Witch Hunt: NYT’s Peter Baker on WH turmoil
May 18, 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: Our guest this time is Peter Baker, who spent 20 years at The Washington Post. He’s a graduate of Oberlin College. And if there was ever a person qualified to be covering the White House, which he is now doing for The New York Times, it is Peter Baker. I was just looking over his resume this morning. It reminded me that when he was working at the Post, he wrote the first story about Monica Lewinsky, I believe, that the Post published. You went on to write a book about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Your second book, after you were transferred to Moscow by The New York Times, was the rise of Putin. And your third book, of course, was about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
So, Peter, let’s just start from the start here on what’s going on at the White House right now. The latest news, the president has put out a tweet saying this is a great witch hunt. This follows the unanimous almost acclamation from Republicans and Democrats that he has chosen the former FBI director, Mr. Mueller, to become the special counsel to investigate this whole Russia story. What do you make of the tweet this morning?
PETER BAKER: Well, he’s obviously feeling the pressure. And like other presidents who have come under investigation, he resents it. The difference is that others tried to restrain their public comments about it, and that’s not something that President Trump has shown. When he feels something, he says it. And he uses Twitter as his means of saying it. So the statement that was put out last night in his name was measured and, you know, presidential in a lot of ways. He said, I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m going to continue to focus on my day job, in effect, and fight for the issues for our people. And then this morning, you get the more visceral, the more authentic, I think, response that he’s feeling, that this is unfair and this is a persecution.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Why is it – and maybe it’s just me – but my sense of it is he speaks in one voice during the afternoon and he has a different voice in the early morning hours.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Well, this is when he’s alone, right? He’s by himself in this White House. The family has not moved down here yet from New York. There’s nobody there to counsel him, to distract him, to restrain him. And that’s when you see him at his rawest, you know? And it’s – you covered this stuff going back years. It’s like Nixon with his tapes. The difference was Nixon kept the tapes to himself, at least as long as he could. The things we heard Nixon say on those tapes – the bitterness, the resentment, the sense of persecution – President Trump puts right out there in public. In some ways, he’s therefore more candid – (laughs) – and more open, you would say, with the American people. But it’s raw. And we’re hearing it live and in real time.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Do you – I don’t know if there’s any way to know this – but does he take some sort of sleeping pills – (laughter) – or some sort of medication at night that may cause him to have these – have this kind of different voice?
MR. BAKER: I think it’s a medication called Fox. And he’s watching the news – (laughter) – and he’s getting angry at things that he sees on there. And he kind of, you know, either encourages the line that he sees on Fox or reacts to the things that they’re – that they’re saying. And he then – and he then expresses it on Twitter.
MR. SCHIEFFER: What has it been like – give us a sense of what it’s like to be the reporter for The New York Times right now at the White House.
MR. BAKER: It’s a very different White House than – I’ve covered three previous, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like this one. They don’t follow any of the normal standards and practices, and everything is up in the air. Unpredictability is the norm. The only consistency is inconsistency. And it’s a very ad hoc situation. Now, any new president is trying to figure things out in the first few months. It’s not unusual. But this one in particular seems to crave or encourage or foment a certain degree of chaos. And it’s part of his modus operandi, and has been for years. You know, you can’t predict from day to day what’s going to happen. And that’s made it a very volatile and very interesting situation.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, I would guess that the White House staff, number one, must be exhausted right now.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: But what is their demeanor?
MR. BAKER: They’re exhausted. They’re on edge. They’re nervous. They’re unhappy. They’re unhappy with each other. They’re unhappy with the president. They’re unhappy with us in the media. And they’re looking over their shoulders. And it’s a very corrosive situation I think for them right now. They’re willing to say things to reporters that most White House aides try to avoid saying, even if they think it, out of, you know, a sense of frustration and an inability to control what’s going on. You know, they have repeatedly been put in the position of explaining or defending things the president has done, only to be contradicted by the president himself. And it’s a very untenable situation.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let’s bring in Andrew Schwartz.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Thanks, Bob.
