TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. In an article titled “Trump’s ‘Deep State’ Hit List,” my guest Jonathan Swan writes about how the Trump White House and its conservative allies over the past 18 months assembled detailed lists of government officials who should be ousted because they weren’t loyal to Trump and lists of Trump loyalists to replace them. Swan says he was briefed on or reviewed these memos and lists. Most of the details he revealed had not been previously published. Swan writes that the president’s distrust has intensified since his impeachment and acquittal. These lists help explain some of the recent personnel changes in the Trump administration. Swan is national political reporter at the news website Axios and writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peak newsletter. He covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress. He’s broken some big stories, including that Trump was going to pull out of the Paris climate deal, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and end DACA.
Jonathan Swan, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want to ask you about your article this week headlined “Trump’s ‘Deep State’ Hit List.” What qualifies this as a hit list?
JONATHAN SWAN: So President Trump – I mean, we all see the public desire for him to root out his enemies, you know? He’s tweeted, you know, we need to get the bad people out of government, et cetera. What we uncovered in our reporting was that there’s actually quite a long paper trail behind this, that over the last 18 months, the president has been asking for names of people within his government who are disloyal, who are, quote-unquote, “Never Trump” or anti-Trump, or, quote-unquote, “the bad people.” He’s told aides that he feels that there are “snakes everywhere,” quote-unquote. And so what we…
GROSS: By everywhere, he means, like, in the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department.
SWAN: All of those and also in the White House. So he has a network outside the White House, which is comprised of very well-connected conservative activists. One of them in particular is Ginni Thomas, who is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Others include Republican congressional staffers, the head of Judicial Watch, which is a conservative legal watchdog group, Tom Fitton. And they have a weekly meeting on Wednesdays where they get together to plan how to attack the left and also how to root out the, quote-unquote, “deep state” within Donald Trump’s government. They’ve been providing people within that network memos and lists to the president for the past 18 months, and I reviewed or was briefed on several of those memos that have shaped his thinking in recent times.
GROSS: So there literally are lists. Like, when you write hit list, there’s literally lists.
SWAN: Yes, that’s right. There are lists of names, and I’ve seen both people he should fire and the reasons that he should fire them. And we put some of them in the story – you know, a number of State Department officials that they singled out as being bad apples – and then also lists of people he should hire because they are loyal to the president, pro-Trump. And, you know, we also published the names of those people, including Dan Bongino, who’s a Fox regular, a former Secret Service agent. You know, they put him up for a senior counterterrorism role. So it’s both fire lists and hire lists.
And the reason this matters right now is – the president’s been hearing this for a year and a half now, but since impeachment and since acquittal, aides have told me that he’s crossed a psychological line in the sense that he feels an urgency to get rid of these people. He saw a number of State Department officials testify in the impeachment hearings, including Alexander Vindman and others. And he felt this intense anger that – here were these people that were supposed to work for him that were betraying him, disloyal to him, bad people. And so what he did was quite extraordinary. He fired the head of Presidential Personnel Office. This office doesn’t get a lot of attention in the mainstream media. Most people have never heard of it, but it’s a very important office. It’s the office that is in charge of picking personnel, political appointees across the government.
He put in that job his 29-year-old body man, Johnny McEntee, who had worked on the Trump campaign. He was a college quarterback, a football player, worked on the Trump campaign, came into the White House as Trump’s body man – so literally traveling around with him sort of as his personal aide. And then he was fired by the former Chief of Staff John Kelly for some security clearance-related issues. President Trump has brought him back into the White House and put him in charge of this office, and it’s really for one reason. He sees Johnny McEntee as a pure loyalist, and he has given him the brief that he needs to get rid of the bad people.
GROSS: Wait. So let’s back up a second.
GROSS: So he was fired by General John Kelly…
GROSS: …When Kelly was chief of staff at the White House…
SWAN: That’s right.
GROSS: …For security issues. What were those issues?
