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September 6, 2018

Stay Tuned: Truth and Lies in the West Wing (with Jonathan Swan)


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Jonathan Swan covers the White House for Axios. He talks with Preet about the latest leaks from the West Wing, how he separates facts from spin, and which of his high-powered sources uses Comic Sans.

[00:00:00.14] PREET: Jonathan Swan, welcome to Stay Tuned.

[00:00:03.13] JONATHAN: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:04.15] PREET: It’s good to have you here. So, you cover a lot of things, and at this point in human history it seems that, you know, you need two or three brains to cover everything that’s going on. I had a whole list of things to ask you about as we tape here on Tuesday, September 4th at about 2 PM. We just had the McCain memorial, sad and poignant ceremony, or ceremonies, this past weekend. There was this crazy tweet that set me off yesterday by Donald Trump about the Justice Department, about Jeff Sessions. We have the beginning of the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Bret Kavanaugh, just a couple of hours ago it began. And then literally, in the hour before I came to the studio, there was breaking news about all these things that are in this new book, called “Fear” by Bob Woodward, and the minute before you came on air with me, we were talking about it a little bit. Have you had a chance to read the book?

[00:00:58.00] JONATHAN: I’ve read only the reporting on the book. We still don’t have a copy in our hands, so I’ve just…

[00:01:04.10] PREET: What kind of crappy outfit is Axios running that you have a copy of the book?

[00:01:07.13] JONATHAN: Take it up with my bosses, man. It’s no good. I’m guessing that they had an advantage working at the Washington Post, the people who got…

[00:01:14.11] PREET: Oh are you alleging, are you alleging, that Bob Woodward shared a copy of his book in advance with his employer, Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post.

[00:01:24.08] JONATHAN It’s possible that the Amazon Washington Post just has really good sources.

[00:01:27.11] PREET: The Amazon Washington Post.

[00:01:28.01] JONATHAN: (Laughing) I love the Washington Post, I’m just being facetious.

[00:01:32.01] PREET: Let’s just spend a few minutes talking about it. I— like you—do not have an advanced copy of the book, but there have been some quotes from the book that are, you know, not mild.

[00:01:43.14] JONATHAN: No.

[00:01:44.02] PREET: Let me give you an example, and I’m sure you’ve seen this as well, here’s what Donald Trump—according to Bob Woodward, noted author and the person who exposed along with his friend Carl Bernstein, the Watergate fiasco—here’s what he claims Trump said about his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, quote, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb southerner, he couldn’t even be a one person country lawyer down in Alabama.” Close quote. Do you believe that that’s what Donald Trump said? Do you credit the reporting about quotes like that?

[00:02:17.04] JONATHAN: Yeah that quote sounds pretty on the money. I haven’t heard that exact phrasing hasn’t been given to me by people who’ve been in the room with the president, but I’ve been told enough things that he’s said privately about Sessions, ridiculing his intelligence, complaining bitterly about him, that it has the ring of truth about it.

[00:02:38.09] PREET: Let me read a couple of more things to you. According to the book, that you and I have not read yet, John Kelly, the Chief of Staff to Donald Trump, describes his boss as an idiot, and unhinged, he reports that Mattis, the Defense Secretary, describes Trump as having the understanding of a 5th or 6th grader, and his former  lawyer, John Dowd, according to the book describes Trump as a “effing liar” and would end up in a, quote, “Orange jumpsuit,” close quote, if he talks to Mueller. Do those ring true to you?

[00:03:09.03] JONATHAN: The only one of those that I find hard to believe is the John Dowd saying that Trump is a fucking liar. And the reason for that is I just have to go by my own interactions with Dowd. He is nothing if not borderline sycophantic to the president, even privately, and in fact gets very agitated when you do anything that approaches accountability journalism. He occasionally blind copies me on for reasons I can’t fathom, emails that he sends to people with various links to things, they’re almost always in defense of the president, always in purple Comic Sans, which is his font of choice for his emails. So I just, I find it very hard to believe that Dowd would say that. [00:03:56.08] However, again, I respect Bob Woodward as a reporter and I am not going to, you know, Dowd denies it of course but of course he would. I mean I emailed with Dowd shortly after he says he never said that, but you know….

[00:04:08.18] PREET: You mean just this afternoon you emailed with Dowd?

[00:04:10.00] JONATHAN: Yes, yeah. Probably about an hour and a half ago.

