President Trump's Washington
0:41 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. From the perspective of most journalists actively covering the presidency of Donald Trump, current White House operations resemble less a well-oiled, 500-employee unit of senior government, and more like a circus where someone keeps leaving the cages open. From the perspective of millions of Americans who strongly support President Trump, it’s the journalists who look like a clown act—and the government officials secretly helping them are the real animals. But one metaphor no one can dispute: this White House has been a roller coaster. Every time the ride appears to be straightening out—a firing or resignation turns the White House on its head. There was Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who was concealing from the Vice President his behind-the-scenes conversations with Russia—and is now under federal investigation for that. The controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey. The dismissals of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and most recently the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price—after revelations of multiple cabinet members crisscrossing the skies on government funded private jets. Amid all that has been a firehose of internal leaks—often from, it appears, White House officials who are supposedly allies of the president. Disclosures that in May President Trump revealed highly classified information during an Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. Or, James Comey’s admission that he instructed a friend to leak memos recounting how the president asked him to end the investigation into Gen. Flynn and swear personal loyalty to him. Leaks of emails suggesting the president’s son Don Jr. met during the campaign with Russian government representatives. More recently, the disclosure of highly sensitive emails showing the White House wasn’t actually sure if it was sending condolences to all U.S. soldiers killed in action. And then there was the astonishing 10-day reign as White House communications director of Anthony Scaramucci — otherwise known as “The Mooch.”
Our guest in this episode is The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who has a special connection with Scaramucci. It was Ryan who received the now-infamous phone call in July during which Scaramucci demanded to know the identities of Lizza’s White House sources. On the same call, he threatened to fire everyone on the White House communications team and made a remarkable series of other colorful remarks. Five days later, Scaramucci was fired too. So where is this all headed? Whose fault is it? How are serious journalists grappling with so unique and unpredictable a White House? Ryan Lizza is The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, an on-air correspondent for CNN, and an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University’s Department of Government. He’s also the winner of the 2012 National Press Club’s Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. Thank you for being here.
Ryan Lizza: Hey, thanks for having me back.
Lizza: A lot to talk about.
Blackmon: A lot to talk about, exactly.
Lizza: Yeah, a lot’s happened in the last year since I was sitting here.
3:34 Blackmon: Really? (laughter) Let’s start with Scaramucci. It’s not, it’s not the most recent news.
Blackmon: It’s still just an astonishing story. But so first just, how did this come to pass that you had this conversation with Scaramucci—who was already getting all sorts of attention at the time for other odd things he said—but how did it come to pass that you end up in this conversation that you record, and that leads to the events that it did?
Lizza: Yeah, the whole story is actually a great tale of sort of how Washington works right now. How journalism works. And tells you a lot about, in my opinion, the Trump White House, especially the pre-John Kelly Trump White House. Kelly’s the chief of staff that comes in in the summer. Here’s how it happened. I learned that Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, was having dinner with the president and Sean Hannity of Fox News, and I thought that was, you know, somewhat interesting, right? And when you get like a small, I don’t know, we sometimes call those scooplets in Washington, right? It’s a piece of information that is, may not justify a whole piece, but people want to know if the president’s meeting with Sean Hannity, this very important figure at Fox News, and that Scaramucci, the new communications director, is sort of facilitating it.
Anyway he calls. And you know, we posted some of the audio at NewYorker.com, so you can listen to it. But he starts immediately just asking, “Who told you about the dinner?” And I thought it was so strange, because I thought it was such a trivial piece of information, and frankly, it’s the kind of thing that the White House actually confirms routinely. It’s not a big secret who Trump has dinner with. It’s something that leaks out all the time, it’s something that would have been public anyway. So I was just kind of baffled that he was so insistent on getting the source from me. And then he, as he talked, he just convinced himself that the source of the information was Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, and the person who was his sort of mortal enemy inside the White House, because Reince had prevented him from having that White House job for, at that point I think seven months. And then the conversation just sort of, you know, skidded into all these other territories where he talked about Steve Bannon, and the top political strategist, had lots of colorful things to say about Reince Priebus, and to me, perhaps the most newsworthy thing he said was that he had brought in the FBI to the White House to investigate the chief of staff.
Blackmon: Which, of course, wasn’t true, as far as we know.
