Axios’ Jonathan Swan explains what the press gets wrong about the Trump administration
People in Trump’s West Wing are not always “running around with their hair on fire,” Swan says in this conversation with the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman.
“I don’t think that he is in this constant state of steam coming out of his ears at all,” Swan said on the latest episode of Recode Media. “In fact, the opposite. Like when I talk to people who have spent time with him in the private dining room, he’s usually very relaxed.”
“And can be very charming, which surprises people,” added Haberman, who was guest-hosting for Peter Kafka.
Swan also dismissed the “chaos in the West Wing” type of story, saying that “unless you’re in the room with Trump when he’s riffing,” people are not “running around with their hair on fire.” What may read as chaos in a story about the White House is a more sedate confusion about how President Trump does things unexpectedly, and without going through the processes that other presidents might.
“I think the other thing that is sort of wrong is like, ‘What are they saying in the West Wing about Russia?’” Swan said — and Haberman agreed. “It’s like, they don’t talk about it. I mean, the idea that they’re all sitting around going, ‘Oh, is Manafort gonna …’ That’s just not something that is discussed.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Maggie’s conversation with Jonathan.
Maggie Haberman: This is Recode Media from the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m Maggie Haberman, in for Peter Kafka. I’m a reporter at the New York Times, but I’m here today at the Axios studios in Washington, D.C., to talk to Jonathan Swan. He’s the national political reporter for Axios. Jonathan, welcome to Recode Media.
Jonathan Swan: Hi, Maggie.
Hi, Jonathan. Thanks for having me here.
Thanks for having me on your show.
On my guest episode?
I’d like to just jump in generally to get your thoughts, several weeks after the midterms, two years into President Trump’s administration. And I should just note for people listening that you are one of the reporters who I follow closely. You are one of the people whose work I most admire, and who I think has really captured this White House in a way that few others have. So knowing that, can you talk a bit about what you anticipate from the White House for the first six months of 2019?
Well, just to pull back slightly, I think we’re at a pretty pivotal moment right now for the president. If you look in the rearview mirror, the stuff he’s accomplished is not nothing. I mean, he’s passed a big tax bill, and he’s done a ton of deregulation. He’s confirmed two Supreme Court Justices and a lot of judicial nominees. That’s all in the bucket of conventional Republican president, any other Republican president would’ve pursued those goals.
But the two goals that are definitional Trump goals, which is to change China’s behavior and to build the wall, they were two issues that defined him as a politician. He’s in a really tough spot right now. He’s kicked the can down the road on both issues. He’s signed a short-term continuing resolution to defer the shutdown fight over the wall. And he’s had this dinner with President Xi in Buenos Aires on the weekend, which resulted in, effectively, a 90-day ceasefire of this trade war and this confusing mess of competing statements that came out of both camps afterwards.
So there’s a huge TBD next to these two issues. And I find it very hard to see how he gets the money to pay for his wall. And I find it very hard to see how he gets China to do any of the really big important stuff, like change their industrial theft practices and these issues that are really, really systemic. So the question then becomes: Okay, if Trump can’t get those things done, and then he has Mueller coming down his neck, Democrats taking over the House and a blizzard of subpoenas, and a wobbly stock market, how does he respond to all of those pressures?
And based on what you have seen historically, what’s your best guess? Not that we should use our crystal ball too often.
But do you expect that he has it in him to modulate some of his own behavior, or do you think it’ll be some continuation of what we have seen in recent days with the muddled messaging on China?
I don’t think he thinks it’s in his best interest to modulate. I mean, he even basically said that to us when we talked to him a few weeks ago. We said, “You keep calling the press the enemy of the people. You know that that could have consequences, that crazy people could actually …” I think Jim even said someone could die?
And Trump said, “My people like it. I go to the crowds and that’s what they like.” You take the wall as an example. There were advisers telling him, “Please talk about the economy”; Republicans on the Hill, “Please talk about the economy.” And Trump would say, “When I talk about the economy, people get bored.” They want to hear about these inflammatory issues and these really hardcore base issues.
So I don’t think he sees it in his political interest to modulate. And I expect that he would respond in the way he usually does, which is by picking a foil, which will probably be a Democrat or maybe even an establishment Republican, and hammering them in a pretty savage way; blaming others, lashing out, and creating the idea for his base that he’s fighting for them and being foiled by XYZ bogeymen.