SWAN: I’ve been very careful not to say them because I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what it was. It was handled in a very strange way, and he was sort of – even people who were there at the time think that it was actually handled quite badly. He was sort of hauled out of the White House. And there were some reports that it may have had something to do with gambling, but again, we’ve been very careful because we haven’t been able to confirm exactly what it was. But Trump brought him back in, and he had this very interesting meeting last week where he summoned the White House liaisons at each of the cabinet agencies to the White House. This is on Thursday. And it was an introductory meeting. It was all very pleasant. But he asked them – he said he wanted to know who were the anti-Trump people at the agencies. So…
GROSS: This is McEntee…
GROSS: …The new personnel head.
SWAN: And so, just so you understand, he’s not talking about people who are career government employees who have, you know, worked in the government maybe for 20 years. These are political appointees that President Trump himself appointed or that his cabinet secretaries appointed. So the extent of the distrust is so deep that President Trump is asking his head of personnel to root out the bad people among his own political appointees.
GROSS: So Johnny McEntee, the new head of the Presidential Personnel Office – he’s 29. He has no personnel experience.
GROSS: And he has hired as his new assistant, the Presidential Personnel Office’s director of operation, a 23-year-old senior at George Washington University.
SWAN: Yes. Politico just reported that story. And he’s replacing – this 23-year-old, James Bacon – he’s replacing a woman who has had experience for decades in personnel. So it’s quite striking.
GROSS: So is this a pattern that you’re seeing – that Trump has his hit list of who to remove and the people he’s replacing them with are loyalists, but they don’t necessarily have any experience or credentials for the job they’re being appointed to?
SWAN: I couldn’t say that that’s happening everywhere, but it is a pattern. And experience matters far, far less to Trump than loyalty. It’s not even close.
GROSS: So you said that you actually saw some of the lists in some of the memo that was being given to President Trump of who to fire and who to hire. Give us a sense of what you’ve read in the hit list of who to get rid of.
SWAN: So there’s this extraordinary memo. This memo was given to President Trump early last year, I’m told. And President Trump passes the memo on to his then-head of the Presidential Personnel Office, Sean Doocey. And Doocey apparently reads this memo, and it’s largely an attack on him. So just to, like, underscore that, the president has funneled this memo to his head of personnel, and the memo is basically saying, this guy Doocey is an obstructionist; he’s undermining you – all of this stuff. It lays out a number of people at the State Department who need to be fired, including the deputy Sullivan and various others – David Hale, who ended up testifying in the impeachment hearing.
And then at the end, it makes this extraordinary allegation that Sean Doocey had doctored a document, had sneakily changed the name of an appointment knowing that the president wouldn’t possibly see it as a way of sneakily getting someone else in instead – you know, an establishment anti-Trump person instead of a loyalist. And I’m told by people who were there at the time that that accusation was just false on its face because of the timeline in which this happened. It just couldn’t possibly have been true. But that gives you a sense of what these documents say. It’s basically bolstering Trump’s instinctive suspicions that he’s surrounded by people who are against him, undermining him, don’t have his best interests at heart. And that has only been exacerbated by the impeachment hearings.
GROSS: So when Sean Doocey gets this memo from Trump with a list of names of people to fire ’cause they’re not loyal enough to Trump and Doocey finds that his own name is on Page 1 of this memo, what happens to Doocey afterwards?
SWAN: Well, he stays in the job for another year. And my understanding is that there was a conversation with the – that he and a colleague had a conversation with the president about this. I mean, there was false information in this memo. The last part, according to people who were there at the time, was just a false smear against him. So my understanding is that they explained that to the president. And he stayed in the job for another year before he was replaced by Johnny McEntee.
GROSS: I think we need to take a break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Jonathan Swan. He’s national political reporter at Axios. He writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter and also covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress. We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Swan. He is national political reporter at Axios. He writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter and covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress.
So let’s talk a little bit about Jessie Liu. Now, she had been the D.C. U.S. attorney, which is a very powerful role. And she was leaving that position with the plans of taking a top Treasury job, and then she was told, you’re not going to get the Treasury job. So now she’s out of a job. What are the reasons why she is not going to get the position that she was told she was going to get?
SWAN: So Jessie Liu is a really instructive case. She is a political appointee – again, not some career government person. President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was the one who wanted her in this senior role at the Treasury Department. President Trump had agreed to that. He had, in fact, nominated her publicly. She had been taken off her role as the U.S. attorney for D.C. and was all prepared for her confirmation hearing, which was happening later that week. And then President Trump suddenly withdraws her nomination. And of course, there’s a whole lot of speculation about why that happened. A lot of people believed that it was because, as the U.S. attorney, she had overseen the prosecution of President Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone and that that was Trump’s vengeance for that.
