This is a transcript of Thursday’s interview with Washington Post political reporter Ashley Parker on Slate’s I Have to Ask podcast. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Isaac Chotiner: How does this work for you, when one of these big stories breaks?
Ashley Parker: Sure. I cover the White House as a daily beat reporter. As soon as one of these things happens, I’m immediately on the phone with sources and officials inside the White House, as well as people who are outside the White House but in frequent touch with the president, trying to get a sense of what’s going on. How is the comms team responding, how was this allowed to happen, what is the president’s mood, what are people thinking?
Some of it is palace intrigue, and feels like gossip and atmospheric. But with this White House, it also feels relevant, because this is a president who makes governing and policy decisions based on his moods and whims, or based on if he’s angry about something or feels the need to tweet. So doing that kind of inside the White House reporting, our thought is, it helps you get a better sense of where the White House is right now, where the president’s mind is right now, and ideally, where it’s headed. Although admittedly, we can never quite predict that with great accuracy.
Chotiner: You had a co-byline on a story, I think it was last week, that said that there were, correct me if this is wrong, 30 sources on the story that had gone on the record?
Parker: Yeah, I think we said more than 30.
Chotiner: More than 30, thank you. You’ve covered other White Houses and other presidential campaigns—have you noticed more of a proclivity in this White House for people to talk to the press, despite the fact that this administration is seen by some people as being sort of anti-media?
Parker: Yes, I think that’s true. Actually, I should clarify: I’ve covered politics for a long time, and campaigns, but this is the first White House I’ve covered in a daily way.
But, yes, I mean one thing that makes these leaks, or this willingness to speak to the press so prevalent, is Donald Trump’s management style, which is one of warring factions and organized chaos. One thing that often works to your benefit as a reporter is five dueling camps or power centers inside the White House, and they all have a message, and they all have a narrative they want to get out. They’ve realized the best way to do that is by talking to the media.
Of course, that makes reporting, in another sense, a bit more difficult, because everybody has an agenda, and everybody has a point of view, and no one is necessarily a straight shooter. You have to be skeptical and run the traps. There are very few people in the White House who, if they tell you it, you can take it to the bank.
That’s another reason why, for a lot of these stories, we try to talk to as many people as possible, to present a 360 degree version of the truth, as we best understand it in that moment.
Chotiner: Did you say “run a trap”?
Parker: “Run the traps.”
I guess I just meant that if an ally of Bannon tells you something, or an ally of Reince Priebus, or an ally of Jared, it doesn’t mean that that is the 100 percent black-and-white truth. It means that that’s their take, or their perspective, or their spin, or their agenda. So by running the traps, I mean going to other sources, other people within the White House, and saying, “I’ve heard this, is it true? What am I missing? This doesn’t quite add up, this doesn’t make sense to me. How can I understand this better?”
I mean just doing more reporting.
Chotiner: Do you have some larger sense, I mean not things people would say on the record, but do you have some larger sense of the way you think people close to Trump view him?
Parker: Yes. It’s funny, we have a story that is running in tomorrow’s paper, or Thursday’s paper, that just posted tonight that sort of captures a sense of beleaguered weariness on the part of his staff.
I should be clear that no one, for instance, has said this to me in these exact terms, this explicitly. But the way they describe dealing with his whims and moods and caprices, is in some ways the way you would try to deal with a child in terms of distracting them, trying to get their attention to something else, not saying “No” because that might cause a meltdown, saying “Yes, but how about we do it this way?” or “What if we consider this?”
They view him as someone who deeply needs to be managed, but is very, very hard to manage. And they’re always coming up with tricks and ways to do that.
Chotiner: So tell me about—forget the last couple of days—tell me what your average day is like. How many hours a day are you glued to your phone, how many hours a day are you working? Is the first thing you do when you wake up to look at Twitter?
Parker: I feel like I am constantly glued to my phone and Twitter, but that may be more of a personality flaw than a hazard of the job. The cliché is there is no average day, but here at the Post, we have six full-time White House reporters, which is actually the same number that most major publications have. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have that, and I believe Politico has that.
We have different rotations. A duty rotation, which is what you would have in a traditional White House. The person who is in the seat in the briefing room every day, the person who’s at the White House, the person who, if Trump travels on a day trip, goes with him. If Trump spends the weekend in Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, the duty reporter goes there. That’s sort of standard practice for any White House.
