Why Trump Loves the Fake News
John F. Harris, 03/11/2019
Like JFK before him, the president likes talking to reporters. But for different reasons.
Why is the mainstream media so agitated about President Donald Trump’s close relationship with Fox News host Sean Hannity? A right-wing critic emails with a taunt: “Everybody loved it when Bradlee and Kennedy were in bed together.”
Not sure I buy the premise. Speaking for myself, not “the media,” I found the level of detail in the New Yorker’s recent examination of the president’s symbiotic relationship with Fox News arresting—Trump and Hannity supposedly talk off-the-record nearly every night after his show, among other evidence amassed by writer Jane Mayer—but I’m not especially worked up about it. No reason Trump and Hannity should not talk as often as they like.
But my correspondent stumbled onto something important by invoking famed Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee, who died in 2014 and was lionized in last year’s movie “The Post.” He was indeed admired as a giant among several generations of Washington journalists, and as an up-and-comer at Newsweek, he did indeed have a close social relationship with JFK that both boosted and complicated Bradlee’s career.
The Hannity revelation underscores a striking paradox: Even as Trump wages almost daily attacks on individual reporters and news organizations, and often seems bent on undermining the very idea of independent news media, behind the scenes, he arguably has the most frequent, most informal, and most sustained personal interactions with reporters and commentators of any president since the days of Kennedy and Bradlee (as well Joseph Alsop, Charles Bartlett and other journalists of that era who enjoyed special access to JFK).
The media figures Trump talks to informally go beyond his well-documented phone calls with sympathetic commentators like Hannity and Lou Dobbs. His media roster includes regular, if less-publicized engagement with beat reporters and executives at the New York Times, the Washington Post and, on occasion, POLITICO.
Phone calls or Oval Office mind-melds in this White House do not happen only as the result of longstanding and sporadically granted interview requests—that is the norm among recent presidents—but also on a more impromptu basis, sometimes initiated by Trump rather than reporters. In some cases, Trump has known journalists—like Maggie Haberman of the New York Times—for many years, giving a natural ease to their relationship, but in several other cases Trump has established a rapport with reporters, such as the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey or Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, he has only come to know after following their work as candidate or president.
Some reporters, in background accounts, describe being called by Trump at bars and cable television studios.
These interactions, according to people with firsthand or close secondhand knowledge of them, reflect a keen awareness by Trump of individual personalities in the sea of beat reporters covering him, and a fixation on key figures at powerful news organizations. He’s quizzed some reporters on their romantic lives. He knows what book projects are underway by various Washington reporters, is participating in several of them and soaks up intelligence of what the books are likely to say. (He gave an interview to POLITICO’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer for a book to be released this spring, and another to POLITICO’s Tim Alberta for one to be released in the summer.) While Trump has kept his distance from the Washington social scene—he rarely goes out except to dinner at his own nearby hotel—he is often current on the gossip that flows in these settings.
The main theme of presidential conversations, of course, is not social frivolities but the same subject that animates Trump on Twitter and in public remarks: what a great job he believes he is doing, and his conviction that he is not getting enough credit.
In all these conversations, Trump toggles back and forth between on-the-record, on-background, and off-the-record—betraying a fluency with reportorial rules of engagement that is more typically found in operatives than in principals. Those who cover the White House say they often perceive that Trump—if he could—would shed the restraining influences of schedulers and handlers and do even more direct outreach with journalists. This is a president, after all, who not that long ago used to call reporters at the Page Six gossip column several times a week to share tips or try to shape items, according to veterans of the New York Post.
There do not seem to be examples of beat news reporters having the kind of sustained engagement with Trump enjoyed by ideological fellow travelers like Hannity. At the same time, there is much more regular connection between this group than most readers and viewers assume with a president who regularly says journalists are “the enemy of the people.”
“He’s clearly the most hostile president toward the press since Nixon,” said Peter Baker of the New York Times, who has covered four presidents including Trump. At the same time, Baker added, in some ways, he has “the most access to Trump of any president I’ve covered.”
