They symbolize the test of covering a White House like none other, with a president who views the press as an enemy yet is accessible almost daily. A question may elicit a candid response, misdirection, falsehood or attack — you never know what's coming.
Trump has reacted to questions by Alcindor, Collins and Jiang by calling them nasty or racist, and effectively telling the journalists to pipe down. “How do you call out what's happening without making yourself the story, and refocus on what the public policy should be?” said Jessica Yellin, a former CNN White House reporter who now does a daily Instagram newcast. “It's incredibly challenging. They're showing us how it's done and figuring it out at the same time.”
The unexpected cooperation came during an outdoor news conference when Jiang, of CBS News, asked Trump why his claims that the United States tested more than any country mattered at a time people were dying of COVID-19.
Trump said that “maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me. Ask China that question.” He looked to move on but CNN’s Collins, in line to ask the next question, let the exchange play out.
Jiang — who was born in Xiamen, China, and emigrated with her family to West Virginia when she was 2 — wondered why the president directed that remark to her. Trump said he would say it to “anyone who asks a nasty question.”
He tried to wave off Collins and motion for the the next questioner — Alcindor. The PBS “NewsHour” correspondent waited as Collins tried to ask a question before Trump, apparently frustrated, called an end to the news conference.
Jiang later tweeted thanks to both Collins and Alcindor. It was a good example — not always common — of reporters working together to prevent a president from dodging a question, said Lynne Adrine, a former Washington news producer and now professor for Syracuse University.
Not everyone has the same perspective. Jiang was criticized for “grandstanding” and insinuating that Trump’s response to her question was racist. “Only a partisan hack could interpret Trump’s response as racist,” Kylee Zempel wrote in The Federalist. “The president routinely shuts down reporters who ask bogus questions, as he should.”
Two years earlier, when Alcindor asked Trump about nationalism, the president labeled the question racist. More recently, he objected during a coronavirus briefing when she prefaced a question about ventilators and masks by noting that he had said some governors didn't actually need equipment that they requested.
When he denied having said it, Alcindor said she quoted him from an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity. Trump said she should be more positive. Alcindor tried again to ask her question. “Excuse me, you didn’t hear me,” Trump said. “That’s why you used to work for the (New York) Times and now you work for somebody else. Look, let me tell you something. Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
She proceeded to ask her question. Alcindor, who, like the other White House reporters was not made available to the AP for an interview, later noted that she wasn’t the first human being, woman, black person or journalist who’d been told to be nice and not threatening.
Alcindor’s roots are in print journalism, and she covered Trump’s campaign for The New York Times. She joined PBS in 2018. “It should never be about me,” she said on “Pod Save America” earlier this year, “because I’m so focused on all the people in this country who will never see the White House, who will never get to speak to the president. And they deserve me to be professional and not lose my cool and to be so focused on the truth that I’m not wavering on anything else that goes on around me.”
CNN’s Collins pressed forward like an automaton in a recent exchange with Trump about a whistleblower's accusations. She completed her question on the fifth try despite Trump’s attempt to stop her. “CNN is fake news. Don’t talk to me,” he said.
“I watch them and I say, ‘these women are smart and they’re stoic, and they're asking questions that the public wants answers to,'” said Jill Geisler, a professor on media and leadership at Loyola University in Chicago. “They're not there to start a scene.”
Collins, who came to CNN from the conservative website Daily Caller in 2017, has been tested repeatedly. The administration barred her from an outdoor news conference in 2018 and last month to force her into a seat in the back of the White House briefing room. She wouldn’t budge.
This week she responded to Trump's critical retweet of a video that showed her removing a mask while leaving a news briefing by tweeting, “Nearly 90,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus, and the president is tweeting about me pulling my mask down for six seconds.”
A response that attacks rather than defends is dangerous, however. Taking the bait — and becoming known for hostile exchanges with a president — can make a reporter a hero to some and a less effective showboater to others.
“There's something unique about the way television reporters try to create moments that they can use on the air,” said Trump's first press secretary, Sean Spicer. “You don't see this problem with print reporters because, generally speaking, they're not going to get on the air.”
He senses reporters trying to prove themselves to colleagues. “A reporter's job is to get information and to hold people accountable,” Spicer said. “They don't have to be jackasses about it.” Trump's current press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did not respond to a request for comment.
“It's a reporter's job to do what they need to do get answers and it's a president's job to try and remain above the fray if he wants to deliver his message,” said Nedra Pickler, a former White House correspondent for The Associated Press. “This president doesn't live by those rules.”
Jiang, Collins and Alcindor aren't the only reporters to tangle with Trump. CNN's Jim Acosta has turned his experiences into a book. Some believe Trump is particularly angered by tough questions from women and minorities. Spicer disagrees, noting Trump's respect for Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
“The president is a fighter,” Jiang told Syracuse University students recently. “Certain reporters I think get under his skin more than others, and you just have to be aware that you could be one of those that day.”