And you know, Peter, I laughed when you said the president’s medicine was Fox News, but he’s not alone in getting angry at what’s going on. And there seems to be a divide in America right now, somewhat alternative universes, between one media and another media. What do you make of all that?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, absolutely true. And my colleague Jeremy Peters wrote a really good story about that today, in which he basically looks at why Donald Trump’s supporters look at this in a very different way than, say, the establishment folks in Washington – both Republican and Democrat. And they look at this as part of an assault on Donald Trump, on his legitimacy. They blame what they call the deep state. That was the phrase most popularized by Steve Bannon the president’s chief strategist.
And they see this as a way of taking down a president who was standing up to the establishment. And so when they hear stories that the president may have tried to shut down an FBI investigation into a former aide of his, they don’t look at that and say, well, that’s a troublesome thing. They look at that and say, aha, they’re trying to get him. And they’re going after him. And we need to stand by him, because he’s standing up for us. And that’s why they’re going after him. And this isn’t a majority view. His popularity numbers are around 40 percent or so. But it’s a substantial and important view. And that’s something I think in Washington and New York it’s easy to miss.
MR. SCHWARTZ: There’s a whole blame the media sentiment going on as well.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Well, look, that’s – there’s a long tradition of that.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Nothing new about that. (Laughs.)
MR. BAKER: Yeah, nothing new about – and no politician ever lost votes by attacking the media. So fair enough. But you’re right in the sense that the media today is so different today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, because it’s atomized. There’s a much broader and diverse selection of opportunities in the media. That’s a good thing, I think, generally. The marketplace of ideas has grown and it’s a rich, wonderful tapestry of possibility.
But it also means that people are gravitating toward their ideological home and sticking with it, right? If you’re conservative you look at Fox. If you’re liberal, you look at, you know, MSNBC’s nighttime programming, or what have you. And because of that, people are starting from different fact bases, right? When Bob and I started in the business, there were three networks and a couple of newspapers. And people argued about issues, but they were starting from the same fact base. That’s not true anymore.
MR. SCHIEFFER: They believed – they generally believed – whatever they thought of the editorial policy, they believed that what was on the front page of the newspaper was probably true.
MR. BAKER: Right. And then they could argue about what it meant, but –
MR. SCHIEFFER: Yes. But I think you’ve hit on a very important point here, Peter, is the difference now is we’re basing our opinions on different sets of facts.
MR. BAKER: Absolutely.
MR. SCHIEFFER: On different data.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And that, I think, is one of the main causes for this very deep partisan divide.
MR. BAKER: Very polarized today, because we’re not starting from the same place. And to listen to people and to watch Twitter and social media – and the things that came up with are pretty fascinating. Like, well, you were covering up this, and it turns out to be some completely cockeyed story. This is true on the left and the right, you know?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Yes.
MR. BAKER: And it’s hard for readers to make sense of it. It’s hard to – you know, you can’t blame them. There’s a lot of information out there. And what’s really necessary these days is for consumers of news to figure out how to be good citizens and figure out what’s trustworthy and what’s not.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And the challenge for us is to figure out how to convince people that this part is true. I find it so amusing – and you all do the same thing – but over at the Post as well. The other day the Post had a story that said according to 30 sources.
MR. BAKER: Right. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHIEFFER: I mean, it’s become a – it’s become a challenge to see how many sources you can put in. And we asked Ashley Parker of the Post about that. And she said, look, you know, we take a lot of heat a lot of times. We’ll have a source story and they’ll come back – not just this administration, but others as well – and say, look, you just talked to one disgruntled guy who got a bad meal and he’s in a bad humor and he told you this. This doesn’t reflect what’s really happening.
MR. BAKER: Exactly.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And she said, so we’re trying to get as many sources as we can. And when we can’t name them, at least say how many people we talked to. I think it’s a very wise tactic.
