BEHIND THE BRIEFINGS: PETER BAKER

BEHIND THE BRIEFINGS: PETER BAKER

It was never Peter Baker’s plan to cover this administration. The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent decided to retire from the beat at the end of the Obama years, having covered the last three presidents. So he decamped to Jerusalem with his family to work as the paper’s bureau chief there, only to be called back to Washington five months later.

His fourth spin in the briefing room hasn’t disappointed. If OA has learned anything from this series of interviews (and we’ve learned quite a bit), it’s that Donald Trump’s White House is a reporter’s dream, each day something like a sugar high. As Baker explains, there’s palace intrigue, federal investigations, and, of course, Twitter, turning days that may have been snooze-fests in White Houses past into multi-act plays.

Yet with every high comes a crash, and Baker shows us how even the most veteran reporters can get disoriented and exhausted covering this administration. Read on to find out how Trump has challenged his assumptions as a journalist, and whether this White House will truly be his last.


OA: You’re of course a veteran of this beat, and I’d love to know how your experience following President Trump this last year has compared with the other White Houses you’ve covered.

PB: I used to think that White Houses were more alike than not—that we emphasize the differences, of course, between parties and ideologies and so forth, but that the similarities were more pronounced that people ever really thought. That the way the White House worked, the rhythm, the patterns, all of that, were actually pretty familiar from president to president.

This is the presidency that kind of busts that theory to heck. Everything I thought I understood about how a White House works has been shattered this year to some extent. And that's one thing that makes it so fascinating for a journalist. It's all new, it's all unpredictable, it's all surprising at times, and I think one thing that we've learned this year in the White House briefing room is to not make assumptions that we understand how things work.

OA: What’s a moment when that rang particularly true for you?

PB: I mean, it's almost every single day. [laughs] It really is. I remember getting the phone call saying that the president had just fired the FBI director [James Comey] in the midst of an investigation into the Russia matter, and I thought, "Well, that can't possibly be. No president would ever do that." Yet, of course, he had. I also thought, "Well, there's no way on Earth he could ever nominate somebody that would get confirmed by the Senate." Yet he did, and [Christopher Wray] was confirmed pretty resoundingly. It was a lesson not to hold too fast to assumptions or too fast to the old, "Well, this is the way it's always worked," kind of mentality that you tend to get into if you've done a beat for a long time.

OA: Do you feel like that’s ultimately made you a better reporter?

PB: Well, it's made it for a more interesting year anyway, and I think that challenging our preconceptions is always a good thing for reporters. You can get stale. It's a great reminder that we should be open to the way things are, not the way we think they might be. The rhythm of the beat, for instance, every morning that you're on duty now in this White House, I sleep by the phone, it starts buzzing around 5:30 or 6:00, I'm up and typing, and I've often finished the story and filed it by 8:00 a.m. before I've even gotten out of my pajamas.

It's just a very different rhythm, very different intensity, and it's not just that there's a story in the morning, it's that you don't even necessarily have any expectations of what that story would be. I would never have guessed that one morning I would suddenly be writing about whether the NFL players are kneeling or not, you know? Things that would seem to come out of the blue. With the other presidents I’ve covered, you understood generally what they were trying to do, and while there are always surprises, for the most part you had a sense of where things were going and what kind of possibilities there were. With this White House, with this president, that's never the case.

...I think that challenging our preconceptions is always a good thing for reporters. You can get stale. It’s a great reminder that we should be open to the way things are, not the way we think they might be.

OA: You and I have talked before about the transparency of the Obama administration, how they pushed a line that they were “the most transparent administration in history,” which was ultimately just, well, false. How would you compare dealing with this press shop to the Obama years?

PB: It's so different. There's some ways it's far more transparent, and then in some ways there's not. One way it's obviously much more transparent is, with his Twitter, you have a much greater window into this president's thinking and mindset on any given day than we've had with any White House before. He doesn't hold back. He doesn't have a filter. He tells us exactly what he's thinking.

