Confessions of an 'Enemy of the People:' Covering Trump's Washington
First of all, I want to thank the Lowy Institute and all of you for giving us a great excuse to get out of Washington. As you can see we're willing to travel thousands and thousands of miles to escape the news cycle.
Just the other day, President Trump was asked, on the occasion of American Thanksgiving, what he was thankful for. This is not meant to be a tough question. It's a throwaway. But not for Trump. He quickly responded that he was grateful for… wait for it: himself, telling the interviewer that he was giving thanks this year for "having made a tremendous difference in this country. I've made a tremendous difference in the country."
And in a way of course it's true. I would even venture to say we journalists have some things to thank Trump for, like more readers, more viewers and a lot more clarity about our mission.
So what's it like to be covering Trump's Washington? Well, one thing that must be said is that it's exhausting. By 8 o'clock in the morning many days I'm ready to go back to bed. The most dreaded phrase in our lives these days is "in a series of early-morning tweets." And I imagine that's even more true for the presidential aides in the White House who actually have to deal with the consequences of what we now call the President's "Executive Time."
I have to admit that some of this extraordinary disruption of American politics is in fact sort of entertaining; it's not all texting with the Deep State and worrying about the death of the liberal world order. What can you do when life imitates the TV series Veep except laugh? There was one whole scandal a while back involving First Lady Melania Trump's wearing of a snarky jacket with the slogan "I don't care, do u?" written on it – which she chose to wear while she was going to visit some of the child migrants her husband's government had torn away from their parents. At first her office denied that she had worn the jacket on purpose. Only months later did they admit it was true – while claiming the intended target of the insult was not the poor kids, but us evil journalists.
Laugh or cry, it's fair to say that much is surreal about covering life in Trump's Washington, which we journalists often experience as an endless series of conversations about subjects we never thought we'd be debating. "Civility" is apparently controversial in American politics today, on both the right and the left. So are "facts." So is the First Amendment.
Outrage fatigue is not a clinically defined medical condition, but if it were, all of us journalists in Washington – and an awful lot of regular people too – would be suffering from it. Trump Derangement Syndrome is an actual phrase you hear a lot these days, although befitting the polarized times in the United States no one can quite agree upon the precise definition. Many argue that ninety percent of the Republican Party, once a bastion of Russia-bashing free-traders whose leaders called Donald Trump a "kook" and a "liar" wholly unsuited to be president, is suffering from it. But in the crazy inverse logic of the times, the most common usage comes from President Trump and his allies themselves, who believe that we journalistic "enemies of the people" and our ideological fellow travelers in the Democratic Party are suffering from the disease, which they define as an unhealthy obsession with what the unconventional 45th President of the United States actually says and does.
Still, it's fair to say this: Donald Trump is in our heads, all of our heads, pretty much all of the time. Back in the day in Washington, us policy wonks used to pore over congressional hearing transcripts and meet secret sources in the effort to find out about the latest Afghanistan policy review. Now we read the Presidential twitter feed while still in our pajamas and refer back to his seminal 1990 interview with Playboy magazine as a sacred text guiding us to his foreign policy beliefs. (Seriously. Did you know Trump was complaining about "being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies" even back then? Germany and Japan and NATO: watch out.)
During the 2016 campaign when I was the editor of Politico, I coined the term "Trumpology" to cover the formerly obscure study of this eccentric New York billionaire. At the time I more or less thought it was a joke. Boy, was I wrong.
We are all Trumpologists now. And I thought I'd share a few insights with you tonight gleaned from the last few years of intensive Trumpology.
Point number one actually comes from that Playboy interview among other sources: biography is destiny with Trump, and everything you need to know about him (ok, ALMOST everything you need to know about him) you could have learned in 1990. Trump, as one of his many biographers, Gwenda Blair, put it on the eve of his presidential inauguration, "is the same old Trump." Studying his business lies and failures; his fantastical claims and multiple bankruptcies; the way he became famous for saying "You're fired" while actually preferring to have others do the deed for him… I could go on. The Donald Trump who has gotten inside all of our heads is the same Donald Trump he's always been. Don't expect him to change; he won't.
Trump is a temperamental, insecure, narcissistic 72-year-old addicted to watching television, eating cheeseburgers, and insulting people who dare to challenge him. He is not going to suddenly up and reform himself. I remember once meeting Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who ran against him – then became a Trump confidant. In my view he's one of the most reliable of the Trumpologists. Christie was listening to a few of us fellow pundits theorize about Trump's latest wacky moves. There is no "Machiavellian" grand plan, Christie said. "There is no strategy." With Trump, there never is.
That said, he is also now President of the United States, and studying obscure episodes of the Apprentice or scouring back issues of Playboy can only get you so far in figuring out whether a nuclear deal looms with North Korea or just what to expect from the next round of trade negotiations. (Though I should say that it is clearly a pretty reliable guide – I was recently told on good authority that reading the Playboy interview and watching episodes of the Apprentice is exactly what German Chancellor Angela Merkel did to prepare for her first meeting with Trump, though it's also true that meeting didn't go particularly well.)
