Veteran Political Reporter: Trump White House Is 'Different In Almost Every Way'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about some of President Trump's unprecedented comments and actions with Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Last week, he was one of the three Times reporters who had a joint on-the-record interview with Trump. This week, Baker was traveling with Trump when he gave his speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. And of course, Baker's work is affected by last week's shake-up in Trump's communications staff. The president appointed Anthony Scaramucci as the new White House communications director. Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was promoted to press secretary.
Peter Baker brings a unique perspective to covering the Trump White House because he also covered the presidencies of Bill Clinton, including his impeachment; George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Baker has written books about each of them. His new book, "Obama: The Call Of History," is illustrated with photos from the Times. Baker spent 20 years at The Washington Post, including four years, 2000 to 2004, as Moscow bureau chief, a position he shared with his wife, Susan Glasser. They co-wrote the book "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia And The End Of Revolution." We recorded our interview yesterday. This morning, we recorded an update about the front-page story he has in today's paper. We'll hear that later.
Peter Baker, welcome to FRESH AIR. So there's been a big shake-up in the White House communications office. The new White House communications director is Anthony Scaramucci. His background is in finance. He's worked at Goldman Sachs; he ran a hedge fund. So what does the shake-up mean for you as chief White House correspondent?
PETER BAKER: Well, you know, I think that after six months, the environment with Sean Spicer had grown so toxic, so poisonous, so hostile that it was unproductive for everybody. It wasn't productive for the White House. They weren't getting their message out. They were just engaging in, you know, verbal fisticuffs with reporters. And the reporters weren't getting information or getting, you know, useful briefings. So this is a chance to - you know, I think Scaramucci, the other day, called it, you know, clear the fog and clear the smog and basically have a reset, if you will.
And so we hope that that will happen - that we can have a productive and professional, even though it's an adversarial relationship. We're not on the same team. And so that is normal for a White House and a press corps to be at odds. But there are ways of doing it that are professional and civil and not degenerating into the kind of back-and-forth that we've seen these last six months. We'll see if that changes. But again, I think it's also not entirely due to Sean Spicer. It is sort of a modus vivendi of this White House. And I think that they see a political benefit to having the media as an enemy. And again, it's our job not to be an enemy but to be an independent force in democracy that we were intended to be. I know that sounds kind of, you know, hokey or highfalutin. But, you know (laughter), we take that seriously. We really, really think that we have an important role to play in society.
GROSS: Do you go to the White House press briefings?
BAKER: Yeah, sure. We take turns. There are six of us who cover the White House for The New York Times. We have a great team, and we take turns. We have a duty week schedule. And when it's my duty week, I go to the briefings like everybody else, yeah.
GROSS: Do you ever feel, what's the point?
GROSS: I mean, there's been so little information actually coming out at the press briefings.
BAKER: Yeah. Look, I've been going to press briefings now at the White House for 21 years. I started in 1996, when Bill Clinton was in his first term. And it has progressively gotten less useful as an institution over that time. That's not due just to Donald Trump. That's been true, you know, from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump. And that's partly because, I think, press secretaries have grown, you know, nervous about, you know, the gotcha game. And we play that, too. We have a role in that, I think, to acknowledge.
With the advent of social media and the Internet and, you know, the sort of intense, accelerated news cycle, any single thing a press secretary says can be instant and huge news, over-the-top news, in fact - sometimes way overinterpreted. So they've grown cautious and scripted and controlled and therefore less, you know, candid and less useful. Having said that, some people say - well, let's get rid of the briefing, then. They're no good. But I sort - I think it's a bad idea.
As much as the briefing is a flawed, you know, institution, right now, we ought to mend it, not end it, as Bill Clinton used to say about affirmative action. And I think that, you know - I think of the briefing kind of like Winston Churchill said about democracy. It's the worst form of government, except for all the others - right? You know, and the briefing is still - as tendentious as it is, as useless as it can be on some days, it's still the one opportunity in our democracy where the most powerful person in the world is forced, through a spokesperson, to respond or at least not respond, if they choose to, to questions that they may not want to answer.
And if we didn't have a briefing - it's on the record. If we didn't have a briefing, then - and we all just called individually, then they would be calling back and putting everything on background - no names or not answering or refusing to respond - and I just think that's terrible. I think that we are - there's a place in our society where, you know, the White House has to respond or at least address the fact that they're not responding to questions of importance to the public.
GROSS: The new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, has threatened to fire, to put out on Pennsylvania Avenue, anyone who leaks. He says if I've got to get things down to me and Sarah Huckabee, the leaking will stop.