MR. BAKER: Well, I think that’s a wise tactic. I think the more we can do to help readers understand what kind of sources these are. Obviously sometimes we can’t name them, but if we could at least tell people where they come from, that helps. For instance, today we had a story about my colleagues – about Michael Flynn having told the White House – or told the transition team that he was under investigation two weeks before the inauguration. He doesn’t name the sources. But it says that they are people who were close to Flynn. So at least you have some sense of where the information is coming from, and you can judge it accordingly. But you’re right. We have a credibility issue. And we, in the media, need to be paying attention to that.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, and then you throw in all top of all this that your colleagues reported within the last week that during a private meeting in February with the former FBI director Jim Comey, President Trump floated a proposal that even by the standards of President Trump – who often expresses his disdain for the media – he said, according to your report – not your report, but the Times report: You should consider – he told Mr. Comey – jailing journalists who publish classified information. What do you make of that?
MR. BAKER: Well, you know, it’s in keeping with the tone taken by the president and the administration so far. How seriously he was about that, I don’t know. He says stuff like that. He just sort of throws things out. Remember in the last year’s campaign he said he was going to appoint a special prosecutor and lock up Hillary Clinton. He hasn’t done it. That’s not to say that’s, you know, not something he might like to do.
But, you know, he has repeatedly said he’s like to change the libel laws, that reporters shouldn’t be allowed to print certain things if they didn’t named sources. You know, and he’s not – he’s not the first one to say that – I mean, it depends on how far you want to go. But there have been presidents in the past who have talked about going after journalists who published classified information – certainly, you know, President Bush, President Obama. There were people in their administrations who advocated similar things.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Could it put a chill on your reporting?
MR. BAKER: Well, it doesn’t help. (Laughs.) But, look, you know, I think that what the media has tried to do, I think, in this period is show that we have an important role in society, and that is an accountability function – that we are independent. We are not part of the power structure. And we are not the opposition party either. The president wants to make us out like we’re the opposition party. We’re not. And we should be careful not to fall into that trap. We’re not at war with President Trump, as he has said we are. We are doing our jobs as we should in a democracy, which is to write stories as completely, fairly and aggressively as we can.
So we need to make clear to our public what our role is, and help them understand that as well. I worry, for instance, that New York Times subscriptions have gone way up – right, that’s a good thing from my point of view. But I worry that a part of that is because it’s blue America looking to the news media to counter a president that they don’t like. And they are – you know, they are going to expect things of us that are not our job. It is not our job to be the opposition party to President Trump. And they may be disappointed in us because we don’t fulfill that function that they want us to. And I hope we can explain to the public where we see our role.
MR. SCHIEFFER: The bottom line for me is the way I see our role, which I think is – I think the role of an independent media is as crucial to democracy as the right to vote. You can’t have it without you have those two things. But our job is not to argue with public officials. Our job is to ask them questions.
MR. BAKER: Right, exactly.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And that’s the point that I think we have to keep stressing over and over, because there are a lot of people, they want to believe us. But we have to explain to them now it is we’re doing this stuff and why we do, and what the alternative would be. We don’t want a government – we don’t want a society where the only source of information is the government.
MR. BAKER: That’s right.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And I think we sometimes have – we think, well, people know that. Well, people are busy. I have great empathy for them. I understand. There’s a lot of stuff going on that I don’t have time check on that I should. And I think we have to – part of our role is to explain that.
I interviewed John McCain the other night. He spoke to the International Republican Institute, which is a group that tries to build democracies around the world. They do – they do some wonderful work. And so part of the program is they honored him. And so I interviewed him, and I asked him what he made of all of this. And the first sentence he said: We have a Watergate-sized scandal coming up here. Do you think that is this serious?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, it’s fair to say that the Watergate comparisons can be stretched, right, or overstated at times. Or, you know, we can – we’re trying to fit things into patterns that we understand. And we understand Watergate, we think. It’s not exactly like Watergate, but there are enough echoes that you can see why people say that, right? We fired the person who was leading an investigation into the president’s people. We have found a memo that says the president tried to stop an FBI investigation into one of his former aides. The president alluded to the idea that he might even have secret tapes in the White House. He won’t confirm it, he won’t deny it. But he said so on Twitter as if there was tapes.