Then we also have a duty rotation that feels uniquely designed for President Trump, which is called the “hot seat.” It is also the worst rotation, because it basically means you are the person who is responsible for the utter fire hose of information. When you’re in the hot seat, you basically—your alarm clock is Donald Trump’s tweets, right? Because he often makes news in his tweets in the morning.
I’m actually hot seat this week. Before I go to bed, I set—and I’m not a morning person, admittedly—I set four alarms on my phone: one at 6:00, one at 6:15, one at 6:30, and one at 6:45. When my alarm goes off, I roll over, and check to see if Donald Trump has tweeted. If he hasn’t, I hit snooze. I basically do that until a tweet lands, when I hop up in bed, and start writing on my laptop. And then, you’re just sort of handling every fire, and crisis, and comment, and what his aides are saying on TV for the rest of the day.
Then, when you’re not on one of those two rotations, you’re a traditional White House reporter working on more analytical stories, or profiles, or features, or palace intrigue, or enterprise.
Chotiner: Do you feel stressed out,? Has this affected your personal life?
Parker: I do feel … I often have a really poor sense of what day of the week it is, because you’re in the middle of a Tuesday and you feel like, this has to be a Thursday, or a Friday, there clearly is a weekend coming up.
I guess it’s a little disorienting. And deadlines are always stressful, but that’s just journalism.
It also feels like a really exhilarating and exciting time to be in D.C., and to be covering this White House. So it’s kind of a mix.
Chotiner: To take a step back, when do you think you wanted to get into journalism?
Parker: I think I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. I feel like if I had any good plots, I would probably be just as happy being a novelist or a TV writer. In a weird way, I kind of fell into journalism, because all the stories are there for you. You just have to go out and find them.
I worked for my high school newspaper, then for my college newspaper, and I tried to get journalism internships every summer in college. So probably by high school or college, I knew I wanted to be a journalist, although that might just be, again, a lack of imagination of other potential writing jobs.
My first job in journalism—I was incredibly lucky. I started right out of college at the New York Times, as Maureen Dowd’s research assistant.
Chotiner: What did you learn from working for Maureen Dowd?
Parker: I think I learned everything working for Maureen Dowd. She was just a wonderful boss and mentor to start with. If you read her copy, not just her columns, some of the magazine stories she wrote, her White House coverage when she was covering the first President Bush and doing it in a voice-y, colorful way that no one at that time had ever really done before. It taught me a lot about writing and telling stories and sentence structure, and it taught me, as a reporter, how to be relentless and dogged and persistent.
I also think, much to my parents’ delight, I emerged with a lot of life skills. I now feel prepared for any crazy situation that could get thrown my way.
Chotiner: You and I knew each other back in Washington when you were working for Maureen Dowd. And as well as working for her, you were also writing a lot of stories for the Times, stories for the Style section, kind of about, I would say, the culture of Washington. Is it fair to say that, culture-of-Washington stories?
Chotiner: I was wondering how you look back on culture-of-Washington stories now. I think that in our profession, stories like that, they’re kind of, not looked down upon, but people are very critical of them. There’s a sense that politics is much more serious now and we shouldn’t be talking about personalities, and that this isn’t entertainment. We need to view this as having life-threatening consequences for everyone.
Parker: Well, two points. I think you do have to be aware of the current news moment. For instance, today, when a special prosecutor was appointed, and it seems like the president may have possibly obstructed justice, there’s probably not a huge appetite for the cool new bar that all the young Trump aides are hanging out at. And I think that is, journalistically, the right call.
But I would argue a lot of those culture-of-Washington stories are more revealing in a bigger way. The first campaign I covered was Mitt Romney, and I went around the Times, and I asked all the former campaign reporters for tips. And one of the best pieces of advice I got was, “Look, you are the person who has the privilege, and the experience, of being out with this person who could be the next president, day in and day out. Your job is to fact-check them, and to write about their policies and their platforms and their politics and their position and all of that.
But you also get to see what this person is like when they’re tired. How they function under pressure, who they choose to surround themselves with. How they make decisions. How they treat their staff. How they treat their staff when they think no one is looking.”
So a story that seems like a culture-of-Washington story, or a profile like the story of a candidate and their body man—which, I love to do those stories—they tell you a bit more about the person who could be the next commander in chief. I think that’s a valuable detail for voters and readers to have.