Is there a sense of fear in the White House that you can feel now?
BAKER: Well, I mean, there's certainly a sense of uncertainty. He did in fact push out one assistant press secretary, Michael Short, who was - who came in with Spicer and was a Reince Priebus guy. Anthony Scaramucci said on Air Force One on Tuesday night as we came back from Ohio that, you know, he wasn't planning to fire a whole lot more people right away. He was going to take a look around before making any decisions but that, in fact, he would get rid of everybody if he felt like they were leaking.
So, you know, the truth is I don't think that the leaks that they're most concerned about are coming from the communications shop, honestly. These are not the people who understood - who have access to intelligence, which is what the president has talked about being most concerned about. And they're not the ones who are the sort of main actors in the kind of tribal rivalries that are going on inside this White House. So, you know, he's going to - he's instilled a little fear, I suppose, in the communications staff. But we'll see where that actually leads.
GROSS: I'm wondering whether people will be more afraid of leaking or more likely to leak because of a sense of feeling betrayed - that the president has betrayed some of the people who were close to him, like Jeff Sessions, who was such a key player in the campaign, the first senator to endorse the president. He's carrying out the immigration policies the president wanted enacted. He helped the president write the policies, you know - I mean, you know, conceptualize the policies. So the fact that he has, you know, openly gone against Sessions - I'm wondering if people feel like, oh, the president can throw me under the bus at any time, so I might as well start leaking about what he's doing.
BAKER: Well, there's no question that it's a very dark time in the White House and that there is such a feeling of unhappiness on the part of a lot of people who work for him. Almost everyone I talk to there sort of, like, talks about how fractious it is and how ugly it is and how other people in the building, you know, are out to get them or are out for themselves. And there's no esprit de corps. There's no common sense of purpose. There's no team that usually you see in a White House.
Like, look, there's always going to be disagreements and rivalries, of course. I mean, in George W. Bush's White House you had Colin Powell versus Dick Cheney. In Barack Obama's White House, you had, you know, sort of the schism between the interventionists on foreign policy and those who wanted to pull back. But I - it's not been this toxic and as pervasive as I think you see in this White House. This White House is very different in almost every way.
And so you're right. I mean, there is sort of a motivation on the part of some people to talk about what's happening inside because they feel vulnerable, because they feel aggrieved, because they're playing out their rivalries through the press. You know, if you call the White House and say, I'd like to have a conversation with you about student loan policy or about, you know - about Syria policy, you might get an answer. But if you call somebody and say, I want to call you - I want to talk to you because, you know, I hear you're on the way out or I hear your rival is doing well, you'll definitely get a callback. And that's not likely to change, I think, at this point.
GROSS: So this week, you had an article headlined "Trump Tests A Nation's Capacity For Outrage." And you wrote, after six months in office, Mr. Trump has crossed so many lines, discarded so many conventions and said and done so many things that other presidents would not have, that he has radically shifted the understanding of what is standard in the White House. You're basically saying he does so many outrageous things, it's hard to get outraged anymore. You know, I guess we've become so accustomed to it.
GROSS: I'd like an example of how that's affected you, like something that you might have been outraged about at the beginning of the administration and you've just kind of gotten used to it.
BAKER: Well, you know, it's a good example, I suppose, the other night, he was speaking to the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. I was there up in the mountains. And it was a, you know, big field, 40,000 kids and their parents. And he gave a speech that, you know, was relatively political and the kind you don't normally give to kids in a nonpartisan kind of setting. And the truth is there was so many other things going on. He had also that day, you know, basically undercut his own attorney general. He had called for the prosecution of his defeated rival from the, you know, from the last year's election.
And, you know, it's - in comparison, the Boy Scout speech turned out to be a bigger thing than I had sort of initially picked up on because I think we have gotten so used to him crossing things - boundaries that other presidents have observed, that, you know, it's easy to become inured to it. But there's so many, you know, things that he does that others haven't done that it's hard to, you know, muster the great front page, you know, red light and alarm kind of treatment for everything.
GROSS: OK. Since you brought up the Boy Scouts, you were in the audience or in a press room - I'm not sure which - reporting on it. Forty thousand people in the audience, Boy Scouts, Scout leaders, other people, and President Trump is saying to these Boy Scouts - he's talking to them about fake news. So what was your experience of that moment?
BAKER: Well, you know, it's - we were out in a field. And there were a sea of mostly kids and their parents. And, you know, look, he was getting a good reaction. This is a crowd that largely was embracing him in a very big way. They didn't react badly to the speech at that time. Obviously, some Boy Scouts and their parents and their supporters since then have raised quite a, you know, a chorus of complaints about it, saying it was inappropriate.
