Jonathan Karl Interview: I Think Trump Snapped and Believes He Won
Image attributed to ABC News
Jonathan Karl was the chief White House correspondent for ABC News in Washington, D.C., from December 2012 through the end of the Trump administration in January 2021, and he served as the 94th President of the White House Correspondents’ Association (2019-2020). He is currently the ABC News chief Washington correspondent. Karl is co-anchor of This Week with George Stephanopoulos and has appeared on Nightline, Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer.
Karl has broad experience covering US politics, foreign policy and the military and has reported from more than 30 countries. He has covered every major beat in Washington, including the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the State Department. He’s reported from the White House under four presidents, more than a dozen press secretaries and has covered eight presidential elections. Karl is the author of the New York Times bestseller Front Row at the Trump Show (March 2020) and Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, published on November 16, 2021.
"He was trying to portray the reporters covering him as enemies of the people and as the opposition party. He would attack me and my colleagues in very personal terms."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jonathan, I wanted to start by asking a couple of basic questions before we discuss the book. How many years have you been in the journalistic field?
Jonathan Karl: I’ve been in the journalistic field since I was like 10 years old, I think (laughs). I was editor of my junior high school yearbook because we didn’t have a newspaper, so that was the closest thing I had. I’ve been kind of at it ever since.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you a curious child who asked a lot of questions?
Jonathan Karl: Well, the summer before the 5th grade, my mom and my stepfather and I drove from Connecticut out to California, and we stopped at Mount Rushmore. They became very interested in Mount Rushmore as a piece of art like, who was behind this and how was this done? They ended up getting the University of South Dakota to give them a very small grant to go around and try to find and do all of the history interviews with the people who worked on Mount Rushmore. I went around with them and did that. I missed a lot of school, by the way, but I think that is what got me started in this, listening and watching them uncover these stories about the creation of Mount Rushmore.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were the ABC News chief White House correspondent during the Trump administration?
Jonathan Karl: Yes, and that ended on January 20. So now I am the chief Washington correspondent. I don’t attend briefings now, but I do go in and out of the White House and talk to officials there. I report on all things politics and all things government, and I’m the co-anchor of This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How long have you known Donald Trump, and what did you think about him when you first interviewed him?
Jonathan Karl: I first met him in 1994, and I thought he was interesting, gregarious and very full of himself but in a way that was almost charming back then. I found him to be very eager to talk to me as a reporter, and I know that I was not the only one. But he liked to talk about himself and what he was doing to people in the news business. He liked to be written about and talked about. Not much has changed on that front (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How difficult was it for you to remain an objective journalist during the four years when Donald Trump was angrily calling the press “the enemy of the people”?
Jonathan Karl: It was very difficult. He was trying to portray the reporters covering him as enemies of the people and as the opposition party. He would attack me and my colleagues in very personal terms. In front of the cameras, Trump called me terrible names. He called me a “disgrace.” He called me a “third-rate reporter.” He said that I was “never going to make it.” He said I was making some things up. Sometimes, behind the scenes, he could be very nice and charming like he had been back in 1994. So you never knew what you were going to get. But that was a real challenge, and I tried my best to never allow it to become personal and to maintain my job as being a reporter, which is it didn’t matter if he insulted me because that was what matters.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had a front row seat in the briefing room, so you were very close to Trump. That had to have made it worse for you when he began the attacks.
Jonathan Karl: Well, think about it this way. Especially during the pandemic, we were in a room, and there were only 14 reporters in the entire room, and I’m less than six feet away from Trump. So when he was yelling at me and calling me those names, and the cameras are carrying it all across the country, he’s right there. It’s surreal.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you want the theme of Betrayal to be?
Jonathan Karl: I wanted Betrayal to provide a history, a very well documented factual history, of what happened in 2020 in the lead-up to January 6, 2021. I think the biggest takeaway would be that as bad as the situation was, it was almost far worse, and we came much closer than any of us realized at the time to a complete disaster in this country and to losing it all.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did Donald Trump’s closest advisors and enablers in the White House actually believe the election was stolen, or were they acting out of fear or a loyalty to him?
Jonathan Karl: Most of the people who had worked in that White House and on that campaign knew full well that the election was not stolen and that the crazy conspiracy theories were exactly that: They were crazy. I think there were some people around him who came to believe that stuff, but not many. And I think, in the end, something snapped and Trump actually believed his own lies. I think that right now, he actually believes that he won. I think he truly believes it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Can we say that former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Johnny McEntee, a guy who used to carry Trump’s bags, were both instrumental in attempting to throw the election to Trump?
Jonathan Karl: Absolutely. I recount how Meadows was the one who sent the memo, that outlined exactly the plan, directly to the Chief of Staff of the Vice President. McEntee was doing everything Trump wanted. McEntee even placed the call. I talk about him in the book. He placed the call to the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and asked him to start receiving voting machines in the contested states. Of course, Chad Wolf didn’t go along with it. Meadows was a part of everything. I can find no evidence of him pushing back against any of this. I can see no communication that he did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Meadows is apparently in some trouble now with the January 6 panel.