If you look at every president, we ask them, “What would you do on this, what would you do on that?” But on the major issues that each president is tested by, you couldn’t even conceive, for instance, to ask the candidate George W. Bush, “What would you do if hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center?”
And his answer then is probably very different than when he’s actually faced with it. But if you know who his father is, how he makes decisions, who he surrounds himself with, the way he thinks, if he considers himself a decider or is a more pensive, Obama-style constitutional law professor, I think those things are actually much more revealing and telling, even about how someone will govern and the policies they’ll make.
Chotiner: Right, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true with the current administration, and also true, to some extent, with Bush, with Obama, and with every president.
The critique comes in for more things like what a candidate wears, or what kind of haircut they get, or something like that, where I think people feel like, Well, the media will focus on this thing, but it actually doesn’t tell us something about who this person is and how they would govern.
Parker: Well, I am the proud author of a front-page New York Times story on Mitt Romney’s haircut. And I think—I would have to go back and read it—but I do think we managed to distill a few broader truths about what it told us about Mitt Romney the man.
Chotiner: Fair enough. Let me ask you this: Are there any differences between the way that the Times and the Post cover politics?
Parker: That’s a very good question. I mean, it feels like right now, in this moment, they both just cover politics incredibly well. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but it feels like there’s an old-fashioned newspaper war. It’s kind of, people going up and down the court, and someone sinks a three, and someone else sinks a three, and then there’s a buzzer shot.
It just feels like everyone is firing on all cylinders. I think there’s probably some cultural differences, but—
Chotiner: What are those?
Parker: I still feel relatively new at the Post, compared to having been at the Times for 11 years. One thing, a couple things that are different for me personally is, the Post is the hometown paper. It’s a Washington paper, and politics is its bread and butter. That makes it a very exhilarating and exciting place to be if you’re a political reporter.
Of course, the New York Time’s politics coverage is also world-class—that’s not a knock against them. But just being in a newsroom—the Times bureau in D.C. is a bureau. It’s a big bureau, and it is a super, exhilarating, high-functioning bureau. But, it’s kind of fun to be in the newsroom in the Post, where every single reporter and editor and person is right there. So that’s one difference that’s specific to me. Although, of course, if I had worked in New York, I probably would have had the same experience.
Chotiner: How present is Jeff Bezos?
Parker: I’ve only met him a few times, but I think he’s present in that he—and again, when I started at the Post, he was already the owner and so I don’t know what it was like before—but I think he is present in sort of the ambition of and the output of the Washington Post. His leadership and resources make that possible.
Chotiner: Let me ask you this: You became kind of a viral sensation on the internet a few weeks ago, with your facial expressions while Sean Spicer was giving an answer about Bashar al-Assad and Adolf Hitler. What was going through your mind as he gave this somewhat rambling, strange answer—as your face took on different degrees of surprise and shock?
Parker: I think in the moment, I was just confused, because Sean Spicer had given that original answer on “No one had ever before gassed their people.” Then the reporter in front of me had basically thrown him a softball, saying “You’ve made this statement before, I’m sure you want to clean it up.” And then his cleanup basically made the comment even worse than his initial remarks. So I think I was just stunned and confused to watch someone make something so much worse in real time.
Chotiner: And how did it feel to become part of the story?
Parker: As a journalist, you never want to be part of the story. That said, if my eyebrows go a little viral, and it means—I heard from old friends, family members, and I guess I make that face a lot, because I had a lot of people just say they were very familiar with that expression, including a high school ex-boyfriend who said I apparently made that when he asked me to prom. So it’s interesting insight into how shifty-eyed I typically am.
Chotiner: So, there’s been a lot of criticism of the White House press team, according to news reports, by people within the White House, including President Trump and Jared Kushner. The communications team, Sean Spicer et al., are not dealing well with the various scandals and controversies that come up. Do you feel that the White House’s problem is messaging, or do you feel like the larger problem is that the president is running a chaotic administration, or neither?
Parker: I think you are right that the president is sort of frustrated with his comm shop. For starters, he’s someone who is kind of a master communicator himself, and in some ways, he is probably right that whatever they are doing he could do better. It’s not dissimilar from—I think President Obama had a line about, if he had the time, he would be his own best speechwriter, although no one is knocking the chops of Jon Favreau.