[00:04:13.02] PREET: What font was he using?

[00:04:13.20] JONATHAN: Actually that’s a really good question, I think he might have changed his font. Because I said it on air about Comic Sans, and you know, now I’m just gonna check.

[00:04:22.21] PREET: Can you explain to folks what that is….

[00:04:24.02] JONATHAN: Comic Sans—no! He doesn’t use Comic Sans anymore! I’m just checking now! He’s clearly changed…

[00:04:29.17] PREET: You heard it here folks…

[00:04:30.23] JONATHAN:…and it says sent to my iPhone…

[00:04:32.01] PREET: …Bob Woodward is reporting on the disintegration of the White House and Jonathan Swan and I are reporting on the font change by John Dowd.

[00:04:40.29] JONATHAN: It says, “Sent from my iPhone,” so maybe it’s because he’s now using his iPhone, versus the desktop. Anyway, Comic Sans is obviously that cartoonish font that children use for, I don’t know what. It’s like a very uncool font. So anyway, I have been told by people who claim to have heard it first hand that Kelly has referred to the president as an idiot. I’ve never reported it because I haven’t been able to verify it to my satisfaction, actually there’s been two people who’ve told me that, but both have axes to grind, but again I don’t know, he may have three or four people who’ve been in the room with him and heard it, etcetera.

[00:05:22.26] PREET: Right, so forget about the name calling, there are a couple of other big revelations and I’m sure there will be more when more of the book, you know, gets out into the public by the time this airs, in a couple of days. But there was a, there’s a discussion in the book, you know painting of a scene by Bob Woodward where Donald Trump apparently said to his Defense Secretary, “I want you to effing kill Assad.” Of Syria. He basically ordered an assassination, which according to the book, Mattis just ignored. Does that, does that sound right to you? Does that sound crazy to you?

[00:05:54.13] JONATHAN: No but this is the impossible thing with this, by the way I’ve emailed the Pentagon, Mattis’s spokeswoman, I emailed her about an hour ago, to ask her whether they had anything to say about this, in fact I think it was more than an hour ago I emailed her. I haven’t heard anything back. I mean this is pretty, it’s a pretty big deal! A report that the president of the United States ordered you to take out the Syrian dictator, and that you refused the Commander in Chief’s order. I reckon if I was the, I mean I don’t know I’m not in the business of like being in the you know communications office, but my guess is if I was, I’d be pretty quick to, if it was wrong, to come out and refute that. Just a guess.

[00:06:36.27] PREET: YEah look, when I, when I have my people do a hit, they know to take me very seriously.

[00:06:42.19] JONATHAN: (Laughs)

[00:06:44.02] PREET: They’re looking at me like, “What, what is Preet talking about?” Pretend this is in Comic Sans font, orally. (Laughs) So, so look, there’s a…I was kidding Jonathan. Don’t type this up. So there are a lot of, here’s what I don’t get. Whether or not the particular stories and the particular epithets that have been used by certain people, in this book or in other books, you believe are not, or if they’re precisely correct or not, clearly it is true, that people close to Donald Trump, in the White House, in the West Wing, cabinet secretaries, speak ill of him, and those statements of ill will and of mockery, and of denigration get out there. Why is that happening? What is it about, based on your reporting and your sources, and your time in Washington covering this White House, what is it about the personalities of the people, the structure of the place, the mental state of Donald Trump, that causes this to be so? I want people to understand like what, what is going on here?

[00:07:44.07] JONATHAN: So, there’s a few parts to it. One of the, and again I haven’t read the book, but one of the central themes of, I think Woodward even said this of his book, is that the president is surrounded by people who are, not exclusively, there are some exceptions to this, there are some people who tell him that everything he does is correct and awesome and they very much enable him, but there are people around him and have been people around him who see their job as to protect the country and in some cases the world from Donald Trump. That’s just a fact. There are people in the cabinet who believe that, and there are people who have, and in some cases continue to work for this man who believe that.

[00:08:27.13] PREET: And that’s why they don’t resign, even though some people think they should on principle, because their view is, but for them, things would be worse.

