With a new plane, Clinton courts media on the campaign trail

Credit: Andrew Harnik

Credit: Andrew Harnik

NEW YORK — When Hillary Clinton arrived at her brand-new campaign plane, she greeted crew members, climbed aboard and then made a surprise move: a beeline to the dozens of journalists seated in the back.

"Hey guys!" Clinton told members of the media as they awaited takeoff. "Welcome to our big plane! It's so exciting." The Democratic presidential nominee promised she'd be back later to take questions, adding she was "so happy to have all of you with me. I've been just waiting for this moment."

For months, Clinton broke with campaign tradition and flew separately from the reporters who follow her around the country, drawing criticism along the way for a roughly nine-month streak of avoiding any kind of formal news conference.

Since the Monday arrival of her new blue-and-white Boeing 737 plane — dubbed "Hill Force One" — Clinton has ventured from her seat up front to the back four times, twice taking questions from reporters during trips to Ohio, Illinois and Florida.

Then, on Thursday morning, she gave a full-fledged press conference on the tarmac, her new plane serving as a backdrop as she fielded seven questions on topics ranging from foreign policy and the positions of her GOP rival, Republican Donald Trump.

Clinton's campaign disputes the suggestion she had been dodging the media, arguing the former secretary of state has conducted more than 300 interviews this year. But her past reluctance to take questions from a freewheeling pack of traveling journalists — commonplace in presidential politics — has fueled criticism about her relatability and provided ammunition to Republicans and Trump, who have accused her of hiding to avoid scrutiny.

For most of the campaign, Clinton has largely kept her traveling press corps at a distance, choosing instead to sit for one-on-one interviews with local and national broadcasters, to call into cable TV shows, appear on podcasts and talk with new media websites. Clinton, for example, plans to make a repeat appearance on the popular daytime TV talk show "Ellen" next week during a fundraising trip to California.

"The public should expect to see and hear from her very often, but the national press corps may be disappointed in how much they're involved in that communication," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. "One could argue that Barack Obama talks to more voters when he's on the Jimmy Fallon show than he does when he talks to CNN."

Clinton's campaign had signaled that she would make herself more available to reporters as the November election approaches, and her decision to "gaggle" — as the onboard Q&As are known on the trail — allows her to quickly respond to Trump from 30,000 feet.

"It's her opportunity to continue to frame the message, to own the conversation," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton campaign aide. "As opposed to letting it all happen on his timeframe and his playing field."

It comes after a late summer period in which Clinton largely stayed out of public view, raising money to bankroll her fall campaign. It also follows a more disciplined stretch from Trump, who has commanded extensive cable TV coverage of his campaign. Trump also travels apart from reporters, although he invited some onboard Monday for a gaggle and short flight, and said he may do so again. On Wednesday, he also lifted the ban on reporters from some outlets covering his events.

Kicking off the Labor Day holiday, Clinton greeted the journalists covering her on Monday and Tuesday before departure and then returned for gaggles that covered about 20 to 25 minutes apiece.

The questions from reporters have ranged from the FBI's inquiry into her use of a private email server, the Clinton Foundation, Russia's role in the election, Clinton's health, the future of Syria and Obama's recent trip to Asia.

Asked about a coughing fit in Cleveland, Clinton said she suffered from seasonal allergies and had increased her dosage of antihistamines. When a reporter asked what she thought of Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway's comment that Clinton was "allergic to the media," Clinton said of Trump, "I'm allergic to him."

Yet some of the exchanges got complicated.

On Tuesday night, as Clinton traveled from Florida to suburban New York, reporters tried to invite her into another pastime of the campaign plane: rolling an orange down the aisle with a question written on it.

In black ink, the question asked Clinton if she would rather have dinner with Trump or Putin. After the orange reached the front cabin, Clinton's traveling press secretary, Nick Merrill, rolled it back to the press with the word "Putin" circled.

But the answer wasn't so simple. Merrill later clarified that Clinton had not put the circle on the orange, he had. And he said it only meant that Clinton had dined with Putin in the past, not that she preferred a meal with Putin over Trump.