Turns out it’s a lot more than that. Again, another memo – so I’ve been briefed on this memo that was given to the president that apparently had quite an effect on him and that he reviewed before he withdrew this nomination. It was a memo written by Barbara Ledeen, who is a Republican Senate staffer, and she’s part of this Groundswell network that Ginni Thomas belongs to – the Wednesday meetings, again.
Anyway, this memo has 14 sections to it, each outlining another sin that they believe Jessie Liu committed in her job as U.S. attorney. It’s quite an illuminating document because it includes things like the fact that she signed the sentencing memo for General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser. It includes the fact…
GROSS: Wait. Can I stop you there?
GROSS: And he’s a friend of Barbara Ledeen’s, right?
SWAN: Yes, he is a friend of Barbara Ledeen’s.
GROSS: …Who was making up this list.
SWAN: Who wrote the memo, correct.
GROSS: Yeah, who wrote the memo.
SWAN: So it also includes the fact that Jessie Liu, in her job as U.S. attorney, did not indict Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director and enemy of President Trump’s. It includes all sorts of things. You know, there was another allegation that she had, quote-unquote, “covered up” James Comey’s emails from being released. Anyway, it’s a long, long list.
GROSS: Wait. Can I add one more…
GROSS: …That you mentioned in your article? That she didn’t act on criminal referrals of some of Justice Kavanaugh’s accusers.
SWAN: That’s correct. That was another item listed in the list. It was a very long list.
GROSS: So we’ve been talking about the hit list, basically, that President Trump has to get rid of people who he considers disloyal. And we’ve been talking about how he’s been replacing them, sometimes with people who really have no qualifications for the job. The hit list was compiled in part by a group called Groundswell, a conservative activist group that’s headed by Ginni Thomas, who is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Tell us more about this group and Ginni Thomas’ role in it.
SWAN: So the group was formed after the 2012 presidential election. And there are lots of groups that meet in D.C. every week to strategize and, you know, discuss their ideological objectives. There has been a longtime group headed by Grover Norquist. He’s a anti-tax, small-government activist, and they used to – they still do. They’ve met every Wednesday for decades. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they decided to do a competing Wednesday meeting. This is made up of people who, in many cases, see themselves as more ideologically pure or, certainly, more conservative than the group meeting with Grover Norquist. It’s a group of people who are social conservatives, national security hard-liners, all sorts of different branches of conservatism. And they meet every Wednesday in the offices of Tom Fitton, who is the head of Judicial Watch. It’s a conservative legal watchdog group. He’s a close ally of President Trump’s. You’ll often see President Trump retweeting him. And he talks often about the, quote-unquote, “deep state.” And so the Wednesday meetings, they usually begin with a prayer. It’s often been led by former Delta Force Commander Jerry Boykin. And they sit around. And there are sometimes, occasionally, conservative journalists who join, and they strategize about how to advance their conservative objectives, how to take on the left.
And a big part of their project in the last three years has been personnel. So Ginni Thomas has put an extraordinary amount of energy and time into a project of shaping the president’s thinking on the staffing of his government. And one of the most consistent frustrations within this group, I’m told, is that the president has appointed people who are ideologically squishy, who are anti-Trump, quote-unquote, “Never Trump,” undermining him. And they’ve been determined to weed out these people and provide pro-Trump, loyal Trump alternatives.
GROSS: So what is one of the accomplishments of Groundswell in terms of removing somebody who they thought was disloyal, somebody who you haven’t yet mentioned?
SWAN: So one prominent example of a successful campaign they’ve run is to get rid of President Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. They led an aggressive campaign within the conservative movement to portray H.R. McMaster as anti-Trump, working against the president, rooting out people who were loyal to the president. And it, I’m told, had quite an effect on chipping away at his legitimacy inside the White House.
GROSS: Why didn’t they like McMaster?
