Podcast: Major Garrett on How History Informs Journalism
Major Garrett is CBS Chief Washington Correspondent.
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we’re in studio with Major Garrett, CBS News Chief Washington correspondent and host of “The Takeout Podcast.” He was previously CBS’ Chief White House correspondent, and is a veteran reporter of Congress and presidential campaigns.
Major Garrett discussed how history informs a journalist’s work, and his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills: Chills, Screams and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. Today we’re in studio with CBS News’ Chief Washington Correspondent and host of “The Takeout Podcast,” Major Garrett. He was previously CBS’s Chief White House Correspondent, is a veteran reporter of Congress and presidential campaigns. Major Garrett will talk at the Nixon Library tonight about his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency.” Major, welcome to the Nixon Library.
Major Garrett: It’s great to be here and it’s a phenomenal place. I’ve been here before, but not since the renovation, and the renovation makes it even better.
Jonathan Movroydis: On the book jacket, your publisher says that you write what journalists are supposed to write, the first draft of history. What does this mean and what is a journalist’s role as a historian?
Major Garrett: Well, I think it’s a complicated role sometimes. Especially, if you’re writing about things that you’re covering in the moment, which I wrote this book as I was covering the first 18 months of the Trump Presidency. So, I was reporting in the moment for “CBS News,” and then I was writing as I was reporting and then doing some back reporting on things that were transpiring. So for example, if you want to know and have a chapter devoted to how did the tax cut happen? It’s a significant accomplishment of the Trump administration, whether Democrats or critics of this administration like it or not, it happened. And it’s changed the economic structure of our country. It’s changed the revenue streams to the federal government. It’s a big deal. There’s a whole chapter devoted to the mechanics of that. And in that chapter, I contrast the president’s intervention publicly and privately to deal with lawmakers in the specifics of the legislation that led it to its eventual victory and how they differed from a conspicuous early failure in the Trump Administration, which is trying to repeal and replace the affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. There’s an entire chapter devoted to that.
So if you’re curious about…Well, there’s a kind of a fundamental question, has president Trump changed or grown or moved his methods in office in any important way? You read those two chapters, there’s an answer. You can find it. And I think as a reporter, if you can get to the people who can explain that to you, if you can look at the entire scope of that story, in the case of Obamacare failing the repeal or tax reform and tax cuts succeeding, can you come to some conclusions even in the moment that might stand the test of time? It’s a big challenge. I tried to meet it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you tell us a bit about your career as a journalist and how that prepared you to write this book?
Major Garrett: Well, the biggest preparation for writing a book is wanting to write one. And it’s sometimes said in America that people who are wealthy wanted to be a millionaire before they were 30 or 40 or some age. And the ones who became millionaires did that and they focus their lives and work around that objective. I never had a dollar figure in my mind. I just wanted to write one book in my life if I could. That was my overarching ambition to be a Washington-based reporter of some prominence who could write one book. This is my fourth book. So the biggest preparation for writing this book was, A, was writing the three ones before that, and having a tremendous desire to write a book and to have a publisher publish it. Both things need to go together. You can write a book, but if a publisher doesn’t want to publish it, you’re just writing for yourself.
So, that is part of it. Now, my career quick summary, grew up in San Diego, public school kid. There’s not a journalist in my family in any direction, so I’m an oddity in that sentence. Didn’t know anything about journalism, only that I wanted to do it. So I went to the best school of journalism in the country. The University of Missouri. Graduated from there in 1984 with a Political Science degree and a Journalism degree. Went to Amarillo, Texas, was a copper porter there for the better part of two years. Then I went to Las Vegas, Nevada to review journals as a copper porter in general assignment reporter there. Two years later at the “Houston Post” and the 14th largest newspaper in the country. Not bad. Four years in the business, the 14th largest newspaper in the country, general assignment reporter there. But my overall desire was to get to Washington any way I could.