But it's just, you know, he just - he goes off, right? He just sort of riffs. He doesn't stick to the script. He says what comes to his mind. He heads off on these sort of tangents. He's telling them about cocktail parties in Manhattan and, you know, where the hottest people are and things that the kids kind of tittered at. He gave the traditional, you know, duty, honor, patriotism kind of exhortations that we expect in those kind of settings. But he - but he's traditionally done that. He's done that since taking office. He's spoken in front of military audiences about politics.
Just last Saturday, I was with him at the Gerald Ford commissioning, the new aircraft carrier at the Norfolk Naval Base, and he tells uniformed sailors that they should call their congressmen to support his military spending plan and his health care plan. Normally, commanders in chief don't tell the uniformed troops that are under his command to involve themselves in politics. So I think that, you know, he doesn't look at these things as red lines. He just - he thinks that we get way too worked up about stuff like that. And he doesn't particularly care if, you know, the propriety police, you know, try to tell him, you know, don't do this kind of thing.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Peter Baker. He's chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. He's the author of a new book called "Obama: The Call Of History," which is illustrated with a lot of New York Times photographs. And he's the author of several earlier books, including "The Breach: Inside The Impeachment And Trial Of William Jefferson Clinton" and "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia And The End Of Revolution." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Baker. He's the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "Obama: The Call Of History." So you were one of the three New York Times reporters who interviewed Donald Trump last week. It was you, Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt. How did the three of you prepare together and separately for this interview?
BAKER: Well, we came up with a list of questions. We were a hundred percent sure he would decide to talk to us on the record when we went in. And as soon we asked, he said, sure, of course, which we, you know, anticipated. And so we collaborated and came up with a list of probably 30, 40, 50 questions, none of - you know, only a small fraction of which we could get to. And the exercise of coming up with questions is important because you want to be able to, you know, maximize whatever time you get for an interview with a president. It's so different with each president, but this one in particular, you want to be able to try to pin down as much as you can. He tends to veer, you know, wildly from topic to topic. And sort of returning him to the central question is a bit of a challenge.
The flip side is he doesn't mind if you interrupt him, unlike, say, President Obama, who very much did mind if you interrupted him. And so, you know, controlling the conversation and making sure you get as many of the questions you want to get in as possible, making sure the questions are worded in a way that is designed to get a president off his talking points and to say something new or candid or fresh. That's the real challenge. And so the idea of managing that interview to maximize what time you do have is, you know, is central to what you're doing there.
GROSS: You mentioned the importance of follow-ups. And something you just kept returning to, no matter where the president strayed, was the subject of Don Jr. - of the email to Don Jr., the email about the meeting with the Russian lawyer and other Russians. Remind us who was at the meeting.
BAKER: Right. Well, Don Jr. organized the meeting along with the contact of his, Rob Goldstone, who is a British publicist. And Don Jr. invited Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort to join him. Paul Manafort was the campaign chairman at the time. On the other side was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was a lawyer who has ties to the power structure in Russia. And she brought along a couple of others as well. And the email to Don Jr. setting this up from Rob Goldstone specifically said that she was a Russian government attorney. Now, she doesn't actually work for the government, but the email that Don Junior said that she did, so that's what he understood. And it said that the information that he had that would be incriminating to Hillary Clinton was part of the Russia government's support for Mr. Trump's campaign.
And that phrase struck me as something that really deserved a lot more follow up. And I asked him about that. I said, well, what does that phrase tell you? And he says, well, I didn't know about the meeting at the time. I said, OK, but you now know about this phrase. You know that this email said that the Russian government supported you and that this idea of incriminating information for Hillary Clinton was coming, in effect, from the Russian government. How do you feel about that? How do you respond to that? Does that cause you any concern? And he kind of - he drifted away from the question a couple times.
So I think I came back at it probably three times. And eventually, his answer was, well, look, I already had so much damaging information, so much negative things to say about Hillary Clinton that I didn't need the Russians or anybody else to give me anymore. I think his quote was, you know, unless she shot somebody in the back, I didn't need anything more to add to my repertoire. That, of course, didn't really even answer the question. It didn't say whether he found it concerning that the Russian government would be supporting him, but it was an interesting answer. And at some point, you just have to - you end up having to move on because there are so many other questions to ask.
GROSS: So the impression I got from hearing parts of the interview, reading the transcript and hearing you talk about it is that when you're interviewing Donald Trump, he drifts a lot and you have to keep getting him back to the question that you're asking him, to the subject that you're trying to get to the heart of. Can you follow his train of thought when he drifts?
