At the top of Donald Trump’s journalistic enemies list is April Ryan, the fifty-one-year-old American Urban Radio Networks correspondent. Ryan—who has covered the presidency for more than two decades—is also an on-air political analyst for CNN and the author of three books, including the recently released Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House. Around Washington, D.C., Ryan holds the title “Dean of the White House Press Corps.”
“I watched her get up,” the president fumed last week before departing for Paris. “I mean, you talk about somebody that’s a loser. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing… She’s very nasty, and she shouldn’t be… You’ve got to treat the White House and the Office of the Presidency with respect.”
What Trump may find disrespectful is that Ryan has a penchant for asking tough questions on topics he’d doesn’t want to hear about: voter suppression, civil rights, Russia. Ryan is also black, female, middle-aged, and resolute. In January 2018, she asked, “Mr. President, are you a racist?”
This boldness has made Ryan the target of Trump’s more ardent followers. She receives frequent death threats. On a reporter’s salary, she’s had to hire a full-time bodyguard. There are reports that Cesar Sayoc Jr., who is accused of sending pipe bombs to Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Barack Obama, and others, also had Ryan on his mailing list.
We spoke for two hours in New York City in the early fall, and then again, twice after the November 6 election, by telephone. An edited and condensed version of the conversations follows.
Claudia Dreifus: Like the late Helen Thomas of the UPI, you’re known as the “Dean of the White House Press Corps.” It’s an honorific earned by covering four presidents. When did you realize that reporting on the Donald Trump presidency would be very different?
April Ryan: I saw it during the 2016 campaign. I knew in my gut he was going to win. You could see it, if you were honest with yourself and listened to what he was saying. He’d say to a 90 percent white crowd, “We built this nation!”
He used code words and they solidified the crowd. With Donald Trump, there wasn’t political decorum. It was shock and awe. This was a street game and he was playing “the Dozens.” His opponents, in both the primaries and the general election, were too polished to understand what was happening. I used to go on MSNBC and tell Chris Matthews, “This man could be our president.”
Chris would say, “No, it will never happen!”
When it did happen, how did life change for journalists covering the White House?
There used to be an atmosphere of mutual respect there. You had journalists like Bill Plante of CBS and Ann Compton of ABC. They were tough questioners, but they always were respected.
I didn’t have any problem with any president until now. George W. Bush, I really have a fondness for him because we were able to talk about race. Bill Clinton, I asked him hard questions about Monica Lewinsky. I dogged Obama about unemployment in the black community. They may not have agreed with the questions I threw out, but they respected me.
This president changed the dynamic. The press room now, every day, it’s something different. Now looking at this new crop, you’ve got conservative journalists over here, you’ve got liberal journalists, and you got those few who are in the middle. We didn’t have that back then. If a reporter had politics, you didn’t know about it. It wasn’t out like it is now.
Where do you sit on the spectrum?
I sit in the middle. I sit with the tradition of Walter Cronkite. You didn’t know his politics until he left journalism. And you don’t know if I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I don’t talk about my politics. No one knows my politics.
Whatever they are, you’re a journalist with a bodyguard. Why?
There have been threats. It’s gone beyond emails, beyond the phone calls, beyond threatening messages to the company website. The security: it’s not just for myself, it’s for protecting me and mine. I have kids. I’m trying to keep my life and the lives of those I love safe.
The other thing is that people have tried to intimidate me. Right now, I can’t cover a Trump rally in a red state, even if I wanted to. I mentioned that to Steve Bannon when I talked to him. He said, “No. I wouldn’t advise it.”
The questions you ask the president appear to be the source of the hostility. This began in February of 2017 at Donald Trump’s first solo presidential press conference when you asked what would, under ordinary circumstances, have been a rather mundane question.
Yes. I asked him a question about urban America and it wound up being crazy. I asked if, in his plans for an inner cities agenda, he was going to talk with the Congressional Black Caucus. The president went, “Well, I would… I’ll tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?”
All I could say was something like, “I’m just a reporter. I know some of them.” But the president went on, “Let’s go… let’s set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the Black Caucus.”
When he started speaking those words, I was at a loss. Blood rushed to my ears because that’s my way when things get tough. I was shaking my head, not realizing what I was doing. “No, I can’t do that, sir.” I was in shock. In my mind, I thought, but didn’t say, “That’s not my job.”
This exchange was the worst thing ever for me. That moment is forever etched into history because that video went viral. For better or worse, I’m a meme from that.
Who do you actually work for?
American Urban Radio Networks. We send newsfeeds to black-owned radio stations or stations with a black focus. Our focus is on minority America, though we ask questions about all of America—health disparities, lead poisoning, police shootings, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner.
How do you develop your questions for the president? Dan Rather, who once covered the White House, told me that he spent months crafting a single question for Richard Nixon.
