ABC’s Jonathan Karl ‘90 on covering the strangest presidency in American history

Editor-in-Chief Andrew Solender spoke with ABC Chief White House Correspondent and White House Correspondents' Association President Jonathan Karl about his new book and what it's like to cover the Trump administration.

By
Andrew Solender
on
April 5, 2020
Category:
Editorial

Since graduating from Vassar in 1990, Jonathan Karl has risen to stratospheric heights in the world of journalism. Just in the last 24 hours, Karl, ABC's Chief White House Correspondent has been at the center of one of the top national news stories. That's nothing new for a man who has covered four presidential administrations over twenty years, but there's something different about this one. For the first time, Karl is a part of the story.

President Donald Trump has a penchant for biting the hand that feeds him–that is, attacking the journalists who cover him whenever they scrutinize his leadership. Karl is no exception, having drawn the president's ire with even the most even-handed questions. As President of the White House Correspondents' Association, Karl has had to mediate the often harsh and public conflicts between the White House press corps and Trump's communications team. Trump has publicly referred to Karl as "a nasty guy" and, just last week, told him "don't be a cutie pie." Now, it's Karl's turn to offer his perspective.

In his new book Front Row at the Trump Show (available now on Amazon), Karl offers readers unique insight into what it's like to cover this truly bizarre administration. I spoke with Karl about his book, journalism in the Trump era and the president's response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Solender: Let's start with the book. It has an interesting framing compared to other books about the Trump administration like Fear and Fire and Fury. First, it was written in first-person narrative. Second, it tells the story of the Trump administration through a lens of media coverage. What inspired that decision for you?

Karl: One of my first goals in writing this book was to describe what it has been like to experience this and to be inside the coverage of the Trump campaign, transition and White House. There are a lot of books about what has happened and what has transpired. There's so much reporting in real time about what is going on, even the inner workings of the Trump White House.

But nobody has yet tried to describe what it's like to be there. That was something I wanted to tell, because I knew that I was experiencing something personally that was extraordinary, bizarre and really unlike any experience that White House reporters covering previous presidents had ever experienced. So that was a very early aspiration for this book.

That's why I decided to write it in the first-person and focus on, at least in part, the interactions that I directly had with the president and with his top advisors. And it's been a hell of a story. Over the course of the last few years I’ve talked to people and I'm like, "You're not going to believe what just happened. You're not going to believe this, you're not going to believe that." And that doesn't come across at all in the day-to-day reporting on this president, so I needed another outlet to tell it and I thought that this book would be the place to do it.

Solender: You had instances where you would ask a normal question and that would set off Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and you weren't expecting that. It seems like it was just chance that a particular question made them angry. And you kept getting iced out and you were losing out on asking questions and getting stories because you would ask these questions that angered them so much. Do you think that changed the way that you reported on the administration going forward?

Karl: No. I learned long ago that trying to get better access by trying to placate the people you're covering is never an effective strategy, especially when you're covering the White House. I think some of the anger that I have seen in response to questions that I asked, from the president or from people around him, sometimes it's genuine and often it's not.

Beating up on the press is something that the president does in part to get a rise out of his base, and often it just doesn't matter. That's why you can ask the most innocuous questions at times and he will pop off. It’s just part of the game, part of the show.

Solender: Going off of what you said about placating the subject, The New York Times, and specifically Maggie Haberman, often draws heat from liberals for framing things in what they call a “both sides” narrative. Most recently, it was a headline that said [“Trump Suggests Lack of Testing Is No Longer a Problem. Governors Disagree.”]

Do you think that there's truth to those criticisms that you shouldn't be presenting an argument you know to be false even if you're contradicting it? That you should have this direct contradiction or even emotionally charged fact-checking of the falsehoods and misleading language?

Karl: I don't think our reporting should be emotionally charged at all. I think that you need to correct misstatements and falsehoods that come out of the White House and from the president himself, and there are many, many, many. I know that both sides-ism is like this epithet that is hurled at reporters often. I mean, I think that reporting both sides is a virtue, not a vice.

That doesn't mean that you report a falsehood with equal weight that you do something that's true, but it means that what the president does and what the president says is what we cover, and we put it in context and we report it out when it's wrong and we say it. But you don't want to do it in a highly charged way.

