POLITICO's Natasha Bertrand ‘14 talks impeachment, reporting in the Trump era
Nobody in Washington is more plugged in than Bertrand. She says Democrats triggered impeachment due to genuine constitutional duty, the Inspector General investigation will have something for everyone, and Trump wins reelection.
Since graduating from Vassar in 2014, POLITICO reporter and MSNBC contributor Natasha Bertrand has become incredibly prominent for her coverage of politics, national security and the Trump administration. Formerly of Business Insider and The Atlantic, Bertrand has broken several major stories during the Trump era, especially regarding the President’s financial conflicts of interest.
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Solender spoke with his fellow Vassar, LSE and MSNBC alum to get her insights on impeachment, 2020 and more:
Andrew Solender: Let’s start with impeachment. NBC News and Reuters have written that the hearings lack “pizzazz” and that there weren't enough bombshells. They got slammed, mostly by the left, but by some other journalists as well, who say “impeachment is substantive. You have to take it seriously. There are a lot of important legal and political considerations here.” Do you think the presentation of impeachment is an important aspect of it?
Natasha Bertrand: Yes and no. If it weren't important at all there would be no reason to hold public hearings. I don't necessarily think that having it be like a reality show is the purpose, but having testimony that grabs people's attention is nice, and it would be useful for the Democrats. And there was some bombshell testimony last week that did make headlines and made for good soundbites.
But it's not all that matters obviously. The reason why this was taken out from behind closed doors was to present the evidence to the public. Again, that could have been done just solely through the transcripts being released, but most Americans don't have time to read 3,500 pages worth of deposition transcripts.
So, there is a value in having display and having the show. But that's obviously not all that matters. And the Democrats got a lot of headlines out of it last week and now the public pretty much knows the top line issues at play in impeachment. I think that was really their goal, and to say that they lacked pizzazz misses the point completely.
AS: We know that impeachment and removal are both basically foregone conclusions. Unless the evidence against Trump really falls through, they're going to impeach, and I don't even see a scenario in which the Senate votes to remove Trump. So, what is the Democrats' goal here? What are they trying to accomplish in the long run?
NB: Based on our reporting it's genuinely that they felt like they had no choice. The president clearly had some exposure after the Mueller report, but it wasn't enough to move the needle for impeachment.
So I think the fact that the president was trying to get another country to interfere in another election—everyone we've spoken to that reluctantly changed their minds on impeachment said that this was really the final straw. They couldn't let that stand without holding the president accountable, because that would just create a terrible precedent.
And I don't think they're being disingenuous by saying that. I genuinely believe that they felt like this was their constitutional duty to set a precedent here that this is not acceptable. The impeachment stuff really wasn't about convincing the American people one way or another. I think it was presenting all of the evidence to them and having them make a decision.
But, based on everything we've heard just consistently across the board, it was like, we just can't let this stand at this point. So they are very aware that the Senate is probably not going to vote to remove him. They don't have 20-plus [Republican] senators who are going to come over to their side. But to leave it as is and to not have any accountability for them would just be a black stain on their own legacies.
AS: Do you think or do you have any reporting that suggests the Democrats are getting a little worried about the polls that are showing a drop in support and a drop an interest in impeachment?
NB: I think it's too soon to say. House Intelligence has started to write its final report that they're going to send over to Judiciary, and I think that they're aware that inevitably there's going to be a slowing of the momentum here going into the holidays, and that people probably weren't totally convinced by the impeachment hearings because you didn't see any Republicans going over to the Democratic side, which would obviously generate big headlines and make people wonder whether this is becoming a more bipartisan issue.
But, again, I really don't think that their goal here was ultimately political. I do think that they're trying to wrap it up before the primaries start because that would go into the political realm, and then the presidential candidates would be having to answer questions nonstop about impeachment, and they would have to be off the campaign trail voting in the Senate trial.
