How To Report On Trump's White House
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The Mueller report was a bombshell. But a lot of what was in it had been reported before due to the dogged journalism of the past two years. At the time, the White House denied much of what was being revealed, calling it fake news - a claim President Trump has been repeating on Twitter this weekend. We're going to bring in two journalists now who did some of that reporting to talk about what they learned from the Mueller report and what comes next. Rebecca Ballhaus covers the White House for The Wall Street Journal. And she took part in the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on President Trump's payments to Stormy Daniels. Welcome to the program.
REBECCA BALLHAUS: Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Carol Leonnig is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, who is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. Welcome to you.
CAROL LEONNIG: I'm glad to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carol, you wrote on Twitter, hug a reporter today. They toiled to bring you the facts amid Trump chants of fake news. So was this a win for journalism?
LEONNIG: I think it really vindicated the reporting of the last two years in several ways. Many of the reports from The Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal - a lot of those are detailed in a - sort of a cinematic way by Robert Mueller. But the actual events are, in large measure, ones reporters know about and have told the public - the times that the president threatened to fire Jeff Sessions and Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein. And there's only one way in which I think that the reporting may have been more breathless and possibly speculative. And that is the way in which we kept raising the question, are all of these Russian contacts with the Trump campaign - could those all have happened without some sort of coordination with the Trump campaign? And Robert Mueller said no. He did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy but certainly evidence of a presidential campaign that was welcoming Russia's help.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rebecca, that's a big caveat there, isn't it? The Mueller report found no coordination or collusion. And on the right, that's the story.
BALLHAUS: Right. And I think that's, of course, what the White House is spending the most time dwelling on. The only other thing that I would add is that I think, in some ways, the reporters who Trump spent the last two years calling fake news really did help the president in that I think if we had been presented with all of the findings of the Mueller report, particularly as they pertain to the president's efforts to shut the investigation down - if those had all come at us for the first time on Thursday, I think we'd be seeing a much different response from Congress, from Democrats and much more interest in possibly doing something with those findings than we've seen so far.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is for both of you. One of the things that we now know to be true from the Mueller report is that this administration repeatedly misled reporters and the public. Of course, Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged to Mueller that she made up that she had heard from members of the FBI after Comey was fired. You are both seasoned journalists. This presents a particular set of problems for journalists, doesn't it?
LEONNIG: You know, while I was living through it, I remember feeling so naive. I came back to cover the presidency from a book leave. And when I arrived back in the newsroom in early 2017, I was sure that a story that I had gathered about the president asking his lawyers whether or not he could pardon himself was true because of the sourcing that I had. And yet when I went to the White House, they told me that it wasn't true. And the president said it wasn't true. In any other presidency, that would've caused me to pause dramatically and to reassess whether or not my sources were careful and accurate because a president doesn't tell you that you're wrong. There are many administrations in the past - the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration - that have told me partial facts or have tried to steer me away from the facts that I've found and have misled me by omission. But they have never directly, squarely lied to my face. And that is the difference here. The president lies to our faces and tells his aides to lie to our faces.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Any thoughts on that, Rebecca?
BALLHAUS: Yeah. I would just add to that that I feel like we also learned this lesson with the Trump administration early that there were frequently times when we brought them reporting, and they would say it's not true. And we would have to decide to go with it anyway. And one story that comes to mind is in 2017, we wrote a story about some of the president's lawyers wanting Jared Kushner to step down because they were concerned about the scrutiny on him in the Russia investigation. And we brought that to the White House. They - we got really strong pushback. They sent us a lot of on-the-record denials, which is also unusual. And then in the middle of that process, we got a call from one of the president's lawyers, who happened to, on the record, confirm the story. So we went with it. And I think that was an early lesson that if the White House denies something, that's not a reason to stop a story. It just means you have to be really sure in your other sourcing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me put this to both of you in this context of what you've just said. Washington Post editor Marty Baron said famously about this era that journalists are not at war. We are at work. Does that still stand? There seems to be a war of at least credibility being waged. And the claims of fake news have taken their toll, according to many polls.
LEONNIG: Absolutely, they have taken their toll. And I think that Marty Baron and his words, which I believe are still true for us and many of our colleagues - we're not going after the president. We are going after facts. And yet his Twitter war against us has been very successful in trying to raise questions about the care with which we write and our political leanings. We don't have political leanings. And we have to, I think, now in this era spend much more time showing readers how we do our work so that this effort to claim that we're biased, that we're making things up does not win the day.
BALLHAUS: Yeah. I would just add to that that, if anything, it has made us work harder at making sure that our stories are absolutely bulletproof in every instance because we know that they're going to be gone after either by the president on his Twitter feed, by his advisers on TV. We know that they're going to have to stand up to a pretty high level of scrutiny. And so I think that's always a good way to approach a story. But I think that those efforts have, if anything, intensified over the last two years. And I think we've also seen this with Trump, really, since the beginning of when he started running, which is that, you know, for all his fake news comments publicly, his supporters are also really intent to believe whatever he tells them. And they're really resistant to believing a reality other than the one that the president presented to them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rebecca Ballhaus from the Wall Street Journal and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, thank you both very much.
BALLHAUS: Thank you.
LEONNIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.