Understanding Donald Trump

interview with Robert Costa
via Uncommon Knowledge
Monday, January 9, 2017
Robert Costa on covering Donald Trump

Recorded on December 8, 2016

Robert Costa, an American journalist who writes for the Washington Post, joins Peter Robinson to discuss his insights into president-elect Donald Trump after covering him for the past several years. Costa discusses Trump's mentality on running for president in 2011 compared with 2013, when he made a more serious effort. Costa explains how Trump, an Ivy League billionaire, is able to connect with blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan based on his experience on The Apprentice. Costa analyzes the workings of Trump's inner circle, including Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon, and Trump's cabinet picks. Finally, Peter Robinson and Robert Costa discuss  change between the presidency and the fourth estate with Trump’s election.

 
 

 

Full transcript below:

 

Peter Robinson: The United States of America has never seen a presidential election quite like the one that just ended or a president-elect quite like the one who's about to take office. Here to make sweet sense of it all, one of the nation's finest political reporters, the Washington Post Robert Costa on Uncommon Knowledge now. 

(Intro)  

Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge.  I'm Peter Robinson.  Robert Costa grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, just up the Delaware from Philadelphia.  He earned his bachelors degree in American Studies at Notre Dame and a master’s degree in politics at Cambridge.  Mr. Costa has worked at the Wall Street Journal and at National Review.  And three years ago, he joined the Washington Post.  He appears frequently on television, so frequently on television that the week after the election I think I caught you on Charlie Rose three nights in a row, could have been more.  In the words of one media critic, Mr. Costa is omnipresent.  And to prove it, he's here.  Bob Welcome.  

Robert Costa: Good to be here.

Bob Costa, in the Washington Post in early October, I am quoting something that you published just two months ago as we record this.  Quote: 

"The Republican Party tumbled toward anarchy Monday over its presidential nominee after Friday's publication of a 2005 video showing him bragging about sexual assault.  Clinton surged to an 11-percentage point lead.  Trump ally William J. Bennett was pained as he spoke about the nominee: It's a shame, a crying shame, but he can't win, Bennett said. He should step down." 

Closed quote. Just two months ago.  What happened?  Get us from that moment to election night.

Well I remember filing that exact story on Friday night.  And the person who broke that story, David Fahrenthold, was sitting right next to me as he broke it in the Washington Post news room.  I think the most important story is the story I published the day after.  So, I go into the news room on Saturday after the story breaks on a Friday-

Story breaks on a Friday, go ahead. 

Go in on a Saturday, it's an empty newsroom.  And I'm thinking to myself, the whole party's calling me and saying Trump's gotta get out. It's over.  This tape's horrible.  And Trump's, from what I hear, up in Trump Tower watching television alone in his apartment.  And so, I call him up.  I call up Trump the day after the tape breaks and I get him on his cell phone immediately, and I say, are you watching TV?  He's watching TV.  And I said, are you gonna quit the race?  'Cause he'd read the story.  He'd read every other story.  And he said, "Costa I will never withdraw.  I will never quit."  He started talking about life.  And I put this all in the Sunday paper, about how he has been through so much in his business and his career, and his life, personal life, that he's not gonna quit.  And so, that ended up being the Sunday front, "I will never withdraw" from the cellphone of Donald Trump to the Washington Post on Saturday afternoon.  And I think it really underscored to me his defiance in spite of everything swirling around him.  Everyone thought he would lose, thought it was over.

You just turned 31. You've known Donald Trump for five or six years. How did you, a cub reporter in his mid-twenties, get to know Donald Trump? How did it come about?

Well, before I joined the Post, as you said, I was at National Review.  And when Trump was doing the birther episode and pursual of whatever he was doing, we covered it a little bit.  We were skeptical of what he was doing at National Review, but we covered it.  When he was flirting with the presidential run we covered it.  And I took it seriously because I saw, especially post-President George W. Bush this vacuum in the Republican party.  I'm not an academic, I'm not an expert, but I saw this vacuum of power.  I saw a Republican party that in many ways is splintered apart.  And my own instincts told me that there was an opening possibly for populism.  And so, in Trump, this celebrity populous figure, even though he didn't have a coherent ideology, I thought this is someone I should pay attention to.  This is someone who could actually could rise.  And I benefited, not so much by my own acumen or clever scheming as a reporter.  But not many national reporters covered politics, wanted to talk to Trump.  He had flirted with politics before, and he was seen as a not very serious pursuit.  But I always kept it on my stove, in a sense as a reporter saying this is something that could grow, could become something.

