Jake Turx is the White House correspondent for Ami—a publication with international distribution in the Jewish community. In spite of his after-hours persona as a humorist and satirist, Lakewood Neighbors asked Turx, a Lakewood resident, to field a few serious questions about his national vantage point in the Trump White House.
LN: You’re the person from the Orthodox community who literally has the closest proximity to the Trump administration. Would that be right?
Turx: I do have the opportunity to see the president a few times a week. There are many times that he takes questions away from cameras. Just to add a tiny little nuance, there’s always been this feeling within Orthodox Judaism that media was not our friend, and that the media was out to get us. For a lot of people, this is a barrier that has been broken and as an Orthodox Jew in the White House who is accepted as one of the peers by the press corps is something that is more groundbreaking than just a novelty.
LN: How did you find yourself working in the White House?
Turx: It’s actually a story that starts with a bar mitzvah gift that I received when I was 13. It was a signed letter by President Clinton in honor of my bar mitzvah which I received from a fellow synagogue attendee where I used to pray. He was someone who happened to be very well-connected politically, so he got President Clinton to sign 50 such letters on official presidential White House stationery and would give them out to all the bar mitzvah boys he knew personally. This was something that developed, a bond between myself and himself. Every once in a while, I’d call him up, and we would talk politics. In the 2012 primaries he was very close to Newt (Gingrich) and was able to arrange an interview. I managed to get all of the Republican candidates in 2012, and from there I realized there was a niche that needed to be fulfilled. I never looked back and here we are.
LN: It seems like quite a leap from covering political candidates to being a regular in the White House press room. How did that happen? How did you apply? How did that work?
Turx: So the really maddening thing about the process of becoming accredited to the White House is that there is no process. There’s no one to talk to, there’s no board. For some people, it could take a relatively short time and other people could try for years and years and not get through. It’s all about playing small ball over an extended period of time. I did first apply two years before I totally got approved, and that’s when I started trying to feel my way through the process. By the time the Trump administration came in, I had already gone through enough of the stages with the Obama people that we were able to complete the process with the Trump administration.
LN: Do you have a permanent seating assignment? How is seating in the pressroom determined?
Turx: There are two different things—the Briefing Room and press conferences. The Briefing Room is rather small and that’s the first thing everybody remarks on when visiting the briefing room for the first time— it’s a lot smaller than it appears on TV. There are 49 seats but about 90 reporters who are there on a regular basis. So the 49 seats obviously are not adequate enough for all 90, sometimes as many as 120. For those seats, there is a waiting list. There are rotations. Some seats work under rotations. There are times that I can get on rotations and there has been a stretch of a few weeks where I was able to get a seat, but that is not permanent. For press conferences, every approved outlet does have a permanent seat, though not always in the same position. The seats do shift around for every press conference.
LN: Would you say it’s important to build a personal relationship with the press secretary?
Turx: Some of them (longtime White House journalists) will say never engage personally with a press secretary because that will make you appear desperate. Others will say if you don’t have a personal relationship then the press secretary may not feel you’re committed enough. Everyone has their own understanding of what works for them without anybody knowing anything conclusively.
LN: Do you think the relationship with the press has changed in this administration?
Turx: I can’t really speak about any personal experiences with the Obama administration. I had only been to the White House a handful of times under Obama, so I don’t have any personal knowledge on this. What I can tell you is based on my Interviews with Sean Spicer, the former press secretary, the current press secretary, Sarah Sanders, and former communications director, (Anthony) Scaramucci is that the dynamic has shifted.
It used to be that half the briefing room—half the seats—would be empty, and it wouldn’t be carried live on the cable TV. Now, people schedule their lunch break around when the briefing is going to take place. It’s become more of a sport—a way for particular individuals to go viral and to gain either fame and notoriety online.
And so everything changes, it’s not about trying to get information. The substance is still something we can receive in either off-the-record conversations or background briefings.
LN: What was your best day on the job so far?
Turx: The first thing that comes to mind would have to be seeing my children interact with the president—seeing them have the courage to ask the president questions and actually getting responses from him. It was just a few months ago, in 2018 for Take Our Daughter and Sons to Work Day. Their autographed hats, their credentials—which they still display in their rooms—is something that fills me with pride just knowing that they had that opportunity, and that they were able to be articulate and confident. I think that was probably the greatest moment.