Articles or stories shouldn't read like a press release from the Democratic National Committee. I mean, we're reporting in a way that is, to the best of our ability, objective and fair, and sometimes I get the sense that people want White House reporters to stand up and scream, "You lie!" in the middle of a briefing or in the middle of an Oval Office meeting. That's not our role.

I mean, look at the questions that I ask, look at the reporting Maggie Haberman has done. Nobody's shying away from pointing out when the president contradicts himself or when he says things that are flatly false, but we're doing this as reporters, we're not doing this as political opponents of the president and we shouldn't appear to be political opponents of the president.

Solender: Something that I think reporters, specifically in the Trump era, deal with a lot is this accusation of being in the bag for a candidate or for a party or for an ideology. So MSNBC gets accused of an anti-Bernie bias. Or, when there were a bunch of candidates in the 2020 race, the Beto O'Rourke supporters thought the media was really trying to shiv him for some reason.

So it seems to me more and more the media is being viewed as an ideological weapon of sorts. Are you concerned that people are just stratified and only listening to the media that confirms what they believe and denouncing all contradictory information as talking points from the other side?

Karl: There are many good things about the proliferation of so many different news outlets, but the real downside to all of this is that people can seek out and consume a diet of news that entirely reinforces their own opinions and their own biases, and I think that's troubling.

I think that we should challenge ourselves, we should expose ourselves to views that are different than our own and we should have a basis of objective reporting to inform all of that. Look, I would love to see conservatives sit down and watch a healthy dose of primetime MSNBC every night, and I would love liberals to check in on Fox News. And by the way, both of those news networks have actual reporters that are not biased and they're not coming from one side or the other, especially MSNBC. 

MSNBC is I think a great news organization, and it might be a very strange thing, but in my acknowledgments in the book I call out my competitors but also my friends who I greatly respect at NBC and their White House unit. These are first-rate reporters and they are not biased. They are good reporters who report aggressively on Donald Trump, and they did on Barack Obama as well.

But I think it is really troubling when you can just get news that is slanted in a way to kind of meet all of your own biases and opinions. But I think opinion journalism is great, and I mention in the book, I mean, Rachel Maddow's got a show that has a clear political viewpoint but she's a really good reporter and you learn from watching her. I don't care whether or not you agree with her or disagree with her, you learn something from watching her.

Solender: I want to talk a little bit about the scoops in the book. You write about a meeting I don't think has been reported before: Trump praising Confederate generals at a meeting over Grant’s cabinet table.

Karl: Oh, yeah.

Solender: You also mentioned that you had the Comey firing story before anybody else but that you couldn't report it, and you mentioned that Mulvaney gave A First-Rate Madness [a book positing that there’s a correlation between mental illness and good leadership] to the staff when he ascended to the chief of staff role. How do you get people to tell you about these things that they're not supposed to tell you?

Karl: Well, specifically for this book, I learned that it is so much easier to get people to talk after the fact when you're not in the heat of the story. So in the process of writing this book I went out and talked to people about some of the major events that I wanted to describe. And I learned things that just shocked me, and I also learned that with a little bit of distance from the events people are eager to try to set the record straight. They're eager to have a chance at shaping the history of these events. 

And in the case of Charlottesville, it was a story that really blew me away. I was able to talk to people that were directly involved in the meeting that I described and actually in one case I got somebody to turn over their notes to me.

That would never have happened in real time. But going back, and I think especially with this White House, people are eager to talk. First of all, some of the people I spoke to have been fired and feel very little loyalty towards the president who has fired them and willingness to kind of spill their guts and to talk about what has happened. 

But that Charlottesville story, I mean, I thought so much of it to be amazing. And you're right, nobody's really talked about it yet, in all the interviews I do about the book people have not brought it up. But that Charlottesville story.

When the president came out publicly and talked about the very fine people on both sides of the protest, it was really one of the absolute low moments of the Trump presidency, and the fact that I found out that he had said almost exactly the same thing and maybe even a little bit more privately the day before in front of his top advisors and nobody said, "No, no, Mr. President."

