In the weeks before the 2020 election, when it was becoming pretty clear even to the most superstitious and traumatized Democrat that Joe Biden was headed for victory, the journalists of #thistown began to worry. People you’ve likely read or heard of or watched were concerned about what a Trump loss would mean for their career. That was the talk of the town. Sure, Donald Trump had been a disaster for the country, but what would they do after he left the White House?
Trump had been the biggest story they had ever covered—and, most likely, would ever cover again. A whole generation of young reporters had cut their teeth and established their reputations chronicling Trump. Many of the women translating Trump to the bewildered country became mini celebrities of the resistance. Some of the men became martyrs—and then leaned all the way in. The older folks made millions writing books that brimmed with sensational and unexpected revelations, like how Trump was an ignorant racist who presided over a violently dysfunctional White House. (Shocking, I know.)
Trump called journalists “enemies of the people,” he undermined the very idea of a free and independent press, and the media thrilled to the challenge. Cable television hadn’t seen ratings like this in a generation, and newspapers and magazines, once seen as paper dinosaurs edging into extinction, roamed the earth like proud behemoths again. Then, suddenly, as everyone began to understand that he was leaving, Washington journalists had to contend with an uncomfortable truth, which they’ve long known: Trump may have been terrible for democracy, but he had been unquestionably good for business. As one White House reporter told me, “Trump has been good for many journalists professionally, myself included.” What would they do when the Trump gravy train left #thistown? What would they do with a man who ran his campaign on the promise that he would bring boring back to the Oval Office?
Six months since Trump left office after dispatching a mob to ransack the Capitol, the journalists who covered Trump are still not fully adjusted to the post-Trump reality. “I feel like a feral child that has to learn not to bite people because I was raised by wolves,” said Olivia Nuzzi, who brilliantly covered the Trump administration for New York magazine. The Trump White House, she observed, was a terrarium populated with a diverse ecosystem of stinging, poisonous creatures, operators whose main goals were to survive another day by killing someone else. “To go from a situation where the #1 priority every day is to use the press to spin or fuck people over, to where the #1 priority is governing, and where the infighting is not the central story—I feel like I have to be resocialized.”
Olivia, who is now 28, first interviewed Trump when she was 21. “I’ve spent the majority of my adult life reporting on Donald Trump,” she said. And she excelled at it. She famously got a private audience with Trump in the Oval Office because she was there and it kind of just happened; her text exchanges with Rudy Giuliani became the stuff of legend. But things are different at the White House now that Biden lives there. “I was fluent in Trump and fluent in Trumpworld,” Olivia told me. “I understood how things worked and how to approach a story, and I’m learning the language of Biden and Bidenworld, as I think a lot of the reporters are.”
Biden’s White House is a much more “corporate,” environment, she said. “Everything seems more buttoned up than the streaking convention that was the Trump White House.” Now there is a process for everything. There are rules. There’s a pre-approved, formulated message and a pre-approved, formulated way to push that message out into the media bloodstream. There are comms staffers who will respond to you instead of the West Wing source you had originally reached out to. “They’re really disciplined, they’re really risk averse, well-trained, seasoned operatives who know how to do this,” said another prominent White House reporter. “They know how to push back and fight over headlines and parcel out dumb pre-approved scoops to people who will write about it the way they want.”
And, like Barack Obama’s people, they’re extremely controlling. (I remember an Obama comms staffer trying to feed me quotes for what an administration official should have said during an on-the-record interview.) “Biden people will nitpick over a clause or an adjective or a highly parsed nuance, which on the whole Trump people didn’t do,” the reporter added. “But that’s because the stories they were dealing with were stories like, Trump said African countries are ‘shitholes,’ and that old people on cruise ships should be sent to Guantanamo. Here it’s like, You said ‘stern,’ but we think he was ‘firm.’”
A young White House reporter, who asked for anonymity so they could speak candidly about their job, felt the White House beat had become unrecognizable. “The mechanics of reporting have changed so much,” the reporter said. “It was just this really aberrant period in which you could almost guarantee that, with enough effort, you could find out what’s going on in the Situation Room. Now you can’t—and it’s infuriating.” The reporter rushed to clarify. “Obviously, I’m not wishing that Trump was still president, but as a reporter that wants a story, it’s frustrating how disciplined they are. Kudos to them, they’re very happy with themselves. You can see it, the coverage across the board from everyone is very, very lame. You never get inside the room and hear how this shit’s going down. Like, how are they managing this elderly man?” (White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki did not respond to a request for comment.)
The reporter went on. “It’s very difficult to go from a group of people who had contempt for their boss and are willing to leak on any subject, to a group of people who think they’re saving the world and who think very highly of themselves and are very disciplined.” I asked the reporter how they’re managing to get scoops anyway. “I don’t fucking know!” they exclaimed. “I’m working my ass off!”