That access includes frequent interviews Trump has given the Times, as well as his penchant for answering questions during “pool sprays” (when reporters are invited in for pictures and short Q&A at the top of official meetings). Obama didn’t like doing these but Trump does, Baker noted, adding that these are hardly a good format for asking nuanced questions and don’t substitute for news conferences.
“He wants to interact with reporters,” Baker said. “He loves the press and hates the press at the same time. … He can’t stop himself from wanting to engage.”
This interpretation raises a key question: What does Trump hope to gain from his frequent informal interactions with media? In the case of Hannity, it is clear he needs the allegiance of Fox News’ large conservative audience, though it is not clear how much advice and political strategizing takes place on the calls. In the case of mainstream media reporters, Trump’s ability to shape a narrative with targeted interviews and background conversations is small relative to the way his own daily Niagara of tweets and flamboyant public statements already shapes his coverage. Some speculate that the purpose is rooted less in communications strategy than in psychology. In a recent Times interview, Trump complained that as a kid from Queens who became president, “I’m sort of entitled to a great story” from his hometown paper. Above all, the president likes to talk with people who are interested in the same subject he is: Trump.
“It’s not that his bark is worse than his bite,” said another reporter who has covered Trump at close range, “He doesn’t really want to bite at all. He wants to be petted.”
Whatever the motive, Trump is at least partially reversing a historic trend that has been at work for five decades. In his 1975 book, "Conversations with Kennedy," Bradlee described frequent dinners with JFK while serving as Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, conversing with him after prime-time news conferences about how the performance had gone and trading appraisals of other reporters and hearing Kennedy’s advice about who Bradlee should try to hire.
That book was written in 1975. It wasn’t until he wrote his memoirs 20 years later that Bradlee told his side of a different story: How after his sister-in-law, Mary Meyer, was murdered in 1964 he learned from her journal that she had been having an affair with JFK before his assassination. Reflecting the press culture of the time, Bradlee (who I worked for at the Post and admired) wrote he “never for a minute considered reporting” about the affair after Meyer's mysterious death—an indefensible judgment by contemporary standards.
In the years that followed JFK’s death, the personal and professional distance between presidents and the working press in general has steadily widened. Oval Office tapes from Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency reveal him constantly wooing media types like columnist Mary McGrory. But he became deeply embittered when most coverage turned negative late in his presidency over Vietnam and urban rioting, and he launched a sarcastic Trump-style personal attack on Walter Lippmann, a columnist who turned critical despite constant behind-the-scenes wooing by LBJ.
Nixon’s relationships with media figures—many of whom ended up on the White House enemies list—were notoriously acrid, but even after those days, no president has seemingly worked individual relationships with both ideological commentators and beat reporters as assiduously as Trump.
In the Clinton years, aides like David Gergen and Michael McCurry tried on various occasions to get the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to have more dinners, background chats and other informal interactions with reporters, in the hopes that this would ease tense relationships. But the efforts never amounted to much. The Clintons felt most Washington reporters were too obsessed with trivial political-insider narratives, or too focused on what they saw as bogus scandals.
Obama, according to his aides, tended to gravitate and give special access to writers he believed were not caught up in the daily political rumpus and were sophisticated enough to write about his policies with nuance. One favorite was foreign policy writer Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
Trump, on the other hand, seems interested in media figures precisely because of their immersion in the daily rumpus. He follows the bylines and has given interviews to such White House veterans as Steve Holland of Reuters and relative newcomer Jonathan Swan of Axios. After the 2016 election, he invited several media figures to an off-the-record party with him at Mar-a-Lago. He invited journalist Mark Halperin for a private dinner at the White House early in his presidency. He’s had at least two sit-downs with Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and invited POLITICO Publisher Robert Allbritton last summer to a private lunch.
Little wonder then, in January, CNBC personality Joe Kernan took a call from Trump on his cellphone at a Paris brasserie. They talked, and Kernan offered to give the phone to someone he thought Trump might enjoy talking with at the next table. To Trump’s apparent surprise, it was Washington Post political writer Dan Balz.
Balz wondered if it was a hoax. Writing about the encounter, he called it a “too weird to be real” and a “bizarre moment.” But for Trump, it was just another day on the job.