[00:08:35.08] JONATHAN: So one of the challenges of doing the type of reporting that I do and others do to cover the White House is, people tell you what they think, and in some cases their motivation, but they’re not necessarily telling you the truth. And so it’s hard sometimes to parse, I mean that’s certainly what they say, is that they’re there for that reason, and in some cases I think that it’s true. Certainly if you’re somebody who comes from a military background like it’s not a hard leap to imagine that you know, when the Commander in Chief asks you to serve, you serve. And you may have your views about proposals he’s doing and your own ideas about what it would mean to follow through on some of these things. In some cases I think that it’s a bit cute, and that a lot of people are just simply, you know, seduced by proximity to power, so I don’t think that there’s this sort of uniformity to motivation which you sometimes get from some of the coverage, I think that [00:09:33.20] everyone is pretty distinct. There are some people in there who have really grown to personally like him, I know that you hear…

[00:09:42.14] PREET: Like who, give me some examples…

[00:09:43.14] JONATHAN: I’m not going to ’cause it would reveal them as a source…

[00:09:46.01] PREET: (Laughs) You won’t, you won’t tell us who likes the president?

[00:09:47.26] JONATHAN: Well I, like I just, honestly it would reveal them as a source, and it would, you know, it would…

[00:09:54.19] PREET: And by process of elimination it would, with all the other people…

[00:09:55.18] JONATHAN: Yeah yeah yeah, exactly. But the number who genuinely like him is not that high, but I have heard people state…

[00:10:05.15] PREET: Ballpark figure, in the White House…

[00:10:07.02] JONATHAN: (Laughs) I have heard people say, I think Michael Wolf famously said when he put out his book, which was garbage, I mean there were parts of it which were interesting, but Michael Wolf I think was reporting stuff he heard fourth hand in some cases, and I know for a fact some of his accounts of things are just flat wrong.

[00:10:21.25] PREET: That was his book, Michael Wolf’s book “Fire and Fury”?

[00:10:23.26] JONATHAN: Yeah yeah. But, one thing he said when he did his media tour, if I’m recalling correctly, was 100 percent of the people in there have discussed the insanity clause or whatever it is, is it the 25th Amendment? That’s just nonsense, because like there are people there who have grown to actually on a personal level like him and feel somewhat protective of him. But you asked why this happens generally speaking, is because none of them feel, or very few of them have any feeling that he’s going to be loyal to them. And they’ve seen enough examples of this president’s previous life and currently, discarding people under the bus, and so they are in a constant race to preemptively, and in some cases retroactively protect themselves. It’s constant self preservation.

[00:11:16.08] PREET: And one way they’ve done that, and I think you folks among others at Axios reported that not only did Omarosa record a few things, but she seems to have recorded everything. She had her personal phone on record for all those meetings. Is that true?

[00:11:28.09] JONATHAN: Yeah, our understanding is, and this is from somebody who has observed her, is that a lot of her phone calls, if not all of her phone calls, she took a lot of them on her work phone, and had her personal phone she put it on speaker and recorded, and then she also took two phones into meetings, one of them would be in her purse or a bag or whatever it was recording live in real time, I can’t say she did that 100 percent of the time, but she did it a lot. It was standard operating procedure for her.

[00:11:58.16] PREET: When you have conversations with people at the White House, in your reporting, whether they’re on or off the record, do you record those conversations?

[00:12:05.07] JONATHAN: Only if I ask their permission. I don’t record people without their permission.

[00:12:09.11] PREET: But do you typically ask to record?

[00:12:11.15] JONATHAN: I do it sometimes, but most of my conversations, no. The truth is that the minute you ask someone to put a tape on, they immediately stop telling you the truth. That’s been my experience.

[00:12:26.19] PREET: Right, you know there’s a tape on right now, right?

[00:12:28.01] JONATHAN: Is there? I thought this was on background?

[00:12:30.19] PREET: Yes this is, this is being taped my friend, so.

[00:12:33.29] JONATHAN: They clam up! They stop telling the truth, you know there are conversations I’ve had, (laughs) I’ll tell you one story. So, so the Stormy Daniels thing comes out, right? First story, the Wall Street Journal story, and I speak to someone in the White House, you know, fairly senior person, and the story’s just broke, and I said, “Is it true?” And they said, they said, “Is this on or off the record?” And I’m like, “Well, you know, off the record.” And they said, “Yeah, of course it’s true.” And then I said, “On the record.” And they’re like, “Well obviously I’m not authorized to talk about this,” but they started laughing and they said, “On the record, we vehemently deny, you know, anything…” (Laughing)

[00:13:22.07] PREET: Well what’s your ethics around, what do you report there? Isn’t there some…

[00:13:25.09] JONATHAN: No! In that case this person was not someone who’s authorized, they were just screwing around. It was a joke. HOnestly most of the conversations I have are either off the record or on some form of background, because the minute you ask someone to speak on the record, they just give you talking points and in many cases those talking points are, they’re not always totally false, but they’re you know in many cases, at least leaving out what’s really going on.