And so how did you actually get to know him?

He was very easy to get to know. It wasn't that hard.

Were you in New York or Washington? Which one?

I was in Washington at the time.

Okay.

But I really started to cover Trump closely in 2013 and he had decided to go to Iowa and it got very little coverage.  It was laughed at.  But I spoke to him in 2013 and I put a story in National Review, and you can still find it online.  Trump thinks about 2016 bid, heads to Iowa.  Even at National Review, there were discussions then in 2013, should we actually publish this.  But I had talked to Trump at length in 2013.  And he was different than the Trump I had encountered in 2011.  In 2011, when he was thinking about running for president, it was clearly a playful flirtation.  It was not that serious.

Right.

In 2013 I saw him in a different way, thinking about the country falling apart in his eyes.  And he thought the country was broken.  He thought the political class was out of touch.  And it just seemed more real to me compared to what I'd seen in 2011. 

So, Donald Trump in 2013 struck you, Bob Costa, as a serious man.

Uh huh.

And he was easy to reach? Well, you developed -- 

He was very easy to reach.

You developed a relationship.  I mean, you now have the ability to call him on this, well who knows, after now the National Security Agency might be monitoring your calls.  But so, you could walk up to him.  You could get to know...Do you feel you got to know...You're a professional, you're a reporter, but did you get to know him?

Sure. And he's someone who likes to talk.  And he was easy to get in touch with because a reporter can call his assistant, Rhona, at Trump Tower, Rgona Graff.  She's been with him forever.  And he's usually at his office.  He doesn't use a computer, doesn't use email.  He is someone who loves the phone.  Loves to talk on the phone, usually puts it on speaker.  Enjoys just talking, being in his office on the 26th floor, looking out over Central Park and having conversations.  And sometimes I would call him, it would be for five, 10 minutes, it would be for half an hour, and I would try to get minor scoops on what he was up to.  And it really just kind of built as a reporter/source relationship up until early 2015 when I said to myself, and I told my editors, this is very serious.  He's thinking about running for president and we put it on the front page.

And you did not, not even sure how to frame the question exactly.  You did not condescend to him. 

No.

As you talked to him, you did not find yourself saying in the back of your mind, how did this guy find himself on the 26th floor of a building he built?  Where's the business mind here?  The sense of intelligence was obvious to you?  No gap between your sense of the man you were talking to and what he seemed to have accomplished? 

I was just curious. One thing I have written on my desk at the Washington Post is assume nothing.  Because sometimes when I was growing up and I was reading different things, I always felt the reporters were assuming different things about political figures.  And in fact, another candidate I've gotten along with as a reporter in terms of having an ability to have a conversation with them and him and talking to is Bernie Sanders.  It's because I think the same approach I take to Trump is I wanna learn about these people.  I wanna get inside of their world, share more information, be tough and be aggressive.  But also, sometimes the job as a reporter is to listen, to see what's going on and to share it.  And I've done that with almost everyone I've covered.  I try to at least.

Okay.  So, solve the puzzle for us.  He has been a New Yorker all his life.  He attended an Ivy League University, University of Pennsylvania, in your home state.  He was born into a wealthy family and he is now a billionaire.  And yet, Donald Trump connected with working people in Pennsylvania, in Wisconsin, and Michigan enough to turn those three states, and give him the presidency.  How could this rich, Ivy Leaguer do that? 

Well, whenever I get this question from people, I usually say, have you ever watched The Apprentice?

No.

And that tells you a lot. Most people haven't watched The Apprentice if they’re part of a certain educated, Washington, California, and it was a show that -- 

See Costa, you don't condescend to Trump, but you're condescending to Robinson

I'm not trying to condescend.  My point is, the reason I say, have you watched The Apprentice is not to condescend, but The Apprentice was revealing.

Right. 

Of how someone who had a blue-collar vernacular, but ability in their lifestyle could actually appeal to a large slice of the country.  And I didn't watch The Apprentice.

I feel better okay I'm off the hook. 

Okay, I didn't watch it.  I wasn't interested.  I don't like reality television.  But when I started paying attention to Trump, I started watching a few episodes and I said, oh I get what he's up to.  I mean, he presented himself as an everyman.  He was the billionaire, how a blue-collar guy would be if he had a billion dollars.

Right. 

