The Trump Whisperer: A Conversation with Washington Post Reporter David Fahrenthold

Fahrenthold on how he follows the money, “shows his work,” and solicits leads from Twitter in covering Donald Trump.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2017 | 8 minutes (2193 words)

 

Before David Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for covering Trump’s candidacy, he spoke to the then-candidate on the phone last May. Trump called Fahrenthold “a nasty guy.”

One of Fahrenthold’s most impressive journalistic pursuits came after that conversation, when he began to investigate Trump’s charitable giving. Trump had long made loud claims about his charitable donations, but Fahrenthold discovered that although Trump claimed to have donated millions of dollars spread among 400 charities, very few of those charities had any record of Trump’s supposed contributions.

Fahrenthold’s other bombshell report — on the 2005 Access Hollywood video in which Trump, on a hot microphone, says he grabs women “by the pussy” — became the Post’s most concurrently read story in its digital history.

Perhaps Fahrenthold’s most striking editorial innovation has been how he solicits help from the public over social media. In the Post’s write-up of Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer win, the paper noted that traditionally “reporters have kept their work ‘secret and guarded’ until they have developed enough information to publish. Fahrenthold instead shared his progress on stories via Twitter and openly asked readers for tips and information that guided his work. [Post editor Martin] Baron noted that this process now has a name: ‘the Fahrenthold method.’”

Fahrenthold and I discussed what he’s learned about Trump, how he “shows his work” to the public while reporting, and how embracing Twitter has helped him as a journalist.

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What is the most important thing you’ve learned about Trump?

He’s not strategic. He’s not somebody who has a long-term goal and takes actions every day incrementally. He’s relationship driven. He’s very short-term. He does things to hurt somebody or to please somebody in the short-term, and there’s often not a longer-term goal behind that.

I saw that in his charitable giving. There was no one cause. He didn’t take a cause like many rich people do and say, “Okay, I’m going to give most of my money to St. Jude’s or to University of Pennsylvania — or whatever it is.” He would give money in little pieces — usually because he met somebody who wanted money for his charity, or he had a friend who was being honored and he wanted to buy a table. They usually were social obligations that he took on right in the moment that he used charity to satisfy but never returned to any one cause. He recognized that being a rich person in the U.S. came with a responsibility to be generous, to be charitable. And he wanted to play the role. He wanted to seem as generous as he was rich. But in private, when it came to actually fulfilling those promises and to actually following through on the promises he’d made, he often didn’t. He would either not do it, or he would use other people’s money to satisfy the promises he’d said would come from his own pocket.

He wanted to seem as generous as he was rich. But in private, when it came to actually fulfilling those promises and to actually following through on the promises he’d made, he often didn’t. He would either not do it, or he would use other people’s money to satisfy the promises he’d said would come from his own pocket.

How does this lack of long-term thinking and strategizing affect him as president?

To me, the best example might be healthcare. How many different goals has he called for on healthcare? He’s called for repeal and replace; he’s called for straight repeal and delay. During the campaign, he called for something that was very different — basically giving everybody more coverage for less money. If he wanted a particular set of things, if he had settled on a particular set of policies, he could’ve advocated for them from the beginning. He had a lot of leverage in the beginning. He might have gotten those things, but now he sort of buzzes in to blast people like Lisa Murkowski from Alaska or Susan Collins [from Maine] for advocating things that he himself had advocated for not that long ago.

The Washington Post’s editor, Martin Baron, said you’ve “reimagined investigative reporting.” What is it that you have done differently?

Well, last year, the thing I found very useful was trying to involve readers in what I was doing, to show readers what I was trying to find out. To show them what I knew, what I didn’t know. Both to reassure them — to show them how hard I’d worked to find the things that I knew — but also to invite their help in identifying the things I didn’t know, answering the questions I didn’t have answers to. The lessons of that were not only that you should invite the public in to see what you’re doing, but also that a lot of covering Trump — and I think covering a lot of politicians — is building maps, and not usually a geographic map, but a map of what’s known. That, for me, was my notebook last year. I’m going to show you everything that I’ve done to try to identify where Donald Trump’s given his money. So I want to give you a resource beyond just the story. A piece of opening myself up to the public was providing a map that you could read from beginning to end, or end to beginning, or middle out, that would go along with a traditional story.

Is that kind of transparency the key to converting people who might otherwise think any negative news about the president and his polices is “fake news”?

