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The Watergate Editor on How Trump “Leads the Press Around by the Nose”

Barry Sussman, who edited Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post, discusses the president, Putin, and what the media must fix.

Jeff Stein

Everybody’s heard of Woodward and Bernstein, if only from their portrayals by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the avenging angels of Watergate in All the President’s Men. But their editor, Barry Sussman? Not so much. Yet it was Sussman, then the city editor of The Washington Post, who guided the young duo and their paper to a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. “From the start, the Post was ... unusually lucky” to have Sussman, the late David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Behis monumental book on the media. “Before anyone else at the Post, Sussman saw Watergate as a larger story, saw that the individual events were part of a larger pattern, the result of hidden decisions from somewhere in the top of government which sent smaller men to run dirty errands.” 

Sounds familiar. Some four decades later, with the media and Donald Trump in a similar titanic struggle, it seemed a good time to get Sussman’s take on events then and now. Contrary to decades of myth-making, Sussman reminds us, the Post didn’t bring down Richard Nixon alone and certainly not overnight. As with Trump today, Nixon retained a large segment of hardcore supporters in Congress and the public that hung on—until, at the last minute, they didn’t. As Sussman explains, what turned opinion against Nixon was a watershed moment that dramatically shifted public perceptions. And he suggests that moment may come for Trump soon, too. 

Jeff Stein: What’s your take on the press coverage of Trump, starting with the first allegations about his associates’ contacts with the Russians, up to the Mueller report? How has the press been doing? 

Barry Sussman: The problem is the media have allowed Trump to set the agenda. When he changes the subject, they change the subject. They follow him wherever he goes. He leads the press around by the nose. That was even true on the Russia investigation. How many weeks did we go, months, where there were front-page stories questioning whether Trump would even testify? Imbeciles like Giuliani were getting press attention as though they had something to say, when all they were doing was trying to stretch things out and humiliate the press. That’s my main difficulty, not only with the Russia investigation but with everything else.

The press didn’t even cover the presidents every single day until Reagan. You may remember this. It was Reagan’s sharp advisers who decided to make him the center of attention and pretty much get stories day by day, every day. Before then, there was not even daily coverage of presidents. I think that we might keep that in mind as Trump is covered.

The way Trump is covered now is that he is covered first. If there’s any room for anything, or anybody else, or anything else, it will follow, if there’s room. I think that we have such a great list of real problems that need to be dealt with, that are newsworthy and important, starting of course with climate change, but the list is a very, very strong list. Even some Trump issues make the list, like immigration.

Just because Trump wants people to pay attention to immigration doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We just don’t have to pay attention to him on immigration. My solution to this is that the press, especially the elite press that already has beats on all the important subjects, it should pay attention to what’s going on. It should write about them as needed, and when there’s room left over, they give us Trump. Turn things around on their face.

Stein: Trump’s followers seem to be impervious to facts. It’s been noted again and again that there’s two different worlds we live in, but that’s not particularly new, is it? I mean, during Watergate, Nixon had a large following that would not accept the revelations of The Washington Post and others about the criminality of the Nixon administration.

Sussman: That’s exactly right. The Nixon followers, both in Congress and in the public, stayed with him for a long time, but they didn’t stay with him forever. There’s no reason to think that a portion of Trump followers won’t stay with him forever. The single most important issue here, in the case of Nixon, was the matter of public opinion. Nixon lost when his approval ratings went down. As they descended, you could knock off more and more Republican supporters in Congress, so that when his final approval ratings got into the low 20s, he was lost in Congress. He was done for.

Now, I don’t expect Trump’s approval ratings to go that low. He just has his own popular TV network that will keep him up there. If nothing else will, Fox News will, and these days, Sinclair as well, and other minor news organizations. So he won’t plummet the way Nixon did. At the same time, he won’t stay popular as the enormity of the things he’s done becomes clearer and clearer to more and more people. Even though we now have a Republican Senate, even there, we’re going to see inroads.

The trick is this. What changed during the Nixon years was that in the beginning, say in 1973, even after the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, Republicans in the House and Senate would say to themselves, “Do I need this headache? Which is worse for me personally, to favor Nixon’s impeachment or to be against Nixon’s impeachment?” For a long time, they felt it was better to side with Nixon than to side against him. Gradually, that changed, and gradually, that could conceivably change with Trump, as well. You would expect it. I expect it, but of course, I’ve been expecting it for a while now.