BAKER: Yeah, but it meanders to different subjects. And the problem is - the challenge is that, you know, you're asking this question. You want to get an answer to this question. And he starts to answer, but then he kind of heads off in a different direction. And you would - normally if that happens, you would want to pull a interview subject back to the first question. But the problem is wherever he drifts off to sometimes can be news too, you know, like, well, wait a second, I need to ask about that as well. Well, he just said something extraordinary, right?
So you asked about the email, and suddenly he's saying he regrets hiring his - or appointing his attorney general. Well, you can't let that go, even though you want to go back to the first question. So as he sort of, you know, drifts along or wanders along different subjects, each of them seems to be in some ways newsy and interesting and worth following up. And the problem as an interviewer is to figure out which of these things you need to actually zero in on and focus on because you're not going to be able to get to all of them.
GROSS: So it must be so odd to interview the president in the sense that he is always insulting The New York Times. And The New York Times have - has done a lot of investigations into the president. And you're having this meeting. And hearing excerpts and reading the transcript, it seems like a kind of, you know, friendly, cordial meeting where everybody's being pleasant to each other, the reporters being pleasant to the president and vice versa.
So can you just talk a little bit about, like, the kind of mood at that meeting and what it's like to have these two kind of conflicting sets of emotions, like the combative, you know, fake news, failing New York Times tweets and then, like, the president being, like, really pleasant when you're actually talking with him?
BAKER: Yeah. Yeah. No, it's it's definitely a dichotomy. He was not combative with us in the interview. He did not bash us. He didn't complain about stories. He didn't say that we were failing. You know, I don't want us to be the story. And therefore, you know, we didn't ask him about that or anything. And we didn't raise it. If he wants to publicly bash us, that's his business, I suppose. And I can't quite decide if it's just shtick or not, right?
So in my mind, there's obviously a measure of political calculation, right? No politician ever lost any votes by attacking the news media. This is a truism of politics. I think it's a mix of calculation and genuine grievance on his part. I think he has a, you know, kind of a love-hate relationship with the media and The New York Times in particular. You know, he's 71 years old. He grew up in Queens, lived in Manhattan. He's been in New York his whole life. The New York Times the paper of record in his hometown. His father read it. He read it.
And so I think that, you know, there's a sense on his part of looking for approval, in effect, from the paper that his father read and feeling disappointed and aggrieved that he doesn't feel like he gets it, doesn't get the respect that he feels he deserves. And yet, he's not willing to completely cut it off, either. He gives us an interview and wants to sit down and talk with us.
So some of the fake news stuff is itself perhaps fake in the sense that it's, you know, shtick. But I think it also reflects kind of like gyrating moods and momentary impulses and, you know, a genuine sense of resentment on his part that he doesn't get the coverage he thinks he deserves.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. After we take a short break, we'll talk about what foreign leaders have learned about dealing with President Trump, and we'll talk about the front page story Baker co-wrote in today's Times about Republican opposition to Trump's public campaign against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Baker, The New York Times chief White House correspondent. He also covered the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama White Houses. His latest book is called "Obama: The Call Of History."
You had an interesting article back in May about how foreign leaders have learned that when dealing with President Trump, they should keep it short. They should give him a win. Don't assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with Obama. Maybe you can't answer this, but how did you learn this? And do you think foreign leaders are taking this to heart?
BAKER: Oh, I think they are, yeah. And I think they're comparing notes. You know, I talked with ambassadors and various diplomats and foreign officials for that story. And these are the tips that they came up with. These are what they have gleaned from meetings with the president. You know, what's really interesting is that this president, probably more than most of his predecessors, is very hands-on and engaging with foreign leaders. He's had a lot more meetings and phone calls than, I think, his predecessors had had at this point in their presidency, most of them anyway. He enjoys the give and take.
You know, I interviewed recently Justin Trudeau up in Canada. And I said, what's the difference between, you know, President Trump and President Obama in terms of your ability to talk to them? He says, well, with President Obama, if you wanted to have a phone call, there would be the whole process. And there'd be weeks of back and forth among the aides about what would be said on the phone call and the agenda. And then you'd get the phone call. With President Trump, he would just call. And within a few hours, President Trump would call him back without even knowing necessarily what he was calling about. So it's much more freeflow with President Trump. He wants to engage.