Yeah, I think it’s part of that. We have so many more people who are reading us now that are usually tuned out of national politics after a big election. The people who come to us in that situation, they might know The Washington Post name, but they’re not regular readers. They may not know our reputation, and they may not even be really familiar with the connections of a newspaper — the rather confusing difference between a columnist and an analyst, and an opinion piece and a news story. I feel like if they don’t know it from our name, they should see it from our work — that what we do is better, what we do is trustworthy. It’s important for me to show people how hard I’m working to find these things out, and how many chances I’ve given the Trump administration to tell its side of the story. So that if you’re just coming to this and you don’t have a preset opinion about Trump — or maybe your preset opinion is the media’s too hard on him — here’s my work. Here’s how I’ve tried to get his side of the story. Here’s what I’ve done to try to make sure that what I know is right.


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What is the most difficult part of covering and investigating Trumpworld?

Last year, I covered Trump’s charity; this year I’m covering the Trump organization. I’ve learned two main things. First, they don’t talk to you. Their answer to almost any question is silence. It’s not like they call and harangue you, even on background or off the record. And this was true for the campaign; it’s true for the golf courses now; it’s true for their operation in general. They just don’t get back to you. You don’t get any answer out of them, so it’s hard to tell their side of the story, to tell things from their perspective if they just don’t respond.

The other thing is that they try and make things secret by making them complicated and making them diffuse. Putting the sources of information [apart], spreading them out a lot. A lot of our coverage has been trying to find places where a third party has information about the Trump operation that you can learn from. Last year it was calling charities to see if Trump had ever given them money. This year, we did a story about the Trump golf course in L.A. The Trump golf course won’t answer our phone calls about how well they’re doing, but even if you use public records requests to the town, you can guess at their financial performance by measuring a lot of things like golf tax revenue, building permits, things like that. That’s another bit of a challenge. How can you find other sources that show you what’s going on inside the Trump organization?

Last year, I had covered Trump’s charity, and what I’m doing this year is covering the Trump organization and I’ve learned two main things. First, they don’t talk to you. Their answer to almost any question is silence.

Which stories would you like to get to the bottom of?

I want to know how well his businesses are actually doing. I think there’s an expectation that because people go to the Trump hotels, because he goes to Mar-a-Lago all the time, that his businesses are doing well. I think those two businesses probably are doing pretty well, but in a lot of other places, where his business just depends on regular people going there to play golf or to have a wedding or be a member, people shouldn’t expect any actual favor from the presidency. He still has to sell the Trump name, not the presidency. I’m interested in how those places are doing, and I’m doing everything I can to try to get to the bottom of how business is changing at hotels, golf courses, Mar-a-Lago because I think if his businesses start to falter, then what happens? How does the president look for a bail out? How does the president look for an investor to come in and prop up his businesses? We’ve never seen that before.

And then the second part is what is he doing, if anything, in government to try to benefit his businesses? How is he steering government contracts, government meetings? How is he steering people who want to come visit the White House and meet him at the Trump hotel? We’re trying to get to the bottom of that. I want to know, is business suffering because of him, and what is he doing to help his business? Those are hard questions to answer, but those are the ones I’m most focused on now.

Trump has been basically impervious to negative news, but is there a tipping point at which a certain revelation would irreparably harm him?

Well, it’s hard to know. The Access Hollywood tape certainly did make a difference, so that was a big deal. It’s not impossible that a news story could change how the public sees him. I think it’s happening now. The way he’s governed himself as president, the way he’s gone after Jeff Sessions, the way he’s turned on a number of Republicans. The question now is not what will cause the public to turn on him, but what will cause Republicans [to turn on him]? It’s the group that’s very, very supportive of him. What are the things that would offend them, that would change their view of him? But I should say that’s not the point. That’s not why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re not doing this to tank Donald Trump’s approval rating.

How will journalism evolve in the near future?

I would say there are two answers to that. One is about how we present the news. The kinds of things I’m talking about are not just stories, but are also flowcharts, analyses, maps. We’ve seen a lot great stuff that people have done on the healthcare bill that are like whip counts and explainers about “Here are all the different steps the Senate is going through,” “Here’s all the different possible bills” — that sort of thing, which is an explainer told as a story, or an explainer told in some other form. I think we’re doing more to reach out to people who are confused by the news cycle, or who just went to sleep and woke up and, eight hours later, the world is a different place. Trying to help people like that pick up the thread and follow it again.

I think also the thing that I’m seeing from here in Washington is a turn from just the politics of Trump to both the substance of policy but also toward covering the Congress, toward covering the personalities of Congress. I hope that what we do in the next six months is assume that Trump is the same person as he is, and that people have more of a sense of other characters in Washington, who, in many ways, are certain to be just as important as Trump. I think we’re doing that, and I don’t mean just members of Congress, but also cabinet secretaries, cabinet undersecretaries — people who are actually changing policy or not. I hope that we broaden our focus beyond Trump since we now have a sense of who he is.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.