You have the gold.  And he was so self-assertive.  He was confident.  He has swagger.  It was an act, a performance.  And it was not just the money, and so I always tried to say, if you don't understand Trump, read his books.  But also, watch The Apprentice because that laid the foundation for the public persona that we saw in 2016.

Alright. Two quotations Bob, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl on Charlie Rose's show, and this is a couple weeks ago, right after the election, she's discussing with Charlie Rose her 60 Minutes interview with Trump.  Quote:

"I saw a man who was having the weight of what he's getting into hitting him. He is the leader of the free world and there's no question that he's feeling it.  No question.” 

Closed quote.  That's one, here's two.  David Remnick, in The New Yorker, now he's reporting on the president-elect's meeting with the media on November 22nd.  Quote: 

"Trump showed no signs of having been sobered or changed by his elevation to the country's highest office.  Rather, said one attendee, he is the same kind of blustering, bluffing blowhard as he was during the campaign.” 

Closed quote.  What is the president-elect's state of mind?  

Well, the image that still sticks with me is election night.  That face of his when he came out to the podium.  That was an emotional Trump and I've never seen that face from Donald Trump in the years knowing him until I saw him on election night.  I don't know if the word is humbled, 'because I don’t know what's inside of his head, but he was moved by the moment.  And I've never seen him truly moved by anything.  But he was moved by that.  His face was welled up with emotion.  But he's still Trump.  I think Remnick's onto something.  I think when he brought the network executives in after the election he gave it right to their face.  He doesn't care for them.  He doesn't feel like he needs them and he had no remorse in saying that.

Okay, so that's the president-elect.  I'd like to ask what the people around him tell us about what we're all in for during the Trump administration.  Your colleagues Phillip Rucker, Rooker, how's am I –

Rucker 

Philip Rucker and Mike Debone 

Debonis

Okay, Philip Rucker and Mike Debonis in the Post, they're reporting on the president-elect's decision to nominate retired Marine General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, and this is after he's chosen Lieutenant General Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor and Marine Corp General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, quote:

"Trump's choice of Kelly has intensified worries among some members of Congress and national security experts that the new administration's policies may be shaped disproportionately by military commanders." 

Closed quote.  One, two, three generals named, another couple we hear –

Sure.

Are under consideration. What's with Donald Trump and Generals? 

Well, he's always had a fascination with the military, and it goes back to his time at New York Military Academy.  He's sent there as a teenager.  He doesn't fight in Vietnam. 

Is it upstate?  Where is that located?

Yeah, it's upstate from New York City.

Okay, alright. 

And he loves it at New York Military Academy.  He loves the culture there.  He was a successful student in terms of doing the different activities based on all the testimony from his former classmates. 

Got good grades, good athlete?

And he loved the lifestyle. He did not go to military school for college or enter the military, but he's always had an appreciation for strong men, for the toughness.  One of the things that's really telling, we talked about General Mattis, he uses the nickname Mad Dog.  And people in Trump's inner circle tell me he's always saying, I just love Mad Dog, Mad Dog.  And I think that nickname actually may have helped in a strange way.  And maybe in an untold way, that Trump wants people around him that project what he thinks is military style leadership, which is authority, leadership.  And I'm just not surprised at all.  He's not thinking about the worry or concern of too many generals around him.

Okay, so let's stick with James “Mad Dog” Mattis for a moment.  Donald Trump, conciliatory towards Putin's Russia.  James Mattis, very concerned about Russian policies in Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic's.  And on the record as saying so.  Donald Trump determined to cancel Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.  James Mattis, intent again, on the record as saying so on making that deal work.  So, what does that tell us about Donald Trump?  Secretary of Defense is one of the three or four most important jobs in the cabinet and Trump has, I mean my feeling, you know Donald Trump, but my feeling just looking at him on camera, when James Mattis is with him, he's enjoying himself.  He likes James Mattis. 

He really likes him.

Does this mean policy doesn't matter to Trump?  Does it mean that James Mattis is already giving him something of an education, that he’s...?  What does it mean?  What does this tell us?  

Well, Trump doesn't have a core ideology on a lot of these issues.  And he has instincts.  But he's willing to be convinced.  And I heard when he spoke with Mattis, when he's spoken with different Secretary of State candidates.  He's open to conversations about the issues.  Now that may make some people alarmed, but others see in Trump a president who's going to be willing to bring in a lot of different opinions and hear them out on foreign policy.  He does not have a coherent foreign policy that he wants to make a doctrine yet.

