Trump’s Trial Balloons: Talking Trump Coverage with Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev
May 4, 2017
BOB SCHIEFFER: I’m Bob Schieffer.
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: And I’m Andrew Schwartz.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And these are conversations about the news. We are in the midst of a communications revolution. We have access to more information than any people in history. But are we more informed, or just overwhelmed by so much information we can’t process it?
MR. SCHWARTZ: These conversations are a year-long collaboration of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
MR. SCHIEFFER: We’re joined today by Margaret Talev, the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, who also appears regularly on various news programs. Margaret, tell us first how you got to Bloomberg and a little about your background.
MARGARET TALEV: Bob, I was like an old-school journeyman reporter. I had started out writing obituaries – (laughs) – and covered politics in Florida and in California. I worked for the LA Times, for the now-defunct Tampa Tribune. And ended up covering Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recall win in California. Moved to D.C. for McClatchy newspapers to cover Congress. While I was sort of like an old rookie reporter to cover Barack Obama’s presidential bid in ’08. And he ended up winning and I ended up at the White House. And I’ve been at Bloomberg since 2011. I stuck with Obama coverage until – well, until the bitter end. (Laughs.) Covered the other presidential campaign. And when Hillary Clinton lost, I stayed on at the White House anyway. So here I am. Donald Trump is new to me. I am discovering him day by day.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So you have been covering him since the campaign.
MS. TALEV: I’ve been covering him really since November the 9th. I mean, I covered a couple Donald Trump rallies, but I was sort of full time toggling between Hillary Clinton’s campaign coverage or covering the final months of the White House. So I covered only a Trump event here and there, and read the coverage like everybody else. But, you know, for many of us who covered Obama and are now covering President Trump, January the 20th was the beginning of our education. And for many of our friends who had covered the campaign all the way through they’re like, oh, that’s Trump. Come one, where have you been, you know?
MR. SCHIEFFER: So if that’s the beginning of your education with Trump, what have you learned?
MS. TALEV: (Laughs.) He’s almost nothing like President Barack Obama. (Laughter.) I mean, what I’ve learned so far really is probably not that different than anything that you had observed, except for this: He really is not afraid in governance as well as in campaigning, to upend orthodoxy, to float ideas himself. You’ve covered Washington much longer than I have, but in my limited experience it’s really common for a White House to float trial balloons through anonymous background senior advisors, or even people one or two rings outside of that inner circle. Donald Trump just floats it himself on the record in public. That’s how the trial balloons get floated.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You know, I must say, sometimes I wonder if he even knows when he starts an interview or starts a sentence –
MS. TALEV: Where it’s going to go.
MR. SCHIEFFER: If he knows where it’s really going to go. Does he – do some of these news breaks, these trial balloons, you think they just happen on the spur of the moment?
MS. TALEV: Sometimes, yeah, I do. Not always. I think he’s very savvy about how the media works. He understands what would be breaking news on any given day. I think he understands how to redirect when he doesn’t like what the narrative would be otherwise, even if the narrative seems controversial or moves markets. If it takes attention away from something else he didn’t want to talk about, that’s OK also. But I think often his advisors didn’t see his plan coming even if he did. (Laughs.) And they have to respond.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you this. So, you covered the other campaign. Why do you think Donald Trump won?
MS. TALEV: I do think it was a number of factors. I think it was, in no particular order, the following: That it’s hard for someone to get elected to a third term, and after two terms of Obama it was going to be difficult for a Democrat to follow. Everybody always knew that. I think Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, both in terms of message and in terms of just quirks about her personality and some of those baked-in things about her and about the Clintons that – where public opinion was already set.
And there were a lot of people who liked her, and there were a lot of people who didn’t. And there weren’t that many people who had never made up their minds about how to feel about Hillary Clinton. And I think that Donald Trump took tremendous advantage of the hugely crowded Republican primary field. It was much easier to emerge the front runner when it was that much harder for 16 other people to catch up, and use that momentum and the desire for change and Clinton’s weaknesses, and X, Y, Z. I mean, it really was a combination of all of these things.