Some reporters I spoke with took issue with that sentiment. “It trivializes it to a degree,” said a broadcast White House reporter. “Covering Trump was not easy. They were looking to undermine you on every possible level. Every day you go in there like you’re going into battle. You have to watch everything you say and everything you do because they were trying to take you down. There was no good faith there. With Biden, it’s harder because it’s more policy-based. You have to know what the pay-fors are on infrastructure are, nuances that we never got into with Trump. With Trump it was like, what the hell is he going to tweet while I’m in the shower?”
“There’s this misconception that covering the Trump administration was just sitting at your desk, picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hi! This is 1-800-LEAKS, tell me your leaks!’” said the prominent White House reporter. “You still had to pick up the phone and call a million people and figure out the truth. You had this wealth of material, but it was harder because your job is not to report sensational tidbits, but the truth. And that’s a kind of dangerous thing, generally, because no one could be trusted, anyone could plausibly print anything. There was no arbiter of truth.” Michael Bender, White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of the much-hyped forthcoming Trump book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” echoed the sentiment. “The intensity and the color was always better with Trump, but the challenge of telling an accurate story was harder,” he said. On the other hand, “Trump made himself more available than recent predecessors—that alone was more helpful for journalists. I always viewed that as a good thing.”
The New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker covered three presidential administrations before Trump and he simply sees this as a return to the way things have always operated in Washington. “Presidencies and White Houses are much more alike than not. The problems they have to confront, the narrow options they have available to them, the tribalism, the way it reacts as an organism is all very similar. The ideologies were different, but the broader outlines were similar.” Trump, Peter told me, was the outlier. “I would write two or three stories in my pajamas before I even got into the shower. But then by noon, we’re off on some other story.”
Most of those stories were, in his words, “cotton-candy stories, they melt in your mouth and go away but in the end, do not add up to anything.” Biden, Peter explained, doesn’t do that. “Most presidents don’t do that, they don’t want to do that. They want to stay on message. A normal president will get distracted,”—natural disasters, international incidents—“it’s inevitable, but usually presidents will avoid doing it to themselves. What’s shocking about Biden is that he’s been pretty disciplined. If you had asked me before Trump who is the national political figure who is most undisciplined, most likely to go off message, I would’ve said Joe Biden. I don’t know what they’ve done with him or who they replaced with him, but he’s not the Biden we’ve gotten used to in his three decades in the Senate.”
“It’s a return to how I assume things existed in this town,” Olivia said. “There’s something gross about that, though it’s a much lower-grade gross than what we were dealing with before.” I asked her what she meant. “For all the accusations that ‘access’ is such a dirty word, I feel like there’s a lot more access journalism now than there was then,” she explained. “There’s a lot more maneuvering and punches pulled. It was completely by accident, but there was a certain honesty and straightforwardness in dealing with [the Trump people] because they constantly revealed all their cards because they were incompetent and crazy. The Biden White House necessitates more operating, it requires a phoniness. They’re passive aggressive, whereas the Trump people were aggressive, which was easier to deal with because you didn’t have to guess, Why is the press secretary responding so negatively to your anodyne question? Is it because of something you reported earlier or because she knows you’re working on something she’s nervous about?” The professionalism of the people that surrounds Biden is a certain shade of inscrutable, especially after the glaring, blaring ways of the Trump administration. “That’s new to me,” she added.
But there is something different about this White House, and it’s creating a lot of frustration among the reporters assigned to cover it. “The truth is the Biden White House is very opaque,” said Susan Glasser, Peter Baker’s wife and co-author, who writes about politics for The New Yorker. “They had it easier because they campaigned and spent the early months in the White House in a pandemic, so they haven’t had a chance to build relationships with the press, and they’ve benefitted from that. The coverage is much less deep and rich so far in part because of the restrictions of the pandemic.” Said another reporter who covered the Trump White House, “There’s a sense that Biden’s position is fragile and that he has to be protected, that any unkind gaze might knock him over—which plays into every right-wing stereotype.”
The young White House reporter agrees. “I don’t know that there’s been a president who’s been so protected and wrapped in so many layers of wool to keep him away from anything remotely approaching an adversarial interview,” the reporter said. “Why expose him to any risk? He’s old, he’s lost a few steps. It’s worked for them so far.”
Here is the part where I should tell you that I am not a totally unbiased observer of this circus. For various reasons, I bowed out of covering the Trump show. But many of my friends and colleagues didn’t, and that’s whom I’ve interviewed for this piece. I like the people I interviewed. I say it not to be Washington nice, but to be honest. You may know these people from following them for the last four years—and you would know the unnamed people, too—but, to me, they are more than television characters or front-page bylines.
Some of the people I talked to are friendly acquaintances, some are good friends. It’s hard to be completely indifferent if you’re a journalist and are writing about journalists who do what you do and therefore, to some extent, share your world. It is also why some of them spoke to me so honestly, even if it was just on background (reporter-speak for quoting someone anonymously), though I share Peter’s frustration with that. “It drives me crazy when reporters don’t talk on the record, when we don’t do the thing we ask other people to do,” Peter said when I made sure we were on the record. It is also why I am using people’s first names rather than their last names, to be transparent about the kind of relationship we have.