So, okay, I'm trying to, well I think we all are trying to figure out how to think about Donald Trump.  And you mentioned a moment ago that The Apprentice is an important part of understanding the public persona.  In his approach to policy, what do we think of?  Do we think of the businessman who in the middle phase of his career built one big building in Manhattan after another, brings in the architect?  He's not an architect.  He doesn't know weight loads and which material, but he has an instinct, what he likes.  He wants something that makes a statement and okay architect, let's talk.  Is that the approach?

I think so.

In other words, he understands expertise.  He has his instincts, but he's willing to modify specific decisions in the presence of expertise. 

And he's very willing to delegate to experts.  I think a key example to look at is Trump's trip to Mexico during the campaign hatched in part thanks to Jerry Kushner, his son-in-law, Steve Bannon, his Chief Strategist.  And a lot of that trip was about the feeder of politics and the feeder of foreign policy.  And I hear both on domestic policy when he's talking with congressional leaders and on foreign policy, Trump wants things that are fast-paced.  He doesn't want to be seen as a president who is slow-acting.  He also wants to be at the center of decisions.  So, on a foreign policy issue like Russia, if he's making a trip there, he wants to be on the red carpet.  He wants to fly in with the plane.  He wants to be meeting with the heads of state.  But on the policy, he's gonna listen to Mattis and whoever he picks as Secretary of State.  It's about the presentation for Trump, you see this throughout his career that brand matters for Trump, popularity matters. The details are things that can be negotiated. 

Okay, so no drama Obama is not the model here. 

No, Trump loves drama and disruption. He thinks drama and disruption equal power.

Got it, got it, got it. And of course, in show business they do to a large extent.  Alright, and I suppose in real estate there's such a large component of real estate in the city of New York that’s a political component.  You have to be famous and wealthy and perceived as ... okay alright, alright, I'm starting ...  Thank you, Bob.  You know you're good at what you do here.  The inner circle, you just mentioned, well let’s come to Jerry Kushner in a moment.  Steve Bannon, whom you've known for a long time, Reince Priebus.  I've met Steve Bannon, but not for years.  I've chatted with Reince Priebus over the phone, but I really don't know these guys.  And yet, so I'm layman.  And I look at them and say, whoa these are two completely different kinds of human beings.  How do these people work together?

There's always gonna be some creative tension in that White House.  But Bannon I think –

It will be creative.

I think Bannon is someone who wants to do things.  And Bannon has become really intrigued by global populism.  By Le Pen in France, Farage in England.  He made sure Farage met with Trump after the election.  He sees Trump as being linked to something broader in the world, this kind of working-class uprising against global elites, against globalization.  And that, if anything, has become part of Trump’s ideology, that he can be combative, and populist and nationalist.  And that can be a way of governing.  Bannon though has also been strikingly low-key in the transition period.  Hasn't done television interviews.  Has only done a few print interviews.  He knows that his influence on Trump is having Trump’s ear and feeding into Trump's populism.  But Bannon knows he only has so far he can go on some of these fronts.  You don't see him.  He entered into this power-sharing arrangement with Priebus because he knows organizationally, Priebus does have the relationships with Capitol Hill.  Priebus can be responsible for organizing things and making a lot of personnel decisions.  But Bannon, he recognizes his role and he thinks it’s important to be there as a populist hand for Trump, but he's not dominating in some kind of unusual way.

Okay, the family.  Trump seems, again I'm the layman, you know the scene.  He seems especially close to his daughter, Ivanka, who is in turn married to Jerry Kushner, who is in his mid-thirties, the son of a major real estate family in New York.  And what are their politics?  Do their politics matter?  Is it one of those instances where they're just concerned for the public image of the father?  How does the family fit into this?  

Jared has been at Trump's side for most of the campaign.  I was on the Trump's plane several times with Jared.  And he'd be there, sitting right next to Trump, guiding Trump.  Jared's a quiet man, someone who doesn't seek the spotlight.  Ivanka in many ways could be an informal First Lady.  Her politics are more moderate.  She has been meeting with people like Al Gore on climate change.  She's the face of the company, the future face of the company. And so, she has a touch for women's issues, for the brand of the Trump company.  I think that will continue. Jared's an important person next to Trump.  Because Priebus is close to the party and Bannon is close to the grass roots and has a real creative mind in how he thinks through politics.  Kushner is liaison for a lot of foreign leaders, for people outside in the business community.  If they don't know Bannon or Priebus, they can come through Jared and he has time on his hands to build different kinds of relationships.  And as I cover Trump and as people think about the Trump administration, it's not so much Bannon versus Priebus.  It's the three co-centric circles of Kushner, Bannon and Priebus all around Trump.

