I Was an Enemy of the People

Without quite meaning to, Trump reminded journalists that their relationship to power should be adversarial.

Donald Trump
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Thrilling, without a single boring day: That’s how I’d describe my four years as an enemy of the people, a lanyard-wearing member of the “Lügenpresse,” a term some Donald Trump supporters borrowed from the Nazis to refer to insufficiently flattering coverage of their movement, or of the man who led it.

I miss it already. I miss it terribly, even if I miss little else about the past four years. Without quite meaning to, Trump reminded journalists that their relationship to power should be adversarial. I hope my colleagues in the press corps (I am a national correspondent for Yahoo News) remember that, as some measure of pre-Trumpian courtliness returns to the White House briefing room.

The brandishing of Nazi imprecations was yet another sign that Trump took things way too far. But he didn’t exactly relegate us to the concentration camp for the unflattering stories we published. Cable news, more like it. During my first MSNBC “hit”—you always call it a hit, never anything but—I mispronounced Mueller, making the first syllable sound like the lowing of a cow (in case you’re ever in a similar fix: his name rhymes with duller). Either the anchor didn’t notice, or it made no difference, because the producers asked me back. Not many times, but enough for my children to regard me with a measure of awe, as if I were taking regular journeys into outer space.

And now Trump is gone. Oh, I know, we will always have covfefe.” We will always have Press Secretary Sean Spicer advancing the exceedingly novel argument that not even Hitler gassed people (yes, he really said that), and Kayleigh McEnany, after him, informing us that she would never lie, then proceeding to do so relentlessly for months on end, while a cross dangled prominently from her neck. Above all was a This isn’t really happening sensation, followed by the realization that not only was it really happening, but it was my job to figure out why and to whom and, not infrequently, whether readers ought to expect nuclear war. I don’t think we will recover that peculiar thrill until the presidency of Marjorie Taylor Greene.

I use that word, thrill, with full intention. No need to tell me about the cruel immigration policy, the incompetent pandemic response, the racism and bigotry, the frightening chaos. “We never gave you time. We kept the foot on the gas,” a top former West Wing staffer told me in 2018, when I was writing a book on the Trump administration. That same staffer maintained that there was “no chaos; only method.” I believed that at first, until I didn’t. I once sat across from Trump in the Oval Office as he launched into a disquisition about Jussie Smollett. Do you remember Jussie Smollett? I can assure you that Trump remembers Jussie Smollett. He has almost certainly spent more time thinking about Jussie Smollett than he has about the coronavirus pandemic. I suspect that some of his more ardent supporters would be perfectly fine with that.

Covering the administration was thrilling for many journalists, in the way that I imagine storming Omaha Beach must have been for a 20-year-old fresh from the plains of Kansas. He hadn’t signed up for battle, but there he was, liberating France. France, by the way, is where Trump called American soldiers who’d fallen in combat “suckers” and “losers.” When this magazine first reported those comments, Trump’s supporters denounced the Atlantic story as preposterous and offensive, even as outlet after outlet confirmed the reporting. They failed to realize that the preposterous and the offensive were the twin beacons of the Trump presidency. Journalists were merely going where he led. This was our Omaha Beach. I, for one, would have rather been in Hawaii.

You are doubtlessly annoyed as you read this, whoever you are and whatever you believe. To have been a journalist in the Trump era is to have been annoying to everyone. A few journalists deserved your scorn, because they thought their microphones gave them moral, not merely journalistic, authority. Reporters did not really need to recite the poetry of Emma Lazarus, or question the provenance of a pie baked by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In doing so, they helped no one but themselves.

Journalists frequently found themselves assailed for contradictory reasons. We were at once Trump’s enablers and his relentless tormentors. We did not fact-check him enough, but also did not let him have his say. We were members of the Resistance who did not sufficiently resist. Certain articles would elicit complaints from the left and the right alike, especially if those articles teased out the nuances of governing that not even Trump could efface. Those articles, the ones that failed to satisfy a predetermined narrative, usually got the fewest clicks.

Both the Resistance and MAGA nation assigned journalists far more power than we truly had. A journalist’s brief is not to take down a president or to act like the opposing party. Nor, outside of North Korea, is a journalist’s job to lavish a country’s leader with hagiographic rhetoric, although the conservative media did its best. In what is surely the greatest contribution he ever made to American life, George W. Bush remarked, after listening to Trump’s childishly lurid inaugural address: “That was some weird shit.” It really was and, in retrospect, the whole Trump phenomenon may have been as simple as that.