[00:13:54.28] PREET: So can we talk about credibility of reporting? And I want to get into you know your, as the agency would say, sources and methods a little bit. So you mentioned the book Michael Wolff wrote, and you said that was garbage.

[00:14:07.03] JONATHAN: Yeah.

[00:14:07.20] PREET: And we have a new book that we haven’t read yet but we know the author, the country and the world knows the author very well, Bob Woodward, I would imagine you would say, that you would be more likely to believe the anecdotes and stories and facts and conversations that are reported in the Woodward book than you would believe what’s reported in the Wolff book. Why is that?

[00:14:26.04] JONATHAN: Because Bob Woodward makes the effort based on four decades, five decades to speak to every single person he physically can, using every method he can, who is in the room or was briefed on something, he compiles hundreds of hours of interviews, paper trails, gets documents, etcetera. Now, is he…

[00:14:49.29] PREET: Michael Wolff would say he, I would presume would say he does the same.

[00:14:52.04] JONATHAN: Well he just doesn’t. So so so Wolff, you know, when someone covers your beat, right? So, that’s the White House, right? And frankly the campaign. It’s different, I actually have reported on a lot of the same events and instances that Wolff reports. So for example, when I read his account of election night, it’s just, doesn’t bear any resemblance to people that I have over time developed as sources who were in the room, it’s just not what he said happened didn’t happen. I know who his source was for his, this is, I’m giving you a small example but, there was an anecdote in his book that Mitch McConnell skipped a meeting with Trump to get a haircut. I know who fed that nonsense to Wolff ’cause they tried it on me, but I made about 10 phone calls, and this person said, “Oh if you don’t believe me check with X person, they were in the room.” I did. It didn’t happen. Never happened. So I have more confidence that Woodward actually goes to the lengths to try to get to the closest [00:15:48.20] approximation of the truth. Now, are there gonna be errors in the book? Of course. Are people going to misremember conversations, or even spin him? You know, when you’re doing this kind of reporting, you are vulnerable to powerful people telling you their version of events, so yes, of course those things are considerations and concerns.

[00:16:09.25] PREET: But how do you do, I’m so, you know I was in a similar business, and we had to deal all the time, particularly with cooperating witnesses. People who have lied, people who have committed crimes. And now we have to rely on them, to testify in court and give incriminating information about other people. So, you know in that context, you did a lot of different kinds of corroboration. So you’re a reporter, let’s say you’re writing an article, about some meeting that happened, maybe some of these things that Woodward is talking about in the book, and so somebody, a source you have in the White House, who you generally trust, reports to you that Mattis called Trump, an effing idiot. And that’s all you have at that moment, do you feel comfortable writing that in your article?

[00:16:52.29] JONATHAN: Of course not!

[00:16:53.21] PREET: So what do you do then, to become comfortable reporting that?

[00:16:56.14] JONATHAN: When did he say it, who was in the room, where was the meeting? First, those are all those things. If it was a conversation between the two of them, okay well how do you know that? That’s a great question to ask sources. How do you know…that….

[00:17:11.00] PREET: Right, so you sort of test them by seeing detail they have about the circumstances surrounding the statement.

[00:17:14.02] JONATHAN: Exactly. Exactly.

[00:17:16.08] PREET: So let’s say they have all that. They say, “I was in the Situation Room, it was at the end of the meeting about  Syria, and it was said.” Is that enough?

[00:17:24.25] JONATHAN: No! You need other people who were in the room who heard it with their own ears.

[00:17:28.25] PREET: You need a second person to tell you that that happened.

