THE WASHINGTON POST – Jonathan Karl is one of United States (US) President Donald Trump’s least favourite reporters, or so it would seem from recent White House briefings. In the past few weeks Trump has told Karl not to be a “cutie pie” or a “wise guy”, and called him “a third-rate reporter” who would “never make it” because Karl was asking about the availability of coronavirus testing and ventilators for hospitals.
Trump’s mini-tantrums and name calling are not restricted to Karl. They have become common in the briefing room since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the advent of the President’s daily marathon briefings. Many people have argued that the television networks and cable news channels should stop carrying the briefings live because they are short on useful information and extremely long on Trump promotion. Since lockdowns have prevented the President from holding rallies, the briefings have become The Trump Show – which is also the title of Karl’s new book, Front Row at the Trump Show. Karl is ABC News’s Chief White House Correspondent and President of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Previously he was a correspondent for CNN and a reporter for the New York Post, which is how he first met Trump more than 25 years ago. “He was fun to be around,” Karl recalled of his early interviews with Trump. “There was a sinister side to Donald Trump, but at the time, I did not see it.”
Trump was always accessible to Karl, as he has been to many other reporters, and this is at the heart of the Trump paradox. He loves seeing himself on the front page of newspapers and on television.
“Donald Trump is the creator, chief publicist, executive producer, and star of the Trump Show,” Karl wrote. “He may be at war with the news media, but he is also in love with the news media.”
The media has given Trump lots of coverage because he’s entertaining, controversial and compelling. Many national news organisations are thriving in part because of Trump. People who love him, as well as those who can’t stand him, want to keep track of everything he is doing and saying – which means more readers, viewers and clicks. Trump knows this and frequently makes reference to his ratings.
One senses in this account that, like many others, Karl is both attracted and somewhat repelled by Trump largely because of his propensity to lie. As Karl detailed, Trump long ago boasted that the ability to lie consistently was a key to his success. “Donald Trump lies for comic effect, he lies to make himself feel good, he lies to make you feel good, he lies because he likes to, he lies because he can.”
Former defence secretary Jim Mattis had another way to describe the President’s relationship with the truth. Mattis said Trump was “impervious to facts.”
It was during an interview with Karl that Trump made the infamous remark, “When I can, I tell the truth.” He also admitted his strategy to Lesley Stahl of CBS in a May 2018 interview. “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” As of April 3, The Washington Post had documented more than 18,000 false or misleading statements Trump has made since becoming President.
Karl describes the frustration among some of Trump’s aides with his boasting and tactics. During John Kelly’s final weeks on the job as White House chief of staff, his contempt for the President was displayed openly.
At one meeting, when Trump declared that he knew more about nuclear weapons than anyone in the room, Kelly muttered under his breath, “Goodness.”
When former attorney general Jeff Sessions submitted his resignation letter, Trump returned it with the words ‘Make America Great Again’ scrawled across it.
Karl also recounted that after Mick Mulvaney was named acting chief of staff, he asked the White House staff to read the book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by the Director of the Mood Disorders Programme at Tufts Medical Center Nassir Ghaemi. Karl talked with Ghaemi, who told him that Trump “clearly has mild manic symptoms all the time, as part of his personality”, which can manifest as someone who is unrealistic and unempathic.
But though Karl briefly touches on these issues, he does not raise the question of why so few former staff members have spoken publicly to tell the American people what they know about Trump and what is really going on in the administration.
Karl, writing before the coronavirus outbreak, seems to argue that some reporters have been too tough on Trump, “You might legitimately think some in the news media had lost the ability to distinguish a real scandal from a trivial one.” But many media reports suggest that the President’s response to the pandemic has been a real scandal. The coverage has indicated that Trump’s slow action, his refusal to take any responsibility, and his failure to make tests widely available and to immediately use the Defense Production Act to order the manufacture of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and hospitals have contributed to the severity of the crisis.
Karl’s book is chiefly a compilation of his encounters and interviews with Trump and members of his staff.
There is far too much recounting, often in somewhat tedious detail, of Karl’s daily coverage of Trump: dealing with the White House press staff, flying to different cities, managing to get coveted interviews, setting up those interviews, waiting for the interviews, etc. It’s an account of things we have mostly seen and heard before, and it lacks analysis of the larger issues Trump and his presidency represent.
In the epilogue, Karl allows himself a bit more licence and expresses concern about Trump’s disregard for the truth. “When he uses the power of the presidency to convince his supporters they shouldn’t believe what they see with their own eyes, it does matter.
“I fear President Trump’s war on truth may do lasting damage to American democracy.” Karl acknowledges that Trump is “motivated only by an insatiable desire to promote himself, but his assault on truth is toxic and contagious”.
Karl speculates that this erosion of truth could threaten trust in future election results and the ability to hold elected officials accountable. “The question is whether America will ever be the same again, whether we have become a nation of people who define truth in relative terms, accepting as true only what we want to believe.”