Stein: They’ve stuck with him through obviously scores of odious revelations of odious behavior and perhaps criminal behavior, obstruction of justice. What could possibly break the back of his support?

Sussman: Well, one thing that could happen is exactly what happened to Nixon. It’s his taxes could become public. Nixon was guilty of criminal fraud in his taxes. He backdated his taxes and took a $570,000 deduction that was illegal. He ended up having to repay the government $470,000 in taxes. Had he been anybody else, he would have been charged for that. As a matter of fact, Nixon’s taxes made it into one of the articles of impeachment in the drafts of the impeachment proceedings.

They were dropped in the end. There were only three items of impeachment. His taxes were dropped, but the issue was clear to the people. Nixon always said that Watergate was false, as usual. He also called Watergate a third-rate burglary, but his main approach was that, “Well, this happens on both sides.” People didn’t know how to deal with that. Some people believed that, and to an extent, things did happen on both sides. But the taxes weren’t complicated. When you have the president claiming less than $900 in taxes two years in a row on his federal income taxes, people are going to understand that, because it’s less than anybody paid. When it’s not only just paying a little bit but the tax deduction is illegal, and the way president claimed it was criminal fraud, that’s not complicated.                        

We don’t know what’s going to happen with Trump’s taxes, if and when they become public, but there have been possibilities that something similar could happen, and that would be the end.

Stein: It’s possible also that the taxes would be greeted with a shrug. It seems to me a big difference between Nixon and Trump is that Nixon always proclaimed one way or another, “I am not a crook. I am an honest man,” whereas Trump sort of shrugs and says, “Yeah, I’m kind of a crook, but so what?” Many have noted that when his financial improprieties are revealed, many of his followers just shrug and say, “Well, that’s great. He socked it to the man by cheating the man on taxes.”

Sussman: That’s exactly right, but it’s only right for one reason. The reason is the press doesn’t stay with the story long enough. It’s again a case of them being led around by the nose by Trump. If his taxes show the kind of fraud that some people think could be there, and the press writes about it, that’s not a one-day story. That’s not a two-day story. It’s a story that they have to get into, dig deep, and actually it’s dealt with properly, incrementally.

If they write what they find and keep finding more, then Trump won’t be able to change the subject and it will take effect. Because not all of Trump’s supporters are loony. Many of them are disaffected for other reasons, and some of them for very good reasons. That’s why they stay with Trump, because they don’t like the alternatives. I think that’s fair for a lot of people, but if they see that, “Well, no, this is just too much,” which they would see if the press did a better job, a more straightforward, better job, instead of following Trump around by the nose, dealing with other issues.

The issues I’m talking about, I’m talking about climate change and a whole list, these are issues where Trump comes out poorly. People will know that, too. A main problem that I have is not just Trump. It’s the Republican Party, who are very happy to have Trump there because they’re getting what they want, to the detriment of everybody else and the planet. The problem is just flat-out poor press coverage, not well thought-out press coverage.

Stein: What would you be doing differently?

Sussman: Well, one of the main offenders is cable television. What I would do differently on cable television is I would eliminate from CNN, for example, which is somewhat popular—I would eliminate the partisan supporters of the president who are not interested in giving a legitimate point of view of what’s going on. Their only interest seems to be the party line.

I would report a little bit harder. I’d like to know if some of these Republicans who appear as interpreters and as media experts, talking heads, I wonder if they have discussions and talking points given to them by people involved in the party. I wonder how often they meet with party officials, how often they talk, and why would anybody pretend or accept them when it’s so clear that they’re not interested in facts or news, but only the party line.

Stein: Should they continue to book people like Kellyanne Conway, who just comes on and spouts one lie after another?

Sussman: Well, that’s a perfect example, Conway. That’s a fine example of, why would anybody pay any attention to anything she says? She’s not reliable. We don’t expect her to be anything except a mouthpiece. That’s her job.

But I’m also talking about people who aren’t in public office anymore, who are called on. This doesn’t go for everybody.

Stein: What should major newspapers, such as The Washington Post and New York Times, be doing differently?

Sussman: It’s not that they don’t cover other news, because they do. They’re great newspapers. They’re great news organizations. They spend a lot on foreign coverage. That’s not inexpensive. I don’t really like to criticize them all that much, but I think in this instance, they have to do a little more than they’re doing in terms of, what should we be covering? What are we not covering day by day that should be covered? Where does Trump fit into all this? Because he’ll do a tweet, and lead everybody around by the nose with a tweet. “Lock her up” is still an expression. Last week, he went after John Kerry. What in the world is that about? The point of it is just to change the subject.                        