Okay let's stick with that just a moment.  If you think of inner circles, you've got John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, who he makes Attorney General, but they're on the phone with each other every day.  He's got Ted Sorensen in the White House, and what you think here is urbane, highly educated, and intensely loyal to John Kennedy, right? 

Uh huh.

And then we have Reagan, and he has that troika in the first term of Ed Meese, who is a through and principled conservative, and Jim Baker who is a deal doer from Texas, and then Mike Deaver who is the image guy and understands how the cameras should be set up and the lights should be set up and so forth.  So, you get with Reagan, you get this feeling that it’s a kind of practical approach.  Even to the inner circle, he's balancing political forces.  Baker can deal with congress.  Meese can bring me papers that can show me what I ought to do if the politics permit me to do.  Mike is gonna make sure everything goes alright on the evening news that night.  Okay, so what is this, in other words, Kennedy loyalty but a certain suavity, and Reagan's practical.  What does this inner circle tell us about Trump? 

It tells us that there's not gonna be a heavy, heavy hand around Trump.  They're gonna be people, if loyalty is important, and this is also about balancing the different circles and power circles around Trump.  But Priebus, Bannon, Kushner are influential, but they're not gonna be really pushing Trump in a certain direction.  It means Trump wants to be the decider.  Trump wants to play these people off of each other at times when he's making decisions.  Bring more people in.  But he's not gonna have someone, even like a Jim Baker, around him who's really gonna push him in a certain direction on certain policies.  It's Trump being disruptive, Trump being unpredictable and having people who have different duties.

Okay, so we'd all better be prepared to remain off balance for four years to come.

Certainly

Alright, the cabinet. Let me just name names.

Sure.

We'll tick through this quickly.  We've already talked about Jim Mattis at the Pentagon; John Kelly, Homeland Security.  The Department of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Comes from a very rich family, Michigan.  And she is a campaigner for charter schools.  

Deeply conservative. And this brings up another section of power we need to mention –

Yes. 

Which is Vice-President Pence.

Right, okay, go ahead tell us. 

Kind of an island out to himself. He has his own conservative circle.  He has his own aides.  But he has earned Trump's trust and loyalty.  And I find Priebus and Pence together really form a kind of Republican mainstream slash conservative movement group within this Trump administration that has already been working together to get people like Betsy DeVos into education.  Because Trump, being not ideological, does not mean he’s against having someone with real ideology in there.  And so DeVos with all of her statements about privatization on different fronts of education, for vouchers.  Trump's not thinking in policy terms.  But if Priebus and Pence say this is the kind of person we want in there, okay.

And the same for Jeff Sessions?  Jeff Sessions is an insider though too.  He's a special case. 

He's interesting.  I was with Sessions when he first started to get to know Trump really well.  In '15 I was in Mobile, Alabama.  Sessions went onto the plane, first put on the make America great again hat.  And Sessions saw early on that is whole life in congress he has spent on immigration. 

Yes.

Or line policies, not just illegal immigration, but on limiting legal immigration.  And in Trump, he saw someone who was singing his tune and Sessions had been on the back bench in a sense in the senate for a long time.  And they really connected, and he came on pretty early to endorse Trump.  And Rick Deerborn, who's been the Chief of Staff for Sessions has been working very, he's very influential in the transition in making sure Sessions types kind of populous conservatives like Steven Miller, the speech writer and others are in positions of prominence.

 And so, you've got Betsy DeVos, thorough going conservative

Uh huh.

Education, she's not going to coddle the teacher's union.  She's gonna take them on.  You've got Jeff Sessions, a through conservative at the Department of Justice.  Now tell me about Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General, non-nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.  

I mean I was just looking at my inbox after the announcement.  Every environmental group in the country, every democrat, it's like apocalyptic.

On the argument that?

He's gonna rip apart the department in terms of his regulatory structure.  And I think that's again and example how Trump is willing to have conservative ideologues with him in the administration in part because people like Priebus, Bannon and Pence and Kushner. Understand that Trump, he needs to give a lot to the right to keep the right with him.

