The day after the 2016 election, I got a phone call from an old friend. Neither of us had slept much, and we spent most of the conversation exchanging shell-shocked comments of the Can you believe this? variety. Before we hung up, his voice took on a trace of irony. “Well,” he said, “this is going to be great for your career.”
I waved the remark away, but I knew he was probably right. My contentious relationship with Donald Trump was already paying professional dividends. A couple of years earlier, I’d written a widely read profile of the candidate-to-be after traveling with him to Mar-a-Lago. Trump responded to the story by throwing a theatrical tantrum, complete with Twitter insults, blacklist threats, and a Breitbart News hit piece. My publisher used Trump’s tweets to promote my book; The Daily Show had me on to recount my misadventures with “The Donald.” The further his havoc-wreaking campaign got, the more opportunities came my way—and I was hardly alone.
Tragedy and disaster have always been the stuff that journalism careers are made of. But the Trump era has been especially rewarding to a certain class of Washington reporter. As the White House beat became the biggest story in the world, once-obscure correspondents were recast in the popular imagination as resistance heroes fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. They were showered with book deals, speaking gigs, and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. They got glow-ups to accompany their new cable-news contracts, and those glow-ups were covered in glossy magazines. Along the way, many of them adapted their journalism to cover an unusually mendacious and corrupt president (much to the delight of their new fan bases). As the story draws to an end, the reporters who got famous fighting with Trump are facing a question: What do we do now?
Olivia Nuzzi tries not to dwell on the unsavory fact that her career took off because of Trump. A lively writer who covered the 2016 campaign for The Daily Beast, she joined New York magazine around the time Trump took office, and quickly became known for her caustic profiles of the president’s hangers-on. TV appearances and awards shortly followed, and in 2018 Nuzzi announced a major book deal with Simon & Schuster.
“I guess if I stop to think about it,” Nuzzi says, “there is something obviously uncomfortable and kind of gross about the fact that we are in the business of missing planes and crazy pseudo-dictators—that when something terrible is happening, it makes for good copy.” But she sees this as an unavoidable reality of working in journalism.
Nuzzi is more troubled by the perverse incentives the Trump era has created for journalists like her. “There is kind of this temptation to satisfy the resistance with worldview-confirming reporting chum,” she told me. She’s spent enough time on the internet to know who her most devoted readers are, and they aren’t MAGA bros. “It didn’t really require any special bravery to report honestly and critically on Donald Trump,” Nuzzi said. “I could write in a piece, ‘Donald Trump is the biggest asshole to ever live and he is a terrible human being and a shitty president and, like, he’s ugly’ … and nobody would be mad at me except the same people who are mad at me anyway for existing.”
Nuzzi can already tell that the dynamic will be different in the incoming administration. “On a purely social level, I don’t know that reporting critically on Joe Biden will feel as safe for reporters,” she told me. “You’re not going to get yass queen–ed to death.”
None of this is to say that the Trump beat has been easy. Sources and subjects lie with abandon. This White House treats the press corps like a criminal syndicate. And when the president sets his sights on an individual reporter, the resulting pile-on can be brutal. Women and people of color, especially, have been subjected to a torrent of violent threats and slurs.
But Trump’s endless media-bashing has also desensitized many news outlets to Republican accusations of bias. And while they’ve learned to tune out bad-faith criticism, they’ve also soaked up plaudits from their new fans. One cable-news anchor told me that praise from anti-Trump celebrities on Twitter has become like a “narcotic” for some of his colleagues. “It’s important to people that George Takei likes their monologue,” the anchor said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about his peers (and presumably to avoid alienating George Takei).
Few reporters have been at the center of more high-profile spats with the Trump White House than CNN’s Jim Acosta. A veteran TV newsman with salt-and-pepper hair and a concerned-dad demeanor, Acosta has spent the past four years picking fights with Trump flacks in the briefing room. Once, he walked out of a press conference after then–Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to say reporters weren’t enemies of the people; on another occasion, the White House temporarily revoked his press credentials. Detractors have accused Acosta—who published a book in 2019 titled The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America—of showboating. But he insists that his on-air indignation has always been genuine. “You can’t just go and trash the press and totally lie to the American people and tell them real news is fake news,” Acosta told me. “I couldn’t stomach it.”
The drama has made him famous, but Acosta said he doesn’t expect to bring the same crusading style to his coverage of the next administration. “I don’t think the press should be trying to whip up the Biden presidency and turn it into must-see TV in a contrived way,” he said.
If that sounds like a double standard, Acosta told me it’s not partisan—it’s a matter of professional solidarity. In his view, Trump’s campaign to discredit the press has constituted a “nonstop national emergency,” one that required a defiant response. “If being at the White House is not an experience that might merit hazard pay,” he said, “then perhaps it is going to be approached differently.”
Daniel Dale, the former Toronto Star correspondent who rose to stardom at CNN for his exhaustive cataloging of Trump’s lies, says his beat will necessarily expand come January. “It will not be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job to fact-check Biden,” he told me. Though he stressed that the same “intensity and rigor” should be applied to the incoming president, the simple reality is that Biden doesn’t lie nearly as often as Trump does. Consequently, Dale hopes to spend more time debunking online disinformation and digging into claims made by congressional leaders.
The Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker notes that the Trump story won’t end once he leaves office. “You’re going to have a former president pretending he really won the election, threatening to run again in 2024,” he told me. “You’re going to have a Republican Party torn between Trump allegiance and a desire to cleanse itself of these past four years.”
“I do think the story of politics in America is not going to suddenly become boring on January 21,” he said. At least, that’s what Rucker is banking on. Next year, he’ll take a leave from the Post to write a follow-up to A Very Stable Genius, the best-selling Trump White House book he co-authored with his colleague Carol Leonnig.
For those remaining on the White House beat, pivoting to a more conventional administration presents its own odd set of challenges. Should the press strive for a similarly adversarial relationship with Biden? Will their new fans revolt if they start doing tough stories on Democrats? And has the bar for presidential conduct been so lowered that any criticism of Biden will look like both-sides nitpicking?
Yamiche Alcindor, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, told me she hopes her colleagues will retain the lessons they’ve learned from covering Trump. The default skepticism toward government officials, the aversion to euphemism, the refusal to accept approved narratives—to Alcindor, these are features of a healthy press, not signs that something is amiss. She attributes this attitude to her background covering race and policing. “When something is racist, we should just say it’s racist,” she said. “When someone is lying, we should just say they’re lying.” (Trump has repeatedly singled Alcindor out at press conferences, calling her “threatening” and her questions “nasty.”)
White House coverage may get more “wonky” in the coming years, Alcindor told me, but she rejected the notion that it would be less interesting. She rattled off a list of questions that hang over the incoming administration: How will Biden address the effects of the pandemic? How will he reunite immigrant children separated from their parents? Will he make good on campaign promises related to climate change and policing and health care? These are rich story lines with high stakes that will demand strong accountability journalism. “As a journalist,” Alcindor said, “I don’t think it’s going to be boring.”
My friend’s prediction turned out to be right in some ways, but my ambivalence never went away. The work I’ve done in recent years—from profiles of Mike Pence and Stephen Miller to reporting on the president’s disinformation apparatus—has been widely read and retweeted. But the attention is hard to enjoy when it’s accompanied by a world on fire. The underlying issues that enabled Trump’s rise won’t disappear when he leaves office, and the work of reporting will remain as important as ever, even if the invitations from late-night shows dry up.