So there they are, in that sense, factoring the election into their calculations. But across the board what they're saying is, "Look, we did our job, now it's time for the Senate to do theirs."
AS: I want to shift gears and talk about reporting. You write for POLITICO, you've written for The Atlantic and Business Insider. All three of those publications have large audiences, to be sure, but the regular readership, as I understand, is a very specific group, an “Acela corridor” kind of group. Do you ever get frustrated with the idea that your coverage is not really reaching a wide swath of people?
NB: I don't really feel that because our reporting is so cross-platform at this point. Obviously not everyone in the country is reading digital news and watching cable television and is even interested in reading political news. But I think you could say that about pretty much any publication, right?
It just depends on the kind of journalism you're doing. People tend to care more about what's happening in their local community than they do about national news. So I personally feel like a lot of the stories that we've written have broken through and that's because of this ability of the TV network to pick up the digital reporting, or the newspaper reporting, and broadcast that to that broader audience.
I totally understand where you're coming from, but I don't think that we go into it with the sense of “we're going to reach everyone,” because it's been national news that I've been reporting and not local news.
And the more people that can come on board and become more interested in national news, the better, right? Because it's more about what's happening in the country, and the elections, and democracy writ large, but we're not expecting and we never were expecting to reach the kind of granular audience that local news can.
It’s a story for another day, but that's obviously why it's really unfortunate that local newspapers are dying out. So, with that, maybe national news outlets will have to consider a bit how to reach those smaller audiences. But our stories, especially things like the Turnberry story that I reported on a couple of months back, those break through.
AS: With regards to the reporting that you've done on the conflicts of interest, the emoluments stuff, have you been surprised throughout your career and throughout the Trump era that these stories – which would be possibly administration-ending ethics scandals, certainly enough to warrant a Whitewater-type investigation – haven't really spawned any political or public backlash?
NB: Yeah, I mean, it's frustrating for us in this era because there's just so much news that a huge story one day will probably be forgotten by the next day. And so it's harder, I think, for journalists to have the impact that they used to before the Trump era, just because there's a new scandal every day.
It's not surprising, but it is demoralizing in a sense. And I've personally just had to come to terms with the fact that it's not always about having the week, or two week, or month long news cycle that's going to be the rewarding thing. It's pretty much exposing, little by little, the various scandals that the Trump administration has been compiling for two-plus years now.
It does definitely get frustrating and I have conversations with other journalists about this all the time, a scoop is a scoop, and the little things tend to also build up into bigger and bigger things. So, regardless of whether it lasts as long as we would like it to, things still do break through in this era, I would say.
AS: What makes something worth reporting? Do you feel that you need to be performing a public service with a story, or is there some certain standard of newsworthiness?
NB: It’s so case by case that it's hard to say, but we always tried to evaluate the newsworthiness and the public interest in a particular story, especially one that's explosive.
For example, when the Katie Hill news was breaking, we did not report on the photos of her that leaked. We did not report anything about Katie Hill. We made the decision not to until it went to the Ethics Committee.
And [when it did], we felt like, okay, this is a body that's independently investigating Katie Hill and the accusations against her, that's in the public interest to know. But it was not our place, we felt, to reveal the salacious details of her private life.
So it really just depends. I don't think that you can factor in whether it's going to make people angry, or whether it's going to potentially make you a target. But I think a really good example is the whistleblower. We as news organizations are grappling with how much to reveal about this particular person, whether it's in the public interest to know their identity.
And, ultimately, it probably will come out, and then we'll have to make those decisions again. But it's so dependent on the individual at play, [there’s no] blanket rubric that we apply to every story.
AS: Have you had some stories that you pitched to your editor, or that somebody else pitched, that were just too small to report?
NB: That happens a lot, actually. I'll get a really fun tidbit, or detail, or anecdote, and I'll want to put it out there and my editor will say, "Well, no. We should wait until we have more, and we should build it up into a story that more answers the reader's question, ‘Well why should I care about this?’"
