John Harris - How Politico Is Adapting to the Trump Era - Extended Interview

Extended - June 20, 2017 - John Harris 06/20/2017 Views: 31,904

Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris talks about the challenges of covering the Trump White House, even when the president's administration is one of the most transparent. (9:18)

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Please welcome John Harris.

(cheers and applause)

Thank you.

Welcome to the show.

-Thank you, Trevor.-What a time to have you on.

I could not be more pleased.

Uh, Politico is in the throes

of what is happening right now,especially considering

how Donald Trumpand his administration

speak about the news

and news media as a whole.

Let's take a-a step backin the story, uh,

in terms of talkingabout Politico

as an organization.

-Sure. -You workedat The Washington Post

-for over 20 years.-Sure.

You started Politico

as a publicationthat was going to talk

-about what was happening in DC.-Right.

Looking at what is happeningin DC now...

It's easy for us to say stufffrom the outside,

but as someone who's been

so closely tied to itfor a long time,

how does thisfeel different to you?

The internalWashington conversation,

the inside,the Beltway conversation,

the bubble or what all...Whatever you call it.

That's becomea national conversation

in ways that are totally outsidemy experience as a journalist.

I'll go home and talkto high school friends

who didn't used to care at all

about what was going onin Washington

or what I did as a journalist.

They're obsessed with the story

um, and, you know, know about itas much as our reporters do.

-'Cause people have itin their... -Right.

A needle in the vein24 hours a day.

That's what Trumpand the whole Trump phenomenon,

I think, has done.

Of course,from a narrow point of view,

as the founder of Politico,

it's obviously goodfor business.

Uh, our traffic, off the sites.

The way other people's are.

You know, as a general rule,

what's good for us in the press

isn't alwaysin the best interest

-of the country.-Right.

Um, but people careabout the country.

They care about what's going onin Washington,

and they have strong feelingsabout it.

So that's good,and we, of course,

want them coming to our site.

So, as much as it's goodfor business,

what would you say the purposeof your business is?

Beyond just making money,

beyond just having somethingthat is considered successful,

what are you trying to dowithin your organization?

We're tryingto make ourselves indispensable

to people who careabout politics,

care about the workingsof government.

-Uh-huh.-And the way we do that

is by telling theminteresting stories

that are true stories.

So we try as best we canevery day

-with an army of reporters...-Uh-huh.

...backed upby a very solid core of editors

to get as closeto the truth as we can

with lots of obstaclesin the way.

Uh, uh, officials that tell usthe opposite of the truth,

officials who throw up walls,

and just confusing facts.

Is that like a journalism thing,

where you can't justsay "lying"?

-(laughter)-I'll say it.

Like, if someone tells you theopposite of truth, is that...?

-What-what is... what is that?-That is a lie, Trevor.

-Oh, okay. No, I...-Don't mind saying that.

I always wondered about that.I always wondered.

But when you talk about...

I would say if they're doing iton purpose, it's a lie.

Huh. Okay, that's interesting.

So, the intention behind it isoftentimes what changes that.

When we look at these peoplein the administration,

one thing that has cometo the fore over and over again

-is the conversation aroundanonymous sources. -Sure.

The president says we shouldn'thave anonymous sources.

People in the administrationsay, "No anonymous sources.

"These people are lying.

"They are leaking stuff.It's not real.

"But the stuffthey leak is real.

Don't listen to it,but it's fake."

(laughter)

Help me understand,

-as a layman who is justreading this... -Sure.

...what is the purposeof an anonymous source,

and more importantly,what is the process

in and around sourcingfrom anonymous people?

Well, the purposeof an anonymous source

is to get to the truth.

Uh, would I rather havean on-the-record source?

I would,as would any journalist.

The reality is, if you're reallygoing to try to penetrate

and get to the truth, you'regoing to rely on lots of people

who are willingto tell you the truth

-or some fragment of the truth.-Right.

And it's then up to youto assemble,

and they're often not goingto have their names attached.

If I could point out, to me,it's an interesting paradox.

Anybody listeningto the president

or listening to his peoplecan hear the contempt

they express for reporters.

And you get the sense of thisvery antagonistic relationship.

That's true, in a way.

In another way, however,

this must be among the mosttransparent administrations

I've covered, going backa good long while now.

-Wait. What?-Uh...

-(laughter)-Ordinarily...

Did you just say this is one

of the most transparentadministrations...?

It's simultaneouslytransparent and secretive.

Both are true.

The transparent part is whatsurprises me.

-Are we high right now?-(laughter)

-What does at the mean?-Let me tell you.

