David Corn Interview: "The Mystery About Trump Is Whether There’s Any Mystery"
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David Corn is a political journalist and the chief of the Washington bureau for Mother Jones. He has been the Washington editor for The Nation and appeared on MSNBC, Fox News and National Public Radio.
In February, 2013, Corn was named winner of the 2012 George Polk Award in journalism in the political reporting category for his video and reporting of the “47 percent story,” Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s videoed meeting with donors during the 2012 presidential campaign.
“Now, with the FBI director being fired, there are reasons to worry whether the White House and Trump are trying to impede the FBI inquiry. That’s exactly what Richard Nixon did with Watergate and one of the reasons he was impeached.”
As an author, Corn has written Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, Blond Ghost, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (co authored with Michael Isikoff) and Deep Background, among others.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): David, how are you today?
David Corn: Same as every day. It’s like drinking from three fire hoses at once.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you liked by Sean Spicer or ever called on by him in White House press briefings?
David Corn: I haven’t been going to the briefings. In the past, we’ve had a cordial relationship. I did go to a briefing a couple of weeks ago, and he didn’t call on me. I tried to assert my question, and he accused me of not being polite. Then, Glenn Thrush kindly asked the same question to follow up on the question I was trying to post.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It appears, from a recent briefing, that the question, “Did Trump tape Comey?” will not be answered by Spicer.
David Corn: No, and I think it’s unacceptable for him not to answer that question and that reporters should not necessarily accept stonewalling from the White House. That’s what this is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever gotten complaints from this White House on any stories you’ve written?
David Corn: No. They tend not to return our phone calls on some financial matters, but we do hear, from time to time, from the Trump organization when we call them for comment. In general, the White House is not good about getting back to reporters and answering legitimate questions.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump says he may end press briefings. He calls the media “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Do you think he will try to completely silence the press so that he will have no accountability to the American people?
David Corn: I think trying to assess what will happen in the future, make any predictions with Trump, is a foolish endeavor and also irrelevant. We already know what he has said and what he has done. We already see that he’s accused the media of being the enemy of the people and trying to discredit it.
We already have witnessed time and time again that Trump and his people are willing to make false statements repeatedly, and knowingly or not, lie to reporters and thus lie to the American public. So, we’re already at a pretty dangerous place with a president and a crew that are not behaving responsibly and who deserve no credibility.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sadly, much damage has already been done to the media, the American people and to the Constitution in a short period of time.
David Corn: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mother Jones is expanding the Trump/Russia reporting using a crowdfunding campaign. Please tell me about that.
David Corn: We have been pursuing the Trump/Russia scandal story very vigorously, and we were early on it, having written about the Russian memos before the election. That was something that I broke, a story that I worked on. But we see how this story has developed multiple tentacles and rabbit holes, to mix metaphors here, and we’ve decided to make a major investment in expanding our reporting capacity so that we can pursue all these aspects and leads quite fiercely.
We have raised some money for this expansion, and we’ve also asked our readers and supporters to kick in. That appeal went out last Friday. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I’m told by the folks who handle this for us, that the initial reaction is far stronger than they have even hoped for.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you publish periodic updates on findings and investigations to keep the public informed?
David Corn: We’re already producing a stream of stories and material. So, we have reporters already on the beat who’ve been very active in breaking stories and also covering the news as it develops. We will be doing more of that as we go on. We’ll be putting out a newsletter sort of assembling our coverage so people can pay attention because we realize it is hard to keep track of everything that’s going on these days. One thing we want to do is make it easier for readers and citizens to monitor what’s going on without having to sit in front of TV screens or Twitter 24 hours a day (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know that will be appreciated. Will investigative journalists be the ones to dig even deeper and reveal the possible cover-ups in this Trump/Russia story similar to what Woodward and Bernstein did in the Watergate scandal?
David Corn: It may be too easy to compare it to Watergate. At the time of Watergate, there were vigorous investigations both in Congress and within the FBI. Not to take anything away from Bob and Carl, some of their reporting at the time was helped by these investigations. This time around, we know that there are investigations within the FBI and by congressional committees, but we have reasons to worry about all of them. We’ve seen the House Intelligence Committee blow up under the keystone cop leadership of David Nunes who’s no longer there. It’s unclear whether that committee’s investigation has recovered from his antics.
On the Senate side, we see the Senate Intelligence Committee pursuing the case, but there have been mixed signals as to how effective the investigation has been in the early stretch, and of course, both congressional investigations are being conducted by Republicans who have been very supportive of Trump from the campaign onward. So, there are reasons for a citizen to wonder if these inquiries will be thorough.
Now, with the FBI director being fired, there are reasons to worry whether the White House and Trump are trying to impede the FBI inquiry. That’s exactly what Richard Nixon did with Watergate and one of the reasons he was impeached. He tried to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglary, asking the CIA to tell the FBI that it shouldn’t pursue that investigation. We have President Trump contradicting the earlier White House accounts of why he fired Jim Comey, saying in the NBC interview last week that the “Russia thing” was part of the decision making for him. That means he fired the fellow in charge of an investigation that is looking at Trump associates and that may well end up on Trump’s own doorstep.
As others have pointed out, this is getting close to obstruction of justice, which was one of the three articles of impeachment filed against Richard Nixon. So, the point here about truism is, with the major official investigations all providing some reason for a citizen to worry, it may really fall to the media to be the entity that pursues all the strands of the story as far as they go.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The phrase “follow the money” has been used by investigative journalists for many years. Do you believe investigating that avenue can be successful even though Trump won’t release his taxes?