And I knew the “Washington Post” wasn’t really dying to read my resume. But I took a chance and cold-called the “Washington Times.” They didn’t get many cold-calls in those days. Late 1989 from reporters at a place like the “Houston Post.” And they said, “Well, send us your resume.” So I did. Next thing I know they’re offering me a job covering Congress at the tender age of 27 and I took it knowing maybe a little bit, but not nearly as much as I would come to know that the “Washington Times” was not regarded as a paragon of journalism excellence. It was thought of as the Mooney paper, the Mooney rag, the unification churches own, little tax deduction to buy itself limps and legitimacy in the Nation’s Capital. Well, whatever it was called, or however it was disparaged, reporters still work there, myself and a gentleman named Peter Baker, who is now one of the most authoritative Washington Correspondents covering the White House for “The New York Times.”
He was on the metro desk, I was on the national desk at the same time. So, reporters worked there and then we worked hard and I was there for seven years. Wrote one book there, wrote my second book, and then I went to “U.S. News” and “World Report” was there for two years. Then CNN brought me into the zany and unpredictable world of cable television, and by zany and unpredictable, I mean that when you’re brought in, you can be thrown out. And I was brought in and two and a half years later, the person who brought me in, Frank Sesno, he was pushed out and one month later I was pushed out. Sometimes that happens in television. And I went to “Fox News” for eight years, left Fox on perfectly good terms, went to “National Journal” because I thought my career in TV ought to be over.
I had had 10 years of cable and the rigors and demands of that and wanted to get back to my life as a writer and a thinker-based in print. Thought my TV career was largely over and was okay with that, perfectly fine with that. But then “CBS News” came along with the job that you, if you turn down, you turn down for the rest of your life, Chief White House Correspondent. So I took it, been there ever since. That was November of 2012 and just recently promoted to Chief Washington Correspondent. So that’s the short resume.
Jonathan Movroydis: In that process, how many presidential campaigns have you covered?
Major Garrett: Five.
Jonathan Movroydis: And you’ve covered every president since Bill Clinton all the way to President Trump?
Major Garrett: Correct.
Jonathan Movroydis: I have a question about that, Richard Nixon, about the covering president. Richard Nixon said in his book, in the arena, which is his post-presidential memoir, he said that…He himself had a complicated relationship with the news media and he evaluated the Washington press corps. He said that they were left-leaning, they hated to be proven wrong, but often would report positively on events like foreign trips. How does the history of the press relationship with the president and other politicians inform your work?
Major Garrett: So, the president is right in one respect that typically when presidents travel overseas, their coverage is more favorable. It’s more deferential because they’re unlikely to receive criticism back home while they’re overseas. That’s still generally regarded as a line not to cross though not universally anymore. So when the president’s overseas, he is received and viewed by the traveling press corps slightly more positively because he is projecting American values and trying to achieve things on behalf of the whole country. And there’s much more domestic tumult and criticism when he’s based in Washington and reporters can find and feed off that because there is always a contentious relationship with the president, whoever it is, because the other party disagrees and we’re by nature, not a disagreeable people, but we like to quarrel as Americans and it’s our birthright and it’s certainly infused in our politics and there’s nothing wrong with that. It can be a source of great strength for us.
And when the president says the press corps that covered him was left-leaning, I don’t know if that’s true. I would say my observation about the Washington press corps is not that it’s leftist as much as it’s lazy. And by lazy I don’t mean intellectually or ideological, I just mean less curious than it ought to be on a daily basis about every story that presents itself. And I’ve worked at what some might regard as right-wing publications and one at a place that might be regarded as left-wing publications. Hmm, what does that mean? What side am I on? Actually, I’m on nobody’s side. I’m on the side of the audience that I write for and report for, but I’ve been in newsrooms where I’ve watched this discussion play out about what somebody else is getting wrong about a story and I’ve seen it from two different perspectives.