Lizza: As far as we know, he just made that up.
Lizza: If he, but I thought that was like, shockingly Watergate level scandalous, that the new communications director had called the FBI on the chief of staff? I mean who calls the FBI on one of their workplace rivals? So, I was sort of blown away by the whole conversation, it was about, just under 10 minutes long, I recorded it, we—and then, I got off the phone, and I, you know, I downloaded the file onto my computer, and I actually named the file, “Insane Scaramucci Interview.” Which, I just thought it was so, it was so unusual. But the FBI thing really stuck in my mind as like, just very newsworthy, and he got off the phone, and the last thing he said to me was, “I got to go, I’ve got to tweet some S-word to make this guy crazy.” This guy being Reince Priebus. And I thought, what? And so, as soon as he got off the phone, he tweeted this sort of slightly cryptic thing that said, I forget the exact language, but it essentially was him saying that the FBI has been contacted about leakers in the White House, and then he tagged Reince Priebus. So, it was a little—so then as soon as he tweeted that, everyone on political Twitter started saying, what is going on here? What does he mean? Is he tagging Reince Priebus because he’s alleging that Reince is the leaker, or is he just trying to inform Reince Priebus that he’s called the FBI? So, of course I had just had this conversation, I knew exactly what he meant. The conversation was fully on the record, and I tweeted, “I can confirm that he’s talking about investigating Reince Priebus.” Right? Now as soon as I tweeted that, people were like, “Well, how did you know that? What’s going on here?” CNN called me, I was on the phone on CNN, they were just trying to, you know, everyone’s trying to get to the bottom of this. And he then deleted his initial tweet. And denied that he was talking about Reince Priebus. All right? So now I’m in this very unusual position where I’ve just had this on the record conversation, where he’s told me he’s calling the FBI on Reince, he tweeted about it, I confirmed it, he then deleted the tweet and backed down, and said it’s not true. (laughter) So that’s when I realized all right, I’ve got to write a long piece, I’ve got to write a piece explaining all of this, and you know, waited until the next day to do that, and wrote my account of the conversation. I wanted to call him one more time before we posted the piece at The New Yorker, because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss anything in the conversation about him saying it was off the record, or private in any way. And so we had a sort of difficult conversation that afternoon, and I said, “You know, looking at the very newsworthy conversation we had last night, you’re the communications director for the White House, I’m going to write this up, it’s very important and newsworthy.” And he, you know, he agreed that it wasn’t off the record, that it was within my rights to write about it, but asked me not to. And I told him well, you know—
8:56 : And just so, people don’t believe this oftentimes, who are not involved in journalism or the media, but the what’s on the record and what’s off the record is actually taken very seriously by journalists, and—
Lizza: Yeah, very much so.
Blackmon: And the rule, typically, is that particularly when you’re dealing with someone who knows the game like the White House communications director is supposed to know how these things work, and so the rule is that he would have had to say to you, “This is off the record,” before he started saying these things.
Lizza: Yeah look, off the record, especially, I sometimes give a little bit of leeway to someone who’s never talked to a journalist, you know? But off the record between government sources, especially at the highest levels of the White House, and a journalist, is a negotiated contract, right? [Blackmon: Literally.] Literally, the de facto presumptive relationship between a communications director and a White House reporter is that it’s on the record. If he wanted to go off the record, the contract is a very simple, verbal contract, “Hey I want to tell you something off the record, is that OK,” right? It’s not him saying, and very often, when you’re dealing with sources that you’re familiar with, if someone just says, “All right, this is off the record,” you don’t give them a verbal OK, it’s fine, you’re going to respect that. But it’s a negotiated contract, it’s the source saying, “Hey, can I tell you something off the record?” And the journalist saying, “OK, I’ll allow that.” What I was shocked at is that he didn’t really have familiarity with that maybe, you know, didn’t understand that. And so I don’t know if he wanted all of this reported, and wanted it to be on the record, but then changed his mind, or if he just wasn’t experienced enough with dealing with the press that he didn’t know that that’s how you go off the record. (laughter)
10:32 Blackmon: What is the deal with all these leaks? I mean, how, you know, I mean that it would be the case that immediately in a new presidency. Ah, it was clear that there were, that a lot of information was coming out from people who in fact, are supposed to be allies of the president, and may well have direct access to the president of the United States?