And the only kind of analogy that I’ve ever experienced in my own political coverage that this made me think of was in California covering the recall campaign, because even though it was a different kind of race and even though one involved an incumbent and Hillary Clinton wasn’t technically an incumbent, there were parallels between how the public viewed Gray Davis there and how the public viewed Clinton here. And there were parallels in terms of that energy crisis and dot-com collapse there, and the financial crisis and the aftermath here.
And what we saw in Schwarzenegger’s case, though he’s a different personality than Trump, but they’re both larger than life and very instinctive, was that when the public makes up its mind that it wants to make a radical statement, when that’s just in the air and when enough, like, momentum crystalizes behind it, it almost doesn’t matter what you tell them about that candidate. Like, Schwarzenegger dealt with groping allegations. Donald Trump dealt with the whole access Hollywood stuff.
At a certain point, I saw a phenomenon in California where the public had decided: I know this might be crazy, but I don’t care. I want to make a statement. I’m going for it. I believe that this person understands something that nobody else understands. And I believe that I have to do something radical to effect a change. And I think to some extent that’s also a part of what happened here.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I must say to you, I think that’s one of the most insightful analyses of this campaign that I’ve heard. And I’ve listened to several. (Laughs.)
MS. TALEV: Thank you.
MR. SCHIEFFER: But I think you – I think you really have hit on something. Let me move on to now. When it comes to making news, I have to say, you and your colleagues at Bloomberg may get the prize for the interview with Donald Trump. I mean, in 30 minutes he told you he would be honored to meet with Kim Jong-un, the ruthless North Korean leader who held power by killing many of his father’s senior advisors. He suggested we might need a gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge repairs. He said he’s exploring whether to break up the big banks and, in your words, suggested a health care plan more generous than Obamacare for those with preexisting conditions. All of that in one half-hour interview. I guess I would ask, for all the journalism students out there who want to know, how did you get that done in a half-hour?
MS. TALEV: (Laughs.) Oh, my goodness. Like, almost by accident. So my colleague Jennifer Jacobs and I, we both really had wanted to lock in a hundred-days interview for Bloomberg. And I went to the press secretary and said: Hey, is there any chance that you could fit us? He was doing all these interviews. We actually were delayed several times because his schedule became so busy. We didn’t get our interview before the first hundred days, but they agreed to secure us one afterwards.
And I was concerned going in that it would be hard to make news. Instead, he wanted to make news, and perhaps in part to get past that analysis that the first hundred days hadn’t accomplished very much, perhaps in part to get past the coverage – hours-old coverage that was critical of the agreement they had cut with Democrats to have a spending plan so that the government didn’t shut down. And the president really did not want to be viewed as not having done a lot or having capitulated to Democrats. So he seemed very open to talking about his thinking going forward, even if it wasn’t fully formed, on all these issues.
And I don’t know how to say it, we asked and he answered. And I mean, probably the first 20 minutes of the interview we only covered a couple subjects – the spending plan, taxes, some of the gas tax stuff. In that last five to seven minutes, we just covered the waterfront. I mean, it was like speed round. And I said this, and he answered. And we asked that, and he answered again. And he wanted to talk and we definitely wanted to listen.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So you went in with a lot of questions.
MS. TALEV: Well, we’d rewritten our questions five times, because the interview kept getting rescheduled. (Laughs.) So, for better or for worse, we had thought really fully through what questions we wanted to ask that we didn’t know the answers to yet.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let’s bring in Andrew Schwartz.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Thanks, Bob. And, Margaret, thank you for being here. You know, last week, you were telling me you were actually disappointed that you didn’t get the interview the week before. You wanted the hundred-days interview. I mean, timing’s everything. But tell me about what it was like trying to schedule an interview with them, and why you were disappointed?