All these things, you can’t but feel like there are echoes of Watergate. And then who shows up in the White House last week at the very moment that this is all happening in Henry Kissinger, which, you know, I mean, just as a matter of optics, it seems like they’re almost inviting the comparisons at times. They’re different situations and they’re different scenarios. And we don’t know whether anything has been done wrong yet by this president or by any of the people around him. And we ought to be careful about that. We ought not to take things further than the evidence so far has taken it. Nobody’s been charged with anything. And so, you know, we – as somebody who has written about Watergate comparisons, I certainly will agree that we ought to be careful about that.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, what about this, though? I mean, there’s no question that – we haven’t seen any obstruction of justice at this point. And I think we’re a long way from having the evidence of that. But if it turns out that this president did try to stop an investigation of Russia interference in our elections, or something like that, and the special counsel concludes that was an obstruction of justice, would that be grounds for an impeachment?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s certainly a good question. And both President Nixon and President Clinton, when they were facing their impeachment controversies, had – one of the articles against each of them was obstruction of justice. As you know, I mean, in Washington the old adage is the coverup is worse than the crime. And obstruction, in effect, is the coverup. You could see somebody defining what has happened so far as obstruction, in the sense that President Nixon – the smoking gun with President Nixon was a tape showing that he ordered his chief of staff to tell the CIA to tell the FBI to back off the Watergate investigation.
Well, that was perceived, or presented anyway by the authors of the articles of impeachment against him as an act of obstruction. Now, they didn’t vote on it. So we don’t know whether that would have been considered by the full House. But he resigned. Similarly, President Clinton was accused of obstruction for trying to find a job for a witness who could be against him – Monica Lewinsky – for encouraging her to sign an affidavit that we now know was false in the sexual harassment lawsuit against him. And the House considered that to be, you know, something worth putting an article of impeachment.
So you can see – you know, lawyers have said that what President Trump did with Jim Comey might not be obstruction of justice under a legal statute. But as Gerald Ford famously said, you know, an impeachable offense is what the House decides it is. And you could easily see a House deciding that telling the FBI director to hold off – you know, to stop an investigation, and then when he doesn’t do that fire him, and to say in an interview with Lester Holt that the Russian investigation was on his mind – you could easily see how people might decide to present that in a charge against him. But we have a Republican House. And there’s nobody at this point looking to start an impeachment investigation. And we ought to be careful about getting too far ahead of things.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You know, one interesting thing I think about this, and when this news broke yesterday, I think there was a great sign of relief, you could almost hear it across town, from the Republicans on Capitol Hill. This has suddenly taken them out of being in a position of responsibility of having to move on this thing. They can now wait and see what the special counsel comes up with before they go forward. Now, I think we’ll continue to have these investigations up there. But I think they’ve – maybe they’re not going to go on television and announcement, but I think they were really, really happy that this happened.
MR. BAKER: I think you’re exactly right about that, because every day they’re getting asked, well, don’t you think there should be a special prosecutor? Don’t you think – duh, duh, duh. And because they want to be loyal to a president of their party they say, well, you know. But as soon as one was appointed, they all rushed out with statements saying: Bob Mueller’s great. We’re happy. This will be terrific. And so on and so forth. So I think you’re right, it takes the heat off of them for a little bit. It was so extraordinary yesterday on the Hill that the Senate press gallery felt the need to put out a warning about Senate hallway congestion, there were so many reporters trying to buttonhole lawmakers. So it’s a real intense situation right now.
MR. SCHWARTZ: It’s amazing. It’s a bipartisan outbreak on the Hill. We haven’t seen that in a while.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, that’s right. They finally agree. They agree Bob Mueller is a good guy and the proper person to investigate this.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Let me ask you about this, Peter. The president’s about to embark on a nine-day trip. You’re going with him. The president is a confirmed homebody and he’s expressed dread about this trip. He’s even been asking aides if he could shorten it from, you know, nine days to five days. His advisors concede that the schedule’s intense and that it could produce some unscripted diplomatically perilous moments. When you’re talking to his staff, how are they going to try to rein him in on this?
MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) I think they’ve learned that they can’t.