At any rate, here are a few additional corollaries for Trumpologists seeking to navigate Trump's presidency. This first one is the most important of my observations from the last few years and I can't emphasize it enough: The Trump Presidency is not a reality show. It is real.
Yes, Trump is a showman. Yes, he's a huckster, a manipulator, and at times even a communications genius. He is both the star and the director of his own drama. But the thing I've learned that is most important, and most counterintuitive, is that Trump expects and relies upon us not taking him seriously – and yet in the end, in doing so, the joke is on us. By treating Trump as merely the cartoonish producer of a political reality show, we risk turning a great democracy into a passive audience. For nearly two years now, many of Trump's enablers have told us essentially to never mind: the adults are in the room, it's all just a big joke Trump has with his base and even they aren't really taken in by it. Forget the tweets, pay attention to the policy. Everything's going to be ok. Don't take him seriously. Don't take him literally.
My advice is: Don't listen to those peddling such advice. Take him seriously – and literally.
Trump's tweets and words have often proven to be a surer guide to his actions than heeding what his advisers tell us. Trump famously doesn't listen to them; why should we? Think of the long list of serious actions that have followed Trump's frequently dismissed words: pulling out of the Paris climate accords, blowing up the Iran nuclear deal, launching a trade war with China. Many US allies wasted the better part of Trump's first year in office believing he would never follow through on that rhetoric. They were wrong. "The President's tweets don't define policy," no less an authority than the US Secretary of State told us at one point earlier this year, amid one of many rounds of uncertainty about just what is the US policy toward North Korea. A month later, Rex Tillerson was fired – by tweet. Proving that if nothing else Trump's twitter feed defines policy toward his Secretary of State.
These days, I often hear from those involved with America's policy toward Russia, for example, that everything is going just fine – America actually has a tougher policy toward Putin's territorial aggression than President Obama, they argue, citing the positioning of more U.S. and allied troops in Eastern Europe, arms sales to Ukraine, and continued imposition of sanctions. They are not wrong: America these days may well have a tough policy toward Russia. But Donald Trump himself doesn't doesn't. Those same reassurers stutter and look away when asked about Trump's sycophantic Helsinki press conference with Vladimir Putin, or about his denial of Russian meddling in our 2016 election, or when reminded that the US sanctions remain in place because of a 98 to 2 vote in the US Congress – on a bill that Trump wanted to veto. As a journalist, I'd say beware of any analysis of the President of the United States which requires you to ignore the actual President of the United States.
Which goes to another important point: Trump has now been president for nearly two years. There is a reality being created to accompany Trump's words. He may not have built an actual Wall yet, for example, (nor will he – Trumpology demands a realistic assessment of the impediments in the way of Trump, and Mexico is never, ever going to pay for the Wall no matter how many times Trump says that it will), but Trump's administration has changed policy toward immigration in a dramatic way that is very much in keeping with his inflammatory rhetoric. And by all accounts Trump himself is constantly pushing his staff to do even more in this direction. No other President would have separated thousands of small children from their families, penned them up in cages, lied about it, sort of ripped up the policy after a public outrcy – and then campaigned on how tough he was on immigration after all. This is not a show; it's actually happening. In the United States of America.
This leads to my next piece of Trumpology: the paradox of this most paradoxical President is that much of what he does is shocking but very little of it is surprising. He is oddly predictable in his unpredictability.
A fake "invasion" of the US at its southern border and a military deployment of thousands of American soldiers to combat the fake invasion – over the apparent objection of the military itself, it's shocking. A war of words between the President and the Chief Justice of the United States? Also shocking. Publicly dumping on his own intelligence services when they produce a conclusion he doesn't agree with. Shocking. Demanding that the Justice Department investigate his rivals. Appointing an acting Attorney General whose very presence in the job is very likely both a) unconstitutional and b) designed explicitly to shut down or otherwise hinder an investigation of the President himself. Shocking. And that's just this week.
But none of it is surprising. It's all very Trump.
Which leads to one of the biggest dilemmas of the Trump era for spectators and participants alike: How to preserve the sense of outrage where it is warranted when there is so very much happening that is shocking? The confusion, the chaos – it all seems to be part of Trump's design.
The historian Doug Brinkley recently said that President Trump is like a "bull in a china shop – who carries the china shop with him." George Conway, a conservative lawyer who has become an outspoken critic of President Trump's – despite the fact that his wife Kellyanne Conway was Trump's campaign manager and is now his White House counselor (I wonder how the Thanksgiving dinner table conversation went in that family!) – recently gave an interview in which he memorably described the Trump presidency as a "shit show in a dumpster fire." I'm not sure about the exact metaphor in this case, but you get the point: Trump is the only politician any of us have ever seen who seeks to distract us from one disaster by creating a new one. And this now seems to happen multiple times a day.
There is much journalistic soul-searching on this point: If Trump is seeking to distract us, do we merely play into his hands by readily getting outraged by whatever new outrage he has ginned up for us? So many scandals, so little time.
