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Editors' Picks Interviews The Politic Blog

Interview with Jake Tapper, CNN Chief Washington Correspondent

Jake Tapper is the chief Washington correspondent for CNN. He anchors both a weekday television news show, The Lead with Jake Tapper, and a Sunday morning affairs program,  State of the Union. Prior to joining CNN, Tapper served as the senior White House correspondent for ABC News and a national correspondent for Salon.com. His reporting has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications.

The Politic: Do you think there is a historical precedent for the rise of Trump and Trumpism? Some have tossed around comparisons to Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and even Joe McCarthy. Are any of those examples appropriate? Is there a period that Americans can look back to for wisdom?  

Jake Tapper: It’s been said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and whether you are reading about McCarthy or Nixon or Bill Clinton, there’s a lot of rhyming. I don’t know that there’s any particular president or politician that is exactly the same as President Trump. There are certainly shades of overlap, and President Trump didn’t invent lying or smearing. He just takes it to a new level that we haven’t seen in presidents probably ever before. His supporters often say that he’s just punching back, he’s just counter-punching. A lot of times that’s true but we have also been in a country where, for the most part, United States presidents don’t lower themselves to respond to as many criticisms as President Trump does. Or to attack as personally as he does.

I think Trump and Trumpism is a manifestation of many different parts of American popular cultural and societal evolution including the increasing importance of celebrity, the lack of faith in experts, the populist distrust of intellectualism, the moral compromises made by supporters of Bill Clinton. I think today you see Evangelicals making compromises about President Trump similar to how in the 90s we saw feminists making compromises about Bill Clinton. He and his personal behavior were reprehensible to everything that they stood for in terms of feminism but by the same token he was taking many feminist, progressive, capital D Democratic actions… The same can be said when it comes to President Trump with conservative Evangelical Christians.

I think Trumpism is a phenomenon that bears a dozen fathers, and he’s not just a descendent of McCarthy or Nixon or Bill Clinton or whomever. Although, as you know, there is specific connective tissue with Joe McCarthy, in the sense that Joe McCarthy’s protegé was Roy Cohn and Roy Cohn’s protegé was Donald Trump.

You first started working as a journalist shortly before President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. You’ve also been very open about how you knew Monica Lewinsky prior to the scandal breaking. How do you think that episode shaped you as a journalist?

It was very influential on me as a journalist. I saw the media and the Democratic Party from a different perspective than a lot of other reporters. Bill Clinton took advantage of a young intern who worked for him. The behavior was indefensible and lying about it was reprehensible.

My perspective was [that] this was a young woman who didn’t deserve this. I couldn’t believe that President Clinton would take… I mean I believed it. But I was astounded and shocked and revulsed that President Clinton took advantage of her given that I knew her and knew how personally vulnerable I think she was at that age. And I didn’t think it was a joke. At the same time, a lot of the people in the Republican House who were professing horror at what Bill Clinton did had done the same exact thing.

It was an introduction to journalism where Washington appeared to be in many ways a town replete with hypocrites and liars and I think I would be naive to say it didn’t have a tremendous influence on how I look at a lot of politicians.

I think I was skeptical to begin with, just raised in a household where I was a little boy during Watergate and my parents were always suspicious of people in power. But that said, this underlined it.

I think it’s fair to say that the #MeToo movement has changed how many Americans look back on that period. Do you think it’s changed your perspective at all?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I’m 49 now and I’m married with two kids and to act as if when I was a 22 year old single man I was as enlightened as I fancy I am today… that would be silly. When I was 22 it was 1991 – a different era. But that said, it hasn’t changed my view of the abhorrence of that kind of behavior. But I think along with a lot of men it has opened my eyes as to how disgustingly widespread that kind of behavior is and I’m talking about everything from the most horrific infractions like those alleged to have been committed by Harvey Weinstein to the quote unquote smaller transgressions that still come down to men abusing their power. I think it has opened my eyes in terms of how widespread this is but certainly I’ve never been that kind of person and never thought that kind of behavior was acceptable.

