At a White House briefing late last month, Jonathan Karl asked what he regarded as the fundamental question that day, about the coronavirus pandemic. “And everybody who needs one will be able to get a ventilator?”
Donald Trump’s reply was probably the strangest ABC News’ chief White House correspondent has ever had from a US president.
“Look,” he said. “Don’t be a cutie pie. OK?”
Trump went on. Karl, he said, was “a wise guy” too.
What viewers may not have known is that the two men go way back.
They first met in 1994 when Karl was a cub reporter at the New York Post and Trump, a millionaire property developer, gave him a tour of Trump Tower, where newly married couple Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were staying. The result was a front-page scoop: “Inside Michael’s Honeymoon Hideaway”.
Now president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Karl recounts the episode both at the start of his new book, Front Row at the Trump Show, and in a phone interview with the Guardian.
“The thing that blew me away about that moment, my first real introduction to Donald Trump, was the way he understood exactly what my job was and how to make a compelling story, and the way he operated so quickly,” he says.
“It wasn’t going through handlers and PR advisers and spokespeople. It was Donald Trump: ‘Come on over, let me show you what I got.’ There was no filter. It was him and he was incredibly, in a way, charming and we had a great story and he was willing to break rules to tell it.
“There was intense security all around, keeping the press at bay, and here’s Donald Trump bringing me right up to Michael’s apartment, showing me their secret vehicle to get in and out of the place. He didn’t play it the way it’s normally played.”
Karl, 52, adds: “I knew that I could call him from that point on whenever I wanted to and he would be accessible and willing to play along and loved to be in the mix. The idea that I would go on to become a White House reporter, president of the White House Correspondents Association, and he would be the president is kind of mind-blowing.”
Trump’s gut instinct for publicity and reptilian genius for making media weather would be evident in his 2016 election campaign and throughout his presidency. The White House press secretary’s daily briefing was killed off and replaced by “chopper talk”, before Trump boarded Marine One on the South Lawn. He has turned the daily coronavirus updates into a new form of campaign rally.
Karl reflects: “We’ve had three White House press secretaries, we’ve had – I guess depends on how you count – three or four communications directors in the Trump White House, but in reality we’ve really only had one. Donald Trump has always been the press secretary, the spokesperson, the communications director for Donald Trump. That was true in 1994 when I first encountered him and it’s absolutely true in 2020.”
Karl finds himself promoting a book in the middle of a pandemic. He has been doing TV interviews from remote locations. Stephen Colbert teased him for speaking from a home office where his Emmy awards were prominently displayed.
One of Karl’s most memorable anecdotes is about 10 November 2016. It has become a commonplace to quote the musical Hamilton’s song The Room Where It Happens but Karl was genuinely in there, witnessing the Oval Office meeting between President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump (and snapping a few photos from 5ft away). And this collision of matter and anti-matter produced a surprise.
“It was the first time that I saw what seemed to be a humbled Donald Trump,” Karl recalls. “He seemed to be taken with the moment. I was almost imagining he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?’
“Nobody thought he was going to win. I don’t think he really thought he was going to win and here he was in the Oval Office, a place where he was gonna be returning in just a short period of time as the president and all the weight of all that meant and the problems he was gonna be dealing with and the responsibility he was going to have.
“He seemed humbled. He seemed a little bit freaked out. Now, that didn’t last: we never saw that look again, really. That was a fleeting moment but it really struck me.”
When Trump was asked if he intended to ask Obama or any of his other predecessors for advice on dealing with the coronavirus crisis, he replied: “I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much. And, you know, I guess you could say that there’s probably a natural inclination not to call.”
‘Enemy of the people’
For more than three years, Karl has been on Trump’s trail, even receiving a hug from Kanye West in the Oval Office. He has also witnessed Trump’s war on the media with barbs such as “the enemy of the people” – a phrase which, Karl notes, the Nazis used in 1934. So what message does it send to the rest of the world?
“I think it is deeply disturbing that you have authoritarian leaders around the world who shut down a free press, jail reporters and potentially even worse and do so invoking the words of the American president. So you see Erdoğan and Putin. You see it’s been documented in Kazakhstan and in Egypt. You see authoritarian leaders echoing the precise words of Donald Trump, talking about ‘fake news’ as reporters are thrown in jail.
