Jake Tapper on Trump, Media, and His Series ‘United States of Scandal’

jake tapper scandal

CNN’s Jake Tapper has been covering politics for almost three decades. He’s had a front-row, insider’s view of the events that have defined the modern political era. He’s charted the victories and downfalls of our leaders and experienced the successes and failures of the news media in their mission to hold power to account. He knows a thing or two about political scandals.

On Sunday, CNN will air the first two episodes of a new limited series hosted by Tapper, “United States of Scandal.” The series takes an in-depth, first-person look at some of the most prominent political scandals of the early 21st Century. The six-episodes — which will air weekly following Sunday’s double feature — cover the Bush administration’s lies about WMD’s and their role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame; former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s supposed hike on the Appalachian Trail; Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat; John Edward’s secret campaign baby; Jim McGreevey’s choice when caught between a political Scylla and Charybdis; and how Eliot Spitzer’s extracurricular activities brought down his gubernatorial administration in New York. The episodes feature deep-dive interviews with many of the figures directly involved in the scandals that reshaped their lives.

Some are wholly unrepentant, some saw their downfalls as the chance to escape from politics, and others were simply caught in the wake of another’s folly. To Tapper, the stories covered in the series represent the great Shakespearean dramas of our age. They raise difficult questions about the way our political system functions and call for reflection on the relationships between the public, the media, and the nation’s political leadership. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone, which has been edited for length and clarity, Tapper discussed the making of the series, the pitfalls of unchecked hubris, the lessons he’s learned throughout his career, and how Donald Trump didn’t invent shamelessness — he just perfected it.

Talk to me a bit about your reasons for creating the series. Why focus on scandals and why the six that you picked for the show?

I feel like when we cover scandals we’re covering the first draft, and the drips and drabs, and we’re never getting the whole story — not because of us, but because of them. We never know everything. 

The stories [in the series] are really rich. I mean, they are Shakespearean. If Shakespeare were alive, he would be writing about Blagojevich or Spitzer. They’re are like The Dane of New York. It’s crazy what these men do.

The series feels a bit like a time capsule. Most of the scandals you covered took place more than a decade ago, when media, journalism, and public awareness were very different from how they are today. Did you notice any major differences between the way the events that marked your early career unfolded and were covered when compared to today’s social media-heavy landscape? 

The Valerie Plame scandal — or the Bush administration scandal, I should say — had to do with a leak to a newspaper, for a newspaper column. That’s quaint unto itself. The scandals we picked take place between 2000 and 2015. Some of that was just happenstance, but they all take place in an era that no longer exists, which is an era where social media is not as big, where there’s the National Enquirer and you could be a John Edwards and just call this true and accurate story about your girlfriend tabloid trash and that would be good enough.

First of all, the National Enquirer got it all right. This is one of those stories — and we go into this in the documentary — where they were right and the rest of us missed it. So whatever else they do, whatever else their sins are, this is separate and they got it right.

But in any case, it’s weird to think about some of these scandals and how, if they happened today, there would be a built-in support mechanism for all of them, because of partisan alliances. There would be people attacking the reporters covering them — “How dare you go after Eliot Spitzer! How dare you go after John Edwards! How dare you go after Mark Sanford!”  — because I think our media is even more divided and partisan than ever before. Who knows? Maybe it would be beyond social media. Fox would be defending somebody, MSNBC would be defending somebody else. I don’t know. It’s a very, very different era of media than existed during the time of these scandals.

I don’t think we can talk about scandals without talking about Trump. He has had so many, and they barely seem to make a dent in his political prospects. What has evolved in the media’s coverage of scandals and Trump between 2015 and now. 

You can’t say that he hasn’t faced any consequences because he’s being tried for any number of these scandals, ranging from E. Jean Caroll, to inflating his net worth, to January 6, to classified documents. He wasn’t reelected, so there have been consequences — maybe not as much as some people would like, but there have been some.