Look, this is a big trip. And it’s a – it would be a challenge for any president, much less a first trip overseas, a president who doesn’t like, as you say, to travel. He’s 70 years old. He’s not going to be sleeping in his own bed. In the four months he’s been president, he’s not slept anyplace other than the White House or a property he owned. I mean, it’s not something he likes to do. So physically this is challenging. Policy-wise it’s challenging. He’s going to meet literally dozens of heads of state. He’s going – he’s going to be dealing with issues from Middle East peace and terrorism and Syria to Afghanistan and NATO and Russia and Ukraine and economics – and, by the way, he’s meeting the pope. So all of these are high-stakes, highwire acts for a person who’s never been on the world stage.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Maybe he’d be better off to meet the pope first – (laughs) –
MR. BAKER: He might, be, right?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Get some –
MR. BAKER: Look for – look for a little help.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Right. (Laughs.)
MR. BAKER: But it’s – yeah, so this would be tough under any circumstance. But with this at home happening at the same time, oh my goodness. And it reminds me of trips like Nixon going to the Middle East during Watergate, President Clinton going to Russia right after his grand jury testimony in the Starr case – Ken Starr’s grand jury in 1998. Presidents have to be able to do more than one thing at a time, but this would be a big challenge without all that distraction, and all that’s going to only make it more complicated.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What do you expect policy-wise from the first leg of the trip, Saudi Arabia and then Israel?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think what you want to – he wants to do is basically strengthen and embolden this alliance, this alignment – alliance is too strong, but an alignment between the Sunni Arab world and Israel against Iran. And that’s been building for years, and it’s something Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has sought. But President Obama was more, you know, reticent about it, and he was more hands-off with the Saudis and with the Egyptians. He wasn’t as close with them as President Trump is trying to be. So I think you’re going to see that as his main focus on the trip. He’s going to talk about Middle East peace when he visits Jerusalem. He’s going to go to Bethlehem and meet the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. I don’t think you’re going to see him move the embassy, for instance, or announce that he’s going to move the embassy to Jerusalem, as he once promised to do. He’s trying to play both sides so that they can come together. He sees it as the ultimate deal. But I don’t know that the ultimate deal is there to be had, because I don’t think that either the Palestinian or the Israeli leadership is really, really ready for a deal, or even necessarily politically strong enough to deliver it.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Now you throw into the Israeli equation that the Times reported that Israel was the source of the laptop intelligence.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Initially, the Times reported that it was a Middle East source and said it wasn’t going to reveal, for national security reasons, the name of the source. Eight or so hours later, it did reveal the name of the source. Why did the Times make that decision?
MR. BAKER: That’s a good question. We do take these things very seriously when we have sensitive information and government officials make an argument to us that disclosure of it could cause harm. The editors, far above me, take that into consideration and talk with these officials and try to suss out what is the source of their concern. In this case, they came to the conclusion that that information was well enough known out there and not something that was – they did not feel that the case had been made to them by government officials that this would cause harm that the newspapers had to take into account.
Remember, our job is not to make it easier for a government to do its work. The fact that Israel’s going to be mad about this is not the concern for the newspaper. The question is, does it put somebody specifically in harm’s way? And the feeling was that, if that had happened, that it already happened.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So in a case like that – I mean, help me to understand the process – would your editors call someone in the government and say, we’re getting ready to do this; tell us why we shouldn’t?
MR. BAKER: Mmm hmm. Our reporters do that who are on the beat, the ones who deal with intelligence agencies, who deal with the White House or the government. And then, if the White House or the intelligence agencies want to make a case above our pay grade, we’re more than happy to then pass them up the chain to the editors, who will make the decision. And they do. They often do. Dean Baquet, our executive editor, has talked about this in the past. At times we’ve even been called in by a president, the top editors or publisher, to discuss sensitive information. I don’t think it – it didn’t reach that level in this particular instance, but it did – you know, there were high-level people who were talking to my editors about the situation, and they took that appeal into account. But I think they decided in the end that this is a matter of public interest and public importance, and it was worth publishing.
MR. SCHIEFFER: But, I mean, could I presume that the normal process before you would publish something like that, you would ask somebody in a position of authority?