[00:17:32.03] JONATHAN: For something that happened of significance in a room, of course! Like, like I’ve done, I did a story last year of an Oval Office meeting where Trump, it was one of the first ones that really showed just how bad the tensions were in his team on trade. I reported on this very vivid scene in the Oval Office. Now, I’m not gonna actually get into sources and method, but I will just say that that was, that was a very well corroborated account. And had I been told it by one person in the room, it just wouldn’t have sufficed. You have to, I mean, but the way you report, and the way I believe Woodward does is, you get a nugget from one person, and you bring it to another person. You test it. Is it true? You build on it. You go back. You cross reference. You go, you circle back with your original source. Is it possible he said this? You get a third source. Did someone brief someone on it? Was there any documentation of it? I mean, you just build, it’s like scaffolding, you just build, build, build, build.

[00:18:34.14] PREET: How do you rank the credibility of your sources? So for example, let’s say you have somebody who has given you credible information before, and then they lie to you. Or they fudge something you know pretty seriously. Do you cut them off forever? Are they dead to you? ‘Cause reporters have told me that if they get lied to, they’re done with that person going forward. What’s the forgiveness basis here?

[00:18:54.22] JONATHAN: I won’t say who it is, but there is a person who is very senior in Trump’s orbit…

[00:19:02.20] PREET: If it’s Kellyanne Conway, blink once.

[00:19:04.13] JONATHAN: (Laughs) It is not Kellyanne Conway.

[00:19:08.17] PREET: Oh! Is it Roger…

[00:19:10.19] JONATHAN: I’m not, stop this! I’m not doing this. I’m not doing this. NO I just, I’m not getting into this again.

[00:19:15.15] PREET: (Laughs) Alright, I”m just, let the record reflect you were only willing to exonerate Kellyanne Conway.

[00:19:21.01] JONATHAN: I, I’m not getting into any of this. There is one person who lied to me in such a, it was something that I had heard with my own ears, so it wasn’t even second hand, and I told them they were basically, I used unprintable, or unspeakable language to them, and then….

[00:19:44.19] PREET: YOu’ve already used the F word once. So…

[00:19:45.22] JONATHAN: Exactly.

[00:19:47.06] PREET: Was it more unprintable or unspeakable than that?

[00:19:48.26] JONATHAN: IT was probably more aggressive than that. And I told them that our relationship is over and the only time they would hear from me is when I had something to write about them and I would still as a matter of professional courtesy reach out to them before I….

[00:20:03.03] PREET: That’s fascinating to me. Did that person seem at all chagrined or upset?

[00:20:06.19] JONATHAN: No, absolutely not. They were aggressive back. We basically agreed to hate each other.

[00:20:12.09] PREET: (Laughs) Okay.

[00:20:13.05] JONATHAN: But mostly, mostly, it’s a challenge. And like I will…

[00:20:16.23] PREET: BUt I want to stick with the person who lied to you, ’cause that’s interesting to me, ’cause I don’t know that world so much. I mean obviously in the prosecution world, you know there’s a possibility of rehabilitating, but it’s a very bad thing to lie. When that happens, do you go to your colleagues at Axios who may not know that this person is a liar, and share that information about this terrible source? Or do you keep it to yourself? What’s the ethics there?

[00:20:38.14] JONATHAN: In that case I did. I don’t know that I have hard and fast rules about that, but but, yeah I generally would, because if they lied to me they’ll lie to my colleagues, and, and I assume the same is true on the other side, by the way. So like one of the principles of reporting is protecting sources and protecting agreements you made about off the record anonymity, now my assumption is if I burn somebody, which I’ve never done, ever. If I burn somebody they would tell everyone they know and that, you know, no one speak to me…

[00:21:11.24] PREET: And then you’re, right, it works both ways and you’re burned.

[00:21:13.27] JONATHAN:…it’s a two way street. But the more honest answer is, that was one extreme example. HOnestly, some of my sources I have caught them lying to me, and I’ve chosen to not confront them about it, I’ve just stored it in the back of my mind as you know, a liar. Like it’s one thing for someone to give you, it’s one thing for someone to say something that’s not right, but there are some instances where you’ve, you know for close to 100 percent certainty that they’ve lied to you, and in those cases, I mostly just store it in the back of my head. And there are certainly people who I talk to that everything is false until proven otherwise.