But, as these tips that you just read off indicate, you know, foreign leaders are trying to figure out how to manage him, how to deal with a pretty mercurial figure and what works with him. And what works with him are - first of all, personal chemistry. It matters you get along. He says all these nice things about Xi Jinping, the president of China - even though during last year's election, you would have thought China was our sworn enemy - because the two of them got together at Mar-a-Lago down in Florida, had a good time. So personal chemistry matters.
He's not in for long-winded, you, know exhortations about, you know, history and issues. He wants to understand what the issue is in a concise and straightforward way. And yeah, he's looking for wins. And that's his priority, which he's said again and again. He wants to win. The nature of the win is less important than the fact of the win. And so foreign leaders, I think, go in to try to give him something that he can walk out of the meeting and call a victory.
GROSS: You were the Moscow bureau chief - joint bureau chief with your wife for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2004. And this was quite shortly after Putin came to power.
BAKER: Right. These were - this is Putin's first term as president, and it was actually a great time to be there. We had thought it would be kind of dull. People said, well, too bad you're going now because Boris Yeltsin is gone, and he was really interesting to cover. And this Putin guy will be kind of kind of boring. And boy, was that wrong. I think it was actually a pretty formative period for Russia, one that really kind of set the tone for what was - everything was going to come afterwards.
GROSS: So did you see him start to crack down on the press? And...
BAKER: Yeah, from the very beginning. Yeah. Now, I think what Putin is today was very clear to us in that first year we were there. Not - there was a lot of wishful thinking on the part of the West. There was a lot of hopefulness that maybe he was somehow a modernizer, that he was a...
GROSS: President Bush looked into his eyes and saw his soul.
BAKER: He saw his soul.
BAKER: That's right. And I think it was just, you know, a desire, a hope rather than, you know, reality. He was who he was back then. His first goal as president of Russia was to consolidate power in the Kremlin and to get Russia back on its feet and the international stage. So the big story when we first got there was taking over a state - was taking over an independent television network, NTV. It was a running story for several months.
He pushed out these oligarchs who had challenged him. He took over the upper house of Parliament. He eliminated election of governors. He - you know, basically all the major sectors of society that were independent eventually were sort of falling under his control. And so even from the beginning, you saw the path that he was going to go down.
GROSS: Did you see fake news starting to be generated?
BAKER: There - well, fake news is a long tradition in Russia, going back to Soviet days and even probably before. But yeah, you saw - as he took over independent media, you saw again and again how they would manage and massage and create things that were news. And at times, they would go through these streaks of anti-Americanism on television, and you could tell what was happening in their relationship. And other times, they were not like that. After 9/11, it was very pro-American in Moscow. It was actually a great time to be there in that sense.
But the manipulation of news - look, that's how Putin came to power. He learned from that. The manipulation of state television helped rocket this unknown, mid-level KGB officer to the heights of power in Russia. And he was not going to let that power stay in anybody else's hands. So it was important to him to reconsolidate control inside of the Kremlin to create a strong state, not a weak state, and eventually to begin, you know, reasserting himself and reasserting Russia on, you know, the neighbors and the neighborhood that used to be part of Moscow's orbit.
GROSS: Are there any fake news stories that stand out in your mind?
BAKER: In Russia?
BAKER: Oh, gosh, so many. I mean, they just - even things that are true are just twisted or seen through a different lens. Right? So there was a whole dispute while we were there about American chicken legs that were exported to Russia. And Putin was absolutely convinced that the United States has different chicken plants for chicken that's sent to Russia and chicken that is sold to Americans so that the bad chicken would be sent to Russia and the good chicken would be sold to Americans, and he told about President Bush at one time. And President Bush was just, you know, stunned and trying to disabuse him of that.
He told President Bush - he says, look, you can't criticize me about my control of the media because you fired that reporter. President Bush couldn't figure out what he was talking about. Eventually, he figured out that he meant Dan Rather, who was pushed out of CBS after the report about President Bush's National Guard service turned out not to be true. And of course, we all know that President Bush didn't fire anybody at CBS. He doesn't have control over CBS. But that's the way President Putin sees things because that's the way things might work in his country, so he assumes everybody else's countries work the same way.
GROSS: Are there any parallels that you're seeing in the Trump administration today and its dealings with the media and what you saw under Putin when you were the Moscow bureau chief?
BAKER: I think that - not a direct parallel in the sense that obviously this - the Trump administration is not trying to literally take over the media the way President Putin and the Kremlin did. But I think there is a desire on the part of President Trump and his people, to some extent, to discredit the mainstream media, to call into question its integrity and therefore, you know, undermine it with the public when the media reports things it doesn't like. And in that sense, there is something of a parallel, that the notion that the media matters and, therefore, needs to be dealt with in a firm way. That part is similar.