Months? It doesn’t take me that long. We’re in a different day now. You’re responding to the moment. The 24/7 news machine and social media have changed the dynamic of how we ask questions. I do a lot of research. I have sources who tell me things. My questions are often driven by the events of the day.
When I asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders if the president had ever thought of resigning, that was driven by the news that a federal prosecutor had just raided Michael Cohen’s office. I had sources telling me that things were going on, like wiretaps and things of that nature.
This past January, at a public ceremony celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you bluntly asked the president if he was a racist. What was your process in developing that question?
As a journalist, as you know, you have your ear to the ground. You have a Rolodex of people you talk to quite frequently to find out what they’re thinking. You hear grumbling.
I’d heard that federal lawmakers came out of a meeting where the president allegedly said “shithole nations,” versus people from Norway who’d be welcome here. Not only that: before that was Charlottesville.
So I was hearing this groundswell from black leaders and white leaders. And then I called the NAACP and asked, “What is the definition of a racist?” And it was simple: the intersection or the meeting of prejudice and power.
I was torn about asking it. Even in the room, I was back and forth. I’ll never forget the president kept looking at me from there like he doesn’t like me. When I asked it, I knew I had done something. I realized that it’s a sad day when you have to ask a US president if you’re a racist. It hurt me.
Does the president ever call on you at events?
Not anymore. I’ll yell out a question sometimes. He’ll give me a squint and close his mouth and skip to the next questioner. He doesn’t like me. That’s okay.
At his recent post-Election Day press conference, the one where the president grew furious with CNN’s Jim Acosta, he also rounded on you. “Sit down,” he told you. “I didn’t call on you.” What were your feelings as he said that?
I was shocked, though I wasn’t as surprised as some people. He’s done this before to me. Whatever he thinks about me, I’ll be doing what I’m doing. In this instance, I was asking him about voter suppression and he was avoiding talking about the issue.
I don’t know why people are shocked. He’s gone after women before. We’ve seen how he is when he talks to Kaitlan Collins or Cecilia Vega.
He has said to ABC’s Cecilia Vega, “You’re not thinking, you never do.”
I love Cecilia. She’s amazing. And a thinker. And she asks really good questions. It’s wrong to denigrate a woman, a journalist. It shows where women, where journalists, stand with him. In a time when women are walking away from him and his message is against women, that’s a dangerous game to play. Independent women are leaving him and going toward the Democrats.
Just last week, the president revoked Jim Acosta’s White House press credentials. In the wake of that, some journalists are suggesting that the entire White House press corps should boycott some of the president’s events. Is that feasible?
If they do boycott, I would have to be part of it. But there are ways that we can be just as effective without a boycott. We have to be all together and we’ll have to work together to find those areas. We have to figure out what to report and what not to report. We can be more strategic in our reporting.
You’ve had some run-ins with Sanders. During Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, you threw a remarkable question at her. You asked why the president had so readily believed in Kavanaugh’s innocence, when in 1989 Trump had rushed to judgment in the case of five black teenagers accused of raping a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many years later, the real rapist was arrested. Now, the 1980s is a long time ago; why ask that question now?
I didn’t initiate the question. Ayesha Rascoe of NPR did. The minute Ayesha asked it, I saw Sarah getting riled, as if to say, “Leave that question.” And I was like, “You are not going to step over this.” I went right in.
What it does show is that he’s selective in who he believes and who he doesn’t. The reason I asked is because people know what happened there. There’s a record. And he has yet to say, “I’m sorry.”
About your bodyguard, how do you afford him? I know what radio reporters earn.
I’m creative. I put a lot of jobs together. I’m on CNN. I write books, I lecture. The security: it costs a lot, but I can’t leave this job. I’m not a quitter. If people threaten me because I’m asking questions, that’s not right. They view me as the Resistance; I’m not the Resistance, I’m a reporter.
How do your colleagues in the White House press corps react to your being targeted?
Some of them don’t care. They’re of the mindset, “Oh, she gets so much attention.” Then there are others, they feel bad for me. I had a co-worker walk with me when she saw a couple of in-my-face attempts at intimidation.
A lot of the conservative newbies who think I’m not friendly to the president or who want to write stories that are for the president, they want to challenge me. I’m like, “You just got here, who are you?”
You’ve suggested that Sarah Huckabee Sanders ought to be paying for your security detail. Why?
It’s because every time Sarah comes out and says something against me, I get these emails that go, “Oh, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that to you.” Every time, there’s an elevated level of hate. They are generating this hate. I am “the enemy.” Or one of the enemies.
A hypothetical question: If your predecessor as the dean of the White House press corps, the late Helen Thomas, were, in some mythical way, to come down from journalism heaven, what do you think she’d tell you?
“Keep doing what you’re doing.” She’d be the first person banging on the door for answers. She had the doors closed quite a bit on her, though it never stopped her. But people in power were afraid of her. She wielded real power.
Like her, I’m not looking for approval. I’m looking to do my job.