SWAN: Partly because of some of the people that McMaster fired from the National Security Council. He got rid of a guy named Rich Higgins for writing a memo. So Rich Higgins used to serve on the National Security Council in a senior role in 2017. And while he was on the National Security Council, he wrote a memo that he circulated within the White House, which speculated that President Trump was under threat from – and these are not my words; these are words from the memo – from the deep state, from Islamists, bankers, establishment Republicans and the mainstream media.
So it was – he was alleging that there was this group of anti-Trump forces that spread far and wide within the government that were – oh, and by the way, the other word he used is Marxists; that the government was full of cultural Marxists, Islamists and bankers, etc., who were trying to undermine the president. H.R. McMaster fired him from the National Security Council after he circulated that memo. Rich Higgins is a member of Groundswell, attends the meetings. And he told me when I reported out the story that it’s a very positive development that President Trump is finally acting upon the recommendations of people to get rid of the, quote-unquote, “Never-Trumpers” inside the administration.
GROSS: Are people who believe in conspiracy theories now holding key positions in our government?
SWAN: (Laughter) Sure. I mean, it depends what you describe as a conspiracy theory. I mean, I don’t know of – I can’t name you someone in the government that believes exactly that, and I don’t want to make some blanket statement. Here’s what I’ll say. There are people in the government, for sure, who have told me that Higgins was absolutely right, that what he predicted was – has turned out to be true. And there are people within the Groundswell network that certainly believe that. And Higgins himself said that if he would write the memo again today, he stands by everything. He might remove the word bankers and replace it with the intelligence community.
But what I will tell you is that President Trump himself and certain people around him have a very, very dark view of the intelligence community. They believe it is – that the U.S. intelligence community is made up of people who are hostile towards the president and are trying to undermine him. And, you know, when he sees things like a briefing down on Capitol Hill where a senior intelligence official tells people that the Russians are, you know, hoping to elect Donald Trump, that sets off the alarm in President Trump’s mind that, oh, here’s yet another one trying to delegitimize my reelection.
GROSS: Well, Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, Rick Grenell, has no intelligence experience.
SWAN: That’s true. He’s a loyalist. Trump sees him as someone who is very loyal to him. He was the ambassador – U.S. ambassador to Germany. Before that, he worked – you know, he had a consulting firm. And before that, he worked for the U.N. ambassador as a spokesman. So yes, he certainly has foreign policy experience, but he has no experience working for an intelligence agency.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for the news website Axios. After a break, we’ll talk more about the conservative activist group Groundswell. We’ll talk about and hear an excerpt of Swan’s interview with Jared Kushner, and Swan will tell us about the challenges he faced interviewing President Trump on camera. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios He covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress. His recent article “Trump’s ‘Deep State’ Hit List” is about how the Trump White House and its allies over the past 18 months assembled detailed lists of government officials who should be ousted because they weren’t loyal to Trump and created lists of Trump loyalists to replace them. These lists help explain some of the personnel changes within the Trump administration.
So I want to get back to Groundswell, the conservative activist group that has been compiling lists of people within the Trump administration who aren’t loyal enough to Trump. The head of the group, Ginni Thomas, is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Is that considered an ethical conflict of interest?
SWAN: There are people in the White House who have made that point. Look – Ginni Thomas, in her own right, is a very prominent and powerful conservative activist, very effective, has built this organization, has huge networks inside the conservative world. But there are people in the White House who have told me that one of the reasons President Trump pays particular attention to her recommendations is partly because she is married to Clarence Thomas, and President Trump has huge regard for Clarence Thomas. He’s, you know, had the two of them to the White House for lunch and to meet with them, etc. So certainly, people in the White House have raised that issue.
GROSS: You write that Trump sees himself as invincible ever since he was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial and that gambles that he took that were criticized, he thinks those gambles have really worked out for him. So can you talk about that a little bit more, about how he sees himself as invincible now?