Don’t you think, though — and I agree with you that I think that’s generally how he approaches it — but in the bundle of internal contradictions that is Donald Trump, don’t you think there is also a side of him that is serious when he says, or means it when he’s saying it, that he would like to find common cause with Nancy Pelosi, who I think he likes, much more than people, and certainly more than his base, would expect.
I think there are moments where that’s true, and then there are moments when it’s false. You know?
Like what might be true at 9:30 a.m. can become false by 11 a.m. if he sees something that creates cognitive dissonance. So yeah, I think that’s true. I think he would love, particularly, to have building projects being erected all around the country with “The Trump Administration” in gold lettering on them. And, frankly, my understanding is that he actually prefers the Democratic approach to building infrastructure than his own … I was told by someone that he referred to the infrastructure plan as “Gary’s plan.” That’s his own administration’s infrastructure plan, which is public-private partnerships.
Trump is much more in favor of large, federal spending, which is the Democratic approach. But he’s also said, to take that whole thing of what’s true at 9 a.m. is not true at 11 a.m., he also has said, “If you guys investigate me, you can go to hell. I’m not doing any legislating with you.” So, yes, maybe there is … He likes Nancy Pelosi on a personal level. I just don’t know how much that matters. Because as soon as Elijah Cummings and these new chairmen start investigating Trump, I just think he goes into the warpath.
You raise one thing, one of the key aspects of covering this man and this White House, which is that what is true in one moment is not true in another moment. And I think that as reporters, we have all faced challenges with that.
So I want you to talk a bit, since this is a media podcast, a little bit about your approach to covering him. And then we can get into some specific stories. So for instance, when we were covering the campaign at the Times, my then-colleague Ashley Parker and I, and Alex Burns, who we covered a lot of these stories with, we would come up with sort of a common thread of fact; that it had to be that multiple sources confirmed one basic thing, and then everything else would fall off to the wayside; and that we would hedge things in ways we never had before. Because until he actually announced, it wasn’t necessarily true. And even if he does announce it, it’s not necessarily true.
What are the moments that stand out to you as moments that you’re … Well first, let me ask you, why don’t you talk about your approach to making sure that what you have can withhold scrutiny? Because we all have this problem in this White House. And then what are the moments that you think have held up? What are the moments that you would take back?
It’s a really good question, and I’m still learning and adapting. So, the first thing I do, just as a general principle, is if I’m told something by a senior administration official, I assume it’s false until proven otherwise. And I’ve just had to take that approach.
I’m now hedging in a way that is almost comical. So like, I recently broke the story that Trump had settled on Pat Cipollone for his White House Counsel. And when I wrote that story, I think I published it on a Saturday afternoon, I knew that Pat Cipollone … The fact I had was that Pat Cipollone had started filling out his paperwork. So I didn’t write … My lead sentence wasn’t … you know, I could pull it up now … but it wasn’t, “Donald Trump has decided …” It was, I literally wrote, “Pat Cipollone has begun filling out his paperwork for this,” because I knew that that was a fact.
The sentence, “Donald Trump has decided …” I made a big mistake early on. My story was correct. I broke the story that he was pulling out of the Paris climate deal. But I made the big mistake of saying, “Donald Trump has decided,” because, yes, he told people he decided. But then after I published my story he spoke to a White House official and he said, “What do you think I should do?”
But it doesn’t mean he hasn’t made up his mind. He’s just always polling people, even … I knew that they were scheduling the event for the next day. The speech was written. They were calling surrogates. All of these things were happening in the afternoon, so it wasn’t correct to say, “He’s on the fence.” But you need to find new language. Because there is no such thing as, “Donald Trump has decided.” It’s not a verb that you can almost use with this guy. Because he loves to create misdirection. He loves to keep flexibility open. And he loves to reverse himself. So it’s very, very challenging.
Another recent example: I broke a story that Nikki Haley was resigning as U.N. Ambassador. And I knew that it was right. I knew, I had incredibly good sourcing on it, and I knew it was happening. I still felt this little thing in my stomach when we published. I was like, “Shit, maybe this guy’s going to screw me.” You know, “Maybe he’s going to pull the rug out and say, ‘Guess what? It’s not happening. She’s U.N. Ambassador for life,’” or something. So it’s nerve-racking. And I’ve started to find ways to hedge that I would probably never do in any normal circumstance.
