Covering The Trump White House It's Tuesday: two White House reporters join Sam to talk about life behind the scenes covering the Trump administration: Katie Rogers of the New York Times (@katierogers) and Geoff Bennett of NBC News (@GeoffRBennett). Tweet @NPRItsBeenaMin with feels or email samsanders@npr.org. Tickets to our October 2 live show in LA are at kp.cc/IBAM.
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Covering The Trump White House

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Covering The Trump White House

Covering The Trump White House

Covering The Trump White House

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/642548286/643416522" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House June 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Canada to attend the G7 summit before heading to Singapore on Saturday for a planned U.S.- North Korea summit. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House June 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Canada to attend the G7 summit before heading to Singapore on Saturday for a planned U.S.- North Korea summit.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Labor Day has come and gone. The kids are back in school. Summer is almost over. And in Washington, that usually means the D.C. political machine comes back to life after a quiet August.

But not so with the Trump White House. Drama has been high all summer long, amid the sagas of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, the Mueller investigation, and an endless cycle of staffers coming and going.

So last week, Sam sat down with two reporters who cover the Trump White House — Katie Rogers from the New York Times and Geoff Bennett from NBC News (Geoff also used to cover politics for NPR) — to talk about their work, their lives, and how those two things never stop colliding.


Interview Highlights

On landing their jobs

KATIE: It's just not something I ever thought I would do. They asked me to do it — after Glenn Thrush was taken off the beat, they asked me a few weeks later — completely out of the blue.

Elisabeth Bumiller, our bureau chief — I had bronchitis, I was trying to recover, I was really sick — and she calls me into her office and she's like, "You're a good reporter, so you know what this is about."

And I was like, "No...?" Which is a great way to start off the conversation.

She's like, "How do you feel about covering the White House?"

I think I said something like, "You couldn't think of anybody else?"

You have to take this job. It's the greatest show on earth.

GEOFF: Frankly, it was a job I thought I'd never be able to get. I just thought it was never going to come my way. And it wasn't until I was at NPR, and Beth Donovan hired me to cover the Hill — but then had me in mind later to cover the White House — it wasn't until that moment that I realized, "Oh. I can have a job like this, too." Like, "This success isn't for other people, it's also for me."

And then I started to dream a bigger dream for myself.

On their busiest days

GEOFF: I get to the White House around 8 o'clock, and leave after [NBC] Nightly News around 7 o'clock. As a network corespondent, we are basically sequestered at the White House. We have to babysit the camera, because you never know when news is going to break. Say, for instance, something crazy happens on Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House is shut down. You can't go out and get a cup of coffee because then you might not be able to get back in.

I will say though, for my other colleagues who do The Today Show and Nightly News more regularly, they are there at five-thirty in the morning, 6 o'clock in the morning, to do their Today Show hit. And then they're there all day for the briefing and to do MSNBC. And then at a certain point around 3 or 4 o'clock, that's when they start to work on their Nightly News script. Nightly News hits at six-thirty, and then they stay through the end of Nightly News at 7 o'clock.

You go home, see your family, get some dinner. And then you're writing your Today Show script for the next day from roughly 9 to 10 o'clock.

You track your piece for The Today Show around ten, ten-thirty, and then you're back at the White House the next day.

So you live the news. That is your life.

KATIE: Today we were emailing as early as six forty-five, just talking to sources, talking to each other, about what we think we want to do, what we think is going on.

Then you just work through the day. The other night when I did a McCain story and another story on NAFTA, I think I was there until like 9:00 p.m. The lights shut off while I was there, and I was, like, waving my arms around trying to get the lights back on.

Tomorrow, for instance, I fly to Evansville, and then Charlotte the next day, and then fly back on Friday night to cover the funeral at the Cathedral for John McCain on Saturday. That is all work.

And you take down-time when you can get it. Like, if it's a slower day — yesterday, I think, felt slower — sometimes that's torturous, because you're like, 'What, there's nothing happening?!' So it's like your metabolism completely changes.

On being 'a character' in the story of the Trump White House

KATIE: I think for a lot of us it's uncomfortable. It's weird to even talk about it right now. It's just instinctive — you don't talk about it as if you are a character. But when [Trump] does things like call out individual reporters or institutions, you have no choice. He's the President and he's dragged you into it.

And, you know, I think a lot of reporters — and I haven't always been perfect about it, too — we'll tweet things and say, 'Wow, look at this, the flags are up at the White House but they're down at the Monument, wow, this is jarring.' But people in the White House watch that and they take that as editorializing, and I do think to be perfectly honest and transparent, reporters are humans, too. Sometimes they cross the line and the White House pays really close attention to that, and it builds their argument that we are willing to be characters.

GEOFF: It's hard to do what we do in this era where the President has made the pursuit of truth a partisan enterprise. And so I think now, more than ever, it's really incumbent upon reporters, as Katie is saying, to not let yourself become a part of the story. Don't let yourself be baited.

And you know what I try not to do anymore, on air? I don't read [the President's] tweets anymore. Because in the beginning, on cable news, it's 'another tweet from the President, let me read all four of them.' And so now, the stuff that's not edifying or true, I don't try to give voice to. I only try to stick to the pertinent stuff. And that is my way of trying to stick to what is real and what is true.