Anyway, this is what I and other Washington reporters have been talking about, mostly in private, wondering what the transition from Trump to Biden would be like from a media industry perspective. What would the come-down from the adrenaline rush of Trump be like? Would Biden be harder to cover? Would anyone watch or read the news emanating from a purposefully boring administration? Would anyone buy Trump books anymore? How would journalism change with Trump’s departure?
True to everyone’s predictions, cable news ratings have gone off a cliff. In the second quarter of 2021, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC each lost at least 30 percent of their audiences. Viewership at CNN, Trump’s favorite punching bag, was down a whopping 45 percent. “There’s a reason that TV networks cover plane crashes and condo crashes, and Trump was the plane crash of democracy,” said Susan.
Now that Trump is taking the wrecking ball to American democracy from behind the scenes and the rooms of Mar-a-Lago, the rubberneckers are gone, too. That means advertising revenue has started drying up, and standards are being raised. Conservative commentator and former Republican senator Rick Santorum lost his contract as a CNN political pundit after literally perpetuating the “birth of a nation” myth. But many other journalists and hazily named “strategists” lost their contracts in 2021, seen in the industry as easy publicity and easy money (contracts ranged from the mid-five figures to even the mid-six figures for a few appearances a month). That particular gravy train has left the station. “I mean, it wasn’t just the fact that Trump was a gravy train,” said one industry insider. “It’s also juxtaposed to the most boring administration in modern history. You go from a circus with flaming chainsaws to … what? An old man watching his dog?”
Traffic is also down at the big publications that profited most off the endless Trump Möbius strip-style news cycles. Peter acknowledged that traffic at the Times is down, but “given that no one is storming the Capitol, I think the numbers have been pretty healthy.” Still, the political stories that get the most eyeballs are still the ones about Trump. “Some story about Trump on page A26, even now, has the potential to get far more clicks than a story about Biden that’s on the front page,” Peter said. “Given our readership, it’s probably a lot of people who might not like him, but they are still drawn to stories about him.”
With the departure of Trump, temperatures have cooled and the shine of resistance celebrity has worn off. “There was certainly a prominence,” saidyet another White House reporter, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized by their employer to speak on the record. “For the first time in my life, I was recognized on the street, people would buy me drinks, or take pictures of my house and post it online. I’m kind of glad to have that gone. When you become a print reporter, you don’t do it to become famous.”
Olivia has also experienced the change in how people perceive her now that she writes about Biden and not Trump. “People would come up to me and thank me for all the work I was doing,” she told me. “You were a fucking hero for having procured those details on Trump.” She knows this wasn’t the norm, and that it shouldn’t be, but the switch in people’s perception of her has been swift. “I didn’t expect it to continue, but it’s even worse than I thought,” she said. “It’s completely thankless to criticize this president.”
“Democrats in general have a much thinner skin,” observed the prominent White House reporter. “This is not unique to Trump but Republicans never expect a fair shake, so if you cover them fairly, you can have a good working relationship with them. Democrats de facto expect you to be on their side and are horrified when you hold them to account as you would any other administration. It goes back to the Obama years. [Obama staffers would be] like, ‘Don’t you realize that being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition?!’ And I would be like, ‘Yes, but I’m writing about why your website keeps crashing.’”
So, I wondered, does this mean we miss Trump? Not him being the president and wrecking the country, obviously, but Trump, the story? Did the people who spent four years thinking about him almost every conscious moment miss the adrenaline, the accolades, being at the center of the biggest story in the world? “I don’t feel any nostalgia,” said Bender, who is married to his competitor, Washington Post White House bureau chief Ashley Parker, whose employer declined to make her available for an interview. They have a young family and more than enough Trump in their household to last a lifetime. “Covering Trump was like three news cycles every day and I was only paid for one of them, so I don’t feel nostalgia for that.”
The prominent White House reporter, however, acknowledged an occasional feeling of loss. “I loved covering Trump,” they said. “It was a great and fascinating story. It wasn’t just about him; it was about his movement and the institutions and America. The story was always so dramatic and had these larger than life characters. The stakes often felt very high. I like covering Biden, too, but it just doesn’t feel as dramatic. It’s a slightly better work-life balance, and I’m not waking up at 5:30 in the morning, wondering what the president tweeted and what direction it will send my day in. It was exciting and exhilarating, but it’s fucking exhausting.”
Some were relieved for the country’s sake. “I’m not of the camp that misses Trump,” said the broadcast reporter. “I understand the sentiment, but you also have to step back and look at what happened on January 6. This isn’t a fun game that we’re playing on Twitter, it’s serious. It’s bigger than you and your career.”
But many feel a yawning sense of emptiness and disappointment at what the ebbing Trump tide left behind. “I think everyone probably misses the ease of it, having so many willing leakers,” said the young White House reporter. “It made you think that you were better than you were. It made you think you were a really good reporter, but really, are you? I think we had an inflated sense of our abilities and it was all a fraud. Now everyone is exposed and everyone is dogshit. Where are the great stories? They don’t exist. I can’t remember the last time I read a great story that really revealed something about the Biden White House.”