MS. TALEV: Everybody wanted one because it’s a historic presidency, and because we all know that President Trump doesn’t always stick to the script, says what’s on his mind. On that basic level, a reporter’s dream, because it’s not a subject who’s not overly guarded, and who’s not – maybe he is thinking 12 steps ahead to how it will play, but you can’t tell that he is. You know, you get all the stuff that was honestly really hard to get out of President Obama – like, what’s his gut instinct, what’s his emotion, is he angry about something or happy about it – most politicians, including the previous president, keep their cards pretty close to their chest to give themselves maneuvering room, and also out of all these other considerations. They don’t want to move markets. They don’t want to shake up these carefully laid diplomacy plans that they’ve been trying to set.
President Trump doesn’t operate that way. I’m not going to make the case that he is the most open and transparent president of all time. I don’t think that’s true. I think his administration – he – at his direction is going to some lengths to make it more difficult to find out who is coming in and out of the White House, to find out, you know, statistics about policies that they don’t necessarily support anymore. Certainly, we haven’t seen his tax returns. I mean, so that’s not the point that I’m making. But I will say, just in the sort of one-on-one interaction between journalists and the president, he’s quite accessible. And it’s very – it’s always interesting to talk to him, because you never know what he’ll say.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, he has this tremendous sense of pop culture in America. And I’ve heard people in pop culture say that watching the White House coverage is like the new reality TV. It’s like the new Kardashians. Does it feel like you’re part of an ongoing reality show that the American people and the rest of the world are watching?
MS. TALEV: I’m sorry to be, like, old and lame, but I don’t really – (laughs) – watch reality shows. So, for me, that’s not – that’s not an instinctive thing for me. I’ll say this, he has a tremendous instinct, right? And this is – goes back to my sort of – sort of parallel Schwarzenegger analogy. When we were covering Arnold back in Sacramento, he’d go to an event and his staff would try to put him somewhere on the stage and he’d say: No, no, no. I need to be standing here and you need to be standing there. And he would restage it.
And I thought of that in our interview with President Trump because at one point – our photographer came in later into the interview. He wasn’t there from the get-go. And when he came in and was able to begin taking pictures, President Trump all of a sudden realized for himself that there was a stack of magazines to his right at the Resolute Desk. And he said, oh, you don’t need this lying around here, this Longene (ph) ad in your – in your frame. Let me get it out of your way. And himself moved the magazines to clear the desk so that the shot would look right. So he has a real instinct and an eye for that sort of thing.
Obama was much more kind of a – almost like a cult icon for a younger generation. And he was aware of more emerging trends – what was new in music. You know, Mrs. Obama was really into what was new in fashion. And they were – they were culturally relevant to a much younger set of Americans. And it was kind of, for the most part, the same set that are, like, on all these social media that Trump is also really good at – better at even than Obama – Twitter, and – et cetera. You know, you go to a Trump event, and he’s playing, like, Elton John and the Rolling Stones.
So it’s not that he’s with it in terms of – he’s not, like, wearing the newest sneakers or whatever. It’s not so much the pop culture, as it is just an instinct for how to affect emotions in people. He’s –
MR. SCHIEFFER: How to get attention.
MS. TALEV: He’s just much more on the – right off the cuff. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and he talks in way that people react to.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I thought what was fascinating, the interview that our man John Dickerson had at CBS, where at the end he just turned around and walked off from Dickerson.
MS. TALEV: Yeah, he was done.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And whatever his emotion, what he appeared to be was like a three-year-old child pouting. He said, that’s enough, OK. And turned around and walked over and sat down at his desk and started shuffling papers. And yet, within a couple hours, he was on – John Dickerson was on the plane with him. It’s my understanding they had dinner together and he went to the rally in Pennsylvania with him. I mean, it’s – he has these little blowups and then, you know, it’s back to square one.