But, you know, I mean, in this country - thank goodness - there's too much media and not too little media. And it would be impossible to control it all, even if somebody tried. It - we have a robust and vibrant marketplace of ideas at this point. We have, you know, media outlets that are leftist. We have media outlets that are rightist. We have media outlets that are you know pro-this and anti-that. And, you know, so the Trump White House sometimes picks and chooses the outlets that it finds most favorable. But it can't not deal with the rest. Even as much as he uses his Twitter feed to bypass the media, he still engages with the traditional media. Just this week, he gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal, and he still talks to reporters from the same fake media that he is castigating every day.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Baker. He's chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Obama: The Call Of History." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Obama: The Call Of History."
You know, the Republican Party used to be so anti-Soviet, so anti-communist. And now it seems to be members of the Republican Party - not all members, but some members, including President Trump and many people in his administration, who seem to be more sympathetic to Russia and who have financial ties or former, you know, political advisory ties to Russia. Do you have any explanation of what changed, of how it changed?
BAKER: Yeah, it's really interesting. Right? It is surprising because really the sine qua non of the Republican Party for decades was its skepticism, if not outright hostility, to Russia under its various forms. And that was the thing that pulled people together. Like, the Republican Party was a, you know, disparate coalition of social conservatives who cared more about family values and libertarians who cared more about the size of government and national security hawks. And the one thing that really pulled them all together was this idea that Russia was the bad guy, the enemy.
And to see the current Republican president take the opposite view, not just that Russia can be a partner but that Russia is actually, you know, something to be praised, that Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than our former president Barack Obama, as president Trump has said, that in fact when somebody says, well, Putin is a killer, he says, well, aren't we all? It's stunning. It's a stunning turnaround.
I think this makes very - it makes a lot of Republicans very uncomfortable. If you look at Capitol Hill, they're not buying into this. I mean, they have not suddenly become Russophiles in the Republican Party on the House and Senate. Just this week, they have now put together legislation to basically take away President Trump's flexibility when it comes to sanctions on Russia. They passed legislation in the House that has already - different version's already passed the Senate that says the president can't lift sanctions on his own without Congress having a chance to undo it. That's because they don't, in fact - haven't changed their mind about Russia. And they don't trust President Trump and his affinity for President Putin.
GROSS: Do you have any indication about whether President Trump will sign that legislation?
BAKER: I think he will. He doesn't really have any choice. It passed the Senate 97-2, and it passed the House with more than 400 votes. So they would override a veto. They haven't reconciled the two versions of the bill yet. It still has to finish up the process before it goes to him, but the White House basically has no choice. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new press secretary, indicated the other day that they were supportive of the compromise bill that came out. And they claimed that it had been made better from their point of view. And while they didn't say flatly that he would sign it, you know, all indications are that he basically will because to be overridden on a veto on this would be politically disastrous.
GROSS: You say that Trump has taken a page from the Clinton playbook in discrediting the special counselor Robert Mueller, who's investigating the Trump team's connections to Russia. What do you mean by that?
BAKER: Well, you know, one of things that President Clinton and his people did was to question the questioner, in effect, by raising concerns and criticisms of Ken Starr's investigation into the Whitewater and eventually Monica Lewinsky situations. They turned attention away from the president's conduct to the conduct of the investigator. And in Ken Starr's case, they had plenty of ammunition. He gave them plenty of ammunition. He was seen as a more ideological figure, had been in a Republican administration.
And the subject matter of sex made him look like he was sort of an Inspector Javert, who was going after a trivial thing. And the Clintons used that to their benefit. They didn't go after the first independent counsel. The first, actually, special prosecutor - sorry - was Robert Fisk. But they did go after Ken Starr, and it made a difference. And it helped at least solidify Democrats behind President Clinton who otherwise were upset at him for the things he had done. And I think what - President Trump's people look at that and say, well, therefore, we should question the credibility of Robert Mueller, the special counsel so that our base, the Trump base, has something to focus on other than the president and his people and what they've done.
Now, not everybody agrees with that. The president's lawyers have told him that's a bad idea - that Robert Mueller isn't a Ken Starr, that there's a very different set of circumstances here. The issue is not about sex. It's about, you know, possible collaboration with a foreign government, which seems much more serious, and that Mueller is a former FBI director who worked for presidents of both parties and has not been known as a partisan. And even though he's hired some prosecutors who did, in fact, donate to Hillary Clinton, he is seen as a straight arrow and a much harder target to portray as a, you know, an out-of-control prosecutor, at least at this point.