Nobody tried to stop him or dissuade him or tell him that what he was saying was misguided. It's just amazing to me, and the idea that he said it sitting at this desk/table that had been used by Ulysses S. Grant. He's praising Confederate generals at a table that Grant had worked at. It blew me away.

And then he walked, without missing a beat, down the hall to show everybody the Lincoln Bedroom. I mean, to me it's one of the kind of vivid scenes in the book and one that I certainly didn't know about in real time.

Solender: My favorite part of the book was this recurring thing where every once in a while Trump would bring up that interview you did with him a while ago and say you “took a lot of heat for it, but got great ratings.” And that wasn’t true, was it?

Karl: Well, I think he was conflating two things. I did take some heat about an earlier interview that I had done in Iowa in 2013, and I did do an interview with him in 2014, and I just think that he gets confused between the two. But he continues to bring that up. He continues to talk about that even after I've written the book. I've had two or three times where he has brought that up with me. It's really remarkable, and sometimes when he talks about it he's like, "You took me seriously as a presidential candidate." 

Now, I did interview him and I did ask him about the race. He said, "You'd be surprised if I ran, wouldn't you?" And my reaction, and in the audiobook you can hear I actually play the excerpt from the interview, you can hear my voice, I say, "Yes, I'd be shocked if you ran. Yes, I would be shocked." It's really something else.

Solender: Something you don't talk about much is your earlier years as a reporter. What was it like in your first few weeks as a White House correspondent? What was the adjustment like? How did you start developing sources? And then what is it like to contrast that early experience with your experience now being in a very different White House and being more experienced at the job?

Karl: Well, I first started coming to the White House for CNN, but it wasn't as a full-time White House reporter. I would come in to fill in because somebody was off. I was like a backup, and I just remember being in awe of the place and being a bit intimidated. The first press secretary that I met on the job was Mike McCurry, and to me it was like this huge public figure and somewhat of a legend. So I'm sure I was much more deferential than I was to the subsequent press secretaries, but I was just kind of absorbing it all. 

And I had no idea how I would go about getting sources in the beginning. I was consuming what was coming out and I was reporting on what was being said publicly. When you come in as a young reporter who doesn't really know anybody, how do you cultivate sources in the White House where everybody's too busy to even acknowledge you? So, it took some time.

Fortunately, most of my time in those early days was spent covering Capitol Hill where it was much easier to get to talk to people, and it's a totally open place. In the Capitol, you run into people in the hallways, you start to develop relationships with people that work for senators or House leadership. That was so invaluable because those people who I met in those early days I developed some pretty strong relationships with.

And they went on to work in White House, Pentagon, State Department, the intelligence agencies in some cases, and I had developed the relationships earlier and was able to continue the relationships when they went on to these other jobs where it would have been much harder to get to know them.

Now, I'm still in awe of the White House every time I walk into it, but I'm not in awe of anybody that works there, including the person in the Oval Office. You get more confident, you've covered others. You see the press secretary and you know that you're almost certainly going to be working there at the White House after whoever the press secretary is is gone. You know that you were there before, you're going to be there after they're gone, and everything is transient. Some people come in and take themselves incredibly seriously and you laugh it off, because it's like, "Okay, fine, you're the big dog right now. We'll see where this goes."

So, you get some maturity and you get to know more people, but when you first go into that building it's a really intimidating place, because it's very hard to even have any conversations with people. It's not like I can wander around the back hallways of the West Wing and drop in on people the way you can, by the way, in Congress, so it's a challenge.

Solender: One thing you said thatI've never really thought about that because I've only been doing this for a few years is that you move up parallel to your sources.

Karl: Yes. Yes.

Solender: Were you a little concerned in the Trump White House? Because he brought in a lot of people who are not in the Washington circle.

Karl: Oh, it's such a great point. It's such a great point. He had nobody. And when Donald Trump first went into the White House there was nobody that had any experience in a previous White House besides there was one guy named Joe Hagin, who was basically in operations, one of the deputy chiefs of staff, so not somebody who was a news source. And he had worked for George W. Bush.

But besides him, none of the senior people in the White House had any experience being in a White House. The only people that really had experience in Washington were Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus, and Priebus had been kind of an outsider before he came in and took over the RNC.

