We Want Answers: Jake Tapper

CNN's chief Washington correspondent on growing up in Philly, how Marc Howard steered him toward television, and going toe-to-toe with the Trump administration.
Photo by Adam Jones.

Photo by Adam Jones.

“You’ll be sure to note that the Eagles mascot is by my side,” Jake Tapper says as we grab seats in his cluttered office inside CNN’s D.C. bureau, just down the street from the Capitol. Tapper, wearing blue dress pants and an open-collar pale blue shirt, holds up a small plush stuffed bird, decked out in Eagles gear, that normally sits off to one side of his desk. Right next to it: a spot-on replica of the Six Million Dollar Man lunch box Tapper had as a kid growing up in Philly. “Some Twitter follower of mine sent it to me,” he explains. “It’s not my original one. But it is what I had when I went to the Philadelphia School at 25th and Lombard.”

CNN’s 48-year-old chief Washington correspondent is having something of a pop-culture moment these days thanks to his aggressive coverage of the Trump administration. He found himself a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show (Maher lauded him for “speaking truth to crazy”); has turned up as a character on Saturday Night Live; and saw his face — with the incredulous expression he wore while interviewing Kellyanne Conway in February — become an Internet meme.

In early April, a few hours before his afternoon news broadcast, The Lead with Jake Tapper, he sat to down to chat about truth, lies, and the Trump administration.

You’ve obviously had a successful career, but it seems that in the past nine months, your profile has gone to a new level. Does it feel different now?

It does feel different — obviously because the Trump presidency, for everybody in media, is a challenge. Because he has declared war on the news media.

I noticed.

President Obama picked fights with the news media and went after individual reporters and outlets — his White House did — but obviously, he never sought to discredit everyone except for Fox and Friends, as Mr. Trump tries to do. So that’s different. In terms of just the meme-age and Saturday Night Live, I guess that started about a year ago when I became a character on the show. People are engaged in politics in a way that even during the Obama candidacy, from 2007 to 2008, they weren’t. There’s definitely more of a level of being recognized. But I think it’s part of the phenomenon of Americans reengaging with politics and less about me.

Do the stakes feel higher journalistically?

They do. And I think that it’s incumbent on journalists to rise to the moment and not be cowed and not lash out. There are all sorts of responses that I see among my colleagues. But the stakes are higher because you have a very powerful man and institution trying to discredit and delegitimize media unless the coverage is flattering. And then there’s [the substance of] what we’re reporting on. [Trump] is, for better or for worse, legitimately trying to shake things up. There is an argument to be made that some of that might not be so horrible. But there are also norms that are being ignored, broken, altered. And then, of course, his opposition to facts. So yeah, the stakes are higher in that regard.

You’ve been fairly outspoken, even on the show, about calling bullshit. Have you wrestled with how far to go with that?

Yeah, it’s always a struggle to figure out where the line is, and everybody has a different line. But as somebody who really tries to be as impartial as possible when it comes to policies and politicians, it’s also important to not be cowed into thinking we have to be neutral when it comes to bigotry or lies.

Do you have a different attitude in covering this administration? Because it’s 50-50 whether they’re going to tell you the truth.

There are certainly people in the administration who are shameless liars. Every administration has people who fib or shade or spin, but certainly, the prevarications have been more stark. But I never, ever assumed that politicians are just telling us the truth. There was some reporter who said, “When your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.”

What’s prompting the lying? Is there just a sense in this administration that they can get away with it?

I really don’t know. The idea that they think they are doing well — when they have an approval rating in the 30s and their health-care legislation, at least as of today, is dead — is perplexing. And I know that they see a different world than I do when they look out their window. But failure speaks for itself. [Trump] clearly threatened, cajoled, charmed the Freedom Caucus members and the moderate Republicans in the House, and it didn’t work. By the same token, it’s 2017. Who knows what the world’s going to look like in one year, and certainly in four? I ask Democrats all the time: Who do you think could beat him? And it’s not an easy question.

And there were plenty of people in 2016 saying he would never win.

Right. I’m more skeptical of polls now than I was in October. But, that said, I never wrote him off. I’m not claiming that I saw this coming. But I know enough to know that until it happens, I have no idea what’s gonna happen. I went to Lake Wallenpaupack up in Northeastern Pennsylvania for July Fourth week, and we saw a ton of Trump posters. And when I went to the [Democratic] convention, I went to South Philly — I went to Termini Brothers, I went to places I used to go growing up. And I asked Vincent Termini, “This is a blue-collar neighborhood. What do people think of Trump?” He said, “We have a lot of what we call ‘leaners.’ They lean in and say, [whispers] ‘You know, I think I might vote for Trump. … ’”

Speaking of Philly: Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a journalist?

I grew up in Queen Village, although my parents divorced and my dad lives on the Main Line, and there was joint custody. But when I was a little kid, like six, we had a paper in our courtyard. I had a paper in my courtyard. And when I was in eighth grade, there was a paper called the South Street Star that was a free weekly, and I did a comic strip for them. I submitted it by mail, and then they were surprised to find out that I was in eighth grade.