[00:22:02.14] PREET: So, I’m not that worried about, and this might sound odd, I’m not that worried about the flagrant liar who has a personal agenda, and that a smart person like you will be able to figure out that they’re not to be trusted. What I’m worried about, and tell me if these people exist, because I assume they do, ’cause I’m a cynical person, there are people who have credibility, and they tell you the truth, and they give you some scoops, and you have cooperating witnesses like this too, and they know you’re writing a story about the Defense Department or about trade, and they’ll tell you some nuggets and they’ll check out and you’ll believe  that person, and that person then earns some purchase with you, and then, there’s a story that you’re writing about some other thing, and now that person has incentive to fudge or lie, but has built up enough good faith, respect from you, how do you deal with the people who, from time to time, once they have your trust, fake things?

[00:22:52.14] JONATHAN: That is something I worry about, and I don’t think I’ve ever sort of caught someone red handed doing that, but I assume that it is possible, and again it just comes back to having standard practices, which is, you can’t ever fully trust anyone. You need to have other sources, and you need to have sources who are in other camps, like if an organization is factionalized like the White House is, you can’t rely on one or two people, or one camp of people to give you information, because that will just inevitably lead to either incomplete or distorted narrative. So my general approach is, you actually can’t trust anyone, really.

[00:23:43.04] PREET: So when Donald Trump goes out there, and I presume he will say this about this book and he said this about many many reports, that if it’s an anonymous source, and that’s what we’ve been talking about, right? If it’s an anonymous source, they made it up, don’t believe it. Discredit it. Obviously he has served as his own anonymous source previously, he got mad I think in the last few days because something that he said off the record to some folks was reported in the Toronto Star having to do with trade with Canada. So, you know he obviously uses it. His White House uses the tool of being an anonymous source, you know to you and other reporters. But when he says, to the public, “don’t believe any of this.” I think he overstates it. But how, how are we supposed to judge what we read given all the perils and risks and incentives for people to make themselves look better, or to trash their enemies, or to you know feel important….all these things that you have experienced when people tell you things that are not true, so you’re the lay public and you pick up Axios or you pick up the New York Times, [00:24:41.27] you know, should we only be reading you know, certain writers who we trust more? How do we gauge the truthfulness of what we’re reading?

[00:24:49.17] JONATHAN: So, as a practice I don’t grant people anonymity to trash their enemies. They want to trash their enemies they can put their name to it. So that’s one way of avoiding that. I think you have to ask yourself, is the reporting anchored in time and place and scene? Is there a room that it’s in, where did this conversation happen? The reporting that drives me the most nuts is, and look I, you know glass houses, I’ve probably done a few of these, but like, Donald Trump has been saying this or telling friends this, but it’s not anchored anywhere, that’s a really dangerous type of reporting because you know, it’s impossible to disprove. You know, no one knows who he’s talking to late at night. I know who claimed to be talking to him late at night. Some of them I think are full of it, some of them I know are true because I talked to people who’ve been there when [00:25:47.02] the president has been on the phone to them. But the reporting that is detailed, that has multiple people in a room, that deserves a higher level of credence than some of this other stuff that’s very thin. Another thing is, yes, I mean I hate to say it but like, I do trust individual bylines more than I trust publications. I don’t think any publication deserves my trust. I think individual reporters earn trust over a long period of time, and they frankly explode trust. I live in constant fear of tomorrow I make some massive screw up and then you know, my career’s over or everyone looks at my stuff with a level of “Oh yeah, Jonathan wrote it, it may be right it may not.” And so reporters build that up over a very long period of time.

[00:26:41.28] PREET: Right, is your level of fear, it occurs to me as you said that, is your level of fear and the level of fear of your colleagues at a high point now because everything is so fraught?

[00:26:50.04] JONATHAN: Yes.

[00:26:50.19] PREET: …and you have people who are, you know, for legitimate reasons, prepared to pounce on any error by the mainstream media right now?

[00:26:58.27] JONATHAN: Yeah.

[00:26:59.14] PREET: And the president himself obviously will call you out by name.

[00:27:01.24] JONATHAN: Yeah. We have a president who’s gonna weaponize it. Look, politicians, at least in sort of recorded memory, in this country and other countries, have used the media as a foil in different ways. But, I don’t think it’s a controversial thing to say there is no historical, at least in America, parallel to Donald Trump in the way that he’ll weaponize anything, so…

[00:27:24.17] PREET: But what’s the consequence of that? Is the consequence that you’re all terrified? And or that the level of accuracy and refinement in reporting is at an all time high because of that fear? Or is the opposite true?

