Jake Tapper Would Prefer Not To Be So Agitated

The CNN correspondent on journalism, hypocrisy, how a Twitter fave can ruin his morning, and why he has a poster of George Wallace hanging in his office

Screenshot from CNN

Jake Tapper sometimes wakes up angry. This may be a good thing for America.

Amid the chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, and the deep partisanship that filters through seemingly all aspects of American life in 2017, Tapper is motivated by the same forces that have animated much of his career in journalism. He can’t stand hypocrisy. He can’t stand unfairness. He can’t stop talking about it.

“I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now,” he told The Atlantic. “But it is just who I am.”

“I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening,” he added. “There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it’s horrific.”

Tapper, who is writing a novel about America in 1954, says he sees an echo of that era in today’s political climate. Despite the many unprecedented aspects of the Trump presidency, Tapper argues, the nation has grappled with the same kind of turmoil, the same unseemliness, the same level of uncertainty that’s playing out now. “There was this before,” he says. “It was McCarthyism. It was incredibly indecent. It was full of lies and a lot of people should have known better and did not stand against it. There was a very powerful person, and everybody was worried about alienating his supporters.”

Here’s a condensed and lightly edited transcript of Tapper’s conversation with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, recorded for the second episode of The Atlantic Interview podcast.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve become very, very famous.

Jake Tapper: I don’t know that that’s true.

Goldberg: You were in GQ magazine!

Tapper: It was a very nice story, and I thought it captured something that I've been feeling a lot—which is that I spent eight years being attacked by the Obama administration and Obama fans, and now a lot of them are acting as if I’m some other person.

Goldberg: I don’t think you went into journalism to become famous.

Tapper: No.

Goldberg: Why did you become a journalist?

Tapper: I wanted to be a cartoonist, and then I wanted to go into film—not as an actor, but as a writer-director—and then I found myself during film school at the University of Southern California listening to the Clarence Thomas hearings in class on my Walkman, and I realized L.A. was not really for me.

I just started submitting any freelance story anywhere I could. I wrote a piece about a guy in his early twenties living in his grandmother’s pool house running a smut empire. He was making lots of money, living with these two strippers, and he was trying to get into porn—and this was all taking place in College Park, Maryland. I wrote this for the Washington Post Style section and they got back to me and saying they couldn’t print a word of it. So I went to City Paper with it. And that was my introduction to City Paper.

Goldberg: Was that your introduction to David Carr?

Tapper: To David Carr, to Erik Wemple, to the whole team.

Goldberg: Tell me a little bit about what David Carr did for you.

Tapper: Well, he made me a journalist. And he convinced me to leave [public relations], and come work for him.

Goldberg: I can’t picture you in PR.

Tapper: I was so awful at it. I was the worst.

Goldberg: What made you bad at it?

Tapper: Well I’m not a particularly good liar.

Goldberg: Humble brag.

Tapper: Kind of.

Goldberg: Tell me two things that you learned from David Carr. Two general rules.

Tapper: Every mistake is important, and you should avoid them at all costs. I remember the first time I made a mistake in print. I was writing a piece about the Humane Society and some people who were foster-cat people saying that the Humane Society was too eager to kill off cats and dogs. And I mixed up quotes of two women that had the same first name, I think. He was not happy at all.

Goldberg: What did he say to you?

Tapper: I just was kind of glib about it.

Goldberg: That’s bad.

Tapper: Yeah, because it wasn’t an editing error. It was a reporting error. I mean, I still hear it. Every time I make a mistake or somebody who works for me makes a mistake I hear that voice. So that was one. And, two, cliches. He hated cliches so much.

Goldberg: Television journalism is built on cliches.

Tapper: There are a lot of good writers in TV! Yeah, I mean, look, first of all, let me just also say, 24 hours of live television is not easy. And people end up saying cliches because they’ve been talking for so long. I’m sure I use them all the time. You know, we have banned phrases on my show: “Popping the champagne,” “measuring the drapes.”

Goldberg: Do you keep a list?

Tapper: Those are the only two on my list right now.

Goldberg: What about the word eatery?

Tapper: I like eatery. What’s wrong with eatery?

Goldberg: Eatery is one of the worst words. There’s another word for eatery. You know what it is? Restaurant.

Tapper: Yeah, but what if you have to say a restaurant five times? You wouldn't put the word “restaurant” five times in a paragraph.

Goldberg: Then write harder. A question I always have for people who jump from writing to TV is why? Because no matter how long a story is on television you just can’t tell as much of that story as you can in print. You have pictures, which is amazing.

Tapper: Print and television journalism are very different, and it’s not like one is better than the other. I mean, look, I interviewed [the Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson the other day and I think that, as live television journalism, it was effective for what it was. How does it compare to a print interview with Tillerson? Well, a print interview with Tillerson, you would do differently. It wouldn’t just be a transcript. You would weave in context and analysis.