So I’d say Twitter is our little pipeline into the head of the president. Obama, Bush, these were disciplined guys. They told us only what they wanted us to know, and they really didn't tell us more than that, for the most part. President Trump doesn't hold anything back: If he has a reaction to something he sees on television or reads in the newspaper, he's just going to tell you what it is. That's an extraordinary thing for journalists who have spent years covering the White House trying to read Kremlin-esque tea leaves in the slight changes in wording in a press release.

Now, the flip side is there are other aspects of course that are very un-transparent. This is the first president who hasn't released his tax returns. We haven't had a medical report yet of him since he's been in the White House. They've stopped releasing the Secret Service entry logs that Obama had put on the web.

OA: How has Trump’s band of outsiders, especially at the beginning, complicated your sourcing? Do you feel like your longtime sources in Republican sources are less useful or in-the-know now?

PB: Right, I mean, if it had been a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich presidency, then we probably would have known more people who went in, and then the people we know who were on the outside would still have contacts on the inside. This is a White House, though, that is at odds with its own party in many ways. A lot of people were Never Trumpers have been kept on the outs, so the pool of sources is more limited in that way.

Having said that, there's also been much more public exposure of palace intrigue in this White House than you normally see. Every White House has its internal divisions, its internal debates, its tribal rivalries, but this one puts it on display, or at least it has in the past, much more overtly than others have. Now, I think John Kelly as Chief of Staff has tried to crack down on that to some extent, and the departure of some of the people who were there in the first few months has probably diminished that to a degree, but I still think we have more people inside this White House willing to describe internal debates than we've seen in other White Houses.

The New York Times as an institution has obviously been in the spotlight for the last two years. How does that feel for you as the top White House correspondent to hear the President of the United States berate your publication?

It's just words. It's hard to take him too seriously when he calls us the "Failing New York Times," because the reality is our paid subscriptions are up by about 500,000. Our stock price is up by, I don't know, 30, 40%. Our bureau has probably 30 or 40% more people than it had a year ago. We're doing great, so I don't worry too much about name-calling.

I think, for us, the best thing we can do is keep our heads down and do our jobs, and be professional. I don't think we should let ourselves be lured into being what he says we are, which is the opposition. We're not the opposition. We are not pro. We are not anti. We are independent observers, and we have an important function in society. To the extent that we are presented or perceived to be on one side of the equation or not as reporters, that's dangerous to our profession.

Now, having said that, where there are efforts made beyond words to change our ability to do our job, that's where we should make sure that we speak out. That would be things like changing the rules on briefings, or limiting some reporters or outlets because they are disfavored. If the president ever actually followed through on his threat to try to go after the licenses of television networks or things like that, journalists obviously have a stake in making sure our concerns are heard.

The way this presidency moves, it’s sort of like a pinball machine, bouncing from issue to issue with amazing velocity. You sometimes find yourself on the same day writing about North Korea, nuclear weapons on the one hand, and the opioid crisis on the other, and some sort of big personnel shuffle at the same time.

OA: That brings me to one thing I was excited to ask you about. What does objectivity look like in the age of Twitter? I wonder if social media has emboldened journalists to share their actual opinions more frequently and whether that will do more harm than good to our profession in the long run.

PB: I think we now need to be especially careful to understand that these new tools don't change that essential obligation that we have to be objective. Just because it's easy to type out a tweet and send it out in ten seconds, doesn't mean the rules of professionalism have changed. Yes, we all make mistakes, we’re all still learning on this, but generally we should be careful to only post things on social media that are not that different from what we would do in the newspaper, or television-like analysis. The standards ought to still adhere to professional journalistic standards, and ought not to be our personal opinions, because that's not relevant to our jobs.

And this is not just because of Trump. It just happens to be that Twitter and social media have become, at this very same moment, so much more prevalent, so much more a part of the conversation, and we want to be part of that conversation. Twitter and social media are terrific ways of getting our journalism out there, terrific ways of reporting the news in a way, and providing analysis and context. We just need to think of it as just another way of doing the same thing we do, and have done traditionally, for decades with the old-fashioned newspaper.

OA: You had actually taken on the role of Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times at the close of the Obama presidency. How did you end up back here covering Trump?

PB: We moved to Jerusalem very briefly. My son and I spent five months there. [My wife] Susan was going to come after the election to join us, and she did, but very shortly after the election, the paper asked us to come home, so we came back in January.