[00:27:37.04] JONATHAN: I always had that terror, and that was more because of the way I was raised and mentored as a reporter. But yes, I think generally speaking, people are definitely afraid of being called out by him by name, and the threats and the sort of things that would accompany that. SO, I can only speak for myself which is that I always had that stomach churning fear, whenever i have a scoop…

[00:28:07.02] PREET: Right and you, by the way speaking of scoops, not having done this beat for that long, I have a list in front of me of your scoops, which are very impressive including the first to report that Anthony Scaramucci was gonna be hired as Communications Director, you broke that Trump had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, that Steve Bannon would be fired, all….how do you get these scoops? Is it because of you brilliance? Your persistence? Your charm? Or that people love an Australian accent? Is it a combination of those things?

[00:28:38.15] JONATHAN: Oh it’s clearly my brilliance, Preet, didn’t you know that?

[00:28:42.20] PREET: (Laughs) That’s interesting that you decided to go with brilliance rather than charm.

[00:28:44.18] JONATHAN:…obviously brilliance. No, it’s actually the same, I was a reporter in Australia, it’s the same set of skills. Look, I’m good at one thing, which is source building, and I am, I also spent an inordinate amount of time doing that with a lot of help.

[00:29:03.03] PREET: How proprietary are people about their sources? Do your colleagues introduce you to their sources? Or is it like, you know, “Hey kid, get your own!”

[00:29:08.09] JONATHAN: No, my colleagues are extremely, extremely generous. But I spend, it’s literally I’m maniacal about source building. It’s very deliberate, it is a long term process, and I spend almost all of my time on it. I’ve neglected other tools in the toolkit. I’m a very very, as Michael Wolff pointed out, publicly I”m a very mediocre writer. And I have not developed my writing skills in anyway, which works ’cause I have to write in bullet points now so no one notices.

[00:29:39.04] PREET: You’re like the anti New Yorker, I can read your stuff very fast…

[00:29:41.29] JONATHAN: No one needs 10,000 words of Jonathan Swan. I’m no Gay Talese. But I’m good at source building.

[00:29:48.22] PREET: Let’s talk about one of your scoops that I think i s really interesting in the current climate, and that is that Don McGahn, the WHite House Counsel, was planning to leave the White House, and there’s all this reporting that you have pushed and that other people have written about as well, that Don McGahn, through his lawyer Bill Burck, who I should you know put on the record is a personal friend of mine, who’s in the news a lot lately, we’re fellow colleagues in the Southern District of New York together. How he cooperated extensively with the Mueller probe, to a degree that maybe the president did not appreciate. Sat for 30 hours of interviews. What do you think was going on with Don McGahn in terms of his self protection, versus protection of the president, versus protection of the presidency….what do you make of this whole Don McGahn White House Counsel business?

[00:30:32.22] JONATHAN: Well I’ll stick to what I know. So, I know that both Don McGahn and his lawyer, BIll Burck, were surprised is a mild word, that Ty Cobb, John Dowd, were willing to make them available to more, and to encourage the level of open cooperation they did. I believe that they thought it was insane that they would do that.

[00:31:00.03] PREET: (Laughs) Is that a direct quote?

[00:31:02.20] JONATHAN: It’s definitely not a direct quote.

[00:31:04.05] PREET: Okay, effing insane?

[00:31:05.21] JONATHAN: (Laughs) So that is one part of it. I don’t know with a level of precision, how Trump reacted to that New York Times piece, ’cause I just don’t have an account from somebody that I trust who was first hand. But I will tell you the relationship between Donald Trump and Don McGahn is terrible, and has been pretty bad for some time. The president has been very very frustrated with him, has chewed him out in front of other people, to, in an excruciating way…

[00:31:40.02] PREET: And vice versa? Is that frustration, is it reciprocal?

[00:31:44.04] JONATHAN: Based on what Don has said to his colleagues, at different times, yeah. I mean, the defense of Don McGahn by his allies is that he was working for a man who would ask him fairly regularly to do things that were, self harmful to the president and legally problematic. And that he was doing the best he could to put a guardrail around this president. But from Trump’s point of view, and again he has not been shy about this to people who have worked for him and other people, is that Don McGahn was always slow to react to his demands, looking for a way to say no, not a way to say yes, etcetera, etcetera. Trump is as you know very litigious, and is used to work, he doesn’t distinguish between lawyers. In some ways it’s all my people defense lawyer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re…

[00:32:40.00] PREET: He thinks his Justice Department is there to represent him.