One of the things that I decided to do in that interview was—we talked about Russia, and we talked about North Korea, and we talked about the Iran deal—but obviously I was going to also ask about the moron thing, and I knew he was going to not answer the question. So one of the things I did was explain [in the interview] why I was asking.

Goldberg: Talk about something else related to your interview style. I don’t mean this literally, but you don’t blink. I’m thinking about your most famous Kellyanne [Conway] interview.

Tapper: Twenty-seven [minutes] without commercials.

Goldberg: Twenty-seven minutes! It’s the combination of being able to sit still and bear down on it, and also there is this thing—and I’m admitting something about myself that I don’t like which is—when somebody is squirming, sometimes I turn away from it even though my job is to get them to squirm because they're lying to me.

Tapper: The natural human impulse is to avoid conflict. Sometimes when President Trump tweets something, or like today—today was such a weird morning. Okay. I wake up. I’m already kind of upset because President Trump said that other presidents including President Obama didn’t call the families of [service members killed in action]. That bothers me a lot because I cover the veterans so often, and I know veterans that President Bush spoke to, visited, hugged. Same with President Obama.

Goldberg: So you woke up angry. How soon after you actually wake up do you look at your Twitter feed?

Tapper: It’s on the way to the bathroom. I’ve made an improvement in that I now look at my e-mail first. But, so, that bothered me. I’m not worried about President Obama or President Bush’s feelings. But I know these Gold Star families. And I know that they remain—a lot of them—incredibly vulnerable, incredibly upset, and understandably so. So that just really bothered me. Within the course of an hour, the Scaramucci Post—which is, the whatever the heck it is, the web site or Twitter feed of the former White House communications director—is engaging in Holocaust denial. And then! Some nitwit on Twitter was comparing John McCain to Bowe Bergdahl, who just pleaded guilty to desertion. You know, President Obama loved John McCain and Bowe Bergdahl, and this is why I love Donald Trump—something like that. And Donald Trump Jr. liked it.

And I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening. That’s my feeling about this. I would rather have woken up and none of that happened. It bothers me. It’s indecent. So I would prefer to not be so agitated. I would prefer this stuff to not be going on.

Goldberg: You’re maybe at your best when you’re a little bit peeved. But would you be better off if you just didn't pay attention to the passing noise of Twitter?

Tapper: I try not to pay attention to the stuff that’s against me. But the three things I just told you about have nothing to do with me.

Goldberg: One of them is so small. Some yutz on Twitter is comparing John McCain to Bowe Bergdahl.

Tapper: But Donald Trump Jr. liked it.

Goldberg: But that’s almost a reflex.

Tapper: But he knows better.

Goldberg: He’s not the president.

Tapper: No, but he’s the president’s son, and I know him a little bit, and he knows better, and it bothers me to see. And it bothered me when Democrats did this in 2008. It bothers me to see people denigrating John McCain’s military service. It bothers me. And when McCain was attacked by Trump—[Trump] said he wasn't a hero because he got captured. I found that horrendously offensive.

Goldberg: Was that the moment when you realized, Wait, something has gone awry in our society? That sort of thing should have killed the candidacy. But he actually became more popular with his base out of that.

Tapper: It’s so hard in retrospect to figure out which one was worse than the other.

Goldberg: The racism and misogyny and all the rest—let me say this as carefully as possible—those are things that could appeal to certain parts of his voting public. Some people who are racists voted for Donald Trump.

Tapper: Not everybody who voted for Donald Trump is racist. But plenty of racists voted for Donald Trump.

Goldberg: Veneration of veterans, specifically POWs, is known as patriotic conservative political behavior. And then Donald Trump flipped the whole thing on its head by attacking a POW for getting captured, which of course, when you think about it, is insane. This is the moment when the world went upside down.

Tapper: There is, in the United States, a historical context of xenophobia and racism that.

Goldberg: I’m staring at George Wallace in your office.

Tapper: We should point out that, before people think I have an office dedicated to a horrible segregationist, that my office is full of posters of people who ran for president and lost.

Goldberg: George Wallace is next to Howard Dean, which would probably not please Howard Dean.

Tapper: I have a Strom Thurmond in the corner over there too.

Goldberg: And a Hillary.

Tapper: I have two Hillarys because she lost twice. But the point in even invoking them is there are a lot of people in this room—Democrats and Republicans, their pictures on the wall—who stood for some pretty heinous, xenophobic things.

Goldberg: My point is that is that it’s traditionally been thought of as a losing proposition for a presidential candidate to attack a war hero. And that gets me to the question about this moment in our history. In a way, your personality was made for this moment because you do have an intolerance for nonsense, hypocrisy, and—let’s put it bluntly—unreconstructed and unapologetic lying.

Tapper: I don’t know that I’m any guy for any moment.

Goldberg: But there’s something crazy about this moment.

Tapper: There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it's horrific. It just feels like we’re meaner to each other. Every now and then I'll see a glimmer of light. The uncovering of Harvey Weinstein, that story was amazing.