So fortunately I knew Priebus quite well actually and Sean Spicer very well, so I had a little bit of a toehold. And then of course within 48 hours Spicer is considering me the enemy and it's completely counterproductive, no real relationship there, but I did know Reince. And I had covered the campaign, so I had known some of those people. I mean, I talk a lot about Hope Hicks. She was there, she was an important person that was there.

Karl: I met Dan Scavino in the very early days, I had spent a little bit of time with Jared Kushner, so I knew people from the campaign and I knew Trump himself, but yeah, this was not a case where all these old Washington sources moved into the White House. There was no Washington experience in that White House.

Solender: Have you read Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis?

Karl: Yes.

Solender: For the readers, the book lays out how Trump's inexperienced staff leads to incompetent management and a lack of oversight for a lot of very important programs. Very important departments sort of fall through the cracks, not getting the attention they need, and they tend to critical aspects of American life.

And it seems like those chickens are coming to roost now that it's crunch time, and everything the White House does really matters intensely to day-to-day American life. Does it seem like the White House is taking any steps to sort of correct that early lack of oversight of crucial operations of the government during this crisis?

Karl: I mean, first of all I think Michael Lewis's book, Fifth Risk, was a really important piece of journalism.

Solender: Right.

Karl: And he covered a story that frankly most of us missed, maybe all of us missed: what was happening out in the agencies as Trump came in. I had no idea about that stuff. We were so consumed with trying to keep up with what was happening in the White House that we didn't have the bandwidth to know what was happening at the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Energy, because these transition teams went in and were, I mean, it’s just an unbelievable story.

And I don't think that they've fully corrected any of that. It remains a very disorganized place, and there's often a big disconnect between the leadership at the White House and in the agencies. And some people might think that's a good thing, because you do have good, solid, professional career public servants who remain on the job in the various departments and the various agencies of the executive branch. Those people don't disappear. They work from administration to administration.

But I still don't think that this White House has much of a grasp of what's going on in the outer agencies of the executive branch.

Solender: That's interesting. So, after three years and a quarter of this, the White House still isn't really finding their footing when it comes to running the government?

Karl: There are still a remarkable number of vacancies throughout the executive branch. Obviously, much has been written about in terms of the senior political appointments, how many of them are held by acting officials.

Solender: Right.

Karl: So no, I think that much of what was written about by Michael Lewis about the very early days of the Trump administration, it's not to that extreme of what Michael Lewis wrote about, but I still think that there's a pretty alarming disconnect between the West Wing and the rest of the administration.

Solender: So, there's been a pattern in this White House of ignoring experts and career people like Fauci and Birx. You have it very early on with the 2017 HHS guidelines, which went ignored, which laid out that we needed more respirators, we needed a pandemic plan in place, all the stuff that we're grappling with now. And then at the early stages of this crisis in mid-February you had this task force run by Pence and it seemed like Fauci had been sort of gagged and told behind the scenes, "Try your best to keep your message cohesive with what the president is saying."

It's always been my theory that having Pence heading up this task force and having Trump at these briefings that cover very heavy statistics and crunchy policy matters has been an attempt to politicize the response and to try to maintain a sense of normalcy and to not allow the experts to give a real picture of what's going on. Do you see things differently?

Karl: I don't know. I think that actually throughout the course of this crisis there's been a disconnect between what the president says and what he does, and his words have been all over the map and often directly in contradiction to what the experts are saying. But at the big decision points, he has actually largely followed the advice of the experts. I'm talking about in the last month of this crisis, since it's really hit.

So, the president says everybody will be back in church for Easter Sunday, and then two days later he's announcing an extension of the CDC guidelines until the end of April. That's what Fauci recommended, Birx recommended, the CDC recommended and that's what the president ultimately did.

So certainly what you described has been a phenomenon, but I think that often on very keen, big decision points the president has actually, despite what he says in his Twitter feed or often in public, he has actually listened to the experts.

Solender: Something you said is that even if his actions are in line with what he's being advised to do, his words often contradict Fauci. And I think that's important here, because throughout the Trump administration, critics have said “words matter, the tweets matter, the offensiveness matters.” They've drawn a connection between the Charlottesville type stuff and the pseudo-embrace of the alt-right and saying that is what drove this resurgence of white supremacy.