Those of us who tried to do our jobs responsibly—which is to say, the majority—were caught between the imperative to take the president at his word and to play the fact-checker. The former would turn you into a fiction writer, the latter render your copy (it is always “copy”) into a dreary legal memorandum. The best reporters learned to treat Trump with a cool, detached irony, to see Trump for what he both was and was not. This took real skill, the ability to observe, reflect, and record these tensions all in evidence within a matter of a few moments, sometimes within the very same moment, frequently while White House advisers such as Kellyanne Conway or Peter Navarro glowered a foot or two away.

By far the most difficult challenge was reporting that Trump had gotten something right. This had a surreal, faintly futile quality, like trying to narrate a traffic jam play by play. I am thinking, in particular, of Trump’s push to reopen schools throughout the spring and summer. The push was poorly thought-out, rushed, and ineffective. It was also worth fighting for, only woe to the journalist who argued as much, as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof would discover. To simply point out that Trump had improbably managed to alight on the correct course of action was to have written a favorable profile of Osama bin Laden.

From the start, the administration played a double game with the news media, at once repeating Trump’s “enemy of the people” attack while speaking with an almost alarming abandon to almost any reporter assiduous enough to seek out access. I can’t think of an administration that craved media attention more but knew less about how to use such attention to its advantage.

I sat with Steve Bannon in a hotel room in Alabama on the night Roy Moore (remember him?) lost his special Senate election. Every few seconds, the screen of one of his three phones would flash with the name of a prominent national reporter. What did he tell them? Probably the same thing he told me, with the same combination of bluster and spin, which ultimately served nobody, not Trump and not even Bannon himself.

Last spring, I emailed the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to request a substantive conversation about his rosy view of the coronavirus pandemic. To underscore how substantive that conversation was going to be, I told him that I had no interest in his “fucking Netflix queue.”

In response to this slightly spicy remark intended to get his attention, Kudlow actually sent me his Netflix queue. He said we were off the record, but I never consented to that condition, and because even a member of the “Lügenpresse” knows that both parties have to consent to an exchange being off the record, I can report that as the nation’s unemployment rate climbed to a nauseating 22.5 percent, the president’s top economic adviser was enjoying the following programs and films: Inspector Morse, Endeavour; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Ozark, Ford v Ferrari. As for the substantive conversation, it never happened.

Every halfway-decent White House reporter has dozens and dozens of such stories. The mediocre sated themselves on these glimpses into the banality of power; the best collected these details but strove for the bigger picture, the higher-order truth. Only whatever that truth was, it was inevitably couched within the latest dramatics, the latest outrage, the latest paroxysm of deception. The same day could see the implementation of an unspeakably destructive environmental policy and a Twitter attack on the comedian Kathy Griffin. Unlike Republican members of Congress, we did not have the luxury of not seeing the tweets.

The circus did not discriminate, sweeping up all comers bearing the appropriate accreditation, turning us into spectators on some days, performers the next. Some became lions, and not a few became lion bait. But nobody ever left the circus for very long. Some of us may never leave, I fear. For what could rival Trump, after Trump?

I don’t expect Netflix recommendations from Kudlow’s successor in the Biden administration, Brian Deese, or from any of his colleagues. They are so crushingly on message that I’ve come to suspect their tweets and press releases are written, across the whole of government, in a single room, like one of those ghost kitchens that masquerades as 15 different restaurants serving the cuisines of 15 different cultures.

I know, I know, boring tweets are a small price to pay to no longer have to endure a presidency that daily vacillated between the hapless and the malicious. The new administration would like you to believe that boring tweets and press briefings that don’t end up as professional wrestling matches are a sign of competence. They well could be. They could also lull reporters into a chummy complacency, especially given that many of those reporters are bound to be impressed by the outward prestige of the new administration, rife as it is with Ivy Leaguers who collect credentials the way squirrels collect acorns.

To further complicate things, Joe Biden is nice. He might be one of the few people in Washington to whom the descriptor “nice guy” faithfully applies. That is going to make our jobs difficult, especially because the nice guy replaces a guy who was, by his own admission, not too nice.

We should be grateful that Trump energized the profession. Is that sort of like saying that Stalinism energized interest in Siberia? Maybe, I guess. But get a couple of drinks into any national reporter, and she will tell you the exact same thing. Trump was good for us, even if he was not good to us.

Judging from the discourse on Twitter—our ever-vigilant ombudsman—some want journalists to give the new administration a break, to let Biden undo Trumpism before subjecting him to harsh scrutiny. To which I say: No dice. If all those paeans about speaking truth to power and democracy dying in darkness were reserved for Trump alone, they were never really serious to begin with. The thrill may be gone, but the work remains.