On the craziest story they can tell about their time covering the Trump White House

KATIE: I had a story a couple weeks ago that sort of illustrated to me how involved the President is in coverage about him. Which is not unusual — Presidents care about how the media covers them. But I was on the Europe trip and I got a heads up from a source at the White House, who just had this email that showed that [Trump] got on the plane at some point during the Helsinki trip, and freaked out because the first lady's TV was tuned to CNN. And he threw a fit, and got the military office involved, to make standard operating procedure Fox News on all the TVs going forward [...] 'in the hotel suites.'

And that was actually confirmation that they sleep in different rooms, too — like, 'first lady suite,' 'President's suite.' So that's the wildest story.

GEOFF: This is a behind-the-scenes story that isn't necessarily crazy, but at the time told me so much about who Donald Trump is.

It was my first encounter with him. He came to Washington for Ted Cruz's 'Stop The Iran Deal' rally. He wasn't the nominee, so you could get relatively close to him. He had security, but you could go up to him and ask him questions. And so we all did.

There was a big crush of reporters and photographers, and we were all asking questions, and [Trump] wanted to answer this one question from a reporter from one of the cable news networks.

But because of the way we were organized around him, all in a big circle, the reporter was separated from her photographer. And [Trump] sort of instinctively knew that, because he knew the network.

So he gets the question, and before he answers it, he says, "Where is your camera?"

And she points in the direction of the camera, and he turns his body and answers her questions so that the sight-line of the camera was just right. And he knew where the light was from the sun so that the shot on television was perfect.

So he gives the speech, and as he's leaving — this was outside of the Capitol, and there was this embankment that he had to walk over, and they put these fake stairs there — as he's walking over these temporary stairs to get to the car, he stops at the top, and turns around like Eva Perón from Evita, and waves to all of these people.

But nobody was waving at him. It was just for the cameras.

And so I guess he wanted to have this vision of himself, waving at these adoring fans.

On the challenges of covering the Trump White House

GEOFF: A lot of times what happens is the President will say something, he'll tweet something, and then what happens is you have the White House staff trying to make the reality on the ground reflect what the President has said or tweeted about.

[...]

In this White House, things are true until they aren't. And it took me a while to figure out how to say that on television, and then I just started saying it. Like, 'as of this moment, here's what we know.'

KATIE: I'm still new to the White House beat. I didn't cover another administration. But sometimes you're dealing with people, where you're just like, 'ugh.' You have to build relationships with people who lie ninety-eight percent of the time.

GEOFF: That has been — and it always has been — but that, for me, has been the toughest part of covering this White House. Building relationships with people who — I don't have transactional relationships in my personal life, but in my professional life, with sources, it's almost entirely transactional.

I'm not a fake person, so it's hard to let people into your life — regardless of whether it's professional or personal — who exist on that plane.

KATIE: And when you're giving them — sometimes your relationship is based on sharing information about yourself with people. Or just being, like, 'I have veterans in my family, too. I'm from x-y-z community, too. You can tell me your perspective and I'm going to understand it.'

Giving any of that up about yourself to people who can weaponize information — it's kind of uncomfortable.

On whether the Trump White House has changed the way newsrooms operate

KATIE: There's just discussion over how to handle it. There are White House correspondents who have been covering administrations on our team since Clinton, and applying historical context to how to interact is important. But there's also an acknowledgement that this is a different President and a different White House. They eat the chess pieces — they don't play chess, they eat the board. And it's hard to strategize for that.

You know, when people see [a reporter] yelling at Sarah [Sanders], I think all of us are just like, "God, this is not helpful."

But then there's also acknowledgement of [...] when they try to hold off-the-records with, like, fifty reporters, 'why are we agreeing to this? Do we take ourselves out of this, or do we go?' Those are not easy things to address or answer.

GEOFF: I feel like the tenants of good journalism are solid, no matter what — no matter who is occupying the White House. And so I just try to stick to that. Even if you have a President who eats all the chess pieces.

I feel like if you get sucked in, and you try to compromise what you know to be good journalism to deal with the current environment, that's how you get tripped up.

On criticism of White House coverage that rings true

GEOFF: I do think sometimes we cast about on stories that [don't] necessarily matter in a true sense, but that matter in the moment because they're interesting and entertaining and they might drive ratings.

Like the tweet du jour — sometimes we dissect a tweet and we don't still cover the fact that there are some five-hundred-plus children who are still separated from their parents, who are still being detained by the government. Because that story we know already.

KATIE: That [Trump] plays us. That he baits us, and we fall into it. I agree. But I don't know what the answer to that is.

I briefly thought about it with the flag stuff the other day, with McCain. Like, other presidents have been criticized before for their condolence timeline. Obama was criticized for not issuing a proclamation after a mass shooting in Chattanooga. And he did it after there was sort of an outcry from veterans.

You know, we tend to jump on this White House when we see things rising on social media, like viral photos of the flag up. You have to be really careful to write the story in a way that's not editorializing and siding with everyone else, saying, 'this is deeply inappropriate.' But then you report, and you know that his aides tried to be appropriate. And he's like, 'no.'

GEOFF: It's hard to know in the moment. Like with the flag thing, that was the most visual evidence of the President's contempt for John McCain. And then after-the-fact, it's like, 'Well, are we giving this too much oxygen? And not really focusing on the life and legacy of the Senator?' In the moment, it's hard to know.

Brent Baughman and Jordana Hochman produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and adapted it for the web.