Lizza: You know, people always ask what’s the difference between covering Obama and covering Trump, and obviously there are lots of differences. But, in a lot of ways, covering this White House is easier for journalists than the Obama White House, and the Bush White House. Because the Obama and Bush White House were, especially early on, they were very, very good at controlling information. They had internal disagreements, but they were very good about not leaking on each other too much. The Trump White House, especially up until before John Kelly took over as chief of staff, is very factionalized.
And whenever you’re a reporter covering an institution that is at war internally, that’s going to be easier as a journalist, because people have an incentive to give you information. So, early on you had the Jared Kushner faction, that’s the president’s son-in-law, of course. You had the Reince Priebus faction, the chief of staff, and you had the Steve Bannon faction. Those were the three general groups.
Someone once explained to me that on any decision, if you could get two of those groups onboard, you could probably get the president to agree with you. So you had to get two of the three kind of, you know, it’s like Game of Thrones, you had to like, win over houses, you know, to win the battle. And that’s not totally unusual. Every White House has camps, the Reagan White House was deeply factionalized. But, they leaked on each other, and they had an incentive to get information out into the press. You have a lot of—especially before John Kelly took over, a lot of strategic leaking to reporters. So you have to be very careful, people in this White House lie. They will tell you things that just aren’t truthful. And so, you have to be much, much careful with information that’s coming, especially anonymously, from these guys. And so, you have that. And then, you know, you talked about the deep state, and that’s become sort of this conspiratorial term, but there is an existing bureaucracy in Washington, many, filled with many people who, you know, are not high on Trump, and feel threatened by a lot of what he’s trying to do. And you get, there’s a lot of great information coming, flowing from that world. And all, you know, within the Pentagon, at the State Department, I mean you just, you see a lot of great journalism being produced because there’s so much information coming out. I think Kelly has changed things a little bit, a lot of the people that Washington reporters like myself knew from the campaign, some of them are gone now, so there’s a new set of sources that need to be developed, and he’s done a little bit better job in closing the White House down. And then, Trump has this weird thing, you know, Roger Stone, one of his longtime advisors, likes to say Trump likes advice when he’s not paying for it, right?
So people that have worked for Trump for years that he then gets sick of and fires, he still talks to them. Steve Bannon has been fired from the White House, he still talks to him. And so, there are a lot of players on the outside who, um, talk to Trump, and then you, and then talk to the press. So you have more information coming out, believe it or not, than some previous recent White Houses.
13:53 Blackmon: Very recently, it came out after the controversy, this really, for me personally, one of the most startling and depressing of these controversies that has come up, of where we’ve ended up with the president, and the widow of a killed serviceman, you know, in an ugly public argument, that’s just mind boggling to me when all this started, that the White House suddenly realized maybe we haven’t been on top of sending condolences to all the servicemen, and so they contact the Department of Defense to ask about this. Now you, you’re not someone who reported on that, you didn’t, the leak of that email—OK, so you can—
Lizza: I didn’t, no. I think it was originally reported by Roll Call, I believe.
14:30 Blackmon: Yeah, I think that’s right. And so, you can speculate on this. So, if we’re trying to figure that out as readers, so obviously the people closest to the president, they’re asking this question because they realized that oh gosh, he’s just said he’s contacted everybody, or implied it, have we really? And so like, we better get on this. And you know, this typical information management sort of thing, we need to make sure that’s true, and if it’s not true, fix it. So they sent an email that now has come out to the Department of Defense, asking about this, and then there’s a reply, and so, but then we all see that email, this highly sensitive thing that’s really very embarrassing to the White House, because it suggests that actually they’re not on top of this very sensitive thing. [Lizza: Yeah.] So, using your deductive powers of reasoning and Spidey sense, you know, so where did that come from? Where must that have come from? Just your best—
Lizza: I mean, just, you would assume someone at the Pentagon who thought that the White House was not being honest about this, and wanted this information to come out, right? Is that what your editor sense thought?
Blackmon: Yeah. That’s what my editor sense would say, yeah.
Lizza: But then again, you never know. [Blackmon: You never know.] You never know with this White House, maybe there’s someone in the White House, and you know, at the NSC or something else that caught wind of this, and wanted it.
