CNN and TheGrio's April Ryan on Historic 25 Years Covering the White House — and 5 Presidents Up Close

From boogying with Al Gore to sitting down with George and Laura Bush in the bedroom of Air Force One to the "hell" of keeping up with Donald Trump

April Ryan
Apri Ryan and three presidents . Photo: April Ryan

In the 25 years that April Ryan has been covering the White House — now the longest-serving Black woman in the press corps — she has had plenty of encounters with whomever was in the West Wing at the time.

Some were good and some were bad, some were friendly, some were incidental and some were headline-making.

In September, for example, Ryan ran into President Joe Biden and after a jovial chat he promised her an interview. (She's still waiting.) Years before that, she taught Vice President Al Gore the "booty call" dance aboard Air Force Two ("He was not like the stuffy person who we see on camera," she remembers).

She has privately huddled aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush to view Hurricane Katrina's devastation and she was with Barack Obama during a trip to Africa.

Some of her most famous — or infamous — presidential experiences, however, were with Donald Trump, as when he ordered her to "sit down" after she asked a question at a press conference and later called her "nasty" and a "loser." Ryan, no shrinking violet, has likewise sparred with Trump aides over their behavior and denounced Trump himself for some of his incendiary comments.

This has been Ryan's professional life since the '90s, while she has worked as both a White House correspondent and Washington, D.C., bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and then TheGrio, which she joined last year. She is also an analyst for CNN.

"Five presidents call me by my first name," she tells PEOPLE in an interview marking her career milestone.

"Her impact is just enormous," says Jerry Lopes, the retired president of program operations of American Urban Radio Network, who hired Ryan in 1997.

A public show of support for Ryan upon her 25th anniversary in January highlighted this legacy, with Presidents Biden, Bill Clinton and Obama sending letters and tweets of congratulations.

"I was shocked," the 54-year-old says now of the praise. "It is so humbling."

Ryan was born and raised in Baltimore, where both of her working-class parents were "news junkies."

"They would listen to the news in the morning, afternoon, in the car, in the evening," she says. "When everybody was home, my father would watch Walter Cronkite. That was embedded in me."

She studied broadcast journalism at Morgan State University and was a radio DJ before moving to news. "I had a yearning to find out what was going on," she says. "I got a rush."

April Ryan
April Ryan. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

Ryan began her career as a radio reporter in Baltimore and Tennessee, which led to joining American Urban Radio Networks as its White House correspondent and D.C. bureau chief, with a focus on reporting for a primarily Black audience.

"Think about this," says Lopes, who was then her boss. "She's the eyes and ears of Black America."

No matter which party has been in power in the presidency, Ryan says, "I ask questions that impact an under-served community, and impact the world … I don't just ask about Black folks. I ask about everything."

April Ryan
April Ryan. Bill Pugliano/Getty

Ryan has used her position to raise the issues of Black farmers during the Clinton administration and the plight of hard-hit black residents of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina — and secured an interview with then-President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush on Air Force One en route to the hurricane's wreckage.

"President Bush says, 'Well, come back to the bedroom here. It's the quietest place on the airplane,' " recalls Lopes. "And so she's got Laura Bush on one side and the president on the other side, and she's sitting in the middle interviewing him, in the bedroom, on the Air Force One."

There were more lighthearted moments, too. In 1999, aboard Air Force Two on the way back from a trip to Africa, Vice President Gore made his way to the press area. Ryan had earlier seen him dancing and wasn't impressed.

"I said, 'You need to stop doing the Macarena,' " Ryan remembers now — and she proceeded to teach him the then-popular "booty call" line dance as several high-level Clinton officials looked on with humorous disbelief.

"Every time he jumped, the plane moved," she says, laughing. "I was like, 'Oh my God.' It was crazy."

April Ryan
April Ryan (right) and John Lewis. April Ryan

The Trump presidency shone a whole new spotlight on Ryan — for good and bad.