Did they have second thoughts?

[Laughs] No, it was okay. It was fine. They weren’t paying me. And then I met with [former Inquirer cartoonist] Tony Auth all the time, and I wanted to be a cartoonist. So there was never a light bulb that went off when I was young. But a light bulb went off when I was in my 20s and kind of wandering and not sure what I wanted to do.

You spent the first half of your career as a writer before getting into TV. What drew you to television?

I did some TV stuff for CNN — talking-head stuff. And Marc Howard [the longtime 6 ABC anchor] was a friend of mine, and he would say to me, “You know, it’s really fun to do it on the TV side. You get to write all that stuff, and you like writing, and then you get to say it on TV.” I don’t know if he remembers saying that, or if he had any idea what impact it had on me. But it had an impact on me.
On the train coming here, I read a New York Times Magazine piece about CNN, and the tone suggests your boss, Jeff Zucker, thinks of covering Trump as a big TV show. Have you read the piece yet?

No, I haven’t read the whole thing. I’ll get it on Saturday when I’m at home, and I’ll read the whole thing in print. But this is about the premise as you present it, not necessarily what the story says: I feel like I’ve done very aggressive journalism here, both when it came to Obama and Hillary Clinton and now with Trump. And it started with my very first interview with Trump in June 2015, when I wore a Trump tie to the interview and showed him that it was made in China. And Jeff has been nothing but supportive. So I think the premise that he sees this as nothing but a game — if that’s what the story says — is wrong. My conversations with Jeff are about the importance of broadcasting and the importance of speaking truth to power. It’s not like my asking tough questions of President Trump or Vice President Pence or whomever makes it easier to book those people on our shows.

How would you describe your relationship with the Trump administration?

Frosty. But to be honest, I didn’t have a great relationship with the Obama administration, either. The Obama people thought I was a right-wing crazy person initially, and then they realized I was just an aggressive reporter and had tough questions. And I think there was part of them that begrudgingly respected me and appreciated what I did. And now I do the same thing to Trump, and it’s like everybody on Twitter just changes places. The people who praised me now hate me, and the people who hated me now praise me. But to me, I’m just doing the same thing. … But it’s not a warm relationship, no. [pause] But it’s not supposed to be, so I don’t really care. Barack Obama did not like me. I started covering him on Capitol Hill, and it was very clear he thought I was a pain. And that lasted for eight years. I mean, he doesn’t miss me.

He doesn’t call, all nostalgic …

I will never be one of these guys that a president calls to, like, shoot the shit because they want to run some things by me. That’s okay.

You did an interview at SXSW in which you noted that your son has started using the phrase “fake news.”

[Laughs] Sometimes we use people in my life as object lessons of good behavior, and sometimes we use people in my life as object lessons of bad behavior. Do you have children?

Yes.

Okay, so you get it. Some of the people at the White House who yell “Fake news!” — Sean Spicer, or others, or the President — are described in the household as being people not to be emulated. And so my son and I do a little skit where I pretend to be a reporter — he’s seven — and I say, “Excuse me, Jack, I just want to ask … ” And he just starts yelling, “Fake news! Fake news!” as a joke. But the joke is that a seven-year-old is making fun of how immature some of our leaders are. That’s the actual joke.

You have a novel — a political thriller set in the ’50s — coming out in the summer of 2018. Why dive into fiction?

I wrote a novel in my 20s, and like most people’s novels in their 20s, it never went anywhere. But, you know, it’s fine. I’ve written three books that are nonfiction. The last one was a very intense, heavy lift about the war in Afghanistan. But I just started playing with this era that I find fascinating, which is the ’50s in American politics. But I don’t necessarily think that as a historian I have anything to contribute, so I just started making up a story and I put some stuff to paper as a hobby. Have you ever tried fiction?

A little. But there’s a reason I’m a journalist.

Me too. As a novelist, I’m a great journalist. The book is set in 1954, which is this fascinating year where the military-industrial complex is rising, and McCarthy starts the year incredibly powerful and ends the year disgraced. The comic-book hearings take place during that time. Jack Kennedy has been in the Senate for two years. Nixon’s been vice president for two years. And so it just seemed like this ripe area for a Washington thriller. But it was just fun. It might be horrible. I have no idea.

Well, you must occasionally feel like your day job is far more surreal than anything you can make up.

Yes. Correct. There are very few people in my novel who say the kinds of things that I cover in my journalistic life. In fact, one: Roy Cohn appears in the novel. He says some wild and crazy things. And there are some people who get killed. But sometimes the novel seems much tamer than what I’m covering from the anchor desk.

Published as “Jake News” in the May 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.


Tom McGrath Tom McGrath, Chief Content and Strategy Officer of MetroCorp tmcgrath@phillymag.com