Should we all be approaching reporting him differently? You and I both know that this is the case, in terms of what he does to our stories, to the fact that …
Because you left out one thing that he likes do, too. It’s not just misdirection. He also likes to embarrass reporters.
Oh, yeah. No doubt.
He likes to create situations where he can say, “You got it wrong.”
Do we all have an obligation to present this differently? Or don’t we? Look, I have received intense criticism. You’ve received intense criticism. Do you think that some of that criticism is valid and that we all have a responsibility to be different in our approach?
I do, to some extent. I think the basics of reporting don’t change. But I think when you have a situation where, like, I literally don’t think you can write a sentence — “Donald Trump has decided” — that, by definition, is a different type of approach. I also think that he does try to pit reporters against each other. There’s no doubt about that. One thing I like to do, as a sort of — because it does create, or exacerbates, distrust in the media, what he does — is that when there is a report that he says at the time is fake news and then turns out to be 100 percent accurate, I do like to point that out, to remind people.
I remember one that stands out was, you wrote a piece about Michael Cohen, that actually … This was not the coziest, most perfect relationship that’s ever existed. And at the time, Trump was like, “complete fake news,” trying to pit him against him. And now Michael Cohen poses probably one of the biggest threats to his presidency, and feels a sense of personal betrayal and vengeance. So we need to both call it out when we see it; but then also remind people when the reporting stands up, and his initial comments about it, false.
I appreciate you reminding people on that specific story. And, yes, I think we all need to sometimes remind people what has held up. I want to speak a little more specifically about you, and then I want to talk a bit more about your personal experiences with Donald Trump. But for those who are listening, who might not have been familiar with your work three years ago before you were where you are, talk a bit about your history covering D.C., how you got to this seat.
So I’m from Australia, as you probably can tell.
What? No, sorry.
You hid that so well. So, thank you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
No, I’ve been trying to hide it. Look, I come from a fairly traditional background, reporting background.
Describe for people what that means.
Well so my first job, ever, was … I think I was 15 or 16 …
Your first news job?
… was a copy boy in what was then the Sun Herald, which was a Sunday tabloid. And I used to do, it was called “Police Rounds.” So I used to sit up — I don’t even know if they do this anymore, they actually don’t. They certainly, at the Sun Herald, they don’t do it anymore.
Well wait, before you go further though, explain to people what a copy boy is because a lot of people don’t know.
A copy boy is a gopher. You basically do whatever the hell the editor shouts at you, or the journalist. You fetch, you fetch things, you get them coffee, you get them dinner. I remember one time, on my knees, cleaning under desks and being abused by some crotchety old cooking editor. So you do all the stuff that no one wants to do.
But part of it was, which I ended up doing, was something called “Police Rounds,” which was — they don’t do it anymore — but used to sit up in this room. It was this stuffy little room. And it was like six different police scanners from all around Sydney. And you’re basically listening in on cops talking as they’re driving around, and so you’re hearing for what’s happening.
So it’s mostly very boring. It’s like, you know, just general conversation, but every now and again it’ll be, you know, “Oh, there’s a break-in at whatever and we’re on our way.” And your job is then, it’s like an early detector, basically. You hear something that’s newsworthy. You call down to the news desk and get them onto it, get their police reporters onto it.
So you would sit in there for eight hours and it was almost like it would send you crazy. So I did that through high school and college.
How many days a week were you in there? How many days a week were you doing that?
Oh, it was just weekends. Just weekends. I was at school, but then at university a little bit more than that. But I actually didn’t want to be a journalist.
What did you want to be?
I didn’t know. The reason I didn’t want to be a journalist was because my dad’s a journalist, my aunt’s a journalist. My aunt’s a crime reporter, my uncle’s a crime reporter, my dad’s a health and science broadcaster. And I didn’t want to, like, I just felt that it would be unimaginative or derivative and that I would be seen as “Norman Swan’s son.” I didn’t want that as well. So I actually avoided it and sort of had this career of about three years in advertising, in my early 20s. Then I really started as a journalist at about 25 as a most junior reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald.