MS. TALEV: It’s such a great observation. I mean, The New York Times has faced so much animus from Trump at these public rallies and in his tweets – you know, fake news or failing New York Times, or whatever he likes to say. But I can’t think of anyone who’s gotten more not just, like, interview opportunities but, like, phone calls – like, the president’s on the line – than – (laughs) – than two of those reporters, than Maggie and Glenn, when it comes to being able to talk to him.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Yeah.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush.
MS. TALEV: That’s right. And so, Trump is different than Obama. President Obama would stay classy though the interview, and then, like, freeze you out for a couple years, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs.) And Donald Trump – President Trump handles it really differently. The John Dickerson interaction was quite amazing, when he just sort of waved his hand like, I’m done here. But it doesn’t matter, because any opportunity to get your message across is an opportunity to get your message across, seems to be what – how President Trump views this.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I have – let’s just run through this interview that you got. He said he’s be honored to meet with Kim Jong-un. I don’t see that happening, do you?
MS. TALEV: Well, and the White House doesn’t seem to see it happening either. I mean, Sean Spicer almost immediately, within a couple hours of that interview, was trying to dial back what the president and saying, look, he said if appropriate. It’s not appropriate now. This is nowhere near the time to do this. A number of conditions would need to be met. But President Trump didn’t make any of those points himself.
MR. SCHIEFFER: He said we may need a gas tax.
MS. TALEV: Yeah, wasn’t that amazing?
MR. SCHIEFFER: I don’t see that happening, do you?
MS. TALEV: So what he said was that he had been talking to a good friend of his who’s a trucker, and that his feeling is that if this is something that the transportation industry really wants or businesses really want, because it would be good for the economy or jobs, then that’s something that Republicans as well as Democrats should be listening to. This was – (laughs) – pretty controversial to a lot of lawmakers who were hearing it for the first time. But I actually do think in theory that could be something that he could pursue, particularly if he really were looking for a way to cobble together a wide-ranging bipartisan infrastructure agreement.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Now, he did talk back during the campaign – and it went sort of, I think, unnoticed by most people – he did talk about breaking up the big banks. And what he means by that is breaking up banks that deal with keeping money for people. They operate over here. And those – the investment banks, like Goldman Sachs, there’s a complete separation. It never got much play, but he did actually talk about that. I still see very little chance of that happening.
MS. TALEV: Yeah, he talked about it, and it was also something that Bernie Sanders talked about, and one of those big differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton always saying: Well, that really wouldn’t – even if you’d brought back Glass-Stegall, which is the banking act that we’re talking about, that it really wouldn’t have fended off the 2008 crisis. Anyway, it doesn’t address the problem. President Trump and Bernie Sanders have always kind of in theory maybe sort of had some of this same policy ground to cover, but they always went about it in two completely different ways.
And so I think one question we don’t know the answer to yet, as of right now, is what would really be the legislation that President Trump is proposing. And two would be, does he really mean it? Is that really what he’s trying to do? Or is this more about rolling back some of the Dodd-Frank protections that the Democrats are really wedding to by saying, well, here I’m doing something that Democrats want to do? So is this the actual strategy, or is it kind of a strategic overture toward a different strategy?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Now, on Obamacare, what’s your latest intelligence on that? Are they going to bring that to a vote this week? Do they have the votes?
MS. TALEV: They’re going to try. But as of the taping, as of right now, we do not believe that they have the votes. There’s still a lot of attempted arm twisting going on. But Republicans in the House still have this same essential cleave down the middle, which is that both Republicans who are in swing districts and Republicans who just really believe strongly in the actual legislative protections for preexisting coverage are not confident that that will be fully protected under this legislation. And they’re uncomfortable with either going on the record for something that’s not going to end up passing anyway in final form, or they’re just not comfortable doing it for ethical reasons. They don’t believe it’s right.
