Strange trip to China by Michelle Obama
No interviews, please! Michelle Obama’s China trip questioned as she won’t take Q&A with reporters and only offers 2 true ‘open press’ events (out of 22 on her calendar)
The first lady is taking her mother and daughters to three Chinese cities on a ‘people-to-people exchange’ trip at taxpayer expense
Only 2 out of 22 events on her calendar will give reporters the chance to hear her speak and do any real reporting – but without interviewing her
No reporters are allowed to travel with the first lady on her government aircraft
The White House is declining to say how much the week-long excursion will cost
Mrs. Obama will appear for photo-ops and public events that are ‘pooled press’ – just one reporter or photographer noting her comings and goings
By DAVID MARTOSKO, U.S. POLITICAL EDITOR
PUBLISHED: 17:41, 19 March 2014 | UPDATED: 20:35, 19 March 2014
First lady Michelle Obama will not take questions from reporters or give interviews during her tour of China that begins today, and members of the press corps who usually follows the first family everywhere can’t travel with her entourage.
And although she will make a few speeches with reporters in the room, the picture is largely one of an expensive, taxpayer-funded tourism exercise for Mrs. Obama, her two daughters, and her mother – not the official trip the White House has projected.
White House press officials haven’t comment on the record about whether a reported ban on question-and-answer interviews applies equally to American journalists and international reporters.
And limited information made available to MailOnline suggests that only two out of 22 scheduled events on the trip will afford journalists a chance to do any significant reporting – including a solitary speech – but still without interviewing Mrs. Obama.
Both of those events, the White House says, will afford ‘limited’ space for the press.
‘How does this comport with the standards of an “official” trip that uses government resources?’ MailOnline asked. ‘Doesn’t this look more like a vacation at taxpayer expense if she’s not going to interface with the media?’
White House travel can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars since members of the president’s family must take a phalanx of Secret Service agents with them wherever they go. Those agents and their staffers need hotel rooms, rental vehicles and per diem meal expenses.
The cost of operating a government aircraft large enough for that entourage is also significant.
But the White House has met most questions about the trip with silence, leaving a Monday conference call with reporters, one full of official political overtones, as the only official comment that reporters can write about.
An email to journalists with a preview of events in China carries the ominous warning ‘FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY / NOT FOR REPORTING’ and describes the limited media access for each of her appearances.
As a result, MailOnline can’t report on its contents, other than to summarize the number of press opportunities available. Even that required special permission from a White House official.
Nine of them are photo-opportunities, including six where only a single ‘pool’ photographer will have any access. Mrs. Obama’s arrival and departure from three Chinese cities will be ‘open press,’ but are likely to consist of a wave from an airport tarmac.
Two events are closed to the press entirely; two will only permit a single ‘pool’ reporter to attend and watch; press access for one is still to be decided.
There are only two events during the trip that are completely open to journalists, but the White House has indicated that the first lady won’t be interviewed or take questions during those appearances, and they are marked ‘space limited’ on her itinerary.
‘Throughout the week she will participate in open press and pooled events including speeches at two schools, questions from students online and forums including a CNN iReport,’ a White House official told MailOnline.
But the Obama administration has left journalists with the impression that while she will face very limited press scrutiny, Mrs. Obama is attempting to affect bilateral relations with China.
No reporters are traveling on the government aircraft that whisks her and her family members to the Far East today.
‘The most powerful message we can deliver [to the Chinese people] is one of the examples of not just the first lady’s life story but of America and our values,’ Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters during the Monday call.
‘That alone I think speaks to things like respect for human rights that are interwoven into the DNA of the United States of America.’
Melanne Verveer, chief of staff to Hillary Clinton when she was the first lady, told The New York Times that ‘politics can be imposed’ on trips like Mrs. Obama’s, and that ‘people will want to put a political spin’ on it.
And Anita McBride, chief of staff to Laura Bush during her time in the White House, said that since the trip will have ‘a very tightly controlled schedule, and there is no media and no interviews,’ Mrs. Obama might be able to avoid getting political.
Rhodes began Monday’s telephone briefing with a statement that sounded more like politics than vacation planning.
He later insisted that the White House wouldn’t comment on the quasi-official trip’s cost to taxpayers.
‘First of all, as you all know, the bilateral relationship between the United States and China is really as important as any relationship in the world,’ he said.
‘China of course now is the second-largest economy in the world. It’s our fastest-growing trading partner, and it’s also a country we cooperate with on a whole host of international issues. … We’re very clear when we have differences with China on a host of issues, so it’s a relationship that allows for both a constructive cooperation, and candor when we disagree.’
He also told reporters on the call that Mrs. Obama will ‘be staffed from our office, and as with our other trips, with staff and who know the area that we’re going to.’
Tina Tchen, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, added that the first lady’s planned ‘people-to-people’ exchanges in China are ‘not only good for those individuals,’ but ‘it is really vital for the competitiveness of our U.S. global economy.’