April Ryan Interview: White House Correspondent Fights the Good Fight for Press Freedom
Image attributed to April Ryan
April Ryan has been a White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks since the Clinton administration. In addition, she can be seen almost daily as a political analyst for CNN. She has been featured in Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Elle magazines as well as the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico, to name a few, and has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper 360, Hardball, Meet the Press and many other television news programs. In 2017, the National Association of Black Journalists named her the “Journalist of the Year.”
Ryan is the author of The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America, At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White and her latest book entitled Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House.
"People are not paying attention like they should to these briefings and the press."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): April, how long did it take to write Under Fire, and what was the impetus for the book?
April Ryan: First of all, this book was like six or seven months. This one nearly killed me. I would write before I went to bed. I would write when it was peaceful in the house, when I was on a plane, in a train or automobile. This one was kind of painful because of the timeline. Six months. I didn’t have a year. I had six months, and on top of that, it was about me, and it was painful because we are journalists. We’re supposed to be like a fly on the wall. We’re supposed to be observing, and now I’m the story, and it’s a lot. It’s a lot to be dealing with that kind of thing. So it was emotional. It was physical and emotional because I was really pushing to get this out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been a White House correspondent for 21 years beginning with Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings were going on during that time.
April Ryan: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was the atmosphere like at that time for a member of the press corps as compared to now in the Trump administration?
April Ryan: Even in the midst of all that with Bill Clinton, he still tried to court the press. But with Trump, he just doesn’t care. He has disdain. Bill Clinton courted the press in his worst days. So did George W. Bush. So did Barack Obama. But this president is pushing us away. We heard about this kind of behavior with Watergate, and look what happened with Watergate … impeachment proceedings. But guess what? He resigned. This is a different day. But we’ve seen familiar behavior.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But have you ever received death threats before the Trump administration in all of your years as a journalist?
April Ryan: Never. Never. Never. Never. Did I say, “Never?” (laughs) I mean, never.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did the death threats begin?
April Ryan: It started during Sean Spicer when he was saying to me, “Stop shaking your head.” It’s just crazy. They’re threats for physical harm, racist death threats. It’s just a mess. I don’t want to go too far into it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It wasn’t the period of time when you asked if Trump was going to resign?
April Ryan: No. It started before that. But that question didn’t hurt (laughs). Whenever they would take issue with what I ask, like when they made a big deal out of it, and it became a story, that’s the time when I would get death threats.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So it’s just a continuous thing.
April Ryan: Yeah. But it doesn’t make you feel good. I spoke too much about it, so I want to stop here. I’m thinking about my security and those around me. It’s a very real issue. This is not just a story. This is my life and lives of those around me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. Your safety and the safety of your family is of primary importance. In January of 2018, you asked Donald Trump if he was a racist. Was this a spur of the moment decision to ask the question or had you thought about it for a time before you asked?
April Ryan: Never spur of the moment. It was a buildup. You had Charlottesville. You had Frederica Wilson with David Johnson. You had “s-hole nation.” And you had people out there saying he’s a racist. Just before I asked that question, the “s-hole” thing was really big. That was almost the icing on the cake pretty much for a lot of people. They started saying he’s a racist. I was like, “Wait a minute. To label someone a racist is big. Let me find out the definition.” I mean, this was well thought out. This was well researched.
I went to the NAACP president, and I went to the DC branch and asked the definition of “racist.” It’s simple: When power and prejudice meet, the intersection of power and prejudice. It wasn’t for sure that I was going to ask Trump that question until I asked that question because it was such a weighty question. But I chose to do it that way because it was my pool day. It was around that moment in time where it was building up to that, and people were saying it, and I threw the question to him.
I was not making commentary. I asked him. He never answered until a few days later because that question was dominating the news cycle. And that’s the question where people were saying I was put on the blacklist for that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And despite the fact there were witnesses in the room, Trump denied referring to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries.” How do you feel about Trump arguing about the death toll in Hurricane Maria?
April Ryan: That is an ugly moment for a president to say something like that. That is a sad moment for the nation and the world to negate the deaths of people and to reject the the deaths of people as you are really the end all be all, no matter if it’s state’s rights or territory rights. You know, you’re the end all be all. If they’re asking for help, you’re supposed to step in. The president is supposed to step in. To reject what is known as fact … leadership is about serving. It’s not about anything else but serving the nation, and when you negate the fact that people died, there’s a problem there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe racial bias may have driven the administration’s neglect of Puerto Rico?
April Ryan: I think there’s a couple of things. It looks like there are a couple of things. You know, Trump was struggling with the issue of Puerto Rico even having any kind of relationship with the United States. That’s one thing. The way he was shooting those paper towels didn’t help. Is it classism? Is it racism? I don’t know. But it does not look good at all. I mean, look back at George W. Bush. George W. Bush even acknowledged he made mistakes. They are still trying to deal with issues from Katrina.