[00:32:43.14] JONATHAN: He, he wants Roy Cohn as Attorney General. Like it doesn’t matter. His Justice Department, the Trump Justice Department, they’re his lawyers who work for him.

[00:32:54.03] PREET: Look, day by day I become more convinced that the reason he was trying to develop a relationship with me, and calling me on the side, without the Attorney General, was for this very purpose. To have, you know, somebody in his corner, in his pocket, to do things that he wanted to do that maybe weren’t on the up and up. But let me, we’re running out of time and I wanted to ask you about something that you wrote recently, and maybe have you predict into the future of where you think you know this sort of turmoil in the White House is going, what it will lead to. You wrote recently about sort of a shift in the sentiments of the people who are around the president. You wrote, “For the first time, I’m hearing real fear and concern in the voices of Trump allies.” What does that mean? Are people more concerned than they were before about where Trump is heading and where the country is heading?

[00:33:41.08] JONATHAN: That was very specific to….when that crazy insane day, which you did actually a great podcast on it when you were absorbing it in real time…

[00:33:52.28] PREET: (Laughs) Yeah thanks that was, that was a crazy day.

[00:33:54.14] JONATHAN:…a wild day.

[00:33:55.01] PREET: When Manafort was convicted and Michael Cohen pled guilty.

[00:33:58.17] JONATHAN: That day, I mean just think about it from their perspective. Some of these people, not many now, but certainly the ones who worked on the campaign, they worked with Manafort and they know Cohen. Cohen was around, you know anyone who’s been in Trump’s orbit through the campaign knows Michael Cohen. They’re both going to jail! They’re both going to jail! So, like, you know, where as before, yeah, it’s bad, and there’s all this media scrutiny, and we have to lawyer up and god knows it costs a lot of money to hire lawyers, and stuff, people are under stress from that investigation. Gets really real when you find out that two people that you worked in close proximity with are going to prison. So yeah, it did. And it’s not like they have any fore knowledge. I’m still yet to speak to anyone privately who worked on the campaign or in the White House who actually thinks they’re gonna find the smoking gun where Trump has a [00:34:57.09] you know line to Putin, and etcetera etcetera. But, they’re worried enough just based on what’s been found, I mean the Manafort stuff is stuff from his business career. Same as Cohen. So, there’s always been a concern that they’ll go into Trump’s personal finances, and just, just proximity to this kind of thing is scary for a lot of these people.

[00:35:19.21] PREET: So what do you think happens next? How do you think this all ends? Predict what’s gonna happen every day for the next…60 days.

[00:35:25.22] JONATHAN: (Laughs) Well, do you think Mueller, when do you think he’s gonna put out his report?

[00:35:30.15] PREET: I ask that question…look, I think that’s something that people don’t fully appreciate, is that the 60 day unwritten rule, Trump himself is on the ballot. So the issue on, I mean it’s clearly true that you have to be most careful about bringing some significant enforcement action against a particular person, who is himself or herself on a ballot in the immediate future ’cause you would affect that election most dramatically and directly. You also want to be concerned generally about the calendar and about perceptions and I think that Mueller is that way. So I tend to think that the likelihood of a dramatic action being taken or closure on something happening, diminished every day we get closer to the midterm elections, but that doesn’t mean that things won’t happen. I mean you can see, you know more charges against associates of Trump and others. I don’t think there’s anything that prevents, you know hypothetically Roger Stone from being charged you know in October. Although if you can wait ’til after the election and there’s no harm, then maybe you wait. [00:36:25.10] I mean these are conversations we would have in my office also, but I think people are over stating you know the halt that they think is coming.

[00:36:32.12] JONATHAN: Right, right.

[00:36:33.10] PREET: Jonathan Swan, thank you so much for being on the show, as often happens in the 60 hours or so between now and when the pod drops on Thursday morning, who knows, what will have been rendered moot, or more poignant. And I’m sure that lots of news has unfolded in the 45 minutes we’ve been talking. I want to thank you very much, people should really pay attention to your reporting, ’cause I expect a lot of good scoops from you going forward.

[00:36:58.24] JONATHAN: Thanks so much, Preet.


Stay Tuned: Truth and Lies in the West Wing (with Jonathan Swan)