Goldberg: The dam burst open.

Tapper: It feels like that. Although it’s incredibly horrible to—I don’t know what your Facebook and Twitter feeds are like, but all the women hashtagging #MeToo.

Goldberg: This is the disinfecting aspect of sunlight.

Tapper: I didn’t know that every single woman I knew had been assaulted or harassed at some point, if not worse. I didn’t know that.

Goldberg: I wasn’t going to bring this up because it's ancient history but you dated—for like 10 minutes—Monica Lewinsky.

Tapper: I went out with her once.

Goldberg: She was wronged by society and wronged by the meanness of our society. And I’m wondering if knowing her just slightly shaped any of your thoughts on the subject.

Tapper: Totally. Well, it was my first cover story for City Paper. I’d already been talking to them about coming on board but I’d gone out with Monica. It was a very G-rated date in December 1998. She was lovely. Sweet, nice, funny, charming, bright. You know she was about to move up to New York, and we went out and that was the end of that. But then I went on vacation with my dad, and when I came back, the story broke, and I was just like, Oh my god I know this woman—girl, really. She seemed like a girl. She must’ve been like 22. It was astounding because, first of all, everybody was so giggly.

Goldberg: Prurient and mean.

Tapper: Everybody was excited. A big sex scandal. Isn’t this funny. And I’m like, I know this girl—I know this young woman—and her life is being destroyed by everyone. Everyone was destroying her.

Goldberg: But it also fed into a general posture that you have in life of intolerance for a level of hypocrisy or—

Tapper:—meanness, I hope.

Goldberg: I’m trying to understand the root of it because I do think that you have risen high in a moment of great hypocrisy.

Tapper: Well can I tell you one thing. So, I’m writing a novel. And it takes place in 1954. So I've been spending a lot of time in the last year reading about 1954. And I don’t know who said it, but it is a brilliant saying, which is: history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And there was this before. It was McCarthyism. It was incredibly indecent. It was full of lies and a lot of people should have known better and did not stand against it. There was a very powerful person and everybody was worried about alienating his supporters.

Goldberg: And when called out on lies, [he] doubled down on the lies without embarrassment.

Tapper: And there were people that knew better like Senator [Robert] Taft of Ohio, who was very highly regarded—a very strong conservative. And he thought he could straddle it—thought he could straddle the worlds—and he would say to people, to reporters, Well why do you cover them? Why do you cover him? Why are you giving him the attention he needs? You think you can straddle this stuff. And ultimately you can’t. You have to be Margaret Chase Smith in 1950 calling it out four years ahead of anybody else. You have to do it because history has its eyes on you, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Goldberg: You think Obama got a free ride from much of the press?

Tapper: Often. I think people were soft on him for a lot of reasons. Many, many reasons. Complicated reasons in some cases.

Goldberg: You think there’s a possibility that Trump is getting too hard a ride?

Tapper: Sometimes.

Goldberg: You do?

Tapper: Absolutely.

Goldberg: Give me an example.

Tapper: I think there is an inclination of some people to interpret every single thing he says and does in a horrific way, and as if he is without charm. He’s not wrong about everything he says. Washington is a swamp and there are a tremendous amount of conflicts of interest that we’re not outraged enough about. Now, is he doing anything about it? Not really that I can tell. Have trade deals been negotiated with Wall Street and corporate America in mind more than middle-class workers and the working class? Yeah, of course, 100 percent. Is it insane to think that we should have a secure border? I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know if a wall is the right way to do it. Policy-wise, I think a lot of people in the press just act as though everything he wants to do is just based on a falsehood.

Goldberg: Where do you think this general posture of yours comes from? Righteous indignation, obstreperousness, oppositional behavior. Where does it come from? The moralizing part of your personality.

Tapper: I don’t know. Part of it probably is being raised by a doctor and a nurse who lived in a section of Philadelphia where there were a lot of working class people, and seeing the world through their eyes. They were part of that generation thinking the world needs to be better. We’re not doing enough for poor people, we’re not doing enough for black people, we’re fighting a war that we shouldn't be fighting and our kids are dying for no reason. There is something in me that gets really exercised when I think things aren’t fair. And I can’t psychologically explain it except to say that it’s just part of who I am.

And sometimes it ends up being something that I can use to try to benefit the public’s knowledge or understanding of an issue. And I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now. But it is just who I am.

I don’t have any illusions that any of this is going to stand the test of time. I’m just—when Jack and Alice, my kids, read about this period in history, I want to be able to Google it and say, “That’s what daddy did that day. That’s the story.” I want them to feel good.

Goldberg: All of our kids can get together as adults and listen to this podcast. The chances of that are extremely slim.

Tapper: The chances of them making it through the first 30 seconds are nil.

Goldberg: They’re not that interested in us.

Tapper: I think it’s fair to say that you and I are the two least popular members of the families. And I’m including the dogs.