President Trump’s blockbuster interview with the New York Times this week displayed a commander in chief furious with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and still fuming at his former FBI Director, James Comey. The interview was conducted by three Times reporters: Maggie Haberman, Michael S. Schmidt, and Peter Baker.
I spoke by phone with Baker after the interview was published. He is the paper’s chief White House correspondent and has covered politics and Russia for many years. (His latest book is Obama: The Call of History.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Trump so often takes his conversations off the record, different strategies for getting him to answer questions, and what Baker’s time in Moscow taught him about the Russia scandal.
Isaac Chotiner: What is your interview strategy for this president, and how does it differ from another president or politician?
Peter Baker: [Laughs.] Well that’s a good question. Look, I think we had certain questions we wanted to try to get some answers to, and he was willing to go there. With other presidents you are worried that they won’t engage, right? That they will try to shut you down by saying they can’t comment on this, or don’t want to comment on that, or they will just give their talking points. One thing about an interview with President Trump is that he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t stick to the script.
The trick, though, is that he does tend to move quickly from subject to subject or thought to thought, and trying to keep the conversation focused on one particular question or line of inquiry is a real challenge. And then with any president, of course, it’s a real tough thing to figure out when you can politely interrupt if you are not heading in a direction that is genuinely responsive to the question.
How does he deal with being interrupted?
He’s pretty good about that. President Obama several times would say, “Let me finish answering” if you tried to interrupt. And he would speak in full paragraphs and full pages, and you would watch the clock ticking down and realize you were being filibustered. With President Trump, it’s different. He likes, I think, a more vigorous back and forth and give and take. Some of that at times can be a challenge because it means a thought isn’t completed or a sentence isn’t actually finished. But he doesn’t take it personally if someone jumps in there.
Do you and your colleagues have a strategy for the different roles you will each play in the interview? Good cop/bad cop would be the obvious one.
No. With any presidential interview, we sit down in advance and come up with questions and in a group we trade questions and solicit ideas from our colleagues, and the goal is to find questions that go beyond things we already know and actually move the president off the script. With Trump, that’s less of a challenge. The challenge is how you keep the questioning more focused in a way that you get precision with the answers.
With Maggie, she has known Trump for so long and has such an extensive history of covering him that there is an obvious relationship there. Mike and I were meeting him for the first time, and we didn’t have any good cop–bad cop kind of thing. And we did not divide up questions. We had a list with us, and I don’t think we ever specifically went through the list because we knew what was on it. You kind of go with the flow of a conversation rather than slavishly stick with Question 4 or Question 8 or that kind of thing.
Did he decide which reporters would be there?
No, that’s our decision. Mike, as you know, has covered a lot of these issues with Russia.
Yeah, that’s why I asked.
One thing I noticed a lack of were specific policy questions, like what is in your health care bill or why are you cutting Medicaid and what effect will that have. Do you think that in-depth policy questions with him are not going to yield interesting answers and don’t matter to how he governs, or would you have asked more of them with more time?
I think that would be a very legitimate way to go at it, absolutely. Trying to understand the depth of his understanding of particular policies is a very legitimate inquiry. In our interview he insisted that he knew more than people thought he knew about health care and we didn’t end up testing that. We went in with an interest with pursuing some of these questions that had come up lately, like Don Jr.’s meeting, the meeting with Putin during the G-20, the upcoming testimony possibly of Jared and Paul Manafort.
How often did he go off the record?
He has a way of going on and off with great fluidity, which is a challenge. Our preference is that we don’t go off and stick to on the record so there is never any questions about what an interview subject is saying, but you know, it’s his office, and it’s a little hard to stop somebody from doing it. [Laughs.] Every time he would go off the record, we would very quickly say, “Can we go back on the record?” to make clear we were trying to keep things as transparent and open as possible.
It’s interesting you said with “great fluidity” since I think people see Trump as often just spouting whatever is on his mind, that it’s all id.
I think it’s a mistake to think he doesn’t know what he is doing when he gives interviews like this. He knows exactly what he’s doing. It may not be what his staff wants him to do or what another president might do—it certainly doesn’t fit into the normal conventions, perhaps, of sticking close to talking points—but he understands exactly what he is saying and how it will be interpreted. I think the fact that he goes off the record for little comments indicates that he understands that if he said that part on the record, it could be problematic or misinterpreted. It’s not usually anything important, but again, we try very hard to keep it as on the record as we can.
I notice he went off the record when you brought up the line in the Donald Jr. email about Russian government support for Trump. What did you, as an old Russia guy, make of the line and Trump’s response?
I thought that line was important and came back at him a couple times about it because I was trying to pin him down. He likes to say he didn’t know about the meeting at the time. OK fine, but you now know what’s in that email, and I was trying to get him to talk about what that means Russia’s intent was last year. He likes to dismiss the whole Russia thing as a ploy by Democrats to explain defeat at the polls. Fair enough, I get that argument, but the point is that, whether Russia’s interference had any bearing on the outcome, they did interfere according to the best available evidence, and the question is what you as a president think and do about that. I thought the email indicated in the starkest terms we have seen so far the Russian government attempting to play a role in the election. I wanted him to address that a little more and the answers didn’t really take it on in a direct way.
The most on-point element of his response was that he already had all the damaging information he needed about Hillary Clinton and didn’t need any more information. I was saying terrible things about her, and what could they have told me that I didn’t know, which is an interesting answer and one I hadn’t heard him give before, but still not directly responsive to whether he should be concerned about the notion that the Russian government was intent on playing a role in the election.
Bloomberg just posted a piece saying that Robert Mueller and his team will look into Trump business transactions and real estate, which in your interview Trump said should be off limits. What did you make of his Mueller answers, and do you think he is thinking about trying to get him fired?
I read the Bloomberg thing real quickly and I read it as saying Mueller was looking at business transactions related to Russia, and we asked about whether business transactions not related to Russia would cross the line, and that’s when he said yes, and that it was supposed to be about Russia. So I am not sure that is apples to apples. But clearly in his mind there are lines and he does think that Mueller should keep his investigation narrow, and didn’t rule out the idea that he would act against Mueller if he crossed those lines. That’s a pretty interesting warning, a line in the sand. We aren’t sure where it is and it may move, but we see the shape of a possible confrontation.
Is there anything about having been a reporter in Russia that makes you look at this scandal differently?
Well, probably. My wife and I were reporters there for four years at the very beginning of the Putin era. When you live there as a reporter and spend a lot of time there, you realize that the things we are talking about them possibly doing here are very much in keeping with the way they operate. When I read Don Jr.’s description of the meeting with the Russians, it reminded me of things that happened when we were in Moscow, where the government—through intermediaries, through murky characters—is constantly playing games and pushing boundaries and looking for advantage here and there. I am very open to the idea that Russia had a serious intent there, because we saw what that government was like.