“Let me tell you something, from a powerful woman.” That’s how the presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway described herself during a phone call with a reporter for the Washington Examiner.
She was calling Caitlin Yilek to complain about a news story, which reported that Conway was under consideration to serve as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. The Examiner chose to publish a transcript of the phone call.
The news story illustrates that what Conway says of herself is true: She is a powerful official in the White House. Yet the phone call illustrates something else entirely. Of the two people talking, the more powerful is the reporter, who is simply a citizen in a free society. In that sense, the call amounts to a status report in Trump’s ongoing war against the media—and evidence that, despite the president’s efforts, the decisions they make remain outside of his control.
Conway was irritated that the story mentioned her husband, George Conway, a Republican lawyer and critic of the president on social media. The transcript shows Kellyanne Conway delivering several cutting lines that portray the journalist as young and not serious, while emphasizing her own influence.
“Don’t pull the crap where you’re trying to undercut another woman based on who she’s married to,” Conway says, attributing a motive to the reporter without evidence. “He gets his power through me, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I know it’s just for clicks,” Conway adds, again attributing a motive to the reporter without evidence, “but you’re going to have to give me, like, a journalistic reason” to mention George Conway. It is “lazy,” she says (adding that she means the word “respectfully”) to bring up her husband’s tweets. “Do you talk about other people’s spouses in your pieces, ‘’cause I’ve been looking around, I haven’t learned a single thing from any of your pieces.”
Yilek offers to refer Kellyanne Conway to her editor, prompting the president’s counselor to say, “I’ve known your editor since before you were born.” Conway adds, “I’m just trying to give you a chance to explain why you think what you wrote qualifies as breaking news or reporting.”
The reporter answers: “I don’t know that I have to explain that to you.”
This is where the true power dynamic of the call comes into focus. It was Conway’s office that called Yilek, after all. Apparently, a Conway aide had to call more than once to get through. The reporter gamely, and courteously, fields Conway’s complaints. But ultimately, she does not have to do what Conway demands, nor is it entirely clear what Conway realistically wants. The story will not be unpublished. Eventually the reporter says to Conway, “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting to run to.”
The president has spent years now denigrating the media in ways large and small, from the ritualistic claim of “fake news” to his periodic branding of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” This week, the White House even circulated a story that the president wanted government agencies to cancel any subscriptions they may have to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Journalists and publishers have warned the president that his accusations may incite violence, and that he has already inspired authoritarians abroad. These concerns are real. Yet Conway’s phone call demonstrates that the fundamental order of this free society has yet to change. For all their power, a president or his advisers cannot force a citizen to say (or unsay) anything.
The media squander much of their power. They are often wrong or misled, and even more often starved for resources to report on a complicated world. In a general sense, Conway was not wrong to complain that many news stories are written “just for clicks.” Yet much influence remains in journalists’ hands.
Possibly no one understands this better than the president, who built his brand by constantly working the media. As president, he has promoted friendly news outlets while trashing those he deems hostile. Yet most of the media still report independently. His denunciations of journalists, dangerous though they may be, often seem like howls of helpless rage. (Some other presidents have howled similarly, though usually in private.)
According to testimony gathered by House impeachment investigators, the president’s acts in Ukraine were driven in part by a desire to shape media coverage. The president and officials loyal to him urged Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Yet it was not merely an investigation that the president wanted. William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified that a diplomat close to the president had pushed Ukraine’s president to make “a public statement in an interview with CNN.” At one point, Taylor testified, “President Trump did insist that President [Volodymyr] Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations.”
In other words, the president wanted a news story. The testimony indicates that it was possible for him to engage the vast power of the federal government in a global effort to produce that story, even at the risk of his own impeachment. He still didn’t get the story published.