I think Donald Trump is a really interesting example of the one way to handle things when you are scandalized. The man has no shame. He is shameless. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as an observation of fact. He seems to never, ever experience the emotion of shame. So that works to his benefit. When it comes to these scandals, he just denies that it’s a problem, says everybody does it, and then moves on.

Bill Clinton didn’t resign. Bill Clinton stayed and fought. I’m not saying they’re exactly the same, obviously, but there is a shamelessness to what Bill Clinton did, in staying and fighting. My son — who’s now 14 — I think a year or two ago studied the Clinton scandal for school. And he was just amazed over the Bill Clinton denial. The indignance of the man when he’s lying, the whole time, is remarkable. It is a birth of shameless denial in our system […] There is a shamelessness that Donald Trump didn’t invent — he just perfected it. 

It’s also interesting going back and looking at these scandals compared to what Donald Trump has done because — with the exception of the Bush and Valerie Plame WMD one — they seem less important. Nobody died. Donald Trump’s scandals, whether it’s his initial handling of Covid, or what he knew about Covid and didn’t tell the country, or January 6, there’s a death toll to them. 

As you said, he didn’t invent the concept of shamelessness, but he did perfect it. Was there any specific moment when you realized “Oh, shit, this is gonna be different?”  

The one I really remember is the last time I interviewed him. I think June 2016. It was the Trump University case — which again, there were consequences — but the American people still elected him president even though he basically admitted to fraud and settled for millions of dollars.

In The Wall Street Journal, he had said something about Judge Curiel, that he couldn’t do the job because he was Mexican. And I interviewed him, and you know, you come to this interview with a list of 30 topics, 30 questions, but I really wanted to get to this. And he kept on filibustering, interrupting, doing all the amazing Trump techniques of avoiding accountability and avoiding answering questions. But I really wanted to get to, and I did eventually get to, “If you were saying he can’t do the job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” It took many, many tries, but I finally got there, and [he’s] like “No, I don’t think so. I wanna build a wall,” or whatever it was.

Just the complete denial of the facts, and the fact that, at this point, he was going to be the nominee. And the fact that nobody really seemed to be bothered by this in a public way, except for the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The Republican field was just lining up for him no matter what, as opposed to “Holy crap, what are we doing here?” 

That’s when I kind of realized [it.] Because that would be a scandal for any other human being, at any other point in modern history, saying, “This person can’t do his job because he’s Mexican.” The guy’s from Indiana. I think that was the “we’re really dealing with a whole different kind of fish here.”  

His core group of supporters and the Republican establishment seem to hold an undying allegiance to him. Do you have any theories about why there’s that level of indifference or even outright embrace?

I think it’s complicated. There are a lot of different reasons for a lot of different people. Some people think he’s their champion, and some people believe in his policies. The Blagojevich argument in the series as to why he didn’t do anything wrong is: “Our campaign finance system is inherently corrupt. Yeah we raise money, and we have to do favors, and often those things coincide. I’m just honest about it and everyone else is a liar.” That’s basically his argument. We let him make his case. I don’t know that I buy it. Certainly the prosecutors didn’t. But you can see why he thinks this. 

It’s basically what [Sen. Bob] Menendez argued in his first prosecution [in 2015]. Which was, “Yes, I’m friends with this guy. And also, I have done favors for him. But you cannot prove that I did favors for him because he gave me money.” I think it was a hung jury so he didn’t go to prison.

So I think there’s a part of the Trump defense that everybody does it, and they’re just going after me for it. I don’t think it’s true, but I think that there is an audience that is willing to hear it. And what Trump has that a lot of these other guys don’t have, or didn’t have, is this media industrial complex defending him. He has News Corp and Fox News echoing him in the most frantic ways. 

The word “scandal” can sound salacious, but really what we consider a political scandal is usually just the process of accountability unfolding in the public eye. What would you like viewers to take away from the series concerning journalism’s role in documenting — and sometimes even triggering — these kinds of processes? 

