Wednesday, when PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked President Trump if his campaign rhetoric was “emboldening white nationalists,” the president (who has, in recent weeks, railed against “power-hungry globalists,” a distant immigrant “caravan,” and called African American Tallahassee mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum a “stone-cold thief”) tried to turn the tables by saying: “That’s such a racist question.”
Friday, when CNN’s Abby Phillip asked Trump if he wanted newly designated acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to “rein in” special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump tried to dismiss her by saying: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.” Wednesday at the White House, he told me to “sit down.” In Friday’s press gaggle, he called me “nasty” and a “loser,” never mind my 21 years spent covering four presidents as a reporter for American Urban Radio Networks.
It’s not hard to find the common denominator: Though there’s hardly anyone — from his predecessors to senators in his own party — he won’t try to shout down with ad hominem insults, Trump relishes, and injects venom into, verbal attacks against women of color.
He leaves little doubt about what he really thinks of us.
In rally after rally, when Trump says Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has a “low I.Q.” he’s showing contempt for the idea that a black woman, who has sworn an oath to uphold the same Constitution as he has, should be able to speak her mind if she in any way challenges his authority. When he feuded with Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) over his response to the death of her constituent, La David Johnson, an African American Army sergeant killed in action, he failed to live up to his role as commander in chief. When he says Stacey Abrams, a Yale Law School graduate and former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, is “not qualified” to be her state’s governor, he’s applying a double standard. When he feuded, via Twitter, with Jemele Hill, the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2018 journalist of the year (an award I was honored with in 2017) Trump telegraphed that there’s something about being questioned by a black woman that he can’t abide. One or two of these instances might only leave you scratching your head. But we’ve reached the point where it’s an unmistakable pattern.
The journalists covering Trump’s presidency are professionals, and I’m confident that all of us, including the African American women covering this White House, will continue to do our jobs no matter how we’re treated by President Trump. But we shouldn’t have to put up with the kind of treatment we received this week: Not only has the president given cover to people who want to harass us, but he’s left the American people with a twisted understanding of how press freedoms work. He seems not to appreciate that journalists’ roles are to hold power to account, and, at times, seems unwilling to face tough questions. At the end of my exchange with him at the most recent White House news conference — the type of exchange that I’ve had, completely respectfully, with other presidents — he implied that my White House hard pass, the credential that allows me White House access daily, might be pulled. That’s not how things are supposed to work in a democracy.
And the taunting, schoolyard-bully atmosphere winds up putting a stain on the highest office in the land. The White House is where decisions about war and peace, taxes and spending, and fundamental human rights are made — a place where life or death can be determined by the stroke of a pen. The presidency is the one office that’s supposed to represent everyone, no matter their faith, race, gender or orientation.
Correspondents don’t go to the White House every day to make friends. We do our jobs courteously, but also thoroughly and assertively, to get answers for our viewers, listeners and readers about the statements and actions that affect all Americans’ lives. Sometimes that means having a quiet sidebar with a member of the White House communications staff. Sometimes that means meeting with first son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner to discuss the administration’s approach to criminal justice reform. Sometimes that means shouting a question at the president as he crosses the White House lawn on the way to boarding Marine One. You can tell, though, by the way Trump has responded in recent days to more than one black female journalist that he sees our presence there as illegitimate. If he didn’t, he’d either answer our questions or simply ignore them, not berate us.
But when Trump denigrates black women, he’s sending the message that he doesn’t see us equally.
Every morning that I walk through the White House gates, I thank God for the privilege of doing the job that I do, and for the trust and faith that my listeners put in me to ask for, and bring home, the truth. Every day, I try to remember that, to the best of my knowledge of my family’s history, I am only five generations removed from the last known member of my family to be enslaved, Joseph Dollar Brown, who was sold on the auction block in North Carolina. And I carry that knowledge with me, because I owe it to him to cover the presidency the best way I know how, no matter how much pushback I get.
The White House has had issues with me ever since January, when I asked, “Mr. President, are you a racist?” After his response to Charlottesville, after “s---hole countries,” after “get that son of a b---- off the field” and “What the hell do you have to lose?” it’s more than a fair question, it’s necessary. As a black female journalist, I’m going to keep asking it and continue seeking answers. That’s my job, and I am up for it.
April Ryan is White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks. She is the author, most recently, of “Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House.”