SWAN: The president – it’s not just the president; it’s also some people in his inner circle – not all of them, but some of them. They are much less likely to listen to the naysayers or voices of caution. And in fact, many of those voices have been fired or have left the administration of their own accord. A good example is early on in the administration, President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others were trying to persuade him not to get out of the Iran nuclear deal. They were basically saying to him that, you know, we’re in it, better off trying to work within the system and making changes than getting out altogether. They also told him, look – it’ll cause great chaos in the Middle East if you move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
In the end – so President Trump listened to them for a little bit, delayed those decisions. He was inclined to make both of those decisions much earlier. But, you know, when he was sort of getting his feet firmly on the ground as president in the first year, he did listen somewhat to them and delayed some of these decisions. He ultimately made both of those decisions. Oh, and the other one I’ll add into that is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. They also said, look – it’s not a good idea. You may as well stay in, work within the system, nourish the alliances. It will, you know, upset the Europeans if you get out.
President Trump did all three against their recommendations. He pulled out of Paris. He moved the embassy. He pulled out of the Iran deal. In his view, all of these Chicken Littles have been proven wrong, and he’s been proven right, and the world still stands, and the sun rises every morning, and the worst things that they predicted didn’t happen. So the next time people warn him against, for example, killing Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general, or any number of very bold, unconventional presidential actions, he is far less inclined to listen to the naysayers and the voices of caution. He is much more inclined to follow his own instincts and to also appoint people who are going to bolster his own instincts.
GROSS: Axios has an HBO series that starts again this Sunday night. And in the first season, in the first episode, you and your colleague at Axios, Jim VandeHei interviewed President Trump, and then later in the series, you interviewed Jared Kushner. I want to play an excerpt of your interview with Jared Kushner because you really asked him some challenging questions and really pushed back on some of his answers. So what I want to do is play the part about his vision – this is an excerpt of the section on his vision for Middle East peace and what he plans for the Palestinians.
So here’s my guest Jonathan Swan with Jared Kushner in June of 2019.
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SWAN: Do you believe the Palestinian people deserve their own independent sovereign state with a capital in East Jerusalem?
JARED KUSHNER: There’s a difference between the technocrats, and there’s a difference between the people. The technocrats are focused on very technocratic things. And when I speak to Palestinian people, what they want is they want the opportunity to live a better life. They want the opportunity to pay their mortgage. They…
SWAN: You don’t think they want their own state, free from Israeli government and military?
KUSHNER: I think that they want an – look; they’ve been promised a lot of things for a lot of years, and they’ve been lied to. I think that they’ve been misled. And I think that a lot of the things that people have held out for them have just not come through, for one way or the other. And you can blame all different types of things. But I do think that they should have self-determination. I’m going to leave the details until we come out with the actual plan. But I think that what’s most important is that they have the opportunity to better their lives, live in peace with their neighbors and have the same opportunities that Israelis have.
SWAN: Well, that’s sovereignty.
KUSHNER: Well, we’re talking about the people, not about the actual…
SWAN: Well, here’s what I want to know – how do you know what the Palestinian people want? Like, I’ve heard you say that in interviews before. I mean, you’re not exactly walking on the streets of Ramallah every day. I mean, you’re sort of representing what the Palestinian people want. I mean, how do you, frankly, know?
KUSHNER: So we’ve been talking with a lot of people privately for two years now. I’ve spoken with a lot of people from the region. I’ve spoken with a lot of people from the Israeli side, a lot of people from – who’ve been involved with this in the past, a lot of people…
SWAN: It seems mostly Gulf people. Have you really spoken to that many Palestinians?
KUSHNER: Again, Jonathan, one thing about the way I’ve conducted myself is not a lot of people know who I’ve been talking to and what I’ve been talking about, and that protects people. I mean, the Palestinian people do live under a fairly authoritative regime today, and a lot of people are afraid to step out.
SWAN: Do you understand why the Palestinians don’t trust you?
KUSHNER: Look – I’m not here to be trusted; I’m here to you…
SWAN: Well, you are, frankly. I mean, to look at it from their point of view – and you’re a businessman; you always look at things from their view. You’ve got three Orthodox Jews on the negotiating team. Two of you have, at different points, funded settlements, Jewish settlements in the West Bank. You’ve got the actions you’ve taken so far, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. You’ve cut all aid to the Palestinians, including hospitals in East Jerusalem. And you’ve shut down the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington. I mean, can you not see why they might not want to talk to you and that they might not trust you?
KUSHNER: All right, so there’s a difference between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people, OK?
SWAN: And you think the Palestinian people would be OK with all of those things that you guys have done?