They were a great five months, and they were the start of what we thought was going to be about a three-year tour, but it wasn't meant to be, I guess. But it was terrific. It's a fascinating place, and I loved every minute there, and under other circumstances would have loved to stay. It's just a really captivating place, and so essential to history and politics and geopolitics. I wish we had had a chance to do what we had planned to do.

We had some conversations in the days after Trump won, and then [Times executive editor] Dean Baquet called a few weeks later and asked if we would come home. You know, it would have been hard to be on the sidelines when this extraordinary story is happening here in Washington. We didn't feel like it was much of a choice. We had to jump back in.

OA: Do you regret coming back?

PB: We definitely miss Jerusalem. We went and visited this summer, and saw our friends, and thought about what life would have been like if we were still there. We may yet try it again. I mean, this presidency will lead to another presidency someday, and that may be a moment when we could try it again, so it's not completely off the list or anything.

But yeah, it's definitely exhausting being here. I'm looking forward to a little time at the holidays. I'm hoping it will be quiet and we can just read a book and hang out as a family.

OA: Do you ever feel like the rapidity of this news cycle prevents you from going deep on the stories you think matter most?

PB: The way this presidency moves, it's sort of like a pinball machine, bouncing from issue to issue with amazing velocity. You sometimes find yourself on the same day writing about North Korea, nuclear weapons on the one hand, and the opioid crisis on the other, and some sort of big personnel shuffle at the same time. Sometimes you have to do two or three a day, depending on who's available and who's working on other stories. We have six of us now on the beat, and that's a great gift, but even with six of us we all find ourselves taxed, I think, by how many different stories there are coming out of this White House.

I find the Russia story very compelling, not just the investigation, but also our relationship with them and where we're at, where it's going, what it means for Putin. My wife and I were in Russia for four years, so it's something that still is important to us, and something that interests us a great deal. That would be interesting, I think, to spend more time on.

I try to write as much as I can about the presidency writ large, how this fits into history, what's different and what's not different. Those are the kinds of stories I like to dig into if I can find the time, but it is hard to find time in this administration to go deep.

OA: Has Glenn Thrush's suspension complicated your team's day-to-day operations at all?

PB: Well, we're down one of our best reporters. There’s no question that has a big impact. Glenn is a fabulous reporter. He has added an enormous amount to our coverage this year, and we're worse off without him. We'll see what happens. For the moment we have our friend Mike Tackett helping out, which is great, but everybody brings different skills and experience to the table. Still, it all adds up, I think, to a pretty strong team.

OA: Do you anticipate he’ll be back soon?

PB: That’s not for me to say. I don’t know. You’d have to ask our editors about that.

OA: Do you think you’ll ever write a book about this administration?

PB: It's possible. I've written now books about the last three, but I'm working on a book with Susan that's not about any of the current stuff. It's actually a biography of James Baker, who was Secretary of State of course under President Bush 41, and it's a fascinating topic because I think his story tells a lot about Washington and how Washington has changed over the years.

There's a lot of books being written right now about President Trump, and I don't have one in me that feels different than anybody else has. If I were ever to do it, it would only be if I thought I had something to report or say that would stand out from the crowd because people don't need one more book saying the same thing.

OA: Will this be your last White House?

PB: One of the reasons we decided to move to Jerusalem is that we didn't want to just keep doing the same thing, and after three White Houses, it did feel like there was a certain Groundhog Day quality to it. That's what makes this White House so interesting because it's not like those others, as we talked about.

Would there be another White House after this? I don't know. I'm too exhausted by this one at the moment to even think about that, but I do find the presidency endlessly interesting and the people who occupy the office very interesting. I wouldn't rule it out. It depends on the circumstances, and the exhaustion level at the time.
 

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter at twitter.com/peterbakernyt


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Elaina Plott was a staff writer at Washingtonian magazine, and has written for GQ, the New York Observer, Harper's BAZAAR, and Town & Country. She also covered Congress for National Review. This is her fourth "Behind the Briefings" interview of this series. @elainaplott


Header Photo: John Plumbe's 1846 daguerrotype of the south front of the White House.

Library of Congress.