“The other thing that I think is really troubling is when the president calls real news ‘fake news’, when he suggests that the act of being an aggressive reporter is ‘treasonous’, it has undermined the faith in an independent free press among a significant segment of the population. That’s a big problem. I do worry about that a lot.”
Trump’s use of the bully pulpit for his daily coronavirus briefings has led to renewed calls for the press corps to be more combative. In his book, however, Karl cautions against reporters behaving like a political opposition or the anti-Trump “resistance”.
He explains: “There is a breathlessly negative tone to a lot of the news coverage of Trump and Trump’s provided ample material to fuel that, but what happens is a segment of the population sees it and tunes it all out. It all becomes noise and everything is the outrage of the day and then it’s hard to differentiate between a real outrage and an outrage that is maybe not as important.
“I mention the case of one CNN reporter literally getting up on live television and saying reporters should be protesting the president in Lafayette Square. We are not protesters. We are not the resistance. We need to report on a president fairly and objectively and a lot of that’s going to end up being negative.”
He adds: “Your north star is to provide objective and balanced news and let’s remember that this president has branded the news media as the opposition party, so when those working for mainstream news organisations act like the opposition party, you’re actually playing right into his media strategy.”
Karl’s book draws on fresh research and interviews, including with John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff. In 2017, Karl writes, Kelly had to talk the national security adviser, HR McMaster, out of passing on the president’s order for a Venezuela war plan to the Pentagon.
Now, however, as Trump faces the biggest test of his life, most voices of restraint are gone.
Karl says: “Up until this moment he’s had a series of people in the White House who have tried to steer him or put some guardrails up. John Kelly made the most aggressive effort to try to protect Donald Trump from his most destructive tendencies.
“It is all Donald Trump right now and I think that’s potentially dangerous. Any president, no matter how competent, needs to have strong advisers. He’s got the medical people that are advising him on this, sure, but those are not on his West Wing staff there.
“This is truly Donald Trump calling all the shots and doing it by his gut instinct. So I think that is potentially worrisome, as is the way the truth has been undermined, the credibility of the White House and also the credibility of the press corps that he’s tried so hard to undermine. Both of those things make this crisis harder to deal with day to day.”
‘An exhausting story’
As the title of his book implies, Karl already had a front-row seat to history, reporting on the most peculiar president of this or any other age. Now there is a once-in-a-century global pandemic added to the mix. What a time to be alive. Is a part of him secretly enjoying the daily adrenaline rush?
“It’s an exhausting story,” he says, suddenly sounding weary. “Yes, there is something rewarding about people wanting to know the story and the interest and the fascination in it, but it’s exhausting and some of it’s truly been troubling.”
He elaborates: “I think, especially in light of what we’re seeing with this pandemic, there is something very dangerous that is unfolding here.
“We’re at a point where nearly half the country doesn’t believe what this president and White House says and we have nearly half the rest of the country that’s been told not to believe what they see in a newspaper or see in television news or any other form of mainstream news.
“That’s a deeply troubling, deeply dangerous place to be where there isn’t a shared agreement and sense of some basic facts, especially now where reliable information, and believing you have reliable information, can literally be a matter of life and death.”
America faces an epic choice…
… in the coming year, and the results will define the country for a generation. These are perilous times. Over the last three years, much of what the Guardian holds dear has been threatened – democracy, civility, truth. This administration has cleared out science and scientists across all departments. Anger and cruelty disfigure public discourse and lying is commonplace. Truth is being chased away. But with your help we can continue to put it center stage.
Rampant disinformation, partisan news sources and social media’s tsunami of fake news is no basis on which to inform the American public in 2020. The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater, and with your support we can continue to provide fact-based reporting that offers public scrutiny and oversight. You’ve read more than 11 articles in the last four months. Our journalism is free and open for all, but it’s made possible thanks to the support we receive from readers like you across America in all 50 states.
Our journalism relies on our readers’ generosity – your financial support has meant we can keep investigating, disentangling and interrogating. It has protected our independence, which has never been so critical. We are so grateful.
We hope you will consider supporting us today. We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support the Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.