In his memoir, The Enemy of the People, CNN’s chief White House correspondent recounts his struggle to report on an antagonistic president.
President Trump repeatedly called CNN and you “enemies of the people.” How did that affect your work?
That kind of language has consequences. The vast majority of Trump supporters are wonderful people and I have very nice interactions with them. But some folks absorb the president’s rhetoric and then take things too far and leave violent, threatening messages on social media and so on. Other reporters have encountered the same thing. That harassment and intimidation and bullying makes journalists feel endangered; it has a chilling effect. I don’t want my kids to grow up in a country where the press is called the enemy of the people.
Your questioning of the president got your White House press pass revoked. Why shouldn’t the president get to decide who gets in for his press conferences?
It has been accepted for a long time that, once members of the press have access to the White House, they have a First Amendment right to be there. That’s what the judge said in my case. Do we really want a country where the president can just tap somebody on the shoulder and say, “I didn’t like that story you did this morning in the New York Times—get out!”?
Critics say things like that, but at the White House I’ve broken stories, gotten exclusive interviews, questioned four heads of state and two presidents. In the book there’s a lot of new reporting on the administration. So I have been making it all about the news. As for that question, attorney general Jeff Sessions used a Biblical reference to justify the policy [of family separation at the border]. So I thought, well, Sarah Sanders is the daughter of a Baptist preacher, perhaps she might weigh in on this. I suppose a critic could read that question as grandstanding, but a creative question aimed at penetrating talking points and spin is sometimes the right way to go.
About the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and the counterprotests there, you write, “I felt a profound shift in how this White House had to be covered” and “neutrality for the sake of neutrality doesn’t really serve us in the Age of Trump.” Could that suggest to critics that you might be less than fair in your reporting?
That passage follows a section on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and the president’s equivocation on it. I could have said, “Well, some critics say the president equivocated on white supremacist violence,” but I don’t think that’s accurate; he really did equivocate, no question about it. Again, folks might say, “You’re editorializing; you’re offering your opinion.” But when the president said there were “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville, that was problematic. There were fine people among the counterprotesters, like Heather Heyer, who died when a white supremacist ran her over. But on the other side were neo-Nazis and white supremacists. I think I was within my lane of straight news reporting in saying, “Mr. President, there are no fine people among Nazis.” As for “neutrality for the sake of neutrality,” there aren’t two sides to the story when it’s a matter of right and wrong. There’s nothing right about neo-Nazis causing so much mayhem that a woman is dead in the streets. You can’t be neutral about something as heinous as neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Writing about the Trump administration, you say that “never had an administration been so willing to distort the truth publically or to rely on fabrications to justify its behavior.” Is President Trump worse in that regard than other presidents? For example, has Trump’s dishonesty done more damage than Lyndon Johnson’s use of deceptive claims about attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate the Vietnam War, or George W. Bush’s use of untrue claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq War?
Just recently, Washington Post fact-checkers found that President Trump, since coming into office, has made approximately 10,000 false or misleading statements. That doesn’t include previous statements like the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States—which may be the greatest political lie in American history. So yes, there were times when Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were not straight with the American people. But when Trump makes 10,000 false or misleading statements over two years, he has very likely exceeded the number of false or misleading statements uttered by previous presidents.
Is there a grain of truth to claims of biased coverage of President Trump and his supporters by the mainstream media?
I have never witnessed a concerted effort by any news organization to take a stand one way or the other on a political issue, to damage one particular party or help another. We have been far more honest and straightforward with the American people than President Trump has. Are there times when we fall short? Sure. But the press issues corrections. When was the last time you saw the president issue a correction or a clarification? It’s a rare thing for Donald J. Trump.