KUSHNER: The actions we’ve taken were because – America’s aid is not an entitlement, right? If we make certain decisions, which we’re allowed to as a sovereign nation, to respect the rights of another sovereign nation and we get criticized by that government, the response of this president is not to say, oh, let me give you more aid. So again, that was as a result of decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership. With regards to the Palestinian people, I do believe that they want to have a better life, and I do think that they’re not going to judge…
SWAN: They don’t mind the aid being cut.
GROSS: That was my guest Jonathan Swan interviewing Jared Kushner in June of 2019 on the HBO series “Axios.” And Jonathan Swan is national political reporter at Axios. How did you get the interview with Jared Kushner, and were there any ground rules that he asked for?
SWAN: There were no ground rules. And we ask for interviews with top officials all the time, and sometimes, often, mostly, we get rejected, and sometimes they come through. And I think the timing of it was – from recollection, it was shortly after Robert Mueller had handed down his findings from the Mueller report. And my sense is that Jared Kushner felt vindicated and felt like he hadn’t really been talking to the press for quite some time, while the Mueller investigation was hanging over the White House. And so there was a burst of interviews that – he had done a few interviews before my interview, and he’s done quite a few since.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Swan. He’s national political reporter at Axios, where he writes a weekly newsletter called Axios Sneak Peek. He covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress. We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Swan, national political reporter at Axios, where he writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter and covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress.
You have a lot of sources within the Trump administration. What’s in it for the sources to talk with you?
SWAN: All sorts of different motivations, and you’ve got to be wary of all of them. At the start of the Trump administration, there was a lot of very, very brutal warfare between senior officials. You had, you know, Steve Bannon in open warfare with Jared Kushner, and then Reince Priebus was sort of thrown in there. And so you’ve had a number of different camps and factions within the White House, certainly for the first year, and they were just shooting at each other and their allies. And so a lot of things were very clearly aides trying to pick off other aides and other things like that.
Another motivation – and this is by no means unique to the Trump White House – people, occasionally, who work in the administration are horrified by certain policy actions. And by exposing them and leaking them out, you know, my sense is they’re doing that to try and stop them from coming to fruition. And then I think there’s another kind of group of people who – sometimes I don’t even know why. I think they just enjoy – you know, sometimes late-night conversations feel like therapy – sort of 11:00 at night, and maybe they’ve had a couple of glasses of scotch, and they’re depressed and worn out.
And you develop these kind of weird relationships with sources, that they feel that they can vent to you. And my thing has always been, I’ll talk to anyone. I’m just maniacal about making sure that they’re protected and that they know that I will never in any – under any circumstance betray their confidence. I’m also, by the way, going to do my due diligence on what they’re telling me. For a lot of people, my working assumption is false until proven otherwise.
GROSS: You’re a national political reporter and Axios, and Axios has an HBO series that returns this Sunday night. In the first season, you and your colleague at Axios, Jim VandeHei, who’s a co-founder of Axios, interviewed President Trump. And before the interview, you both talk on camera about what it’s like to interview Trump. And one of the points that you make is that if you go at Trump hard, he shuts down, and also, if you ask introspective questions, those are a waste of time with him. He has to – you have to ask about topics. So tell us how those calculations figure into how you interview him.
SWAN: Well, I’ve only interviewed him on camera once. And my observation from watching every single interview, I think, that he’s ever done, basically, is that – I’ll give you an example. You know, at the time when we interviewed him, the Mueller report was still very much the big story, and everyone was wondering what was going to happen. We crafted some very good, tough, well-crafted questions on the Mueller report – total waste of time. They ended up on the cutting room floor.
And the reason is, it doesn’t matter what you – again, come up with the best question in the world; as soon as you insert the word Mueller into the sentence, the response is going to be fake news, witch hunt, you know, a torrent of, you know, invective about Mueller and the 17 angry Democrats and all the rest of it. And no matter how many different ways that you try to come at it, it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. It’s a very – he’s a very challenging interviewer – person to interview. And I don’t think I did a particularly good job at all interviewing him, and I don’t know that I’d do a much better job now.
