John Wagner is a busy guy these days. As part of the team covering the Trump White House for The Washington Post, he and his colleagues are navigating what can fairly be described as a new normal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Love or loathe Donald Trump, you almost certainly agree he doesn’t adhere to established Washington traditions. This unconventional approach to politics poses certain challenges – and creates unusual opportunities – for those charged with reporting on the administration. Which made this the ideal occasion to ask John if, during his nearly non-existent downtime, he would do me a favor and answer a few questions about his job. He kindly agreed:
1. You have what is arguably the most interesting beat in journalism at the moment. Can you share a sense of what it is like to cover this administration on a daily basis?
It’s a cliché but certainly true in this case: There are no two days that are the same. We, like many publications, expanded our White House team in January. In our case, there are six of us who carry the title of “White House reporter.” On any given day, one of us is assigned to be with the president, wherever he is, and another of us has primary responsibility for breaking news off the beat. That, in theory, frees the rest of us up to do more enterprising work. In reality, we often get drawn into the story of the day. That can originate from an early morning tweet, from an off-the-cuff comment at a campaign-style rally or from a more traditional event at The White House. Over the course of the first seven months, there has been a lot of travel, particularly on the weekends, to Trump properties in Florida and New Jersey, as well as to rallies around the country (all, so far, in states that Trump won last year).
2. The president’s supporters and detractors can agree on two things if nothing else: (1) Donald Trump is unpredictable and (2) he has an acrimonious relationship with the news media. Given this, have you and your colleagues fundamentally changed the way you pursue stories and gather reliable information?
We cover this president as we have covered previous presidents. The press still camps out in cramped quarters in the West Wing, White House staff is generally accessible to reporters on the record and on background and there are still briefings (albeit there are fewer of them and there was a stretch when many were off camera). This White House has had factions within its staff, so there’s an added awareness about how that affects information that is being shared.
3. The president has routinely asserted that certain journalists and news outlets – including the Washington Post – are pushing false narratives and “fake news.” How do you avoid becoming part of the story when the president wants to make the media the focus of attention?
The best thing we can do is remain focused on doing our jobs.
4. How have you changed your professional routines to account for the fact that a single tweet may change an entire news cycle? And that the same thing may happen again tomorrow … and the next day?
There are many days that I have awakened to a tweet that, with no advance warning, has come to shape the rest of my work day. There’s really no way to plan for these, other than to be aware of the possibility they could be coming and to remain nimble. Oftentimes, we’ll do a quick online post about a tweet and develop a broader story with more context and reaction as the day goes on.
5. There are differing opinions among journalists as to whether beat reporters should attempt to be real-time fact checkers during news conferences and daily briefings. Where do you come down on this issue?
We have an obligation to report news as quickly as we can. We do that to the extent possible in real-time, and we also have a talented team of fact-checkers who write separate, broader pieces on the questionable claims of the president and other prominent politicians.