(coughing)

And Trump's fine.  Trump wants to get rid of regulations.  He just didn't have, I don't think when he was running for President he would never talk to me or others, maybe he had another plan about what he wanted to do with EPA.  But he would have talked about, I just want to get rid of all these regulations in a broad way.  And people say, oh Trump doesn't have depth, he doesn't have a plan.  True, but when the time came to make decisions, he’s putting in these deeply conservative people.

So, Bob, deeply conservative people. Is there anything you would like to say in particular to your fellow, I shouldn't say your fellow conservatives, your fellow editors at National Review who ran a cover story against Trump to Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard to George Will, all these conservatives who were never Trumpers.

A hard thing for people on the right is temperament. 

That's it.  

Trump does not have the temperament in their minds.  So, when I talk to a lot of conservative leaders, Republican politicians, they can't stand that he tweets.  They say, please, that's not the way this government should run.  That's not the way the President should act.  And they may be right.  Everyone has their own case.  I will say this, as a reporter, when I'm out on the campaign trail, it's astounding to me how often policy doesn’t come up.  And it's all culture.  It's all people love the theater of Trump's tweets.  They don't mind that he curses or has his, I think the country has changed, maybe for the worse.  But it's changed.  It's a different country and Trump, in many ways, fits the kind of voters I met all the time. 

Okay, one more cabinet appointment. Steve Mnuchin, Department of the Treasury. 

Loyalist, he was always with Trump. National Finance Chairman for Trump.  Comes out of the finance world, low-key.  But he was always on the plane with Trump and he was the finance guy for the campaign.

But this is not somebody who, I mentioned Betsy DeVos, and you say, dedicated conservative. You're not going to say that about Steve Mnuchin?  

I don't know enough about Mnuchin's politics.  But I will say, whenever I've encountered Mnuchin, he’s been working with Trump on tax cuts.  So, he's gonna have a hand–

Okay, let me ask you one question about, I'm gonna come back to Bob Costa and Donald Trump in a moment.  But last question here about policy.  We have heard Donald Trump say he wants to cut taxes and roll back regulations, pro-growth agenda.  We've also heard Donald Trump talk, particularly since the election about a gigantic amount of infrastructure spending, and then of course from the get go, there's been a protectionist, let's at least call it an impulse. 

Sure.

Because he lays down a policy and then walks it back, but is willing to slap tariffs on imports.  So, who's gonna show up during these first 100 days?  The pro-growth tax cutting Donald Trump, or the big government, spend a lot of money, slap tariffs on people protectionist? 

Both of them are gonna show up.

(laughing)

Okay.

I mean it's a strange situation.  When I was on Capitol Hill in recent days, you have a lot of members saying, I don't understand, he's gonna have a trillion dollar or 900-billion-dollar infrastructure package and he's also gonna do all these tax cuts.  So, I mean that's gonna put us in a deficits and debt.  And Trump's not thinking in those terms.  He wants high growth.  He wants high employment.  And with infrastructure, the Trump people are making the case privately already.  This is the way to get the democrats broken apart and give them what they want.  You tell a democratic senator who's up for re-election 2018 where to put three highways in your state, you don’t want the highways?  And infrastructure is pure politics for Trump.  It's growth, and even the wall is a stimulus project if you think about it.  So, you're also gonna have tax cuts.  You're gonna have hard-line immigration policy.  You're gonna have spending.  It's not a traditional Republican government.  And at the same time, you're gonna have Tom Price in Health and Human Services doing a whole tax credit replacement for the Affordable Care Act.  And so –

Tom Price, Congressman from Georgia whom we left out who’s devoted the last, since Obamacare was enacted as best I can tell from looking at his record.  The day after Obamacare was enacted, this congressman from Georgia began devoting himself to figuring out how to repeal it.  Another instance where Donald Trump is demonstrating seriousness.  He's named a guy to HHS who really will do all he can to repeal Obamacare, sorry.

No, no, not at all. The problem for many of these republicans I'm talking to all the time is they can't swallow the fact that they’re gonna get everything they wanted on tax reform, stuff they've been working on for five, 10 years.  But at the same time, they're gonna have to swallow a president who's battling companies individually, talking about tariffs and trade wars.  It's hard for them to match these things up.  But that's the reality of the Trump administration.

And I've heard economists say, well it's alright if he talks about tariffs.  And it's alright if he puts in a few carrier company, puts in a few museums in the Midwest, museums to the 1950's.  That won't do that much harm, as long as that's not what he really means.  As long as what he really means is pro-growth.  But you're telling us he really means it all. 

He does.

Okay. 