And I’ve think learned something from that that you need to be curious and you need to ask tough questions of both sides, report everything you know, think as hard as you can and then get out of the way, just back away from the story. Let the public decide and don’t have any sense of one way or the other about what you’re trying to achieve other than telling them what you’ve learned. That’s been my fundamental approach and maybe that’s why I’ve worked at places that are regarded as right-wing and left-wing and not been a controversial figure in either place.
Jonathan Movroydis: Is that a tough…Is that something a reporter has to worry about? I mean, is it a tough balancing act when covering a president or anybody else who’s high in politics, there sort of this trade-off between accessibility and writing an objective story?
Major Garrett: Yeah. I’m sure there’s stories I’ve missed because I’m not perceived as being on the team. I’m sure I miss stories like that. It’s like, “Wait Major, he’s…what is he?” I don’t know, “We can’t trust him with that,” you know, and I’m sure people have scooped me on that basis because access is a huge part of scoops. And I’m not saying it’s the only part, but it can be a part, but I’ve had plenty of scoops in my career. I’ve fought and scrapped for a lot of good stories. So, I think you can exist in both places. And every reporter approaches each and every story in his or her own way. I’m not in any way suggesting my way’s the only way or even that my way is the best way. It’s just been the way that’s worked for me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think the reporters, especially at the White House or Congressional level, do you think they should be historically informed?
Major Garrett: I do. I think it’s a really important part of the job. And I think it’s important to know about the history of our country, not just from the vantage point of any given president, but from various Congresses. And when I first started covering Congress, I was so overwhelmed by the process, the procedure, the language. I mean, the first couple of years I will first up to two to four years. I wasn’t really steeping myself in the history, I was just trying to keep up. But as I’ve spent more time in Washington, I really have tried to reach back and shy away from grotesquely overused word, which is unprecedented. We say things are unprecedented when they’re actually not. And we have gone through tough times. We’ve gone through divisive times in this country. I mean, one of the very evocative things here at the library is to remind people who pass through, who may not know or may have forgotten how tough the times were in the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies in this country when people really felt the entire American experiment was unraveling before their very eyes, whether it was Vietnam, civil rights, feminism, crime in the streets, et cetera.
We had college campuses were blowing up with some frequency. Students were shot by the national guard on one particular campus, Kent State. I mean the sense that this experiment might be teetering and about to cave in was not an academic sort of notion. My middle class parents wondered about that. My sister ran away when she was 13. She was part of that tumult, my family was part of it. Lots of families were. We’ve been through a hard time. I didn’t even got to the civil war or any of the cyclonic economic spasms of the early 20th century during the gilded age. So we’ve been through a lot and history doesn’t tell you everything, but it grounds you a little bit in the uniqueness of this country, the strength of this country, it’s resilience and the importance of its institutions, foul bubbles they may be in the moment. They’re built structurally with a lot of resilience and a little bit of knowledge about that and a little bit of humility about what you can continue to learn about that I think is useful.
Jonathan Movroydis: So having those virtues of knowledge and humility and moving forward typically, could you take us through how you typically prepare for reporting and delivering a story to the general public?
Major Garrett: Well, my three dimensions every day is what has happened? How does it link itself to what has recently occurred and what it might tell us about the future? I always try to leave people with a sense of what has happened, how it’s rooted in the most contextual pass, past rather and what it might tell us about what may happen in the future. And I’m not going to get way over my skis in terms of, “Well, this happened, so these five things are going to happen.” But I try to leave listeners or readers with an impression that they may have a collective sense of what may come next. And that’s rooted in reporting experience and conversations that may not be with sources who are predicting the future, but they have a sense and I try to convey that. So today, a little bit of yesterday and maybe a glimpse of tomorrow. Those are the components I try to put together when possible for every story because I think those are the three most important things the audience is craving to hear. What happened today, and can you help me contextualize a little bit in the past and what might this mean? I try to answer those questions if possible.
Jonathan Movroydis: The title of your book characterizes President Trump’s or Donald Trump’s Presidency as extraordinary. Why do you think he’s so extraordinary, is he more extraordinary than some of the other presidents you’ve covered?