I was in a fraternity at Dartmouth, and one of the reasons I de-pledged the fraternity was I didn’t like the way it made people act when it came to women. So it’s not as though these are news issues that I’ve been thinking about but I never knew it was as horrific for so many women as I’m aware it is today.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins was excluded from a White House press event after asking President Trump a number of questions during a July photo op with the President of the European commission. Several outlets, including Fox News, came to Ms. Collins’ defense and criticized the administration’s move. As a former White House correspondent, can you speak to the camaraderie in the press corps? How has it evolved under Trump?

The White House press corps is a very competitive environment, and it’s especially challenging because you want to be aggressively covering the White House but you also want to be getting scoops from administration officials. Sometimes those two things are at odds. If you are the most aggressive reporter in the press corps, the chances that you will be getting scoops diminish because people will not want to help you. And if you follow individual reporters’ work, you can see some opt try to get as many scoops as possible while others try to throw punches – and that’s in any White House.

That said, I do think the White House press corps needs to band together more. We can’t let presidents and press secretaries play us off each other – by not answering that guy’s question and using this woman’s question as a way of deflecting by calling on somebody else. We should be following up each other’s questions and standing up for each other. I tried to do that while I was in the White House press corps. One time I followed up on a reporter’s question that I didn’t think that President Obama had answered and he mockingly called me the “ombudsman of the room.” And I tried to stand up for colleagues who worked for Fox News channel when the Obama White House was trying to label the entire Fox News channel as not a legitimate news organization… and certainly I have my issues with plenty of hosts and things that are aired on that channel, but at the time I knew of some really good reporters who worked there – Major Garrett especially at the time. So I tried to do some of that; it’s not easy to do. And the more we see the better.

I saw some of it after what happened to Kaitlan Collins – now some of that occured because Kaitlan came from conservative media, as before she was at CNN she was at the Daily Caller so it was more difficult for people to label her some left-winger, which she isn’t obviously. But it was good to see people banding around her. But that said there’s not enough of it. And there needs to be more of it. There needs to be more solidarity and collegiality. But I do think this press corps has shown more of it than I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m curious how you would compare your more heated exchanges with former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to those between Sarah Huckabee Sanders and your contemporaries?

It’s different because the level of prevarication that comes out of this White House is so astounding. Gibbs and I had very heated exchanges, and I can’t speak for him, but certainly if I could go back… It’s not like I wouldn’t do things a little bit differently, but that said, the issues that I pushed on I think were legitimate issues to push on. And as a general note, I think we are in that room to challenge these people, to challenge the government. You’re making decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and those questions should be asked. I really don’t think one can compare my tough exchanges with Gibbs, or David Gregory’s tough exchanges with Ari Fleischer, to today’s interactions. It’s a different era. Sarah Sanders really doesn’t seem to like reporters very much, she doesn’t do the briefing very often anymore, and this White House just says a lot of things that are not true. Other White Houses have said things that aren’t true too, but, again, the sheer velocity and number of lies is staggering.  

For some time now, you haven’t hesitated to describe President Trump’s false statements as lies. Generally speaking, journalists have been reluctant to use that label. Why did you decide to start using it?

Saying someone is lying suggests that he or she knows what he or she is saying is false. It gets to intent. Sometimes journalists give someone the benefit of the doubt and judge the statement as false without getting into intent. But sometimes the falsehoods are so brazen or so repeated that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty to grant a benefit of the doubt.

During an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd back in August, President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani stated “truth isn’t truth” while trying to explain why the president should not testify before special counsel Robert Mueller. What criteria do you use to decide whether to cover a given controversial tweet or sound bite, when it can mean you and your audience may lose sight of the bigger picture?