David Corn: “Follow the money” is a good piece of advice. Another is “follow the lies.” But, on the money end, Trump’s financial dealings are purposefully, extremely opaque. He has hundreds of LOCs, what you might call “shell companies,” and the paper trail on them is very thin. Even if he were to release his taxes, there’d still be much we wouldn’t know about his finances. The taxes, of course, would be a great start, and it’s almost criminal that he has gotten away without releasing them. But there are many issues about Trump’s finances which may or may not intersect with the Trump/Russia scandal that in and of themselves demand a thorough investigation.
We still don’t have a thorough understanding of all the money he owes to outside parties including international entities. The potential for serious conflicts of interest here are enormous, and we’ve seen that neither he nor the people around him, including his near and dear family members, do not seem to be interested in abiding by the basic ethics laws that have long governed the leaders of this country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned earlier the story you broke about the Russian memos. You interviewed the former Western intelligence officer that sent them to the FBI, so how did you feel when you first read the allegations in his memos related to Donald Trump?
David Corn: When I saw those memos, I was shocked as a journalist and worried as a citizen. The implications are profound. The major points of the memos were that the Russian Intelligence had a year’s long project to co-opt and cultivate Donald Trump, that there had been exchanges of information between Trump’s circle and Russian agents and that Russian Intelligence had gathered compromising material on Donald Trump. Any, let alone all of that, was quite troubling. It raised the specter of collusion between Trump’s crew and Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime. It also suggested the possibility that a presidential candidate and perhaps a future president could be blackmailed or swayed or nudged by Vladimir Putin.
From a journalistic perspective, it was a challenging story to cover because material within the memos could not be confirmed. But I was able to confirm, and this was all before the election, that the author of the memos was considered a credible source of information by various elements of the United States government and that the FBI, to whom he had given the information, was interested in it and had requested more material from him. To me, the story was that eight or nine days before the election, the FBI was taking this seriously and investigating it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Over the course of your journalistic career, have you ever feared for your life?
David Corn: No, nothing quite that dramatic. I think all journalists who write about national security issues think about whether they’re being watched in some way or another, and in fact, we do know that in limited instances the government has looked at email and collected information from reporters who were working in this area. I have never felt threatened in any serious manner.
There was a moment when, right after I broke the story of the “47 percent” tape, my source on that thought there was a car outside his apartment that seemed suspicious. That same night, I saw cars that I wasn’t used to seeing up and down my street parked outside my house. But, in general, I feel that I’ve been able to do my job fortunately without fear, and I feel privileged in that way because there are many journalists around the world who don’t get to work and feel safe at the same time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and there was a reporter in West Virginia recently arrested for asking questions.
David Corn: I am cognizant of the fact that in the United States, there are instances where reporters are pressured, intimidated and threatened. It does happen. Reporters who have investigated corruption and organized crime have faced enormous intimidation and threats and physical violence. But, so far, working in Washington, I have not experienced any of that.
I should say that two years ago when my colleague Dan Schulman and I revealed that Bill O’Reilly had been saying he’d been reporting from a war zone when that wasn’t true, O’Reilly did state publicly that I should be placed in the “kill zone.” That was a little bit troubling because there are a lot of crazy people out there who may see something like that and get ideas. In all of my years of reporting, I would say that the most serious and worrisome threat I ever got was from Bill O’Reilly. I should also note the different times that I’ve had computer attacks and stupid idiots on Twitter saying threatening things, which are very easy not to pay attention to.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m thinking there will be some films made about this time in history. But other than Alec Baldwin, I’m at a loss at who could play Donald Trump effectively with all of his character and personality traits. Any ideas?
David Corn: (laughs) Other than Alec Baldwin, it’s kind of hard. When I see Trump these days, I think more of Alec than I think of Trump. All presidents to a certain degree are mysteries. The mystery about Trump is whether there’s any mystery (laughs). It’s very easy to see him for being a blustery bully who brags about himself, who is a complete narcissist, who doesn’t show much interest in learning about the world beyond Trump and who is a misogynist and a bigot who cares little about anything other than Trump. To me, the mystery is, is there anything beyond that? (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Like perhaps underlying compassion or integrity?
David Corn: Yeah. If you go deeper, do you find anything else, or is that just it? He sets a record for political lying. All politicians bend and play with the truth and occasionally lie. But if you look at all the fact checkers that monitored Trump during the campaign, he really pegged the needle.
I would say the mystery about Trump is whether he believes his own lies. Then, the question becomes, what’s more frightening, to have a president who knows he’s saying things that are untrue but doing so for strategic advantage, or a president who doesn’t have a firm grasp on reality and the truth?
When he says 1.5 million Americans attended his inauguration and that’s clearly false, does he believe that, or is he just being this bold salesman who has come to believe that if you make wild claims loud enough, enough people will accept them as true?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It could become increasingly dangerous if Trump actually cannot tell the difference between the truth and his lies.
David Corn: That is really frightening. I think it is because when it comes to assessing the world and threats that may confront the United States, you want a commander-in-chief, the fellow who’s in charge of our nuclear arsenal, to have a firm grip on reality. That person has to be able to ask for information, absorb information and consider information presented to him. If you have someone who just believes that what he thinks is true, we could end up in an even greater world of hurt and pain.
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