So I came up traditionally through covering cops, crime, local stuff and then federal politics. Then I came over to the U.S. on a, it was a fellowship program. It’s really cool, actually. It’s called the American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship, and this Australian Organization every year sponsors one Australian to spend a year on Capitol Hill on the staff as a Fellow to learn about the Hill, how it works. The idea is you’re supposed to go back to Australia and proselytize about America. But my goal was to use it to get someone to hire me. So that’s how I got my foot in the door over here.
What year was that?
And the Hill was your first job?
Okay. Describe your coverage there. I mean, my memory is that you were on the Trump campaign, but what else were you doing?
So I started out as sort of doing campaign finance, but it was so loose that I could do … Like, I was on the campaign team, so I used that to get to know donors and then I sort of ended up covering Trump.
Why did you end up covering Trump?
Just because I didn’t feel like … Well, I had a lot of freedom. They were great. There was no, you know, like, “You have to cover X person.” And I was more covering Republicans. So I sort of migrated towards Trump.
This is before he was the nominee?
Yeah. But I didn’t do amazing work. I did sort of very incremental …
How self-deprecating of you. Okay.
Part of it was also because I saw on the other side, on the Clinton side, that there were reporters who’d known the Clintons for like, in some cases, like 20 years. It just seemed like fortress Clinton was impenetrable. And fortress Trump, you could just walk in the front door…
The guards had gone off duty.
… and call out, “Bannon.” You know what I mean?
The guards were fighting with each other over in the corner. Right.
It was like a little, it wasn’t even a moat. You could just basically cruise in. And as you know, there’s not that many people you have to know to really … You know, certainly on that campaign. It was a small campaign! I mean, 10 people, you could talk to, and you’d have a very good idea of what was going on. So in some ways it was also just easier.
Had you ever covered anyone like him before you started covering him?
The only person who I could even put in the same universe as him is an Australian politician called Clive Palmer, who is this eccentric coal billionaire who went into politics and started his own party, I think it was called the Palmer United Party, and was very outrageous and populist — very, very populist — and used to use some of the same tactics in terms of beating up on the media, etc. But not really.
So I want to start you out now on covering this administration. What do you think, as we approach the end of year two, about his relationship with the media that covers him? You were talking before we went to the break about an Australian candidate who liked to beat up on the media, evoked some of the same tactics. But Donald Trump does it as something of a game, doesn’t he? It’s not really that genuine, since he seems to need the media like oxygen.
Right. So I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political figure who is more obsessed with the media than Donald Trump.
Describe how that manifests.
Just the sheer amount of TV he watches is staggering.
How much would you estimate it is a day?
So he wakes up, you know, we know from his tweets, but he wakes up in the 5 am hour, usually, and his first meeting of the day is usually 11:00. It’s his intelligence briefing. So there’s effectively six hours of ungoverned time in the residence with a television and a phone, and this is like John Kelly’s worst nightmare.
And then also at the end of the day, he’ll have his last meeting — depending if he’s got events or whatever — at 4:00. And then he goes back to the residence. So there’s sort of, he doesn’t sleep very much, so there’s 12 hours of ungoverned time. If you go around Capitol Hill, as I’m sure you do, and talk to Republicans on the Hill and say, “When’s the last time you heard from Trump?” It’s often when they’ve been on “Fox and Friends” and they got a call from him saying how good they were or whatever.
So in a way the television, he’s so improvisational and reactive. The TV is his input, and then his output is the phone. Or dual input. So he’ll see a story, the caravan on Fox, he’ll call, whatever, Kirstjen Nielsen or Lou Dobbs or whoever and get some more input. That begins to set the government … You guys did a great story on this, actually. How the machinery of government kind of springs into action. I think it might have been Julie Davis.
Yeah, it was a great story.
It was exceptional.
So, but that’s what happens. And also, I mean, you see this. There was a press conference, I think, in New York, I think it was the UNGA one. I mean, Trump is so obsessed with the media that he knows who’s buying which media company or which deals are in… I think he congratulated the reporter on their company being purchased by …
He did. And he was, it was really striking to me, he recognized Yamiche Alcindor, who used to be at the New York Times, who had been a 2016 reporter. She also covered the administration in the early days for the Times. She’s on TV a lot and I think he sees her on TV a lot. And so I think … what was striking to me about it was his fascination with the New York Times, in particular,
And he, you know, that sort of shows when people get congratulatory newspapers sent to them. It’s often the Times with Sharpie, you know, “Good job!” or whatever. There’s still nothing better for Donald Trump than getting the front page of the New York Times and a reasonably complimentary headline. There’s still nothing better for him. He loved the one when they passed the tax bill. He wrote on that for quite a few people.
