I’m no stranger to covering the visits of presidents and world leaders. I was working in the NBC Chicago newsroom for both the 2008 and 2012 elections and for President Obama’s many visits to the city. I also helped cover the Chicago visit of former Chinese President Hu Jintao and the 2012 NATO Summit.
For all of those situations, however, I was based in the newsroom and not out in the field. And actually, in all my years I have never seen a president with my own eyes.
That changed on this day when I was honored to be a part of the local press pool for President Trump’s visit to southeast Wisconsin. Right off the bat, it needs to be said: The planes used for Air Force One — SAM28000 was used on this day — are incredibly beautiful.
My primary task for the day was to offer up live coverage of a discussion on apprenticeships and workforce development during the president’s visit to Waukesha County Technical College — which I did — and to catch any color or other news-worthy surprises.
Much of the day went as I expected. There was pre-event credentialing, tight security, groups of supporters and protestors. We shouted questions. The president declined to answer.
These events are so tightly scheduled and scripted, and the “access” is firmly managed by the White House and the Secret Service. While we got to see a bit of the president’s WCTC tour, it was really just an opportunity for the press to document the visit with a few seconds of video or sound and pictures before we were ushered to an adjacent room to await the roundtable discussion. When that took place, we were only invited to about the first 15 minutes or so (which is why the Facebook Live stream abruptly ends). I did note, however, the “Lutz Family Foundation” sign (no relation) that was near Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Riding with the motorcade was an interesting experience. I and other members of the press traveled with the president in a number of white vans. I watched as a Wisconsin State Journal reporter worked to file his story on a laptop, his iPhone tethered to his ear so he could transcribe notes and quotes. Beside me was a New York Times photographer. With his two cameras hanging from the seat back in front of him, he used a laptop to edit photos and add metadata to them. His computer had a MiFi strapped to the lid, allowing him to upload images to the Times’ servers. Farther back in the van was a reporter from TheHill, who had a couple of calls with an editor from his newsroom. At one point, an NPR reporter asked the driver to turn off the AC so she could track a story.
The biggest surprise of the day was realizing that the Secret Service uses some sort of femtocell or other cellular signal interrupter on the press vans. The Twitter and Google Maps apps on my phone both put me at the White House while I was on board, meaning the tweets and emails I sent while on the motorcade were, I’m sure, monitored. I have to assume the other journalists who’ve done this before already know about this practice, and I assume they’re connected to their newsrooms via VPN.