There are others who say, look, this is sort of a states’ rights issue or a free market issue. And, you know, we want to focus more on bringing down the cost of premiums. But for those who feel really wedding to this commitment – and Donald Trump made the commitment himself during the campaign. And a lot of his supporters, that’s something that they believed that he has promised them, that he is going to protect their coverage for things like cancer and other preexisting conditions. And to many of their minds, protecting means not just that they can get insurance but that they can actually, you know, afford the insurance.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So what is your take – I mean, he told you, he told John Dickerson on Saturday, that, yes, his health care proposal does include coverage for people with preexisting conditions. Others say, no way, that it’s simply not – that’s simply not true.
MS. TALEV: It does – it does and it doesn’t. It also has loopholes, namely this ability for the states to opt out. And that’s kind of the asterisk at the end of that promise. And it’s potentially a really big asterisk. So the other thing that the president told us during that interview – sort of two things. One was that the legislation’s probably going to be in different form before it ever reaches his desk. So what he seems to be saying is it doesn’t really – this doesn’t really matter. This is just the vehicle to get it through the House.
Part two of what he’s saying is that this will be better than Obamacare. But in the same breath, he says: And the reason why is because Obamacare is essentially already gone.
MR. SCHIEFFER: It’s dead.
MS. TALEV: It’s dead. So is he saying that the protections will be better because something’s better than nothing? Or is he saying he’s committed to doing more than Obama ever did under the sort of hope and dream portion of the Affordable Care Act? Until – (laughs) – well, until people really study the actual language of the House bill they’re still formulating those decisions. And that has to be what they base their vote on, not the promise of some Senate compromise that doesn’t exist yet.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Margaret, Bob covered the White House in one era. I covered it another, during the George W. Bush era. You’ve covered it in the Obama and now Trump era. I think people really want to know inside this White House, like, what is it like to cover this White House? Like, let’s get under the hood a little bit. What’s it like day-to-day in the trenches for a White House correspondent covering this administration? What are you doing there?
MS. TALEV: The main thing that’s been different in the opening months is – well, I guess it’s twofold. One is the whole kind of war on the press element, which is a theme, which has sort of forced reporters in a much more public setting to try to figure out, do they address this stuff publicly or do they just kind of put their heads down and keep reporting, right? And that’s different, because all administrations on some level are hostile to the press, and one some level at least express the potential for that hostility to try to –
MR. SCHIEFFER: Use the press.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Sure.
MS. TALEV: Yeah. Well, to try to keep people polite and, you know, gentle. They might say great things, as Obama often did, about how committed he was to a free press publicly, but then behind the scenes really control information entirely or make it hard to get information. But this is different. It’s just very public and you have to contend with it in rallies. And you always find yourself being asked to defend yourself when you’re not really interested in doing that. So that’s been, like, a weird, new degree of difficulty. But put that off to the side.
Another element that’s just – there’s a lot of faces who didn’t have prior experience in government or in White Houses. And that comes at the same time as the teams haven’t been fully fleshed out yet. So whether it’s, like, at the NSC level, whether it’s at the agency level – deputy secretaries, undersecretaries – and some of the departments are more understaffed than others. How this traditionally works is there is, like, the people right on top, and then there’s, like, everybody else, who is more accessible, who you have the ability to deal with on sort of granular questions.
When the granular people are not around, it’s really hard to get information. And so even if you have press folks who are helpful, or would like to be helpful, they’re just overwhelmed because they don’t have the structural support systems that they need. Because the Trump campaign itself hadn’t necessarily expected that they would be where they are now, the transition was slow. And so all the stuff that comes with that is slow – everything from press operation to the travel office to the staffing that we’re talking about. And so everyone’s been kind of learning together, right? The press has been learning how the administration works. The administration has been learning how governance in the White House works.
I think the other thing about the Trump administration, the Trump White House that I would observe is that there are a lot more channels of power that are potentially competing than were obvious during the Obama administration. We all know what those channels are. The emergence kind of in that second wave, not the opening days – the opening days were like, who’s in charge? Is it Bannon or is it Reince? You know, we all know that story.