15:40 Blackmon: Yeah, and for some reason it passed through, in front of their eyes. The reporter has to be careful not to be played by all of this. And even, and even more so, I know in my experience, I joke about it sometimes, not unkindly, but that every whistleblower is, on some level, slightly crazy. (laughter) Because you’re, anybody who sets fire to the house they live in, you know, there’s slight, something slightly crazy about that. [Lizza: Yeah.] Unless it has, you know, reached a kind of extreme crisis sort of thing. But, and so they tend to be people who are swept up in the passion of this injustice that they must combat, and so they’re a little hysterical oftentimes, and they’re—
Lizza: Sometimes they have a slightly inflated sense of self-importance. And that’s, and I don’t want to—
Blackmon: And the significance of the information.
Lizza: Yeah. You have to be very careful with whistleblowers, not every whistleblower is, you know, is a hero. You have to be careful, you have to judge them on their own merits, see what the information is, how important it is. That’s, but I know you’re, as a newsman who’s seen a lot of whistleblowers in your time, I know what you’re talking about. (laughter) [Blackmon: Yeah, and—] There’s a couple of rules in journalism. One is every investigative reporter is a conspiracy theorist. And every whistleblower is slightly crazy. These are exaggerations, but this is, there’s something to them.
Blackmon: Well, and it also can turn out to be the case that the whistleblower is crazy, or is a disgruntled employee, who did do a bad thing, and was being fired, and that’s what got them mad, but their information may also be correct.
Lizza: Yeah, and it’s your responsibility to take the information and sort of make sure you understand what is an exaggeration, and their interpretation of this information, and go to other sources, and vet it. And you know, you have to be, you know, you have to be very careful not to take their exact verbatim story about the importance of this information, and what it means. It’s, you know, just one source if you’re developing a big, broader story. [Blackmon: So—] But Trump has, I mean the, the gist of a lot of this conversation is that journalism under Trump has experienced just this renaissance, this boom. I mean, it’s just, you know, all of the reporters that I know that cover Trump feel like they are, well, my line is, I can’t remember a time since June of 2015 where I wasn’t thinking, writing, tweeting, talking, about Donald Trump. Right?
I mean I really can’t remember a moment. And so, you know, you—and among journalists, there’s a lot of joking about self-care, and getting vacation, and like, having some like, you know, leisure activities where you’re not just thinking about Trump, because he tends to, he tends to dominate the political conversation in a way that no political figure ever has.
18:30 Blackmon: Speaking of that, we just had, just very recently, there was a meeting of all the living ex-presidents [Lizza: Yeah.] down in Texas. And President Carter said some things then, and then in a subsequent interview where President Carter actually came out somewhat in defense of President Trump, and said that the media essentially was being unfairly harsh on him, had been harder on him than any other president in maybe all of history. What do you make of that? Is there any truth to that?
Lizza: Maybe, it might be true that, I mean modern presidents. I think that the press has been justifiably adversarial and tough, because he does represent something new and different in American politics, and recognizing that, and covering it aggressively as a response, I think, is completely defensible. So, a lot of the times, you know, not every president is exactly the same. And the press’s response to different presidents are going to be different. We, previous presidents didn’t talk about taking away the FCC licenses of TV stations who air reports that the president doesn’t like. Previous presidents didn’t talk about changing libel laws to make it easier to go after journalists. Previous presidents didn’t talk about admiring various strongmen in the world like Putin, and Erdogan, and others. So he represents something new and different, and it’s very important to be clear-eyed about that as a journalist. And not to give into this idea from his supporters that if you’re being adversarial, if you’re covering him more aggressively than previous presidents, who didn’t have these, you know, frankly anti-democratic instincts, that you’re somehow being partisan. There’s a book called On Bull, On BS. And I’m forgetting the author of the book, and I’m basically just repeating Fareed Zakaria’s column here, but he made a very interesting point that his argument was that President Trump is not necessarily a liar, he’s a BSer.
And the difference is, a BSer just throws out anything at hand, any argument, and doesn’t necessarily have a good grasp on what’s fact and what’s fiction. It’s just a constant stream of BS. Whereas a liar is almost better in some ways, they’re more lawyerly, they’re more—it’s more planned out, they have a good understanding of when they’re crossing the line from fact to fiction. And that that’s the way to think about Trump, which I thought was a smart point.
