Capitol ‘overflowing’ with reporters in era of Trump

Capitol ‘overflowing’ with reporters in era of Trump
© Greg Nash

For a Capitol Hill reporter, it’s hard to find a seat in the building these days.

President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE has sparked so many controversies and such ferocious demand for news that the press galleries in the House and Senate are often filled to the brim. By midday the multiple overflow media spaces are at capacity as well, leaving stragglers no choice but to sit on the floor. 

During votes, reporters swarm the Speaker’s Lobby, House hallways and Senate basement seeking lawmakers’ reaction to Trump’s latest tweet, executive action or firing of a Cabinet official. Last year, dozens of policy reporters tracked major health-care and tax-reform bills as they moved through Congress. But with legislating all but over in this midterm election year, the crowds that gather on Capitol Hill are decidedly all about Trump. 


And the long-running congressional probes into Russia’s 2016 election interference have only heightened the frenzy, as dozens of reporters and cameramen gather near the restricted House and Senate intelligence committee rooms to catch the revolving cast of characters — Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortUS sanctions four Ukrainians for aiding Russian influence operations Manafort book set for August publication Accused spy's lawyers say plans to leave country were over Trump, not arrest MORE, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDonald Trump slams Jan. 6 panel after Ivanka Trump interview request: 'They'll go after children' Kushner investment firm raises more than B: report Trump: Netanyahu 'never wanted peace' with Palestinians MORE, Stephen Bannon — who have been summoned to confidential interviews. 

“It used to be gaggles of eight to 12 people; now our gaggles are 20 people,” said one longtime congressional observer. “And that group of 20 people ends up blocking hallways because everybody is trying to get to the principal and ask their question or simply hear what that principal is saying. 

“The Capitol is overflowing with bodies. And there are all these pressure points developing as a result of that.”

The crush of media on Capitol Hill has created tensions between lawmakers, reporters and Capitol staffers — including law enforcers — charged with maintaining a balance between lawmaker safety and freedom of the press. 

Last summer, the Senate press gallery took the unusual step of cordoning off parts of the Capitol to prevent mobs of reporters from trampling or tripping lawmakers. Reporters howled, leading the Senate press gallery to offer a compromise just this week: The cordons will be replaced by tape on the floor near the Senate subways — a literal thin blue line indicating where reporters should linger while awaiting the arrival of lawmakers. 

The blue tape, which The Hill has learned will be installed after the Easter recess, will surely be met with ridicule from reporters who say they’ve seen a gradual erosion of press access on Capitol Hill. Reporters say the restrictions are the most pronounced on Tuesdays, when Vice President Pence attends the weekly lunch with Republican senators. 

The Senate and parts of the House go into “lockdown” when Pence is on the move, meaning reporters, staffers and tourists must remain stationary until he and his entourage pass. And reporters say Capitol Police “obsessively” check their ID badges whenever Pence is in the building. 

“Over the last 15 months, there have been increased attempts to corral reporters and control their movements. The overall effect is to make it tougher for reporters to talk to lawmakers,” lamented one veteran Capitol Hill reporter. “Reporters are out there trying to find out what’s going on; they’re not there to stargaze or cause a nuisance.”

Even in the more freewheeling House — where reporters are permitted to interview lawmakers on all four sides of the chamber — the hordes of reporters have triggered lawmaker complaints in recent weeks to the offices of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) and Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, House sources said.

In one case, a lawmaker complained about reporters resting their laptops on a marble ledge as they staked out House Intelligence Committee meetings. Another complained that reporters and TV crews working out of the Will Rogers and Statuary halls, just off the House floor, were placing their food and coffee cups on the base of congressional statues. 

Taking a cue from the Senate, officials with the House Sergeant at Arms have erected a pair of stanchions at the west entrance to the floor to restrict reporters’ movement and keep a clear path for lawmakers during votes.    

Just before Congress’s spring break, sergeant at arms officers reconfigured the stanchions to essentially pen off reporters from lawmakers heading to votes. That created a tense standoff between the sergeant at arms and House Press Gallery officials, who represent reporters in the Capitol. 

“I can see myself tripping over these stanchions and falling flat on my face,” one reporter said, looking at the new configuration. 

By the last vote series of the day, the reporter pens were gone. But the Sergeant at Arms Office made no promises they wouldn’t be brought back. “The discussions are ongoing,” said a source familiar with the talks. 

“We are always working ways with the Sergeant at Arms to find reasonable solutions to address the overcrowding of hallways and hearing rooms and areas where reporters are interacting with members,” said a House press gallery staff member.

A spokesman for the House sergeant at arms did not respond to a request for comment.

Some longtime lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of the heightened security measures. Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDemocrats urge IRS to start with lowest-income Americans in clearing tax return backlog Biden to sign order to streamline government services to public Proposed Virginia maps put rising-star House Democrats at risk MORE (D-Va.), who has spent roughly two decades on Capitol Hill as both an aide and lawmaker, said he’s had no problems navigating the recent maze of reporters, adding, “I don’t see the need for that kind of cordoning off.” 

“I’ve never seen that as a problem in my years being on the Hill,” Connolly said Tuesday by phone. “If people don’t want to talk to the press they don’t have to.” 

Connolly, tongue in cheek, offered a theory for why the Senate has been more aggressive in limiting press access. 

“I guess senators are a little more allergic to mortal contact,” he said, laughing. 

The issue is not a function of more reporters, per se. Indeed, the Capitol press galleries say the number of issued credentials has remained relatively stable in recent years. But even as Trump has repeatedly attacked the “fake news,” he’s also created a near-insatiable public demand for it — one that seems to have led more reporters than before to utilize their credentials with more frequent visits to the Capitol. 

During the 113th Congress (2013–14), there were a combined 2,891 credentials issued for correspondents of the daily and periodical press galleries. This Congress, the 115th Congress (2017–18), there are a combined 2,535 correspondents credentialed between the two galleries. Those figures don’t include radio and television journalists or photographers. 

“So it’s not that more reporters have been credentialed; it’s that Congress is a place where more reporters are coming to cover everyday,” said a source familiar with the credentialing process. “There has been a deluge of reporters coming up here everyday.”