But the emergence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner as perhaps the real or the most important power center has been really interesting to observe, in part because – maybe with the exception of, like, sort of Nancy Reagan was important to President Reagan, and Hillary Clinton certainly was a factor in the Clinton White House. But you’ve got now two staffers – White House staff – who are the president’s –
MR. SCHIEFFER: Family.
MS. TALEV: Not just family, but his beloved daughter, to whom he’s completely devoted, and her young, up-and-coming husband, who the president often describes as brilliant and has given this enormous portfolio to. And you know, they have walk-in privileges in the Oval Office anytime they want. They’re affiliated with each other, which makes them inherently stronger than any other individual high-ranking official vying for power.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Are they the only ones, Jared and Ivanka, who can tell him no? Or, Dad/boss, let’s do this, we should think about this differently?
MS. TALEV: I’m not sure if that’s right. I think they – if they say – if she says no, he hears it in a different way than if someone else does. I think – I think Bannon’s voice has been very important to him, both in the campaign and in the opening weeks of the administration. I think Gary Cohn has been a figure he really respects on economic issues. And I think H.R. McMaster, that transition from General Flynn to H.R. McMaster, he seems to be listening to McMaster a lot in terms of – well, maybe not his public statements about diplomacy – (laughs) – but in terms of some of his decisions and approaches as well.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And are you able to talk to some of these people?
MS. TALEV: Reporters have, I would say, comparable access, as in previous White Houses, to be able to reach out to folks. And I think the reporters who covered the campaign got to know some of these folks during the campaign, and for the rest of us it’s been an effort to really catch up because there are – it’s not only that there are an influential set of people around the president, but that it’s a very large influential set. There are sort of concentric circles, but there’s half a dozen, six to eight really important, maybe 10 really – maybe 12 really important – (laughs) – people who he has a lot of access to at all times. Ah, maybe 15. Actually, maybe 20. You see where I’m going with this?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Yeah.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.
MS. TALEV: And then a lot of businesspeople who he talks to on a regular basis who are outside of the White House. So beginning to understand and get to know Trump’s friendships, Trump’s world, Trump’s advisers – not just the official advisers, but the unofficial advisers – is tremendously important because he really is talking to people all the time.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I’m not going to ask you, obviously, to reveal your sources, but do you – can you talk directly with some of those people, and you can call them and they call you back? How does that work? Or do you have to arrange it? Do you have to go through the press office to talk to them?
MS. TALEV: I think it depends on who you want to talk to. I think, in that sense, it is like fairly traditional, as it would be with any administration, right? I mean, there’s people who you know and people who you don’t know. If it’s someone you don’t know, you have to figure out how to get to know them. But knowing each of those people a little bit is knowing a little piece of President Trump.
MR. SCHIEFFER: If you had to pick out one person that you said knows what the president is thinking – you know, I covered the Carter White House, and the great thing about Jody Powell as a press secretary was when he told you something, you knew he got it directly from Carter. He was the – he had the most access of any press secretary that I’ve known about. Now, if you went back to Johnson – I wasn’t there when he was there – George Christian, who was his press secretary, he knew what Johnson was thinking, and he reflected that. Who would you say reflects this president’s thinking? Ivanka?
MS. TALEV: I do think that Ivanka and Jared have a very good handle – about as good a handle as anyone on what President Trump is thinking at any given time. I also think he does change his thinking on issues. And I also think that some presidents like to keep really tight reins on things. And like – it’s not to say that they don’t want opposing thoughts. Maybe they do. But they like to be able to reach consensus. I think President Trump may operate from a slightly different position, where he likes the competition. Sometimes one person knows one piece of what he’s thinking and another person knows another piece of what he’s thinking. The challenge in reporting is to bring it all together to try to get a full picture. Or you can just ask him, and then – (laughs) – and then you know what he’s thinking. He knows what he’s thinking.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Do reporters ever get him on the telephone?