Because unless you frame it within that larger context, it's hard to justify writing an entire story around it. But that also varies newspaper-to-newspaper and publication-to-publication, because I have more freedom to do that at POLITICO, for example, report something smaller and more incremental than I did at The Atlantic where everything had to be couched in way bigger terms and issues. So it just depends.
AS: Business Insider does a lot of quick hits, right?
NB: Right, right, the quick hits. I personally love the quick scoops because they're fun and they're easier. But, yeah, I mean, sometimes it's just not enough. You just don't have enough yet.
AS: Can you give me a few examples of these tidbits that didn't turn into bigger stories?
NB: Well, for example, I've been doing some reporting on the Durham investigation, and into the investigators in 2016, and I've just been picking up details here and there and I think that it's enough to write a story, but my editor is like, "No, we should wait until we have more." So that's one example.
AS: What do you make of this FISA warrant story that all the QAnon people are talking about? I haven't looked at the details of that at all because it seems relegated to far-right conspiratorial area, and yet, it is the Inspector General's investigation. It's a real thing. And it gets basically no mainstream coverage, which makes me think that it's being over-hyped by the right.
NB: I think there's going to be something in it for everyone. There's going to be criticism of the FBI that will satisfy Trump, and his allies, his base, and there's going to be a clearing, I think, of criminal wrongdoing and any kind of wrongdoing [by the FBI] really, but probably just sloppiness.
But there's going to be a clearing of criminal wrongdoing of the FBI, which will satisfy the left and they’ll say, "Look, there was nothing truly improper that went on here in 2016. They were just rushing, so there was bound to be some sloppiness."
So, come December ninth, when the report is going to be released, I think we're going to see a lot more mainstream news coverage of it, especially because Trump is probably going to be tweeting about it a lot.
But the idea that there was a deep state that was out to get Trump during the election, and ultimately tried to overthrow him after he won the presidency, that is the big conspiracy that's been fueled by the QAnon people who think that everyone from Hillary Clinton to Pete Strzok, to all these FBI folks are going to be going to jail, which is not true.
AS: I want to ask a few quick-answer questions. First, do you ever get worried that you're on a list in the Kremlin because of your reporting, or you're being spied on or targeted?
NB: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That's actually one of the reasons why I'm moving apartments because there are people that know where I live and that have showed up to my house and that are just crazy. That's also a reason why I haven't gone to Russia because I'm pretty sure that I'm on some kind of watch list there.
AS: What's the best way to respond to accusations of “fake news”?
NB: Probably not responding at all. Most of those accusations are made in bad faith, so why argue with someone who's just out to troll rather than make genuine criticism? If it's a genuine criticism, I try to respond, but if someone's screaming “fake news” at you, it's better not to justify it with a response, in my opinion.
AS: How do you get sources to tell you things that they shouldn't be telling you?
NB: It's very delicate. I try to dance around it for a while and build up a relationship with the source, before we get into any of the sensitive stuff. I'll talk to them off the record for a while before we shift to background or on-the-record conversations. But it's tough. It's definitely tough.
AS: Gut instinct, which party wins in 2020?
NB: Gut instinct, Republicans.
NB: Gut instinct is that Trump wins the presidency. Unless a really, really strong Democratic front-runner emerges who people are really excited about. Trump has his social media machine.
AS: How much do you think Republicans believe the crazy shit that they say sometimes?
NB: Oh, I don't think that 90% of them believe what they say. I think that it's mostly just for show for their constituents who support Trump. I know people say this all the time, but it's genuinely true; privately, they express serious reservations and concerns about Trump's behavior. They just won't say it publicly.
AS: Is there a point at which they stop supporting him?
NB: Doesn't seem that way. There's been a lot to come out about this president and the Republicans, even during the impeachment inquiry, yet the most moderate [Congressional] Republican, Will Hurd, said that he had seen nothing that was impeachable. So Democrats aren't getting anyone over on their side now.