And I know Priebus has already been told to make sure there's list of companies that are shipping jobs overseas on Trump's desk every day.  One thing I've always learned about Donald Trump, people think this is sometimes an act for him, or that it is play.  This man, our new President, loves to fight.  He loves to fight privately; he loves to fight publicly.  And this idea that he's gonna retreat from these companies, I say study Trump.  Man loves to fight.  He relishes this idea of fighting companies to keep the jobs here.  He probably thinks it's gonna win him re-election. 

Okay, back to you and Donald Trump. Over the course of this campaign, he went through three campaign managers.  He's up at three in the morning tweeting.  He's taking phone calls from Bob Costa, among others.  How do you cover this whole, just what are the nuts and bolts of covering this?  I guess at your stage, because you've known him.  You just call him?  Is that the way it works?  How do you do it? 

You don't wanna overdo it.  It's like anything, you don't wanna call your friends too much, or call your sources too much.  I think with Trump, I always say, chill out.  That's what I tell my colleagues and friends.  It's so easy to become overheated covering Trump.  He did what now?  He did this, he did that.  Oh, my gosh!  So much is happening.  You gotta just take it easy.  Think through what's happening.  It's not about being distracted by the tweets.  Cover the tweets if they're newsworthy.  But always try to think about what's the big picture here?  What's he really trying to do?  Is it populism?  Is it trying to confront a certain republican?  Or get democrats rattled?  Just push the media around a little bit?  You just gotta take it day by day.  Too often, I think the coverage of Trump, it's aggressive which is great.  You need to have aggressive coverage of every candidate.  And you've gotta give them as much scrutiny as possible, but at the same time, you have to not become over the top and getting too fussy. 

Jim Rutenberg in the mediator column in the New York Times quote, this is midway through the campaign, but this is well before the election, 

"If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies,” course who wouldn’t, “that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, then you have to throw out the textbook of American journalism."  

Closed quote.  There he is saying close to the beginning of the campaign, throw out the textbook, we treat Trump differently.  How would you grade the media's performance overall?  And let's except the Washington Post, everybody else. 

I understand Rutenberg's point of view.  It's not something I have subscribed to.  I just think it's the job of the reporter to provide people with as much information as possible.  To let them make the decisions.  I was never comfortable at National Review writing a column, never did.  Never wrote an editorial at National Review.  I have personally always found myself most comfortable as a reporter, which is kind of take a mirror up and shine it and let people see what's happening.  I think the media has had a difficult time, not just with Trump, but with outsiders in general.  People from beyond the political class.  I think Bernie Sanders was treated in the same way as Trump was treated, which was for a long time was just never taken seriously.  He was never treated like a candidate who had an actual shot at the nomination.  I think that's a mistake.  I think this idea that if you don't have a certain look or you don't speak in a certain way politically, you don’t use certain words or vernacular that you're not a national candidate or can be a national candidate.  It's a mistake and it's founded on assumptions, on pure assumptions, and not much data or anything else.  I just think the press, we're not the story, and we should remember that.

Okay, here's a tweet from Donald Trump.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag.” 

He retweets this, the press responds by, goes into a tizzy.  Doesn't he understand the first amendment?  Is he unaware of Supreme Court jurisprudence?  There's a famous case that's on and on and on.  And then a lot of ordinary Americans say, you know, he's got a point, I dunno about the law, but you know he’s got a point.  The country needs to be more patriotic.  Andy Ferguson, writing about all this in the Weekly Standard, quote:

“With a tweet here and a tweet there, Trump is happily driving a wedge between the news media and their intended customers. The dawning Trump era is pushing the mainstream press further and further to the margins.”  

Closed quote.  Substitute legacy, if you will, for mainstream press.  These are old entities.  Forgive me, I have to include the Washington Post here.  But the New York Times is decades more than a century old.  These are old entities with specific patterns.  Patterns of thought that you were just touching on.  Trump represents a challenge to their very, well I dunno, to their very existence, but certainly to the way they do business now.  Is that fair to say?  Is all just everybody's in a tizzy and we can all calm down and the press can go back to its job and the President will do his job.  That would be one option.  The other option is no, no, no, things are changing here.  And the role of the press will be quite different by the end of four years of the Trump administration.