MS. TALEV: Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: They do.
MS. TALEV: Well, the other way around. He sometimes gets reporters on the telephone. It tends to be how it works more. You might be – a reporter might get a call or hear that the president would like to see them, or something like that. But he is engaging – he does engage directly much more than President Obama did, as far as I know, particularly at this early stage in the administration.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I would say much more than any president that I’ve known about, except for Johnson.
MS. TALEV: Interesting.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Going back to Lyndon Johnson, he used to deal with reporters directly. And if they wrote a story he didn’t like, he personally was the one who delivered the message that he didn’t like it.
MS. TALEV: Do you see similarities beyond that?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Not really. I don’t, because Johnson had this great appreciation and knowledge of the process of government. Nobody understood it better than he did.
MS. TALEV: Absolutely.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I mean, he knew which button to push on what issue, and he knew what everybody involved in that knew about it. I think Trump is largely unfamiliar with a lot of that, but I find him as aggressive in pushing what he wants as Johnson was.
MS. TALEV: During our interview two things struck me, and I think struck my reporting partner also. When we talked to him about the deal he cut with Democrats on the spending plan, and he said, well, I just – I’m paraphrasing, but this is close to what he said – well, what choice did I have? We couldn’t shut the government down, and Democrats are obstructionist. Like this was a big revelation, right? (Laughs.) When President Obama was the president, he was very weak for, you know, getting rolled by various and sundry people. So that seemed like a revelation to him.
And the other was when you watch the evolution of the relationship with Xi Jinping, and the idea that President Trump really thought that President Obama was weak on China and letting China push him around. But you see now that he is confronting the complexities of dealing with the North Korean threat, he now sees tremendous value in saying kind things publicly about President Xi and kind of putting some of his concerns on trade, et cetera, off to the side in order to deal with the bigger or shared challenge.
MR. SCHWARTZ: There’s one thing we didn’t talk about yet. So everybody’s been talking about this week, because of the Kim Jong-un, today he talked to Putin on the phone, he had a brief conversation with Putin on the phone – he spoke with Duterte last week and invited him, and Duterte apparently is tied up and maybe can’t come to the White House. What’s the president’s deal with these authoritarian figures? Is this strategic? Is this – does he have an appreciation for how they – how they run their governments?
MS. TALEV: I think it’s a great question, especially when it’s coupled with the way he’s treated some of our closest allies, right, everything from his messaging and his language on South Korea to the obvious, the Canada, Mexico, the Australia stuff. What was the deal with Angela Merkel, you know? And so, when you couple that with what seems like friendlier than you need to be behavior toward some of these, you know, strongmen or controversial leaders, you might see a pattern that’s deliberate. It might be about him thinking this is how these guys expect to be treated and want to be treated, and if that – I’ll do that to some extent if it allows me to reset the relationship. He spoke in terms of getting the Egyptian-American woman who had been detained there in prison in Egypt back, and that sort of came along with that Sisi visit, right? When I asked him about Kim Jong-un, he himself raised this issue of, well, see, I’m meeting with the Palestinian leader, Mr. Abbas, this week, as if the two leaders had anything to do with each other. But I think he sees them on a continuum of him engaging in personal outreach to people who represent governments or peoples who are in conflict either with the U.S. or with an ally, that he believes that he personally can use his personal negotiating skills to effect some sort of a reset, and that is what he seems to be dabbling with.
He has obviously placed the U.S. national security imperatives above human rights concerns in those countries. Certainly publicly that’s true. Look, the U.S., as we all know, from one president to the next, we often look the other way when that’s in the U.S. interest – deemed to be in the U.S. interest. What’s different about this is how public it is, and how effusive some of the language is; not just the willingness to deal with them, but to be welcoming to them – come here, or I’d be honored to do this. I mean, that’s different. It really is different.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me just wrap this up with a monumental question that the world waits to hear your answer on: What do you think about the White House Correspondents Dinner and how it was handled this year? (Laughs.)