So we'll see what happens. But you hear President Trump talk about this in our interview last week. He complained bitterly about Robert Mueller having accepted the job of special counsel after having just been in the Oval Office to talk about taking over as FBI director again. President Trump said that was a conflict of interest. He pointed to these contributions by some of Robert Mueller's hires. I saw an ad last night on television that - put up by an - obviously by a pro-Trump group saying call to demand that Robert Mueller fire the Clinton Four, a phrase clearly referring to some of the prosecutors who had given some campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton.
But, you know, the Justice Department, including the president's own deputy attorney general, have said they don't see any conflict here; that Mueller is a professional and that if there are any conflict issues to be dealt with, the Justice Department has procedures to deal with that. So we'll see where this leads. But it's sort of a dangerous territory right now for all sides.
GROSS: I don't know if this is part of what you're covering or not, but one of scenarios that's been discussed as the possibility of President Trump forcing out Attorney General Sessions, then, during a recess, appointing someone who he's close with, who he trusts, who will be loyal to him, who would then fire special counsel Mueller. So what are you hearing about that?
BAKER: Well, that's certainly a live fear on the part of people in Washington - Democrats, in particular, but even Republicans. And I think that that's something that could change the dynamics when you ask about, you know, does Congress decide to do something about what the president has been doing? And I think that could change the dynamics.
You know, just this week, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, said, you know, Jeff Sessions is doing a good job. He did the right thing by recusing himself, and he shouldn't - and in effect, he should not be fired. And he controls the Senate calendar. If he actually worries about a recess appointment, he can stop it by a procedure that allows the Senate to stay in session in a pro forma way, even when they go out of session. They used that technique to stop President Obama from making recess appointments that they didn't want him to make. They might do that in this case because I think even Republicans would find a recess-appointed attorney general, who would be answerable only to the president, as a worrisome, if not objectionable, prospect.
GROSS: I want to get back to the White House and power within the Trump administration. There's been conflicts that have been reported between the president's chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Now Jared Kushner, as well as the president's son Donald Jr., are being questioned by committees investigating the Trump team. So how do you see power being shifted now between, you know, among those people in the White House?
BAKER: Well, it's so fluid. It depends on the day. You can't really sort of say this person is permanently up or this person is permanently down. You know, a couple months ago, we were all writing stories about how Steve Bannon seemed to be on the outs with the president. He'd been taken off the National Security Council committee that he had been on, that he had miffed the president by quarreling with Jared Kushner. And then, you know, and then he - suddenly Bannon seemed to be back doing much better. The speech that the president gave in Warsaw was a Bannon speech. It was a robust, forthright, full-throated defense of Western civilization, as Steve Bannon would put it.
So, you know, the amazing thing about watching Trump's orbit is nobody's ever fully out and fully in, it seems like. Just this week, when he went to Ohio, there on the plane with us was Corey Lewandowski. Remember, he had been fired by the president last year as his campaign manager. But he's never completely left the orbit. And they've always talked about ways that he might come back in. And so it's always a shifting game of temporary alliances and roller-coaster kind of ups-and-downs that don't ever seem to actually end in a precise and concrete power structure.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Baker, The New York Times' chief White House correspondent. Our interview was recorded yesterday. This morning, we called him to get an update on today's front-page story that he co-wrote about Republican opposition to Trump's public campaign against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. We'll hear that after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. I spoke with him yesterday. Here's the update we recorded this morning about today's front-page story he co-wrote about Republican opposition to President Trump's public campaign against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
So President Trump has made it clear he thinks Jeff Sessions shouldn't have recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigations. And the president has basically invited Jeff Sessions to resign and has seemed to be on the verge of firing him. What did you report today about how Republican senators are trying to oppose that?
BAKER: Well, what President Trump has done here - he's touched off a real revolt among his own colleagues, his own party members in the Senate. These guys served with Jeff Sessions. They consider him a friend. They went through a brutal confirmation process with him. And they're upset at this idea that he would be whipped around like this, much less forced out. And they have basically told the White House, no way. We're not confirming another AG just because you want to push this guy out. In fact, Chuck Grassley, who's the chairman of the judiciary committee, tweeted overnight that his schedule is full. He has no room for more confirmations. He wrote no AG. And I think that's just a sign of how upset they are about this. This has crossed a red line for them.
GROSS: OK. But one scenario is that the president fires Jeff Sessions and makes an interim appointment of an attorney general, which doesn't require Senate confirmation, and then the new attorney general fires special counsel Robert Mueller.
BAKER: Yeah. So...
GROSS: What do you hear about that now?