Well, I try to make sure they don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and they don’t lose sight of the facts. When Giuliani said “truth isn’t truth” he was trying to suggest that what the Special Counsel believes is the truth about the President’s conversations with (Former FBI Director) James Comey isn’t necessarily the truth… and that what Comey says, which would theoretically be contradicted by President Trump, isn’t necessarily the truth. But a lot of these spokespeople for the President find themselves uttering these preposterous, Orwellian comments because they have to strain so hard to justify the fact that this is not a president who is particularly allegiant to facts. And that’s how you end up with “the facts are evolving” from Jay Sekulow or “truth is not truth” from Rudy Giuliani or “alternative facts” from Kellyanne Conway… They’re trying to justify the fact that this White House lies more often than any other White House in recent memory. So what’s always incumbent upon us in the media is to explain what the facts are. And that includes, by the way, what Giuliani was trying to say, but also to make sure that first and foremost our responsibility is to the viewers.

CNN received a great deal of criticism for how it covered the 2016 election, and in the past you’ve acknowledged that some mistakes were made. But you’ve also gone on the record to say that the GOP and figures like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz failed to truly challenge Trump until it was too late in the primary season. In your mind, how much responsibility does the news media bear — and how much responsibility do political parties bear — in vetting candidates?

It’s obvious we need to do it because we can’t rely on political parties to do it. Period. It’s obvious. If I’ve learned anything from the last three years, it’s that the media must step in and fill the breach when Congress or political parties give up their oversight responsibilities. It’s all up to us, sadly.

There will be some people who will hear your name and think that you’re a member of the “fake news.” What would you say to them?

If there are people out there who are inclined to believe the President of the United States when he attacks as illegitimate every single organization or person who attempts provide any oversight over him, whether that be Robert Mueller, the FBI, individual senators from his own party, from the Democratic party, or the media… if one is inclined to believe the most powerful person in the universe when he attacks those trying to provide oversight… then you’ve made your decision. I’m just going to keep providing the facts as best I can and trying to work on bridging the gap that we in the fourth estate have with the American people when it comes to distrust of the media.  

You’ve sat through a number of rather tense interviews with officials from the Trump administration. The two most heated that come to my mind are the February 2017 interview with Kellyanne Conway and the January 2018 sit-down with Stephen Miller. I understand there are some news anchors who have come to bar certain figures from their programs. Is there a point at which it is no longer beneficial to have a White House official on television?

I don’t think we can make rules like that. This is the White House, and they are supported by 40% of the American people at the very least. They run the government, and it’s our responsibility to ask them tough questions. So I don’t buy the idea that we shouldn’t have them on our shows as long as we’re committed to challenging them when they say things that aren’t true and trying to hold them accountable.  

There are certainly individual guests who I think are more insightful and provide more value to our viewers. I think Cabinet Secretaries or UN Ambassador Haley… people who can provide answers to questions that have to do with policy that are worthwhile. But by the same token, I don’t know that pretending that [other administration officials] don’t exist is our job.

Graham Vyse of The New Republic profiled you back in March, and he asserts throughout the piece that almost everyone, regardless of their political leanings, likes Jake Tapper.  Why do you think that is?

Well I don’t think that is. I don’t think that is. It was a kind piece. I think there are a lot of people who don’t like me or who dislike the work I do. And that’s okay.

While making clear that I do not agree with that premise, I do think that I aspire to be fair and I aspire to understand all points of view whether they come from the progressive-Bernie Sanders-Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez-Left or the Ben Sasse-Jeff Flake-Right or the Donald Trump-whatever-that-is. Because it’s not exactly conservatism. It’s its own kind of political ideology.

But that said, the Trump era has been a time for people in the media to stand for and defend the notion of empirical fact and the notion of truth and to point out behavior, when it’s appropriate, that is not decent, such as mocking somebody with a disability.

I don’t agree with the premise, but to the extent that it’s true that’s why, I suppose, it’s true. I mean, believe me, if you read my Twitter feed, and I don’t anymore, you would see that this is not a world full of 100% Tapper lovers.