But I also sometimes am aware that these comms people, especially in the past two weeks, have been put in near-impossible situations. For instance, on Comey’s firing, I think it’s pretty hard to spin or message, even in the best of circumstances, that you, as president, have made the decision to fire the director of the FBI, which is currently investigating your campaign and possible collusion with the Russians. And on top of that, they were literally brought into the Oval Office about an hour before the news broke, and kind of told, Hey, this is coming. I don’t know who could have done a better job on that.
Chotiner: Have you had any personal interactions with Trump?
Parker: Yeah. I covered Jeb Bush, was how I started covering 2016. As soon as he dropped out, in February, I moved over to the Trump campaign. So I followed him all around the country for nearly a year.
In the process, I was in Trump Tower for a couple of interviews with him. I think I was part of a small group of reporters who chatted with him at a diner in Wisconsin, and then I’ve been in the Oval Office with him for background and off-the-record meetings since I’ve been covering the White House.
Chotiner: Well, then, a two-part question for you: The first, as you said earlier, that when you’re on the campaign trail, sometimes you notice things about the way a politician talks to their body person, or the way their personality operates. So I’m curious, what on the campaign did you notice about Trump that interested you? And second, when you interact with him, what’s different about him than what people might think from following the news or seeing him on television?
Parker: Sure. I think the answers to those two are tied together.
I was always struck by how much Donald Trump is trying to win over the people in the room directly in front of him in that moment. He sort of has a visceral sense of what a frenzied crowd wants at a rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he can absolutely play to that. He also has a sense of what conservative religious leaders in a private meeting at Trump Tower want to hear from him, and he’ll play to that. And he has a sense of what journalists want. If he’s interviewing with them, or he’s giving them a tour of his office in Trump Tower, he’ll play to that.
That was one thing I noticed on the campaign trail. I think, for instance, just to take a random day, there was the day he flew to Mexico City and made comments there, and they were very conciliatory, and much more toned down than you would expect from him. And that was because he was in Mexico and trying to win over the Mexican officials and government leaders in the room with him. Hours later, he flew to a rally in Arizona and gave a very fiery, populous, nativist immigration speech that sort of flew in the face of everything he’d said in Mexico.
Some people might have thought he was—it seemed like schizophrenic behavior, but if you understand Donald Trump, it’s just that he is trying to charm and win over whoever is in the room in front of him.
In terms of my own personal interactions with him that people might not realize, especially privately, especially one-on-one, he can be very charming and charismatic, and funny and friendly with journalists.
Chotiner: Right, well it seems like he wants to win over journalists because he likes getting good headlines, and he likes reading about himself in a positive light. Which I think is true of a lot of politicians, but perhaps he’s an extreme case of that.
Parker: Yeah, I think that’s true.
But, again, I think people might be surprised that this is someone who made journalists sort of part of the Donald Trump show on the campaign trail. To be clear, reporters are always kept in bicycle racks in a separate section, but he put us in the middle of his events, and his events were larger than any politician’s events I’ve covered before, and he would turn and say, “There they are, there’s the despicable media. There’s the media scum, they won’t even show the crowds,” and everyone would jeer and hiss and boo.
And then again, oftentimes, if you’re meeting with him alone, he’s very friendly and charismatic and not at all calling you despicable scum.
Chotiner: Getting to know him a little, and seeing his campaign, has anything surprised you about the first months of his presidency?
Parker: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m surprised by the endless stream of big news every day that, again, in any other administration, with any other president, would be its own news cycle for days or weeks. I’m surprised, even though I should have known it was coming, just by the sheer pace and relentlessness of the news and the demand for news.
And I’m also surprised, actually, by how fascinated everyone is with everything Donald Trump. I’ve covered politics for about 10 years. Normally, if someone found out I was covering the Romney campaign, or I was covering Jeb Bush, they might have, like, a question. But I’m just stunned by how much—I went in for a doctor’s appointment, and my doctor was peppering me with questions about Trump. And they weren’t just general questions, they were super-informed, in-the-weeds questions, like “So what’s the deal with Bannon, and do you think Bannon’s deputy is warring with Reince’s deputy?” And “Who’s gonna get the upper hand?” And “Is it true that Trump loves his cheeseburgers well done?” I’m just always amazed by how fascinated America at large is with everything having to do with Donald Trump.