BAKER: Sorry. So here's the thing. Yeah, so the Senate Republicans are so upset. They basically told the White House that they will block a recess appointment by refusing to go out of session completely. They'll have what they call pro forma sessions. They'll have a senator go into the chamber once every three days, gavel - you know, hit the gavel - and that will count as a session. So the president can't use his recess appointment powers.
That's the first time a Senate will have done that to a president of their own party. Usually, they do that to presidents of the other party. So they're really, very serious about this. And I think that's one of the reasons why it looks like the president might be kind of beginning to back off a little bit.
GROSS: You report that there are members of the White House staff who are also opposing firing Jeff Sessions. What are you hearing about that?
BAKER: Yeah, I think almost all of them - I mean, most of them are, anyway. A couple - you know, first of all, some of Jeff Sessions' own top aides work - former aides - work at the White House in key positions. And you have a, you know, alliance here of Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, all of whom have told the president this is not a good idea. Let's cool this off a little bit.
You know, and they believe - at the moment, anyway, we're told by people who talk to them, that that storm might have begun to pass. That doesn't mean the president won't still criticize Sessions but that the danger of him being fired may be passing. Now, well, nobody knows with President Trump. That's the one thing we've learned is anything can happen at any time. But they hope that they've gotten through to him that firing Jeff Sessions would be a dangerous thing because even the conservatives who have supported President Trump don't want him to do it.
GROSS: Do you see this as a turning point, politically?
BAKER: Well, I see it as a moment, anyway, that - where President Trump is learning that there are limits, perhaps, even among his own supporters, that his own supporters, you know, aren't going to stick with him through everything, that they, in fact, have commitments to issues that are important to them like immigration, criminal justice and so forth that Jeff Sessions has been a champion on from their point of view.
President Trump is new at this politics stuff. You know, he comes from business and entertainment where, you know, a person in his position of power could just sort of do a whole lot of things he wanted to do without many constraints. And I think that the political system in Washington doesn't work that way.
GROSS: So do you think that Republican senators standing up to the president and saying, well, we're not going to confirm this, and we're going to not let you appoint someone new to replace Jeff Sessions, is that a turning point in how Republican senators are using their power?
BAKER: Well, that's basically, you know, one of the first times that they have decided to stand up to him in a collective way. We saw that, actually, just earlier this week with the advancement of this legislation that will impose sanctions on Russia and prevent the president from lifting them without congressional, you know, consent. That's also a pretty important sign. So you take those two things together, and it does show that there's a limit to how far Republicans on the Hill are willing to go.
GROSS: So the new head of the White House Communications Office, Anthony Scaramucci, is now saying he has the names of leakers. He knows who some of the leakers are. And one of his goals is to fire leakers, put them out on Pennsylvania Avenue. So is there more that we know about what he knows and what he plans to do?
BAKER: Yeah. And there's a very interesting episode with him with just in the time since we talked yesterday. He - a story went up on Politico about his financial disclosure form. He got mad about it. He tweeted that it was an illegal leak, a felony, and he was going to ask for an FBI investigation. And he put Reince Priebus, the chief of staff's Twitter handle on his message, as if he was suggesting that Priebus was somehow involved with this.
Well, first of all, it wasn't a leak. It's called a disclosure form for a reason. It was disclosed to Politico under normal procedures under federal law. This is how it works. It was not a leak. Secondly, for him to basically suggest that Priebus was involved was very interesting.
He went on CNN then this morning to say, look, if Priebus isn't a leaker, let him come out and say it. We're like brothers, we're at odds. We may be like Cain and Abel. Well (laughter), of course, one of those two brothers ended up dead. And it's certainly rather extraordinary to see internal White House rivalries playing out in such a public way.
GROSS: Does this indicate Scaramucci is getting off to a rocky start?
BAKER: No. I think it indicates that he's doing what the president wants. And it shows how, you know, that Scaramucci sees it in his interest to be a sort of mini-Trump - you know, doing it just like the boss does, you know, airing public - airing disagreements in public, you know, not necessarily sticking close to facts and, you know, let the chips fall where they may because, you know, being tough is the bottom line.
GROSS: Well, Peter Baker, let me let you get back to work. You have a very (laughter) - you have a very busy job (laughter).
BAKER: Well, it's certainly interesting, no question about that.
GROSS: All right. Thank you so much.
BAKER: Thanks so much. Have a great day.
GROSS: Peter Baker is The New York Times chief White House correspondent. His latest book is called "Obama: The Call Of History."
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with former "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams, who stars in the new film comedy "The Incredible Jessica James," check out our podcast, where you'll find lots of interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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