Major Garrett: I’ve gotten this question with several book talks because people who don’t like the president say, “That is such a favorable thing you’re saying. Why are you such a lapdog? Why do you say extraordinary?” And I say, “Well, I’m gonna ask you to think about it in its actual literal translation, extra-ordinary.” We have ordinary, then you have plus ordinary, fairly drawn, President Trump’s Administration of the White House is plus ordinary. Okay? Hello ladies and gentlemen, let’s just try to get that out there. So, that’s what I mean by it. And what I tried to do with this subtitle, “thrills, chills, screams, and occasional blackouts of an extraordinary presidency” is to replicate the main title, Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride. All of those adjectives are value neutral.
You can be thrilled in a positive or negative way. You can be chilled in a positive or negative way. You can scream in a positive or negative way and you can have a blackout that’s positive or negative. You could be so elated. Think about it, think about a rollercoaster ride that’s really like a cyclonic thing. Like you’ve just gone up and down and round and round and you’re off-balance, but you love it, or you’re off-balance and you’re nauseated. Either way, that’s for you to decide. I’m value-neutral in those adjectives. But I do think those adjectives are not inconsistent with the general national reaction to this presidency, which makes it, hello, extraordinary.
Jonathan Movroydis: Right. So, in that sense, how is reporting on Trump different than the previous presidents that you’ve covered?
Major Garrett: Because it’s so different in terms of its unpredictability, its ambition and its indifference. There are lots of issues that this president just does not care about, and there are some he really cares about. And some he will not care about and then suddenly care about with a great intensity and then wonder why he doesn’t get any credit for it? Like for example, Criminal Justice Reform. Reason there is criminal justice reform is because Republicans followed a Republican president on that. If Barack Obama had offered the same bill to Republicans, they would have said no way. Is this first of all, President Obama and they’re not with him, but they thought they would be accused in a primary or some other conversation of being soft on crime because it was perceived that Obama was. When Donald Trump’s said, “No, I’m for this,” they were like,” Whoa, we’ve got total cover.” So the president made that happen, yet he did very little to let the country know he was working on it beforehand and he did very little to talk about it afterwards. So he wonders why nobody knows. Well, I covered it that day, matter of fact, a week later on, face sedation when we were wrapping up the whole year, and moderator and my colleague, Margaret Brennan said, “Major, what are some of the most important stories to share?” I mentioned that. I said, “This is a huge deal.”
So I didn’t ignore it. Other didn’t ignore it, but the country doesn’t have it to the satisfaction of the president. Why? Because he didn’t drive the message, he moved on. He was momentarily interested in it, gotten a result and then moved on. So that part of him is unusual for the presidency. And the personnel sort of wood chipper of his presidency. People come in and come out. And the wood chips of people who are former officials in this White House stack higher than the chimneys in the West-wing, highly unusual. The leaking and the division and divisiveness within the Trump White House also at a very high level, much higher level than I’ve ever dealt with before. And the president’s own volatility is completely different. I mean, he likes to be a volatile figure.
He knows that volatility makes him the center of every conversation and he loves to be the center of every conversation in ways that no previous president I’ve covered really wanted to be. Most presidents I’ve previously covered knew they were the center of the conversation and decided to drive that when they wanted to. But back off most of the time. There’s no back off gear with President Trump.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked about some of the people who were who had been in and out of the administration, generally, who did you interview for this book?
Major Garrett: So, one of the things you’ll find in the book is something that you find almost nowhere else, which is a lengthy on the record interview with Jared Kushner about the Middle East Summit, the early part of the president’s term, April of the first year, when he went to Riyadh. First foreign trip for the president, a jaw dropping first trip for an American president. I mean, typically it’s London, it’s Canada, it’s Mexico. Riyadh? Are you kidding me? That’s the first foreign trip for sitting American president. Well, I talk in great length to Jared Kushner about that, and also about the president’s approach to China and Xi Jingping and the first somebody had with him, meaning the Chinese President in Mar-a-Lago. Getting Jared Kushner on the record is no small fit. John Kelly, then the Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, the first Chief of Staff, Kellyanne Conway, lots of people, and this wasn’t in any sense imperative from my publisher to publish this book, but it was imperative for me as the writer of it, in these times when the president and all those close to him and aligned with him want to question what is believable journalism? I made a very important decision about this book in that everything would be on the record. Everyone in this book that’s quoted, is quoted by name and by title. And every interview is transcribed and on tape and they all know it.