20:32 Blackmon: Jerry Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, or chief Washington correspondent, was here a while back, sitting in the same spot. And I asked him, I think, if it’s been established that whether anything the president is saying is completely accurate or truthful is unlikely, you know, it’s sort of been established that that’s, that it is BS, likely to be, maybe partly true, but that the White House itself isn’t particularly concerned about whether it’s completely true, then in the end, does it matter whether it’s true or not? I mean if we all sort of know that it’s BS, does it matter? Of course, Jerry said that of course it does, because when it’s time to explain why the nuclear missiles are being launched, you want the American people to believe that it’s not BS.
Lizza: Yeah, I think that, I mean that’s the thing that is scariest to me is you need, they’re going, there are moments when you have to trust the Commander-in-Chief, and especially moments where, you know, the use of force is going to be used. And a good chunk of the country doesn’t believe him
21:51 Blackmon: Opponents of the president are very focused on, of course, is the investigation by Bob Mueller, and related things coming out of that. You and I conducted an interview together under sort of odd circumstances a few months ago, I probably don’t need to go into the details of it, but we jointly interviewed Sally Yates for four hours or something like that [Lizza: Yeah.] when, shortly after she had been fired by the president as acting attorney general. And then you wrote a profile of her that was in The New Yorker, and then I wrote a sort of separate sort of thing that was my take on what was happening, and sort of what we could deduce, particularly about General Flynn at the time, and related things.
And the sort of conclusion of this long piece that I wrote was that, that Russiagate, it was essentially a scandal from which the Trump White House would never be able to recover, I sort of called it that, and I still stick with that. [Lizza: Yeah.] Now, what exactly that means, I’m not, in terms of, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I would say he’s definitely, certainly to be impeached, or that he’s going to be forced to resign, and in fact, he may well be reelected, but I think he’ll still never escape the complexities of this. But where do you see, at this stage of the game, all of that going, whether it’s likelihood of impeachment, or likelihood of a family member being indicted on a, for a business transaction, or some other offshoot of this? Where do you see all that?
Lizza: Don’t listen to anyone who says oh yes, Trump is going to be indicted, and he’s going to, you know, or he’s going to be impeached for obstruction of justice. We know that Mueller is looking at it very carefully, and if he didn’t, everyone would say hey, why didn’t you? But it’s, he could give him a—he could just as easily say, I looked at this, and no crime was committed, as the opposite. So you have to be prepared for either outcome. If he actually decides that obstruction of justice was committed, you also have to believe has a very strong case. Because it’s such a, it’s such a, it would be such an Earth shattering event, right? Because then he’s got to make this decision, can the president be indicted? Or does he just hand over this information to Congress, and suggest that the remedy here is only impeachment, right? This is the same decision that Ken Starr had to make with Bill Clinton. Some legal scholars don’t believe the president can be indicted, and that the Constitution reserves impeachment for these cases only.
Starr himself actually had his team draw up an argument, a legal brief, explaining why they did believe that a sitting president could be indicted, even though in the end he decided to hand over the information to the House of Representatives, which pursued impeachment. If he does hand over the information, it goes to a Republican House. They might say, “Oh, we’re not that impressed with this case, we’re not pursuing articles of impeachment.” So whatever he concludes is going to be, he’s going to have a big decision to make.
Blackmon: Ryan Lizza, thanks for joining us. If you have a question about this or any other episode of American Forum, reach out to me via the email on your screen or on Twitter @douglasblackmon. I promise I won’t get in a war with you. You can follow our guest @RyanLizza. But in this era of dubious news, do some reporting of your own, too. Visit Millercenter.org for information on every presidency and all the top issues facing national leaders. Watch live tapings of American Forum on the Miller Center Facebook page. And if you’re not sure about reporters, follow the administration’s official twitter feed @WhiteHouse. Or best of all: keep up with the president @realDonaldTrump. Most of all—don’t automatically accept anything we or anyone else has to say about our country’s issues and leadership. Ignore all the loud voices for a little while, and trust your judgment about what and who you can trust. Most of us actually can spot fake news, it’s just whether we’re willing to work hard enough to do it. That’s all for now. See you next week.