But now in this crisis you can see a clear connection between Trump's words and the actually very crucial actions of a large portion of the general public. So you had Trump minimizing this basically from the beginning. And then you had Republican officials, the governor of Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and all these places striking a similar tone of, "It's fine. We want to preserve the economy. We want to keep businesses open as much as possible."

And you had a good portion of Republican voters early on, according to polls, not really taking it very seriously, and I wonder if you think if Trump had taken the opposite step and come out early on and said, "This is serious. We need to take this seriously and maintain that consistently," would we be in a different place right now substantively speaking? Because obviously this crisis is something can be very much exacerbated by the actions of individual people.

Karl: I think that this will be a central question about the Trump presidency and probably a big theme of the campaign: did he mishandle this crisis in the early days and would it have been a lot more manageable if he had, both in terms of his rhetoric and his actions, taken it more seriously earlier? I think that's something that's going to be looked at very carefully.

I mean, there's no question he was rhetorically minimizing this threat. I don't know if you saw this, but I anchored This Week, I think it was three weeks ago now, and I had a very strong list of statements that had come out of the White House that showed that we were just flatly wrong in the early days.

And I expressed, despite all I've said about it, we're not going to be opinionated. I mean, I had to say this is dangerous. We cannot have misinformation coming out of the White House in the middle of a crisis like this, and these statements represent misinformation. The President was talking about this like a flu, like something that was going to quickly go away. And that's all part of the record, and that will be something that will be debated and talked about I'm sure a lot between now and November.

Solender: So, the last thing I want to ask you is about the, "Shoot someone on 5th Avenue" concept. Trump has always acted as though he's somewhat invulnerable, “Teflon Don,” but there have been instances where he backed down from truly egregious things and he has had limits in the past.

But now, since the impeachment investigations and he got cleared by the Senate, he's been pretty clearly retaliating against people who testified against him or who provided information against him in the Ukraine scandal. And the same with this crisis, he's basically just denying, flat out lying as he always does, his early mishandling. But none of this seems to be having an impact on the polls, because I guess there's just such a mass of it that nothing seems to really break through.

And so you mentioned that all this stuff will be discussed in the election. And my question to you is, in terms of just stark political impact, does any of this really matter? Does any of the reporting at the end of the day change the public opinion if the guy you're reporting on knows that he can do pretty much whatever he wants and his approval won't take a hit, he can still win.

He won the 2016 election with 46% of the vote. He can win with a very fractured electorate. He'll always have a floor. Every presidential candidate in modern times has a floor, and especially Trump has a very hard one. Are you worried at all that what you're reporting just doesn't really make that much of a political difference?

Karl: Well, the goal of reporting is not to make a political difference, so to some degree I don't care what the answer to that is, but there's no question that we are at a point where roughly 40% of the country will support him almost no matter what and where roughly 40% of the country, probably closer to 50% of the country won't support him no matter what.

The die may be cast in terms of this election no matter what takes place between now and November, but there is a group of voters that can be either persuaded to possibly change their minds. There's also a question of how energized voters on either side are to go out and vote. Ultimately the election, will be determined by how energized the opposition to Trump is versus how energized his diehard supporters are.

But it seems to be a tough election for him. I mean, make no mistake, he has aggressively alienated the swing voters that have traditionally decided who wins an election. He has aggressively alienated suburban women, Hispanics, young voters, and I think it's going to be a tougher election for him than the last one was.

And the last one he won on an inside straight. I mean, he lost the popular vote overwhelmingly and managed to win narrow victories in a handful of states that gave him the White House. He may pull that off again, but I think it's going to be a tough election for him.

Solender: Gut instinct, who do you think is the favorite for 2020?

Karl: I think it's going to be a hotly contested election and I think that it's going to be a tough one for Donald Trump to win.

Solender: Okay.

Karl: So, I don't want to predict a favorite, because it’s pretty perilous, but I think that for demographic reasons alone this is a very difficult election for the Republicans.

Solender: Well, in this particular election cycle it's perilous to even say that there's going to be an election in November, so we'll see how that looks.

Karl: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Andrew Solender

Andrew (’20) is the Editor-in-Chief. He is a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as an intern at MSNBC, a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources and City & State NY, and has been published in the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today. He also plays on the varsity squash team.