That’s why there’s not been one iota of criticism or backtalk about my book in the Trump world, zero. Because they know it’s legit. Lots of members of Congress, they’re all on the record. There’s an extensive interview with Mitch McConnell, the first he ever gave about his decision to block the Merrick Garland nomination from President Obama and keep that vacancy open. How he responded when Justice Scalia died. There’s a never before seen interview with Leonard Leo about his first encounter with then candidate Donald Trump and the origination of the Supreme Court nominee list that’s never been published anywhere else. If you want to know how that list got started and the inner dynamics of how it came together, you can read it in my book.
Jonathan Movroydis: There are several issues that you talk about in the book. I want to pick three and ask you to explain why it’s a wild ride. First, immigration, and the travel ban.
Major Garrett: So, the travel ban was the first since the American public heard that this administration was gonna go and go aggressively right out of the gate, do things very differently and challenge existing assumptions about a particular policy approach. And the travel ban had some of its originating ideas and notions in countries that were viewed skeptically for immigration purposes by the Obama administration but never before had it been written down in this way. And it was an extension of that thing that the president said as a candidate, absolute Muslim ban until Congress fingers out what the hell to do. And I go into great detail about how it was put together and in expertly put together, haphazardly might be another phrase, clumsily might be another. The president’s rhetoric around it, how that rhetoric was in lockstep with many of his supporters who wanted him to take on a task like this and take it on early.
And then I go into great detail about how it evolved through two more, one more executive order and one more memorandum and that last memorandum and the policy evolution that went through a painstaking process later in 2017 but didn’t go through the process early on, made the ultimate drafting of that twice revised travel ban capable of standing up to Supreme Court scrutiny and how the president won on that. He only talks about the win, he doesn’t talk about the revisions that were required from his first one, which we said was perfect and it wasn’t. It wasn’t by any estimation, not legally and certainly not politically, but the two revisions got him closer and the last revision got it through the Supreme Court. So, that whole process and immigration and his relationship to it, the country’s understanding of his rhetoric, the world’s new sense that America was redefining its own relationship to immigration.
All of those things I believe are enormously important component parts of the Trump presidency. And again, that’s not a value judgment. I’m not telling you to like it or dislike it, but that it’s different and that it changed things internally and externally is a fact. And I try to document that fact best I can.
Jonathan Movroydis: The second issue, relations with Saudi Arabia, specifically Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Major Garrett: Yeah. So, I talked to Jared Kushner about that and he explained how this summit came together and what the overall orientation was of the president of the United States who invested in Jared Kushner this really powerful negotiating posture with Mohammad Bin Salman, who is the heir apparent in the Saudi Kingdom. He’s not the ruler of Saudi Kingdom yet, but he will be. And the reliance to this administration put in Mohammad Bin Salman to create that summit, to create this idea that the Saudis would be a counterweight against Iran and that the budding Saudi tolerance with Israel was of strategic importance to the United States and certainly this administration and that counterweight, the Saudi Kingdom against Iran would be the number one change in this administration, in this country’s posture in the Middle East.
And I go into some detail about that summit and with the president’s remarks there about human rights and about other issues simmering in the Middle East and its relationship to combating terrorism both as a financing mechanism and as an ideological recruiting mechanism. The president said, “If you cut off financing and stop recruiting ideologically, I don’t care about anything else, I’ll leave you alone.” Very transactional and very comforting to many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. You help us on terrorism, cut the financing, stop ideologically inciting it or recruiting it and he got carte blanche. Effectively, that’s what the president said. Well, time will tell how successful that orientation has been, but one thing that might’ve been interpreted by the Saudis was, well, if we have a bothersome journalists, we might not be able to kill them. Jamal Khashoggi has been killed by the Saudis in a Turkish Embassy.