Jonathan Karl: Yep. He’s got some explaining to do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe that Trump is still trying to block the National Archives from giving Congress quick access to records related to the January 6 riot. Do you believe he should be held accountable fo his part in the insurrection?
Jonathan Karl: Yeah. I think that the bulk of the January 6 committee is incredibly important. I think it’s important to lay out in detail Donald Trump’s responsibility for what happened. I think that’s the first part of holding him accountable.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The morning of January 6, Trump told Mike Pence he could either be a “patriot or a pussy.” He was speaking about Pence refusing to challenge the 2020 election results. After everything he had said and done for four years, did that comment still shock and surprise you?
Jonathan Karl: It did. That was first reported by the New York Times. When the New York Times reported it, I asked the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and people around her if it was true, if it really happened. It was denied. People said it didn’t happen. So when I asked Trump if it was the truth and if he said it, I was shocked that not only did he not dispute it, he seemed kind of proud of it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: On September 10, 2020, you asked Trump, “Why did you lie to the American people, and why should we trust what you have to say now?” It was instantly trending on Twitter, and many of us expected you to be expelled immediately from the White House press corps. Were you thinking that also?
Jonathan Karl: Obviously, I will never forget that moment. I remember we were listening to Bob Woodward’s tapes, and I heard Trump so clearly state that he was telling the public a lie about such a critical issue. There was a press conference. I figured there was a good chance he was going to call on me. Again, there were only 14 reporters in the room. I knew that it was the only question to ask. Trump came in and called on me first. I just remember that as I was asking the question, he kind of stiffened, and he grimaced, and I knew that he was just going to come after me. But at that point, if they had tried to throw me out of the White House, I would’ve eagerly walked to do my job. I was not tearful about it. Trump had crossed a line. He made it clear that he had been lying about something that could put the health of millions of Americans in jeopardy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you following the congressional investigation about the mismanagement of the COVID crisis?
Jonathan Karl: Yes. I think that there’s a lot to learn about that as well. My book touches on COVID but does not go into depth on that issue. I think it’s worthy of an entirely separate inquiry as to how our government responded to the pandemic. Clearly, there were some things that were done right, but there was a hell of a lot that was done wrong.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I just read an article written by my friend David Corn of Mother Jones titled, “New Revelations Emerge on How Donald Trump killed 400,000 (or More) Americans.” He writes that there’s news of more evidence that the Trump White House impeded the CDC’s efforts to warn Americans about the pandemic.
Jonathan Karl: I’ll give you two things that you don’t even need to investigate that happened right out there for the world to see. The first thing is, when the CDC issued its guidance that people should wear masks, Donald Trump was literally there at the White House as it was announced, and he said, “I’m not going to wear a mask.” That’s one.
The second thing was that Trump got vaccinated during the transition, and he did it privately and didn’t tell anybody about it until later. How many lives have been lost because he decided to do that in secret instead of coming out, inviting the cameras in and showing the world that he trusts the vaccine by saying “I’m taking the vaccine”? It could’ve affected a lot of people who believe everything he says, especially those who refused to take the vaccine because they believe it’s something crazy. So those are just two examples.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have a favorite press secretary out of the four in the Trump administration?
Jonathan Karl: Yes. Look, Sarah Sanders tried to do the job, and there were obviously problems. I’m not saying Sarah Sanders should be held as a model. But unlike, particularly Sean Spicer and Kayleigh McEnany, Sarah Sanders tried to actually do the job of a press secretary. Sarah Sanders actually had a pretty good relationship with the White House press corps, which is not the case for the others.
But you could’ve asked the question differently. You could’ve asked, “Who is the worst press secretary”? I would say that there was a lot of competition there. But I think that the prize still belongs to Sean Spicer. But it’s close because Kayleigh McEnany was the most brazen in the way she lied from the podium. But Spicer had that tremendous mix of both lying and being utterly incompetent. It made him very special, and we can never really forget the phrase “Holocaust centers.” But it’s close. It’s a close call.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sean Spicer will also forever be known for saying that journalists reported inaccurate crowd numbers at Trump’s inauguration to “minimize the enormous support” he had.
Jonathan Karl: Yes. Biggest crowd ever! (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will Donald Trump run again in 2024?
Jonathan Karl: He might. Most people around him say he will. I kind of doubt it. I don’t think he will go through with it, but he certainly might. Whether he does or doesn’t, so much rests on that decision. We live in a very different world whether he runs or doesn’t run. So much depends on that decision.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand that if Trump ran again and won, he would still be banned from Twitter.
Jonathan Karl: (laughs) We’d have bigger problems.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What do you think about Joe Biden’s time in office so far?
Jonathan Karl: I think Biden is coming to face immense challenges in such a deeply divided country. I think that he’s tried to bring some sense of normalcy back to the White House and to a degree, he has succeeded in doing that. You now have regular briefings, you can get your questions answered and there’s not habitual lying from the podium. But he has some real tough challenges.
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