And I’ve never really seen a revealing interview with him. I can’t think of a single one where I thought, oh, wow, that’s – that one really got him in this certain area. The times when he’s being tripped up is really – it’s not because of – you know, I say this with all due respect to the questioners. It’s not because of some brilliant interviewing skill; it’s just because Trump has, you know, said what he really thinks. So, you know, the famous one where Lester Holt asked him about the firing of Comey, and Trump just blurted out that, you know, he didn’t like that he was doing the Russia investigation. Again, that – I don’t think that was sort of – I don’t think Lester Holt would have expected that or it was the crafting of the question; it just happened to be that that day Trump happened to say what he really thought and got himself in a little bit of trouble from it.
GROSS: I would imagine one of the challenges of interviewing Trump is – well, two of the challenges – one is he speaks in very stream-of-consciousness kind of way. You can ask a question, but the answer will probably go off in several different directions. And within the answer, there’s likely to be several statements that just aren’t accurate. And then as an interviewer, I’d imagine you’d have to decide – so are you going to try to correct each one of them or challenge him on each one of those statements that aren’t accurate, you know, that aren’t really factual or just kind of let that go or edit it out? Did you have to deal with that when you interviewed him?
SWAN: Yeah, absolutely. And we actually made a pretty – it was my fault anyway – we made a significant mistake when – so I asked him a question at the time – I’d – so I’d been talking to a source of mine for months about this issue. They were telling me that President Trump had been asking his lawyers to do away with birthright citizenship, which is, you know, in the Constitution – basically didn’t want people to be able to come to the U.S., have a baby and have them be automatically a U.S. citizen. And Trump was fixated on this idea of doing it through an executive order, so just himself with a stroke of his pen doing away with this in the Constitution.
Anyway, so I thought, you know what? I haven’t been able to confirm this thing. I may as well just – it was honestly an afterthought. Just going into the interview, I thought, you know, I’ll just ask him about it. Why not? And to my great surprise, he just confirmed it on the spot, that, oh, yeah, we’re going to do this. And I was sort of stunned, taken aback and not prepared for any kind of rigor or follow up. And, you know, he made a series of statements, you know, that – I think he said something like, we’re the only country that has this, and that was a false statement.
And again, because it was so newsworthy, we turned it around quickly. And again, it was my fault for not putting the brakes on and, you know, thinking it through. But we published the clip and didn’t do what you just said, which is the due diligence and the fact-checking. So that was a great lesson for me. It was of – you know, something where you really – like, it was a huge black eye for me, personally, and I’ve thought a lot about it since then and reflected a lot on that and thought about how I can put up guardrails so that something like that never happens again.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Swan, national political reporter at Axios, where he writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter and covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress. Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Swan, national political reporter at Axios, where he writes the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter and covers the Trump presidency and Republicans in Congress.
I want to ask you a little bit about your career. So you’re from Australia, and you came here – what year did you?
GROSS: 2014, which was just a few years ago. And by 2016, like, you’re covering the Trump White House – well, Trump’s – 2017. So it’s really, like, an amazing (laughter) – did you have to learn a lot about American government? And I’m also wondering, too, like, was it helpful for you in a way to be relatively new to America because you didn’t have like a preexisting record here that you could be – that people could have preexisting thoughts about, like, oh, we don’t like him because we don’t like the way he reported this story? Like, you were starting fresh.
SWAN: I was…
GROSS: And so was the Trump White House.
SWAN: Yeah. Look – I think part of it was the fact that it was a very unconventional campaign, the Trump campaign. And I remember thinking in sort of late 2015 – I sort of would look at the Hillary Clinton campaign with sort of – it seemed like an impossible fortress to penetrate. It was this huge edifice, well-defended by, you know, gatekeepers upon gatekeepers upon gatekeepers. You need to go through three gatekeepers to get to the fourth gatekeeper. And in many cases, the reporters that were covering, you know, had known the Clintons for decades, sometimes going back to Arkansas but, certainly, a lot of them, you know, back to Bill Clinton era and were just so well sourced in the whole Clinton orbit.