I’m speaking as someone who understands and has seen tragedy before and how a president has had to deal with it. And I was very critical of George W. Bush, so I’m speaking at a point of understanding. I remember when Kanye West screamed out that George W. Bush doesn’t like black people. Well, who’s screaming out that Donald Trump doesn’t like Puerto Ricans? I don’t hear it. But only time will tell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You clashed bigtime with Sean Spicer.
April Ryan: And I clashed bigtime with Sarah Sanders.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you tried to make peace with Sarah.
April Ryan: Tried to. I knew Sean before he came to the White House. We had a decent relationship prior to that. Sean and I were cool. But when he came to the White House and became press secretary, it became strained, and the main reason why it changed is because this president doesn’t like me. This president is keenly aware and briefing them of what’s going on, and he instructs them as to what he wants, and he didn’t want me.
So we will never get along as long as they are fighting me. I’m not going to let you fight me and war on me and try to humiliate me, denigrate me or discredit me. I’ll never let you do that and think we’re going to be friends. I’m not going to let you beat me down, and then we’re going to be friends. That’s just not common sense.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sean Spicer falsely claimed that Donald Trump had attracted the biggest ever inauguration audience. Do you think Sarah Sanders will finally get tired of lying to the American people also?
April Ryan: There’s this thing called video, too, so you can be caught in your lies. They’re being caught in their lies. That’s the thing. But I hear Sarah is trying to do an elegant exit. But the question is, when will that be?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So there are rumors that she’s leaving?
April Ryan: No, not rumors. She’s trying to do an elegant exit. What will that look like? I don’t know. But she wants to leave on her own terms.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you read Omarosa Manigault’s book?
April Ryan: No, and I won’t.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): About your book, Omarosa said, “Hopefully, people will read it.”
April Ryan: Hopefully people will read it? Well, my book is doing pretty well, I think. What I will say about Omarosa is she was actively complicit. She’s not a hero. She was taping as her safety net. You know, the “gotcha,” in case she got fired in case things turned wrong. She was trying to vilify me, discredit me. She was blocking people from coming into the White House. She was actively being a villain. For her to say she’s part of the resistance now is because personally she lost her paycheck, her stature. That’s the only reason why she’s now this disgruntled employee.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You talk in the book about Omarosa being a Democrat in the past and working with Al Gore.
April Ryan: She was with Al Gore. She supported Hillary. She supported Bill, and she supported Obama.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Donald Trump is also an ex-Democrat, so do you think that perhaps he just played the Republican game to become president?
April Ryan: I agree. That was his way in. He saw the dissention, the racial dissention in this nation and with people who felt that they were left out. But you know, there are people that feel left out everywhere. Everywhere. But he played on that racial dissent, and if you say it’s not true, it’s true. That was his first foray into this. The racial thing. And then he continued to use cold words and things of that nature. This president has an issue with matters of race. Plain and simple. The taking of the knee, going after black women. All that stuff. It’s just ridiculous.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the feeling among your colleagues in the press corps as to what will ultimately happen to this presidency?
April Ryan: I don’t know. But it doesn’t look good right now. Who knows? We’re not prognosticators. We have to watch it play out. But the bottom line here is that it’s not about us. It’s about the American public. It’s not about him. It’s not about America. It’s about the American public. It’s about we the people, and when we the people speak up and rise up, that’s when things change. We saw it with Parkland. We saw it when they were pulling the parents away from the children at the border. When people rise up, there is a change.
People are not paying attention like they should to these briefings and the press. What makes us different from any other nation is the fact that we have an independent press who is part of that accountability process that our forefathers put in place. The fourth estate. The first amendment. Unfortunately, I just feel like some people fell asleep during government, history and civics classes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We’re down to less than three months left in 2018. What’s the biggest story of the year thus far?
April Ryan: These elections. I’m not even going to get into Stormy Daniels, Russia and Michael Cohen. I’m looking at how it took eight years for there to be a reaction to Barack Obama, which was Donald Trump, but less than two years for a reaction to Donald Trump, which are all these women and minorities running for major seats. This is huge! People want to fix a broken system, and they are definitely trying to figure out how.
It’s sad. We’re not viewed well around the nation, around the world. We’re playing a dangerous game with nations like North Korea and Russia. Our allies are no longer our real allies. Within the borders of our nation, the divide is terrible. The economy is good right now, but look at what’s happening with the tariffs and this trade war. It’s not looking good, and he wants to shut down the government for a wall? It goes on and on.
We are in a time of crisis with freedom of the press, global interaction and the economy that’s going to teeter over. What I’m shocked about is the inability and inaction of Republicans to check Trump. They’re afraid. Checks and balances are no more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There was a part in the book Under Fire where you said that you thought about quitting. Is that a legitimate possibility?
April Ryan: Not anymore. Not anymore. When Sean and I were tangling, I thought about it. But nope, because I see clearly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They view me as the enemy. Well, guess what? I fight back. But I fight back by doing my job. I fight back by giving accuracy in my reporting. I fight back by giving you facts. That’s how I fight back. By doing my job. I’m going to raise my hand and do my job.
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