MS. TALEV: That’s the monumental question?
MR. SCHWARTZ: That’s huge. (Laughter.)
MS. TALEV: I’ve been on the board for five years. I’m going into my sixth year. I’m the vice president of the association now. I love this work. It’s hugely important. And covering the Trump presidency posed a real challenge to our collective press corps in terms of whether he would seek to upend what all Americans expect to be, you know, access – these daily briefings, traveling in the motorcades, being on Air Force One, being able to talk to him. We have been able to work with the Trump administration to preserve all of that. But on the dinner itself, the president felt for various reasons of calculation that he just simply could not be in that room, and his late-in-the-game decision to upend that tradition created a conundrum about how to move forward. And the course that the association chose was to embrace what the dinner has always supposed to have been about and what it was for many years, much more clearly about before it became so popular with celebrity guests of the various news organizations, and that was to celebrate the First Amendment, the work of the free press, the work of the correspondents who cover the White House. We sort of went back to basics, and I think it worked really well.
President Trump has said that he’s interested in joining our dinner next year. We will still be supporting the First Amendment, and if he wants to I hope he does. I hope he will join us.
MR. SCHIEFFER: That prompts my second question: Are you going to invite him?
MS. TALEV: Of course.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Because I – well, here’s the reason I raise that question. If I invite somebody to my home to come to a party and they say no, I’m not coming because you’re a criminal, you’re an enemy of America, you’re dishonest and you’re a crook, you’re fake, I’m not going to invite him into my home again. So I wonder, you know, it’s called the White House Correspondents Dinner; it’s not called the president’s dinner. Is it obligatory to invite the president?
MS. TALEV: It’s not called the president’s dinner because it’s not the president’s dinner.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Exactly.
MS. TALEV: It is a dinner to honor the First Amendment and the role a free press plays in a democracy. And the White House, like all White Houses, knows that, and they know that that’s kind of the underlying circumstance under which they’re being invited.
This is bigger than the press corps and it’s bigger than the president. And it’s about tradition, it’s about free speech, and it’s about people being able to put their sort of day-to-day grievances aside for something that’s loftier and more important. The White House press corps is sort of a unique institution among even all democracies. No other president arrives in a foreign country with that sort of an entourage. No other president in the world, even in other Western democracies, takes that much sort of public daily scrutiny and criticism, and emerges potentially with the ability to appear stronger. And that’s what’s in it for any president, to go and say this is more important than – I can take a couple of hits, you know.
MR. SCHIEFFER: But if – my thought about this is, if he’s not comfortable coming he should go to his own parties, and the White House correspondents should meet and give their – raise money for scholars and future journalists. And maybe it would be better off if everybody just went to their own parties.
MS. TALEV: My instinct is that any American president should always be invited, and it should be his choice whether or not to attend. Our dinner goes on. We celebrate our cause. We raise money for our scholarships, our awards, our education programs. But guests from all across the political spectrum are welcome, and the president’s always welcome.
MR. SCHWARTZ: You know, it’s interesting that you said the dinner went back to basics. In some ways, I think maybe the White House press corps has gone back to basics. Do you think that?
MS. TALEV: I certainly think that we have had to on a few different fronts. Investigative journalism has become just as important as it always was, but there’s a real demand for it now, where there wasn’t for many years. And the election itself was so major a pivot point, so major a turning point, so much news to emerge from it that there’s just no shortage of actual news stories – (laughs) – to cover. We’ve got our hands full. But it’s – but it’s a tremendous privilege, again, to cover the White House. And even in really challenging times, fun and interesting, and a great honor.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Margaret Talev, who is doing a great job at the White House. And we thank you very much for what you’re doing over there, Margaret.
For Andrew Schwartz, this is Bob Schieffer. Thanks for listening.