In the weeks before the midterm elections, Trump turned the issue of the migrant "caravan" into a front-page story; "that is an assault on our country," he said. Fox News endlessly and breathlessly talked about it as if America was soon to be overwhelmed by invading hordes. Even the New York Times and the Washington Post devoted endless stories to it – both debunking Trump's patently ridiculous claims, and analyzing the political results the President was hoping to achieve by terrifying his voters into actually caring about a fake invasion.
Then the election happened and the coverage disappeared. The President obsessed with his pretend national security threat simply dropped it. In this insane scenario, who is the fool: the demagogue who made up an issue, or those who sought to call him on it, but in so doing devoted endless hours to debating and discussing exactly the thing he wanted them to be talking about?
When all of this is done and over with, the fake midterm election invasion scare of 2018 is something I think and expect that I will remember: I'll think of the picture I saw right before election day of a mass of young soldiers in their combat fatigues and bulletproof vests at the border, political props and looking very unhappy about it. And I'll think of the quote from a retired accountant in Minnesota, who told the New York Times that the President was right to focus on this growing threat. "What's to stop them?" she said. "We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied." Yes, Trump convinced this woman that the migrants, thousands of miles away to the south, on foot, are coming to take Minnesotans' lake houses. I am just obsessed with this poor woman. Has anyone called her back since the election?
We all know this third and finally corollary of Trumpology, but it bears repeating:
The White House assault on the truth with stories like the fake caravan invasion is not an accidental byproduct of an unusual president: it is intentional. The flood of Presidential lying is both a reflection of Trump's increasingly unbound presidency and a signal attribute of it. I am quite sure that whatever else comes out of the Trump presidency, twenty years from now he will be remembered as the most untruthful person ever to have served as President of the United States. And yes I am aware that Richard Nixon was also the President, and that he too lied a lot.
We journalists are both wise to Trump's act, and nonetheless complicit in it. We have figured out how to fact-check Trump and even on live television these days the anchors rarely let a presidential untruth go unchallenged. But no matter how many Pinocchios the Washington Post Fact Checker awards to Trump's latest whopper, he keeps on lying, and it keeps on, in a way, working for him.
This goes all the way back to the very first day of his presidential campaign, when Trump shocked everyone by riding down the escalator in Trump Tower and declaring that he was running for president in part because of immigrant hordes threatening to overrun the United States and singling out in particular Mexicans who were "rapists." The lesson learned by Trump was not that saying shocking, untrue, and arguably racist things about immigrants was politically dangerous but that doing so helped him become President. "Remember I made that speech, and I was badly criticized? 'Oh, it's so terrible, what he said,' " he told the audience at one of his pre-election rallies this fall. "Turned out I was a hundred per cent right. That's why I got elected."
What responsibility do we as journalists have for this mess? I know that self-flagellation is a popular journalistic sport, but in my view it's not that we haven't covered Trump aggressively or done our jobs. And I believe this was true even before the 2016 election: Look at the pile of tough books and articles about Trump, at all the disturbing facts on the record before a single voter went to the polls. Trump wasn't elected because journalism failed, or because we somehow hadn't let the American public know just what kind of a man he was. Trump was elected despite our coverage, not because of the lack of it, whatever its many and real inadequacies.
As journalists, our religion is a belief in transparency, in the notion that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But the Trump presidency is a daily reminder that our creed may not be all that we thought it was: in Trump, we have much transparency and no accountability. Every day, every single day, I see journalists asking themselves: What do we do now? And there are no easy answers.
A number of years ago, in what now seems like a quaint and distant era, I was based in Moscow as a reporter for the Washington Post during the first few years of Putin's presidency. We had little idea at the time that he was bound to become the longest serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin (a title he claimed last year) but already an increasingly clear sense that Russia's fragile emerging democracy was quickly turning out to be not much of a democracy at all under the assertive new policies of the former KGB operative in the Kremlin.
A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I went to a conference in Moscow at which the political reformer Grigory Yavlinsky was asked about the future of this democracy under Putin. He told an old Soviet anekdot in response, about an ambulance that goes to pick up a patient. At some point, the patient notices that the ambulance is headed right past the hospital. Where are we going, he demands of the driver? To the morgue, answers the driver. "But I'm not dead," the patient shouts. "Well, we're not there yet," the driver answers.
At the time Yavlinsky told that joke, the Russian patient wasn't dead yet. He is now. Putinism has won in Russia for the foreseeable future; democracy is over. The joke is no longer funny.
In February of 2017, just weeks into his tenure as President of the United States, Donald Trump called the press "the enemies of the people." This of course was precisely the term that Stalin used as a death sentence to condemn millions to his gulags. In Russian: Vrag naroda. A flood of criticism greeted Trump's use of the phrase. Which is exactly why he has used the term again and again and again ever since. He wants us to be the opposition party, the resistance, the enemy.
Just last week, after going to court to remove a CNN journalist from his White House press room, an unrepentant Trump tweeted that the press is in fact "the True enemy of the people." You could say the system worked, that our checks and balances two years in to the Trump presidency, remain intact, and point out that the judge – a Trump appointee no less – stopped Trump from going through with his plan.
Or you could worry, as I do. At the time I laughed at the joke about the ambulance driver and democracy, it never occurred to me that when I heard it in the future, the country I would think of was not Russia, but America.