MR. BAKER: We let people know that we’re planning to publish this information –
MR. SCHIEFFER: And let them –
MR. BAKER: – and we give them an opportunity to tell us why they think it might be a bad thing. And by the way, sometimes we agree. Sometimes we say, you’re right, we’re not going to put that out there. During WikiLeaks, for instance, when that came out, with all the unedited thousands and thousands of cables, you know, the government made a pretty compelling case that some of those cables included the names of informers and other agents, in effect, for the United States in places like Afghanistan, where they easily could have been, you know, targeted by the Taliban or other forces. And The New York Times chose not, in fact, to publish all these cables willy-nilly. They went through them individually, one by one, before we published anything, and went over what could be sensitive and what was not sensitive. So we take that seriously.
But we have a different interest than the government. The government wants everything to be secret. We want everything to be public, to the extent that we can. And we – you know, we look for that middle ground sometimes where we think there is a compelling case that specific harm is going to be made if something is disclosed.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Is it your sense that the White House is about to have a complete turnover of the president’s staff?
MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) Well, you know, it’s –
MR. SCHIEFFER: What do they think?
MR. BAKER: Certainly people who are working there think so. It’s certainly in the wind. Everybody thinks their job is on the line. The president has specifically called in a few of his aides to say, look, you’re safe, you’re fine, but nobody really 100 percent knows that that’s the case. And look, you know, every week basically in the four months of this administration there’s been some rumor or another about somebody being pushed out, and mostly it hasn’t happened, so we don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did, but it seems to me that the real problem is not at this point the people around the president; the real problem is whether the president wants to take their advice. And is he going to invest somebody in his circle with the authority to basically tell him no, this is not a wise idea, Mr. President, don’t do this, and here’s why you shouldn’t do this? At the moment, he makes his decisions pretty close to, you know, unilaterally, and the staff isn’t going to be able to change that if a president doesn’t want to listen to them.
MR. SCHIEFFER: A Republican senator told me the other night this could go one or two ways: Donald Trump can either go the way of Richard Nixon or he can go the way of Ronald Reagan, who got past Iran-Contra. And he said the only way he can do that is to get all of this out on the table and reassure the American people of what has happened, and if he has to ask their forgiveness, ask it. Another Republican senator told me, you know, it’s not in his makeup to ask forgiveness, it’s not in his makeup to say I made a mistake. And the worry of this Republican senator was that he won’t do that. Now, this was all before the announcement of Mueller becoming the special prosecutor. Do you think people in the White House see it that way?
MR. BAKER: I do. I mean, anybody with experience understands that Reagan managed to get past Iran-Contra, as you say, in part by basically saying, look, let’s put it all out there, and we’ll take the hits for what we did and explain or defend or apologize, but we’re going to at least let it get out there and not become this drip, drip, drip of scandal. Now, that was an imperfect process even then, but he convinced, anyway, Americans that he wanted to get to the bottom of it, and he was – he was fair with – they appointed a commission, the Tower commission, that looked into it, and he fired Oliver North and accepted the resignation of John Poindexter.
This is not a president, as you say, who has apologized or admitted any kind of mistakes very often. I mean, in fairness, most presidents don’t like to do that. But I mean, Obama – President Obama was not exactly a guy who went around saying, hey, I screwed this up. (Laughter.) But, you know, I can only think of like maybe one or two instances where Donald Trump in his public life has done that. He did that after the “Access Hollywood” tape in last year’s campaign, but I don’t think he’s done it since being president where he said, eh, that didn’t work out so well, I should have done it somehow differently.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Can he get his agenda – can he get anything done if he is not able to get this out of the news, as it were –
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Well, this is the –
MR. SCHIEFFER: – or get past it? Because that’s what these Republicans on the Hill are telling me. They’re starting – and you’re hearing, you know, people say, well, his support is still really strong. Yes, it is, amongst his core supporters. But up on the Hill, where – I mean, the truth of the matter is Republicans on the Hill didn’t like him in the first place. He was not one of them.
MR. BAKER: Exactly.
MR. SCHIEFFER: His roots there don’t run very deep. He took over their party and they are trying to make the best of it, as it were. But when you hear Mitch McConnell say we could use a little less drama out of the White House, when you hear – who was it that said that the presidency’s now in a downward spiral?