Well, you hit on the word: accountability. In all of these stories — except for possibly the Valerie Plame story, which is kind of an episode unto itself — there was some form of accountability.

All of these men — and they’re all men — thought that they could get away with it. Think about the governor of New York signing into law a harsh penalty for sex workers while he was a customer of prostitutes. I mean, that is a remarkable, Shakespearean thing that he did. The fact that there was accountability demonstrates why journalism needs to continue. It’s the only way that our democracy can thrive. I mean, remember, Thomas Jefferson said that if he had to choose between the government and a free press, he’d pick the free press because the free press provides the accountability that the government does not. 

In your episode on Valerie Plame, Matthew Cooper — the former Time reporter — said what was done to Plame turned out to be “one of the rare scandals that really mattered.” What role do journalists have in ultimately defining that distinction? 

People think of this beautiful, blonde woman, in a white suit and a convertible, posing in Vanity Fair — that’s what I picture when I think of Valerie Plame — but that scandal was actually about her husband, arguing before the world that the intelligence being presented suggesting Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear weapon was false, and that it was a lie from the Bush administration. Instead of just letting it go, the Bush administration sought to discredit him by going after his wife, among other ways.

The case for war ended up with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of innocent people being killed, and several thousand American soldiers being killed and seriously wounded. So it was incredibly important. I think what Matt was trying to get at was not just the Bush administration’s war against Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson and Valerie Plame, but that what they thought they were defending, this lie about weapons of mass destruction, was incredibly important and will go down as one of the worst parts of American history.

When you look at the other scandals, it’s not that they weren’t important or didn’t matter. Whether it’s Blagojevich, or Spitzer, or Edwards, or McGreevey, or Sanford — they do matter, and they are important. But this one was about a cause of war, casus belli, and it ended up with lots of dead innocent people.

Toward the end of the Jim McGreevey episode, you ask the audience if his scandal taught us a lesson about how we absorb and react to political intrigue, and the lessons for journalists from that particular debacle. Do you feel you learned anything through the production of the show?

Well, the biggest lesson I learned was actually in the Sanford scandal because I knew him. I was friendly with him, and I believed [him.] This is all in the episode, but I felt it was important for me to confess my stumble in the Sanford scandal. I thought he was actually hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I was not kind to people who immediately were skeptical — and I was wrong. 

So the biggest lesson I learned, other than “always be skeptical” is that our job is not to be friends with people in power. And to apply that bigger lesson in a smaller way, which is that even if you think you know a politician, you don’t. I learned that the hard way by thinking I knew Mark Sanford. I had spent a lot of time with him and his family over the years.

I don’t know if I’ve learned anything new from doing the series other than reinforcing the need for journalists to always be skeptical, even if we think we know the politicians involved. You know, the old saying “if your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source”? We need to apply that to everything and everyone that we know. 

Do you ever feel frustrated as a journalist tasked with communicating these things to your audience, or does your experience give you the confidence to know that people eventually get their comeuppance? Even in the instance of the Bush administration, people didn’t go to prison, but we as a country can now look back and agree that what was done was incredibly wrong. 


I have long since learned that comeuppance and accountability are not things that I should be sitting around waiting for in order for me to feel professionally or personally fulfilled. All I can do is report on what’s going on and seek accountability in the way a journalist can. My happiness does not depend on finding justice on this planet, because if it did, I would never be happy. So all I can do is report the facts, continue to have feelings of outrage, and continue to be bothered by corruption and lying. If I sit around and wait for bad people to be punished, then all I’m going to be doing is sitting and waiting. 

There are too many. I’m almost 55, and I’ve seen too many innocent people face the worst things imaginable, and too many horrible people experience lives of gold and luxury. And, you know, that’s for God. I can’t be about that, or I’d never sleep at night.

Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/jake-tapper-trump-media-united-states-scandal-1234970342/

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