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ABC's Jonathan Karl Writes About 'Front Row At The Trump Show'

Mar 26, 2020
Originally published on March 26, 2020 9:59 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many years ago, Jonathan Karl was a young reporter for a New York newspaper. He wanted to write about a celebrity in Trump Tower. He got a call back from the building owner, who made it a story much more about Donald Trump. Jon Karl went on to cover presidents. He was on a campaign bus following George W. Bush and covered Barack Obama. Today, as chief White House correspondent for ABC News, he covers the developer he has known for decades. Jon Karl's new book is called "Front Row At The Trump Show," which is where he sits - in the front row for press briefings like the long daily updates in this time of pandemic.

JONATHAN KARL: First of all, it's been strange, Steve, because the president went three years without really setting foot in the briefing room, without taking questions from any reporters in the briefing room. Now, suddenly, he's there virtually every day. But the circumstances are so bizarre. As you've noticed, that room has become less and less crowded. We have taken a series of steps to reduce the number of people that come in here, which, by the way, is precisely against all of our instincts as reporters. You know, you want more access, more people, more questions. But right now, I mean, I was in there - you know, the last briefing I was in this week, I'm one of 14 reporters that are sitting in that briefing room, and it's...

INSKEEP: Where it would normally be 50, perhaps, or even more.

KARL: Exactly. There would normally be 49 in seats, and then there would be lots of reporters in the back and on the - along the aisles. You could have upwards of a hundred people in there, you know, yelling questions at the president. So it's odd.

INSKEEP: As you know, Jon Karl, there's another debate about the president on television, whether he should be on TV quite so much live in these briefings. Are you learning from these briefings, from this flood of words?

KARL: Well, I - you know, look. I think that that's a debate to have. Some networks carry it live. We've carried some of these live at ABC. I think that that's a legitimate debate. I think there is value. I think that as a White House reporter, it is essential that we cover these briefings, that we ask the questions we ask and then put in context what we hear because they're, you know, the information, Steve, is...

INSKEEP: It's from the president. It's from Anthony Fauci. It's from a lot of people up there, yeah.

KARL: Yes. Yes. And sometimes it is, let's face it, not reliable. There has been misinformation that has come from the commander in chief in these briefings. That needs to be pointed out. It needs to be put in context. But, look, it's our job to cover this. This is an incredibly important story, and what the president does is incredibly important.

INSKEEP: Having watched this president for many years as you have, having talked with him, had opportunities to question him for quite a few years more than maybe just about anybody that is currently in that room, are you still learning things about him?

KARL: Yes, although I really have to say, I kind of get the feel that I know him. I know his rhythms. I know what he is going to do. I know how he is going to behave. He acts in a - in some ways that are incredibly unpredictable. And he governs and acts by gut and rapid changes, but ironically, it's rather predictable, even as erratic as his behavior often is.

INSKEEP: There's a little anecdote in your book that I thought of in thinking about this week's news, actually. And it's years ago. The president is with a journalist and introduces him as a CEO, as some important corporate executive, even though he's not.

KARL: (Laughter) Yes. Yeah. A journalist with Sports Illustrated is going - doing a story about a, you know, a golf tournament, one of his properties. And everywhere he goes, Trump is introducing him as either the publisher or the president of Sports Illustrated. This is Rick Reilly. And he finally - Reilly finally says to him, wait a minute, why do you keep lying about who I am? I'm a reporter. And Trump's answer is, sounds better.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KARL: It sounds better. And that's great. And this is - there's another story of when I - really early on in the campaign, in 2015, I went - actually, I was going to Trump Tower to meet with Hope Hicks, who was the communications director and press secretary and everything for the campaign. She comes down to get me, and she takes me right up to his office because, really, he's the only one that can speak for the campaign.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KARL: So I go in and, you know, I go, and I'm talking to him. His secretary comes in and says, there's a call for you. It's Rob O'Neill. And he's like, oh, my God. And he's like, right, it's Rob O'Neill. And he looks to me. He says, you know Rob O'Neill, right? And I start saying, who's that? And he picks up the phone, and he's like, Rob, how are you? You know, I'm here with the big Jonathan Karl at ABC News, and he can't believe I'm talking to you. He's going nuts. He can't believe it.

But it's like, he lies for effect. He lies to make you feel better. He lies to make himself look better. He lies for all kinds of reasons.

INSKEEP: Well, I thought about that anecdote because, of course, this week, the president stood in front of a town hall on Fox, and he said, let's reopen the country by Easter. And when questioned about that, he acknowledged there was no data behind that. There's no science suggesting that's possible. It just seemed like a beautiful time.

KARL: Exactly. It sounded good, sounded better. This is often the way he operates. So when you hear him say something that is either way misleading or without any data behind it or just flatly wrong, there's always, like - or there's often, not always, some way to couch it.

So I pressed him on that right after the Fox town hall. And then he's like, you know, it's basically - I'm trying to provide hope. It's a beautiful day, and if we can do it, it'll be beautiful. But, of course, that's not the way you hear it when he says it.

I mean, my mom, who, you know, she's in her 80s. She lives in Florida. I've been very worried about her, telling her to stay at home. And late yesterday, she's like, so do you think I can start going out now? Like, no, Mom. No, you can't.

INSKEEP: Jon, you're telling me that that kind of attitude by the president of the United States could get somebody killed, could get your mom killed.

KARL: I am saying that - that it can be very dangerous. And this is another theme that I explore in the book, which was obviously written before this pandemic happened. But what concerns me most about what we are seeing and what we are witnessing in this administration is this is a time when, more than ever, we need to be able to trust the information that we get from official sources, that people need to have faith in what they are hearing. They need credible information.

And what we have seen now for the past three-plus years is we have seen a situation where the president's own credibility has been undermined with roughly half the country, who will not believe anything he says, and where the other half of the country, roughly, will not believe anything that they see in a mainstream news account because he has undermined and worked so hard to make people disbelieve what they read in the newspapers, what they hear on the radio, what they see on television. And that is a really dangerous place to be. It always mattered. And I make a very forceful case that it matters, but now it is literally potentially a matter of life and death.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Karl of ABC News is the author of the new book "Front Row At The Trump Show." Thanks, Jon.

KARL: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.