “We always had to push back – including the time I had to get on the phone with a senior Chinese minister and threaten that President Obama would not attend unless our press could ask questions. They backed down.”
Caitlin Hayden, a former Obama National Security Council spokesperson who also served in the State Department under George W. Bush, said both previous administrations approached the problem similarly: “The Chinese always insisted that there be no questions allowed, and we always pushed back hard and insisted on taking questions because we believed it was important that we stand visibly behind our commitment to freedom of the press,” she said.
The Trump administration did not reply immediately to a request for additional comment.
Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said she was “disappointed in the outcome.”
“We always make the case for news conferences in each stop and especially in China where there is so much interest and crucial policy,” said Talev, a senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, in an email. “This time was no different.”
With their widely divergent views on press freedom, U.S. and Chinese negotiations around reporter access during presidential trips can often be contentious — and a gauge of the status of the two countries’ relationship.
The symbolism of Trump agreeing not to take questions is important, Tommy Vietor, a former NSC spokesman under Obama, told POLITICO. “Nothing is left to chance in a bilateral meeting with the Chinese head of state. Not one word, not one movement, not one symbolic element or person in the room,” Vietor said. “It’s enormously important. If the president of the United States won’t stand up for American values, it sends a signal that is heard not just in China, not just in the U.S., but everywhere around the world.”
“Everything is negotiable,” he said. “It shows they didn’t care or they’re weak. Those are the options.”
In a tweetstorm, David Nakamura, The Washington Post White House correspondent recalled the backlash against Obama in 2009 and said the incident left a mark on the administration: “The Obama WH was ultimately embarrassed and looked weak. Years later aides brought up to me how burned they felt by @helenecooper story in which she called visit “minutely stage-managed” by Chinese.”
When Obama returned to China in 2014, he made a point of calling on a reporter from The New York Times, whose website is blocked in China, during a joint news conference with Xi. Some Times reporters had recently been kicked out of the country following stories exposing corruption in China’s Communist Party and, to Xi’s disdain, the Times reporter asked a question about China denying visas to foreign reporters.
Johanna Maska, who worked six years for the Obama administration, including as White House director of press advance during the 2014 trip, said the process for negotiating press access with the Chinese begins weeks, if not months, in advance, and often involves high-level officials, like the secretary of state or national security adviser.