And so what am I going to do? I didn’t know anyone. You know, I’m new in Washington. I’ve had experience as a reporter in Australia. I knew how to develop sources. I spent my whole life, in various ways, in newsrooms because I come from a family of journalist. But I didn’t have any connections or sources there. So I thought, well, you look over at the Trump campaign, and it’s not a fortress at all; it’s a sort of, you know – you can walk straight in. And there’s, like, 10 people who matter around the president, and they’re all quite chatty, and you get to know them. And he himself is, you know, addicted to media and engaging with reporters in ways that I’ve never seen someone who’s a major party nominee do. Maybe – I guess maybe John McCain, you know, back when he was on the bus, but it’s completely different with Trump handing out his cell phone to reporters and all that sort of stuff. So you get to know them, and then – I didn’t expect that he was going to win the election, but I sort of woke up the – you know, the day after and sort of thought, oh, gee. All these people are going to be running the government (laughter). This is kind of interesting. So it wasn’t by any particular design. It just so happened that it was a completely different campaign. If Hillary Clinton had have won the White House as everyone expected, I would not have been well-positioned to cover that White House at all.
GROSS: Having come from Australia, is there anything that you find particularly surprising about how the U.S. democracy works?
SWAN: Yes. The two things that I find just the most jarring are the money. The money in politics over here is just – it’s this – you can’t even explain it to Australians when you try. They just can’t even fathom the scale of spending here and the way that you can purchase – effectively purchase offices and certainly purchase huge bumps in polling, the level of undisclosed money through, you know, 501(c)(4)s and these nonprofit groups with benign-sounding names that are incredibly well-resourced from billionaires. It’s just a stunning gusher of money in politics. And the other thing is – you know, in Australia, because voting is compulsory and you get fined if you don’t vote, voter turnout in Australian elections is, like, 94%.
GROSS: So your father in Australia is a health and science journalist.
SWAN: Yeah. Yep.
GROSS: And you have an aunt and uncle who cover crime.
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you see your family doing things in their journalistic positions and their reporting positions that you found especially interesting and exciting?
SWAN: One of my earliest memories – oh, gosh, I must have been very, very young. My dad exposed – there was a Dr. McBride who was a sort of hero in Australian medicine, and he was actually a fraud. He was committing scientific fraud and falsifying his evidence and things of that nature. And my dad exposed him, and for years after that, I would hear from people because, again, it would be like – I don’t know what the equivalent over here would be, but this was, like, a giant of Australian medicine who my dad just completely exposed. And I saw both sides of it. Like, I saw my dad who spent 20 years in court, effectively, being sued and different stories that he’s broadcast, that he’s done. He’s exposed other people for fraud and been in court. But he’s basically spent most of my childhood in some form of litigation or another. And then I saw also, you know, the outpouring of support for him as well, and that, I think, in retrospect kind of was one of my earliest memories of journalism.
You know, my – one of my first jobs was as a copy boy but also – I think I was 15 or 16 and worked at the Sunday tabloid, The Sun Herald. And I used to sit up in this room, and you had all the police scanners, you know, tapping into the police radios from around Sydney. And you had to sit there for these eight-hour shifts listening to the scanners. And you’re listening to cops talk to each other, and you have to, you know, figure out when there’s a story. And in a weird way, that sort of, I think, was one of my first ways of determining what stories were and what constituted news.
GROSS: But all the litigation that your father faced didn’t scare you off from becoming a journalist.
SWAN: It sort of – not the litigation, but I actually didn’t want to be a – I had no desire to be a journalist, and I sort of came to it. So I – you know, I worked, even during high school, with the newspaper and through college, but I only really solidified that I wanted to be a journalist probably at the age of 24, 25. So it wasn’t like I woke up and, from the moment I was sort of – you know, could walk, I wanted to be a journalist – quite the opposite. But at the same time, my childhood was completely drenched in newspapers and news and the conversation around the table. And, again, my uncle and auntie were crime reporters and very good ones, too. So, again, it was just part of the conversation.
GROSS: Jonathan Swan, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your reporting.
SWAN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Jonathan Swan is a national political reporter for the news website Axios. If you’d like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with Adam Cohen about his book “Supreme Inequality” about the Supreme Court and its shift to the right or with Steven Levy about the history of the social media giant Facebook or with actor Ben Mendelsohn, who stars in the HBO series “The Outsider,” check out our podcast. You’ll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley, Thea Chaloner and Joel Wolfram. I’m Terry Gross.
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