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Ahead of White House Correspondents' Dinner, two former press secretaries talk shop

Mike McCurry and Josh Earnest reflect on the current adversarial relationship between the White House and the press.

Washington journalists will convene at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday night to mingle with government sources, take stock of their relationship with the administration and crack jokes.

Since President Donald Trump took office, his aggressive approach to press relations — frequently calling stories he dislikes “fake news,” and naming and shaming reporters via Twitter — has been a shock for those use to a more sedate relationship with his predecessors. Not surprisingly, Trump’s coverage has been overwhelmingly negative.

In wide ranging interviews with NBC News, two former presidential press secretaries, Mike McCurry and Josh Earnest, are both aghast at the current state of affairs.

McCurry, press secretary for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1998, said that the president appears to have declared war on the media.

“It's not surprising the press corps is reacting on that basis. I mean they are at war, too,” he added.

Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. 45th out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom. It was 43rd in 2017. (This year Norway was first and North Korea last.)

“A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters as ‘enemies of the people,’ a term once used by Joseph Stalin,” the report read.

Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was described by Politico as “the face of the most duplicitous press operation in White House history.” And the president’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, debuted in the briefing room by slamming reporters over the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration — drawing derision for inaccurately saying it was "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period."

Meanwhile, Josh Earnest, who was press secretary to President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017 and is a contributor to MSNBC, took Trump’s press operations to task on the topic of telling the truth.

“Look, at the risk of being blunt here, protecting the president’s ego in the current administration is no small thing and that’s why they’re willing to tell lies that degrade their credibility,” he said. “Protecting the president’s ego, in some ways, supersedes the credibility of the people who are speaking for him, and that has eroded their ability to effectively make arguments to the press corps and to the American people. So they’ve paid the price for it.”

Earnest added that transcripts of his press briefings were annotated with corrections if he got things wrong from the podium.

McCurry faced some challenging moments during his tenure, too — including responding to questions from the podium about Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Fielding difficult, at times awkward, questions appears to be a necessary part of the job since the White House and press can naturally be adversaries.

But is it the role of a press secretary to speak on behalf of the president when reporters probe into personal matters, such as the allegations around Lewinsky or Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who alleges she had sex with Trump?

When it came to personal matters involving the president, McCurry said, he was often forced to rely on lawyers. Still, he said it was not his role to be a personal cheerleader: "Remember the person who speaks on behalf of the president is there because they're paid by the American people."

McCurry added, "The role of the press secretary is not to get out there and try to be the defense attorney."

Earnest said the idea of telling "white lies" for the president, as former communications director Hope Hicks admitted doing for Trump, simply erodes credibility for any press secretary.

He also reflected on how future presidents will return relations to some form of normality. "There is now an unfortunate tolerance for saying things that everybody knows isn't true. It's important for people to remember: that is new," Earnest said. He added that the next person to become press secretary after Trump’s time in office will need to reassert a "100% commitment to the facts."

“You can not lead people away from the truth,” said McCurry, who later added: “You can wink and nod and do a little shuck and jive on the way, but I don’t think you can actually say something that’s not true.”

After all, the stakes are high.

"It's fundamentally corrosive to our democracy when the president in the White House doesn't respect the role of the independent press," McCurry added. "If you don't respect the role that the free press plays and call them enemies of the people, then you are doing something that is fundamentally destructive in our democracy. And I think that is a very, very troubling thing that's happening."