But his relationship with the media is, yes, there is gamesmanship to it. You see in some of the interviews how fluent he is in the language of talking to reporters. You know, “I will just go off the record for this. On the record,” or back. Sometimes he bellows “off the record, but you can use it.” It’s this very kind of, it’s the language of someone who’s been dealing with reporters for 30 years, and the … But you know, when we talked to him about the “enemy of the people” rhetoric, it did strike me that there was something kind of real to it, that he actually, I don’t know if … I can’t go inside his head, put him on the couch, but it does seem that something might have changed and that he actually does … I don’t know how much of it’s a game anymore.
Like I feel like sometimes he really does, you know, want to use this language in quite a deliberate and maybe … Yeah, maybe it’s not a game sometimes.
To that end, let’s talk about the Jim Acosta press credential incident. There were conflicting views on this, but across the … because not every reporter necessarily agreed with Jim’s approach, but I think every reporter agreed that you were entering dangerous territory when you have the White House pulling a hard pass, which is a security pass, not a press credential, based on a president’s dislike of having a question asked. Where did you come down on that?
Oh, I mean, I thought just that … I don’t think that they should be removing people’s hard passes for that sort of thing. I also, while Jim has a very different approach to me, I actually sometimes think that his just throwing stuff at Trump sometimes creates answers or opens up … You know, I remember being in London with Jim Acosta and others, and Trump did his press conference with Theresa May and Jim like shouted out something as Trump was leaving and Trump turned around and answered the question. I think it might’ve had something to do with Russia.
So, you know, I, think there’s a place for that kind of approach, even though it’s not my approach. But generally speaking, my read on that situation was that they were actually setting a predicate. I don’t think this is over. I think what they did was they didn’t lose that case on First Amendment grounds. It was a due process situation. So by setting up these rules, it seems like they’re actually setting a predicate for doing this down the track. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.
Going back to something you mentioned about having a different approach, I want to talk a bit about your approach and how you would characterize it, and then I want to talk about your recent interview with the president. How would you describe … I’ve seen how people describe how you do your job. How would you describe how you do your job?
I just see myself as a reporter, and I use that word. I never call myself anything else. I am quite a blunt instrument. I’m a very mediocre writer. I’m not the smartest person going around. There’s plenty of people …
You don’t really need to devalue yourself this way.
No, I’m actually not. I’m actually being honest. I’m not trying to be cute. I’m actually being sincere. I’m really being sincere. What I’m really, really good at is getting information and hustling and I see my job …
And getting people to talk to you.
And getting people to talk to me and finding ways to get people to … to find fault lines between or inside organizations and work out how to leverage pieces of information. I am really, really good at that, and I was instinctively good at it in Australia and I’m really good at it here. I know what my strengths are and I know what my weaknesses are.
I see my job as like shaking a giant tree. I basically wake up in the morning and try to make as many source contacts as I can in a day. I’m relentless. I work seven days a week, which I always have, and I basically set meetings way, way ahead. So for important people I try and … like right now I’m scheduling breakfasts in late January because I want to get people in their diary. So it’s a mixture of face to face and then a lot of encrypted texting and calls, but it’s basically just, if you make more calls than your competitors, you will get stories whether you’re smarter than them or not.
And I think the other part of the way I see my job is there’s all this stuff happening in rooms that we’re not allowed into, and I’ve always wanted to tell people what’s happening in the room and to find out to the best of my ability how these decisions are being made, that then become public policy, and piecing that together after the caravan moves on, you know? So, yeah.
So you’re a reporter.
And that’s all I ever wanted to be. I mean, I have no ambition to do anything else. Like, in 40 years time, I just want to be a reporter.
Explain to people what happened when you interviewed the president. You’ve received a lot of criticism for your reaction. Do you think the criticism was fair? Would you undo it? And how do you respond to people who say that you’re trying to keep access portals open in exchange for … I’ve seen plenty of negative stories from you about the administration, or stories that they certainly did not like, but I’m hoping you can address this.