Ordinarily, if you want to knowwhat's going on

inside a West Wing,you wait a couple of years

-for Bob Woodwardto write his book. -Right.

Or you wait ten years forsomebody to write their memoir,

and say, "Oh, my gosh, that waswhat was really going on."

Currently, we're finding out...finding this out in real time.

We know that Steve Bannon

and Jared Kushnerdon't like each other.

We know Donald Trumpis talking with people

about whether he should get ridof his chief of staff,

-Reince Priebus.-Right.

All of it playing outin the media, in Politico,

and in our competitors,in more or less real time.

Why is that?

Because this West Wing isdominated by factions.

It's dominated by insecurepeople who are worried

what their adversaries aresaying about them,

and above all, it's dominated

by a president who's obsessedwith press coverage.

So a lot of people knowthat if they want to get

a word to the boss, well,the media is one way to do it.

So, simultaneouslyas people are telling us...

-(laughter)-They think it's funny. Uh...

Uh... as people are throwing upwalls for the press,

some of these same people, uh,

are actuallyamong our best sources,

telling us what's happening,uh, in the West Wing.

So, then,here's a question I have.

-If these people have...-The secrecy part, by the way,

Trevor, is true-- lots of thingsthat should be done in public,

uh, are not being donein public.

White House press briefings--

sometimes the camerasare not allowed.

More consequentialpolicy decisions--

the administration is clammingup with important documents.

Back in the campaign,uh, President Trump,

uh, then candidate Trumpdidn't release his tax returns.

That stuff should bein the public, and it's not.

But it's not truethat we reporters

are out of businessbecause of that.

We work hard, we reportfrom various, uh... angles,

take advantage of these factionsthat are around Trump,

and we get a pretty good versionof the truth.

Here's a questionI have, though.

When you look at the factionsthat are in and around Trump,

do you not worry that theremay be ulterior motives

in why they're telling youwhat they're telling you?

So let's sayyou have a Bannon camp

and you have a Kushner camp--how can you trust

that the personfrom the Bannon camp

is not saying somethingto disparage Kushner

because they knowthat the press will take it?

Like, I...I honestly don't understand

how we know that Donald Trumphas Russia stories

saved on his DVR?

I don't understandhow we know that

without knowing... like,seeing the DVR ourselves.

Like, that'sjust somebody telling us?

Do they, like...take a picture of the DVR list

to show it to you?

Like, how do we confirmthese things

as more than just "somebody saidin the administration"?

The truth comes out over time.

Ben Bradlee, the great Washington Post editor, uh,

who was in charge of the Post when I started my career there,

before Politico, he saidthe truth comes out in pieces,

over time.

And so any individual story,it's our best effort

-to get to the truth.-Uh-huh.

The reader judges over timewhich publications are reliable,

which publicationsseem to have editors in charge

of making surethat the stories that...

are in the... are reliable,

-Right. -and thatthey play out over time.

You don't just go to one sideand, uh, fill up your bucket

and just throw it outto the public.

You do put it through a filterof additional reporting.

And I would say,at a place like Politico,

where we have lots of editors

who take their jobvery seriously, what we do is,

we're as skepticalwith our own reporters

as we might be with sources.

How do we know this?Is this fair? Is this true?

Have we gone and dug deeperand asked somebody else

for their side of the story?

And you do as best you can.

Increasingly-- and this is a bigchange in the news business--

you do it in real time.

Um... everything has sped up,

and, uh... we live with that.

But our core valuesof trying to get to the truth,

they haven't changed.

But now you read more Twitter.

(laughter)

Look, um...

the president'sTwitter account--

I said everything's speeded up.

We had to...for Nixon, we had to wait

for the White House tapesto come out.

And some of them didn't come outtill years later.

"Oh, my gosh,that's what he was thinking."

Trump, in his own way,is transparent.

You don't have to wait, uh...

for him to, uh, to tell youwhat's on his mind,

to tell you who he's angry at,

uh, what his vendettas are,

who he wants to pay back--all you have to do is wait

till about ten of 6:00in the morning,

That's usuallywhen he starts, right?

Uh, 5:50, 5:55, out he goes.

And so in that sense...

again, people are surprised,

because they think of Trumpas secretive-- that's true,

but he's also transparentin his own way.

That's also true, Trevor.

Wow. Thank you so muchfor being here.

We will keep reading,

we will see over timewhat truths are revealed,

and, uh, I wish youthe best of luck.

-Thank you so much. -Thank youso much for being here.

John Harris, everybody.

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