During a 2017 press conference, Trump asked Ryan if she could arrange a meeting for him with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. "It was just jaw-dropping," says Lopes. "She's like, 'Me set up?' You're the president of the United States. You could meet with anybody."

Another time Ryan asked Trump spokesman Sean Spicer questions about the administration's links to Russia. His replies — including the admonishment to Ryan to "stop shaking your head" — led to a rebuke from Hillary Clinton and the trending Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenatWork.

Undaunted, she continued over ensuing months to ask the administration questions, including if Trump had considered leaving office, and ended up receiving death threats.

"It was tough not knowing what the hell was going to come out of his mouth any day," she says, "because the hell that comes out of his mouth created hell all over the place."

But she kept working.

April Ryan
April Ryan and Barack Obama. April Ryan

"I was told by a very high-ranking Black Republican that they said they didn't know I was as formidable as I was," she says.

Out of safety concerns Ryan did move her family from their home. She says her oldest daughter, now a student at American University, developed post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience, a catalyst for the daughter's desire to become a psychologist.

When asked how all this has affected her, Ryan says: "I grew up with people who prayed for me, but I also grew up having to be strong."

Things are better now with the new administration, whose officials have made it a point — with some exceptions — to foster a more traditional rapport with the press.

"It's a friendly, adversarial relationship," Ryan says. "I am not here supporting a Democrat or a Republican. I'm here to ask the questions."

April Ryan
April Ryan and Joe Biden. April Ryan

"I did run into Joe Biden in September, I was shocked he couldn't recognize me," she says. "He said, 'Pull your mask off,' and I said, 'I'm not pulling my mask off for you.' So he popped his off and I popped mine off, too. He said, 'Oh, yeah.' We talked for a while. And we had a good conversation."

There have been some professional snafus: In 2019, another reporter accused one of Ryan's bodyguards of assaulting him while he was covering a keynote she gave. She said then that she had hired security because of ongoing threats but "I did not order anyone to do anything at that moment." Ryan said the guard may have "overreacted."

Over the years, Ryan has built a web of connections that give her scoops and high-level insights. "Washington is nothing but relationships," she says. "The biggest challenge has been breaking the ceiling for specialty media because I work for Black organizations. But when I put it out there, people go crazy over it. And they trust me."

Still, Ryan says, there is "that segment that just wants to look down on you because you're Black media. I don't carry it like Black media. I carry it like everybody media."

On top of her day job Ryan has published three books, The Presidency in Black and White, At Mama's Knee— Ryan, divorced, is a single mother of two teenage daughters — and Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House. Her fourth comes out in October: Black Women Will Save The World, a compilation of stories on efforts to uphold democracy.

April Ryan
April Ryan and Hillary Clinton. April Ryan

Ryan's life is more than just her job. She spends time caring for her kids and relaxing with old movies and reality shows including The Real Housewives of Atlanta and 90 Day Fiancé.

"I need mindless entertainment after being so engrossed in this crazy world of politics daily," she says.

And she gushes over the loving relationship she is in with a retired Naval officer, James. (The couple would prefer not to reveal his full name, to preserve his privacy). Ryan says they plan to marry in the next several years.

After they met in passing at a Baltimore airport, James pursued her for two years until she finally agreed to a date.

"He is a sweet man and he's gentle, he's kind, he's giving, he's very loving," Ryan says. "I was telling him, 'No, no, no, no.' I stopped one day and it was like he grabbed me and I was like, 'Oh my God,' and I've not regretted it."

James is smitten. "When we first went out for dinner, the entire time we were laughing and talking," says the 51-year-old dad of a daughter. "It was like somebody that you've known for a long time. I love being with her."

With marriage (and launching a homemade candle business) in the future, so too is Ryan's continued commitment to her work reporting on the White House.

"It''s just one of the most amazing things," she says, "to see it bloom and blossom."

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