MR. BAKER: Corker, I think. Senator Corker.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Bob Corker.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Bob Corker said that. It tells me that what they’re really worried about now is, is this going to now affect them and have an impact not only on their agenda – but as John McCain said the other night to me, we’ve got to people in 2018 with more than just, yeah, we got Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. He said that’s a pretty thin record of accomplishments. And up to now, they’ve done nothing else.
MR. BAKER: Well, and the frustration is, right, that he – President Trump had succeeded in passing a health care bill through the House when people said he couldn’t do it. Now, he acted as if that was the end result and he was in the – in the end zone. He still had, you know, 50 yards still to go. But it was a sense of momentum. And for all the challenges ahead, he had at least put out a tax reform plan to begin the conversation.
And then, as soon as this tiny bit of momentum had started to build, boom, he fires Jim Comey, and he admits that he did it partly with Russia on his mind, and the stories about asking Comey to squelch an investigation come out, and he – and he encourages it through Twitter by saying Comey better watch out or I might have tapes. I mean, you know, even to the extent that you’re going to fire the FBI director, he kept the story alive himself through repeated comments and interviews and tweets that stoked the furor. So Republicans on the Hill are looking at it and saying, how on earth are we possibly going to get a health care bill passed when it was already a huge lift? And how possibly going to get Democrats to go along with some sort of tax plan when this atmosphere is so poisoned? And it’s really hard to see significant legislation passing this year.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Peter, you worked at The Washington Post. Now you work at The New York Times. It seems every day one or the other newspaper is breaking a story. It seems like an arms race of journalism. How many reporters do you have working on the White House beat? And, you know, how are you going to continue to try to compete in this cycle?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s a great old-fashioned newspaper war, and it’s – as a journalist, it’s fascinating to watch. At our newspaper, let’s see, who covers President Trump? Well, we have 1,300 journalists, and I would say of them 1,300 seem to think that they have some role in covering President Trump – (laughter) – because he’s such an extraordinary figure and he’s so captivating to our audience that even, you know sports reporters and business reporters and culture reports and –
MR. SCHWARTZ: He gets good ratings.
MR. BAKER: He gets good ratings, as he himself has said. So everybody wants kind of a piece of this story, and so, you know, we’ve got a lot of coverage of Trump.
On the White House specifically, we have six White House reporters, which is the most we’ve ever had. When I started covering the White House in 1996, we had two at The Washington Post. We moved up to four after 9/11 because there was so much going on. Now we’re at six. On top of that, we have, you know, a team of reporters in Washington that’s looking at the more investigative side of things, is trying to dig through some of these questions that we have on the Russia investigation or his businesses and so forth. And then, you know, obviously, we have a terrific team on the Hill that’s involved and policy reporters that are involved. I mean, we – I joke, but almost everybody has some piece of the story in some way.
MR. SCHIEFFER: It is an amazing thing. And I would say this: I think these were two very good newspapers, but now with a big story to cover, watching these two news organizations competing, I think it’s made both of you better.
MR. BAKER: Well, I – competition is good, right, and I think it’s great to see The Washington Post in such a strong shape, and I think we consider them to be our, you know, primary competitors on this story. And some days they kick the – kick the heck out of us, and every once in a while I think we get to kick the heck out of them, and that’s a healthy thing. So, yeah, it’s good for – as long as the stories are fair, accurate, and we give ourselves enough time to make sure they’re correct. The danger, of course, is the – is the spirit of competition makes – and the pace of today’s media environment is such that we all want to hit a button as fast as possible, and there’s obviously a danger in that. So we have – it’s incumbent on us to make sure our stories are correct and fair and as complete as possible, and I think so far we’ve been doing that.
MR. SCHIEFFER: To be first is great, but to be right is the most important.
MR. BAKER: Absolutely.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And that’s something that all of us in journalism need to remind ourselves of from time to time.
MR. BAKER: We do, we do. Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, you’re doing a great job, Peter.
MR. BAKER: Thank you.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And we really thank you for being with us.
For Andrew Schwartz, this is Bob Schieffer. Thanks for listening.
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