If there were less coverage, could Trump set the agenda to a lesser degree? If he were not allowed to set the agenda, the investigative coverage would stand out more, because there would be less of the foolish coverage, the unnecessary, foolish coverage.

Stein: Let’s talk about Trump and Russia for a minute. I’m remembering the Halberstam characterization of you as the perfect editor, or something like that, on Watergate because you knew something was there. You saw the bigger story. In terms of the Trump Russia coverage, me as a Cold War baby, one of the things that alarms me is Trump’s obeisance to Putin. It seems to me that a larger story is he is dancing to Putin’s tune. Do you see it that way?

Sussman: I do see it exactly that way. I always believed, always that you give people the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, if there’s ever been somebody who acts like he’s hiding something, always, if you can’t explain his actions for any good reason but only with bad reasons, maybe there’s something there. I agree with you entirely on Trump and Putin. It’s just gone past the point of surprise. I’d be surprised if he says something that makes sense when it comes to Putin.                        

So yes, it looks like there’s something there. There may be something there. We ought to be able to find out if there’s something there. That’s one thing that a look at his taxes might help. At least we ought to look, and try to find out, and try to see if anything is there. More and more it looks as though there’s no clean answer to why Trump behaves this way toward Putin.

Stein: Do you think that Mueller should have knitted all these Russian contacts and arrangements together to make a declarative statement, a stronger declarative statement that something was really amiss here?

Sussman: Mueller had a very broad mandate. He could have done a lot more than he did. He, for example, could have looked at Trump’s taxes himself, had he been allowed to.

Stein: What prevented him?

Sussman: I don’t know whether he was allowed to or not allowed to. But as we’ve been saying, if the taxes tie Trump, conceivably, to obligations to Russia, then they explain a lot of his behavior toward Russia and toward Putin. Now, it may be that higher-ups in the Justice Department told Mueller, “No, you’re not going to go after his taxes.” Maybe Mueller himself decided he didn’t need that headache, he had enough to look at.

I feel overall there are a number of areas where Mueller could have done more, but I don’t know if he decided not to do more, or if he was told, “You’re not going to get into that area,” because I think that’s also possible. I think that it would be nice to have him testify and find out answers to some of these questions.

Stein: Going back to being able to see the larger story at work, the Post was able to find Donald Segretti, who revealed that there was a much larger operation of sabotage against the Democrats. Do you suspect anything like that going on with this administration? Would it surprise you?

Sussman: Well, the corruption in the Nixon administration, by and large—not solely, but by and large—was over power. They looked at the country, they looked at it as us and them, and they tried to make us stronger at the expense of them, them being everybody else.                        

The current administration, the Trump administration, it’s mostly about money, and turning the clock back. It’s really a very different kind of corruption going on than there was in the Nixon group. By and large.

Stein: Can you explain that?

Sussman: I don’t want to push that too far, because of course Nixon had his Southern Strategy and all of that. Much of that was the same, but the main difference or a main difference was the Vietnam War, which took 57,000 American lives. Nixon came to office saying he was going to end the war. Instead, he doubled the life of the war, and tried to make anybody who dissented, who was a war dissenter, an anti-war person, seemed to be a bit un-American.                        

Trump is, in a way, doing some similar things. Nixon in his first year had the vice president, Agnew, go out all around the country saying bad things about the press, criticizing the eastern establishment press. Of course, Trump is doing that in spades, saying the press is the enemy of the people. It’s an incredible thing.

People keep thinking that the Republicans are toadies in this. It’s true that some of them feel it’s politically difficult because if they go against Trump, they lose all their support, and if they back Trump, they lose support. But I think a lot of them don’t have any problem at all. If you looked over the list of Republicans who might vote... who might do something that’s good for the country instead of good for the party, I think you’ll find three to five Republicans who might, at any given time, vote like that, out of more than 50. I’m not even sure there are that many.

A great political party has been turned into a disaster. That’s not to defend the Democrats or say good things about the Democrats, although there are some really fine Democrats. It’s to say that we’ve never had a situation like this. As bad as Trump is, the Republican Party really is no better. We’ve come to a strange place in American political life.