Well, it’s pretty simple. I took a piece of reporting into an interview that I didn’t expect the president to confirm. When he confirmed it, I was surprised, and that’s what you see in the video. If I could do it again, would I do it differently? Yeah, sure. I would ask tougher follow-up questions. I would probably modulate my facial expressions and other things, but I’m glad we were able to break that news. It’s an important story.
And also I would note that we broke other news in that interview. We were the first reporters to ask President Trump about the use of an American-made bomb to blow up a school bus full of kids in Yemen. It surprised me a little bit that it took months for anyone in the press corps to present him with that question.
Look, I’m always grateful for good-faith criticism. Advice, suggestions, how I can be a better reporter, and I’m lucky I’ve got talented and hardworking people, colleagues, not just at my own organization, who help me do better. But I think a lot of the criticism is phony and some of the people who criticize me, some of the publications who’ve tried to suggest that my work is devoid of public value, they’re quite insistent on aggregating my reporting when it’s negative. I reported recently that Trump wants to cut off funding to Puerto Rico, and two of the publications that wrote that I’m this worthless hack aggregated it. That’s fine. I don’t really like … you know, I read all the criticism.
You check it?
Yeah, I do. I read it all. I think you have to. By the way, it’s good. It keeps you humble, and it’s good to get your head kicked in every now and again. It’s good to get your teeth kicked in, and yeah, I screw up all the time! I try not to, but sure!
Also, the funny thing about this whole “access” idea, it’s a serious conversation, and there are always tensions when you’re doing up-close reporting, but the irony is sucking up, being sycophantic actually doesn’t get you anywhere. People need to be slightly afraid of you. They need to know that you have information, and that’s the way you leverage people. It’s not by saying, “Oh, how wonderful are you,” etc., etc., because if that was the case, we would see bigger sycophants breaking a lot more news.
You made news on a few fronts, but one of which was about how he was possibly going to end birthright citizenship with an executive order. We haven’t heard him talk about this since. Given that, is there anything that could’ve been done differently on your end? How does that advise you going forward in terms of how you deal with news?
No. Look, the way that birthright thing came about was Trump actually … I think about July, the Washington Post published a piece by Michael Anton, who’s a former administration official, and the Washington Post op-ed by Anton lays out this pretty fringe-y legal argument that’s held by a few people on the right, that you can get rid of birthright citizenship without a Constitutional amendment. You can actually do it by an executive order, and the president reads it and thinks that it’s the best thing he’s ever seen.
He starts talking about it internally, not only to policy staff but also to some people who have legal authority. He was told that this is not something that he could do. People were very concerned about it. After we broke that story, I got a couple of phone calls from people in there saying, “I really wish you hadn’t asked that question because it’s not actually helpful to us.” They were trying to shore up suburban seats. He’d already gone pretty hard on the caravan. That was just another notch that took it over the edge.
Again, I see the criticism that this was the president trying to say something inflammatory ahead of the midterms, but the reality is he was talking about it privately, sporadically, for months. The fact that people don’t think he can do it and he’s been stymied is obviously relevant. I think the mistake we made is the mistake we acknowledge, which is
We did a pretty shitty job on our first take of that story, and we’ve acknowledged that, but I don’t regret asking him the question. I don’t regret breaking that news, and it was something that he was talking about privately. I’m not even going to bother dignifying the conspiracy theories that were run by people who should know better where they were saying, “Oh, this was orchestrated” between me … It’s just laughable for anyone who knows anything about how this White House works and how he works. That I’d sat down with Bill Shine and cooked this, or Trump. It’s truly absurd.
Pre-planning is not their strong suit, among other things.
There’s not a lot of 4-D chess going on.
20-D checkers. To that end, we’ve talked about what we have respectively gotten right and wrong. And there’s plenty that we’ve gotten wrong as well over time. But it’s interesting. One of the complaints that I hear about the administration from the administration lately is that increasingly, sort of the tenor of coverage about what is going on internally doesn’t always actually match how they’re experiencing it.
And so it’s gotten me thinking about … Well, I think some of that is because, you know, Trump has this effect on people where they are sort of the frog boiling in the water, and they don’t really notice it until the water temperature has changed. But it did get me thinking about what the collective “we” get right and wrong about the arcs of coverage in this administration. What do you think it is that we, the larger we, don’t get quite right about this administration?
