In July 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Following the meeting, the two presidents held a joint news conference, where Jeff Mason, White House Correspondent for Reuters and past president of the White House Correspondents' Association, posed some strong questions to the leaders of the world’s largest nuclear powers. We asked Jeff a few questions about the press conference and his role covering it.
You asked the first questions from the U.S. media at the Trump/Putin press conference. Can you tell us a little about that moment and being selected first?
“First, for some background, none of us knew when we went into that press conference who was going to get called on. We knew it was what we call a ‘two and two,’ which means there would be two questions for the U.S. side and two questions for the Russian side, but the White House did not give us a heads-up about who would get those questions. I wasn’t expecting to get a question because I had already had a couple on this trip [in Brussels and Chequers]. But I was prepared. With regard to that moment when Sarah Sanders called my name, it caught me off guard… I stood up, obviously, and had my question ready: The president had kicked off his day in Helsinki by sending out a tweet that had blamed the U.S. for the deteriorating relationship with Russia and I just thought that needed to be asked about, and I did.”
You have the spotlight for a very short period of time, with no guarantees in advance if you will be given that time at all. How do you choose what question(s) to ask?
“At a summit like this, there were myriad topics that would have been newsy, including very policy-oriented things – plans for nuclear disarmament, Syria, Ukraine – but, the context and the significance of President Trump at all meeting with President Putin made the newsier questions something along the line of what I asked. But in general, broadly, you have to be prepared for a lot of things, especially if there are several questions that will be taken from the press corps, because it happens every once in a while that someone will ask the question that is first on your list.”
What was the general feeling in the room overall?
“You know, there was a sense of shellshock at the conclusion of that press conference. Both the presidents’ responses to my questions and President Putin’s responses to my questions, along with the responses to my colleague’s from the AP, were – in many ways – so unusual that I think that people [in the room] were shocked the same way that people watching on TV were shocked. And that’s not an experience that I normally have at the end of a presidential press conference. There was just a sense of ‘wow – that just happened.’ There’s no question that this was a moment in history. It really was. It’s going to have an impact on this presidency and possibly on many other things going forward in terms of foreign policy.”
Do you think this moment will also be equally significant for you personally as a journalist?
“I think so, yes. I didn’t know that going in, but the response has been overwhelming. I’ve heard from people, including people from within Thomson Reuters who don’t work for the editorial side who I’ve never met before, to say how proud they were to work for TR when they saw me and that meant a lot to me. Also…it’s nice for me as a member of the White House press corps to have participated in or, perhaps, created or contributed to a moment where the press corps can shine. And I think we did. And I think Americans and Europeans and others were able to see the importance of a free press. If you compare the questions that I and my colleague from the AP asked to those that were asked from the Russian side, it illustrates the difference in terms of aggressive questioning and the responses that come from that.”
What made this summit stand out among other events you have covered?
“It’s not unusual for a president to meet with a foreign leader, obviously. But it was the context of the Russia investigation and President Trump’s few days before that in which he was so critical of U.S. allies and so aggressive against what are traditionally considered U.S. friends. And then to contrast that with his tone about Vladimir Putin, a known strongman, and who – I don’t need to repeat here – has been accused by U.S. intelligence agencies as having meddled in the 2016 election...the context of all of that was striking.”
For those who are unfamiliar, can you explain – in brief – how the pool works/covers the president?
“Sure. There are 13 journalists who are part of the White House pool. That includes three from television (a cameraperson, a sound person and a correspondent or producer); it includes four still photographers; a print pooler and a backup print pooler; a radio correspondent; and then the three wires – Reuters, AP and Bloomberg. Reuters has two permanent seats in the pool: the writer, which was the role I was playing, and a still photographer.
That means that we’re present for everything. It’s a great responsibility and a great thing for Reuters because we’re there and can get market-moving news out to the world in real-time; those who aren’t in the pool have to wait for a pool report. That’s a real benefit to Reuters and TR clients. It also leads to opportunities that I had in Helsinki to be present and ask questions at press conferences.”
Anything else to add?
“I would add that it’s been gratifying to hear from people within the company. I think the support for a free press and the support for what Reuters does…around the world is terrific. It’s a privilege to work for a company that is committed to neutral journalism. And I think that good journalism has never been more important than it is now. That includes asking tough, direct questions like I had the chance to do at the press conference, but it also includes lots of other things that we do at Reuters.”
Jeff Mason is a White House Correspondent for Reuters. He was the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association from 2016-2017, representing the press corps during the initial months of President Donald Trump’s administration. He was the lead Reuters correspondent for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign. He has interviewed President Obama and President Trump. Jeff has been based in Washington since 2008, when he covered the historic race between Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Jeff started his career in Frankfurt, Germany, where he covered the airline industry before moving to Brussels, Belgium, where he covered the European Union. He is a Colorado native, proud graduate of Northwestern University and former Fulbright scholar.
Twitter handle: @jeffmason1
Careers blog subscription
Sign up to receive new posts by email