I think the role of the press is already changed.  So, few people in my generation, in their 20's and 30's, aren’t reading newspapers.  They're not necessarily watching the nightly news.  Everything's on their phone.  So, the technology's changing.  But in terms of the coverage, there's so many more channels out there, so many more outlets, that you have to earn every reader and viewer and keep them.  And so, I think the legacy media to mainstream media, or whatever you wanna call it, our challenge is to make sure we're really reaching our audience and also expanding our audience.  And I think the way to do that is to not look at Andy Ferguson's articles, to not become consumed by the tweets.  What I'm interested in as a reporter, is when did Trump write it, why?  Who helped him with the tweet?  Is it really just to play the media?  Is there something else going on here?  Really try to tell the backstory of what's going on.  I'm not about the fuss over it.  I understand there's all the people in my business who do that, but I understand the point is that we’re losing our capital in a lot of ways, our influence.  And I just hope that the Washington Post and any other organization that we can not only just provide information but speak to people from all walks of life about what’s happening in the government, and what's happening in politics.  And I think that takes investigations, and it takes sometimes a tough tone in editorials or in coverage.  But also, you just can't be consumed by a certain world view or that kind of thing.  People just love to find out new things and have it not shaded to too much one way or the other. 

A couple last questions. Steve Bannon in one of the few interviews he's given. 

“If we deliver.”  We, the Trump administration.  "If we deliver, we'll get 60 percent of the white vote, 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, and we’ll govern for 50 years.”  

Closed quote.  Will they deliver?  I'm not asking you to confront Steve Bannon.

Right

But the question here is you took Donald Trump seriously before almost anybody else.  Do you feel there is a prospect for one of those very rare moments in American politics, 1932 Franklin Roosevelt, 1980 Ronald Reagan, when something genuinely new is about to happen in American politics?  When the republican party may be given a new life.  He may be able to put together a new coalition, and that what will take place during these four years will have permanent political consequences.  Or it's just Trump, people will get tired of him and the world will get back to normal four years from now.

I think the former is possible.

You do.

I think it's gonna be very difficult.  I think what Bannon's view is, and I've spoken to Bannon about this and they want the republican party to be the working-class party.  And in our view is, and that's what Bannon articulated, is if republicans can become the working-class party, then what do the democrats have except kind of the elite and they have some -- 

Faculty lounge.

You've got the democratic party.  I'm not sure the whole republican party's comfortable with this direction.  I mean, McConnell and Ryan are not, they're for working class issues, but they're not populist in the same way Trump is.  It's gonna take a lot of political will from Trump talent to enact a legislation that keeps party agenda, keeps this party together, but also brings new people in.  And Trump can be easily distracted.  He can be thin-skinned.  He can be erratic.  He's leaving himself, in some ways, vulnerable on the business front.  A lot of challenges for Trump.  But if anyone can break apart the republican party and make it into some kind of working class populous/conservative party, it would be Trump, because he's not tethered to any certain ideology or world view. 

Okay, last question. White House briefing room, has about 50 seats, I think it used to be about 49 seats, about 50 seats.  And those seats are assigned according to the decision of the White House Correspondents Association.  The incoming administration doesn't even get to decide who sits in those seats.  So, it's the Washington Post has a seat.  The LA Times has a seat.  New York Times of course.  CBS, NBC, on and on.  And here we have a president who not only can but does speak to the American people directly by tweeting, releasing a You Tube video.  He's gone ages now without a formal press conference and it's beginning to look as though he just doesn’t think the formal press conferences are necessary. 

I think Trump would make a mistake if he didn't make –

So, this is advice to the next press secretary, keep the briefing room?  I mean as recently as the administration of John Kennedy that was a swimming pool.  You could move the press back across the old executive office.

You could move the press out of the White House.  They could never have a press conference. 

Should they?

No. I think it's a mistake for these administrations I've seen on Capitol Hill.  If you close up to the press, you win short-term victories.  You don't get bothered.  You control the narrative or whatever you want to call it a little more, but in the end, you hurt yourself.  I've really, as a reporter, I think.  And I know people think, oh you're just arguing for more reporting, true, but I've never seen it work out for a politician to truly close up to the press.  Secretary Clinton was pretty closed to the press.  And we never really got insights into that and the campaigns and the people around these operations that get too much anti-press, they become so tightly wound that it just doesn't function.  Politics has to have a little looseness to it.  I think that Trump, he may be antagonistic toward the press.  But we are the fourth estate, maybe the legacy medias are dying in some people's view and all this.  But you can't just say, you can't kill the press.  I mean this is America.

Robert Costa of the Washington Post thank you. 

Thank you.

For Uncommon Knowledge in the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson. 

(lively string instrument music)

 
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