He was an American journalist, not living in America, but his children were, and he was writing for the “Washington Post.” Is that an unanticipated and direly negative consequence of this idea of fight with us on terrorism, financing and recruitment. And we’ll look the other way on some of these other issues? Maybe it is, but you read about how that policy originated in that chapter. And I think it’s important, it’s an important difference not only with the Obama administration, it’s a difference in the middle East from the Bush administration. And I think it’s important to remind readers that Trump is Trump. Trump is not Republican and Trump is not Bush. Trump is Trump. And that’s an important thing to remember.
Jonathan Movroydis: And the third issue, negotiations with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.
Major Garrett: So I think it’s fair to say if you present a problem to president Trump, one of the things he will ask you is what have you been doing recently? And if he gets an answer, “Well, for the last 20 years, sir, we’ve done this.” His first instinct will be, “Well, we’re not doing that anymore. I don’t care what we’re doing. What I know is I’m not doing what we’ve been doing for 20 years.” That’s just the gut instinct of this president and when the case of North Korea, the answer was, “Well, we’ve been doing this for 30 years.” And he’s like, “Forget it. I’m gonna confront them rhetorically and see if I can use that rhetoric to create a space of uncertainty and maybe create an opening for talks.” He’s done all that. That is different, it’s a fact.
And when I’ve traveled to South Korea with the president, I’ve talked to many experts there who say that unpredictability that President Trump introduced into that created a different atmosphere and got the North Koreans for the first time in their attitude with America off-balance. What will be the sum total of that? I don’t know. I don’t predict in the book that there’s anything that’s going to be great that’s going to come out of this. What I do say is it was fundamentally different. It took risks and it is entirely in keeping with the president’s attitude, which is what we’ve done before is not what I’m doing now. And probably no other issue has that been truer than North Korea.
Jonathan Movroydis: Final question. Could you tell us a little bit about the “Takeout Podcast?”
Major Garrett: Sure, I’d love to. So, the world is full of podcasts. There are a lot of politics podcasts for sure because the country’s interested in politics. There are also a lot of political podcasts, a lot of P’s here. Political podcasts that pander, meaning they give you a pretty consistent dose of one ideological perspective or another. And not surprisingly, those are very successful commercially. Well, it’s I guess part of my life as a journalist not to be commercially successful. This particular book of mine isn’t. It’s sold, Okay, but not great. I’d like it to sell more. That’s what I’m very glad to be here at the Nixon Library to talk about it and on the podcast. But like my show, it is even-handed and even-minded and curious in both directions, which requires a little bit more of the audience. And I have people from the far-left and the far-right week after week, usually it may be there’s someone from the right on one week and the left hand, left the next week.
Guess what? You gotta live in both worlds. And I think there’s another nice gimmick about the show. It’s not like this, as lovely as this place is and as lovely as the library is and as quiet as this is, mine is a much louder show because it’s always done at a restaurant and has always done over a meal. And the waiter is introduced or the server introduced, waitress, server or waiter. We eat during the show, we drink during the show, sometimes it’s alcohol, sometimes it’s not. It’s on “CBSN,” our streaming news service. It’s also on 50 radio stations around the country and it’s on podcast platforms. So, I always describe it as a conversation, not an interrogation, and that we’re two things, relentlessly curious and steadfastly non-ideological. So it occupies, I think, a very special space in the podcast world and people who find it and come to it get the groove almost instantly. And for that, I’m very grateful.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Major Garrett, CBS News’ Washington Correspondent. Our topic was his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency.” Check out the “Takeout Podcast” wherever you access your podcast. Major Garrett, thank you so much for joining us.
Major Garrett: Thanks for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.