Well, I think Mark Leibovich wrote a
Presidential mood rings.
And you know, that the private fuming, “according to people familiar with the private fumes.”
The fumes beat.
I’ve written a “privately fuming” …
We’ve all written fumes beat. We’ve all worked the fumes beat.
Right, right. I’ve worked them. So I don’t think that he is in this constant state of steam coming out of his ears at all. In fact, the opposite. Like when I talk to people who have spent time with him in the private dining room, he’s usually very relaxed.
And can be very charming, which surprises people.
Oh, totally. Of course. Sometimes those pieces are just way, way over done, and create a sense of the … The other is this sort of “chaos in the West Wing” genre, because it creates a sense that people are running around with their hair on fire. It’s actually this pretty sedate place. Unless you’re in that circle around Trump, unless you’re in the room with Trump when he’s riffing.
Yes, in the room or in the outer Oval.
Or in the outer Oval. I remember someone telling me that when Trump fired Comey, and this is someone who was in the West Wing at the time, they weren’t that far from the Oval. And Trump fires Comey, and they’ve just seen him just before it, and everything seems kind of normal. And they go back to the desk, look up the TV and it says “Comey fired,” and they’re sitting there going, “Wait, this happened like 20 feet from me?” And everyone was just sort of sitting there going, “Oh, okay, I guess we have to respond to this now.”
So “chaos,” in a way, is correct because there isn’t normal process, and normal processes are totally inverted by the president. But I guess the sense of chaos is not always there. It’s people sort of sitting around going, “Oh!” Mostly just not even knowing what’s going on.
I think he is very good at compartmentalizing his own stuff and other people perhaps can’t compartmentalize it the same way and just get used to the noise.
I think the other thing that is sort of wrong is like … “What are they saying in the West Wing about Russia?” It’s like, they don’t talk about it.
That is 100 percent true.
I mean, the idea that they’re all sitting around going, “Oh, is Manafort gonna …” That’s just not something that is discussed.
We don’t have much time left. So I just want to talk a bit about how you do your current job. You described yourself earlier as a mediocre writer, which was either admirable candor or being incredibly hard on yourself, but since I don’t see your raw copy, I don’t know. But one of the things that Axios specializes in obviously is what you guys would describe as smart brevity. Do you ever want to write longer pieces? Do you miss writing longer pieces, which the Hill is known for?
I want to write much longer pieces, but not just magazine pieces, but ultimately, books and really deep reporting. Again, there’s a lot of liberation to writing short in certain circumstances, where you don’t need to put in paragraphs of filler with commodity quotes from nameless congressmen. You can just cut to the chase.
But there were some stories that deserve much, much longer treatment, and I absolutely want to do that. If everything goes well and I don’t smoke myself or drink myself to death in the meantime, I’d like to, in like 40 years time, be reporting still and writing, hopefully, books and much longer serious treatments of …
My dream is to pick a topic, pick a war, pick a decision that has consequence and just report the hell out of it for like three years, and just have this really definitive account of something that has really big public import. That would be my dream.
Smoking is not good for you and that’s not going to help you get there.
I try to stop, but they’re so good. Just one at the end of the day, and just sucking that first drag.
Okay. I smoked for a long time. I don’t mean to be reminded of it.
Something I wanted to ask you before, and I want to end on this note, but you had your interview with the president in the middle of a flurry or whatever of interviews that he was doing at that point. He has done a striking number of interviews. It used to be that getting a presidential interview was sort of a big pomp and circumstance event. Do they matter as much as they used to since he gives so many and tends to contradict himself from one to the other?
Technically the answer is probably no, but personally, I mean, hell, I’ll take another one if they’ll let me. I mean, I tried. This was our first on-the-record interview with Trump in the time he was president. Jim and Mike interviewed him just before. I had tried for months. I set one up. It’d taken a long time for January. And then I wrote a story they didn’t like and they canceled the interview. So I was thrilled to have it, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve got a thousand questions I want to ask him.
I think one of the challenges is you want to ask about the news of the day, but it’s just so perishable and he could change his mind after it. There are so many questions that still haven’t been asked that go way beyond the news of the day that I’d love to ask him if I have a chance.
Jonathan, thank you for coming on the podcast, and thanks to all of you listening.