Bethesda Interview: Elisabeth Bumiller
The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief talks about how the job has changed under President Trump, and more
Why are you ‘much tougher’?
If the president is saying something over and over again, when he is going against the statistics of his own government, you’ve got to point that out right away. You can’t just say, ‘he said.’ You have to say, ‘he falsely said.’ I think it’s a good formulation, especially when the numbers are coming from his own government.
Is there any hesitancy? Any concern that you are crossing a line?
I don’t feel like we are crossing the line, no. I think it’s worse to say, ‘the president said,’ like it’s true. Trump has uttered so many obvious falsehoods, so often, that to just report what he said, like we have covered other presidents, seems like a falsehood in itself.
Chuck Todd [moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press] talks about the press ‘fighting back’ against Trump. Do you think that you are fighting back?
No. We are not the resistance. We are not the opposition. We are not in a fight with the administration. We are doing our jobs. We are aggressively, thoroughly, fairly reporting on the White House and the Trump administration. That is how we see it.
Why do you reject the idea of ‘fighting back’?
Because it undermines our credibility and our impartiality and our fairness. I just think it is a terrible idea to do that. That’s not why I went into journalism.
Why do you have to have someone come in at 6 a.m.?
Well, the tweets. A lot of early developments. When Trump first became president, he was tweeting at the crack of dawn. We weren’t ready for it. It had never happened before. And so we scrambled, and New York pushed hard, and I easily agreed that we needed someone in there earlier. There are two schools of thought about Trump’s tweets. One is that, ‘Why are you just covering the noise?’ On the other hand, he is the president of the United States, so his tweets are often policy or they are so over the top for an American president that they need to be covered—attacking his attorney general, for example. So often when I get in, at about 8:30, we’ve already got a couple of stories up online.
What are the lessons you’ve learned about covering Trump?
One of the things we’ve done is make sure there is a really, really high price for mistakes. There has always been a high price for mistakes at the Times. Now there is a higher price because we are so much on the radar. We’ve got a president who is coming after us regularly and we don’t want to give him any ammunition.
What have been your high points and low points as bureau chief ?
A low point was getting beaten by The Washington Post on all the Flynn coverage [Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI]. The Post was really good in the beginning on Michael Flynn, and we were scrambling. I guess low points will always be when we get beaten by our competitors, and that would be one of them. The high point was the Russia team’s coverage, and the Pulitzer.
The president talks constantly about ‘the failing New York Times.’ How does that affect you?
I’ve met Donald Trump once, that was when he came to the Times for an interview right after he was elected, and since then I’ve had occasional calls from the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, complaining about various aspects of coverage. But I used to get those kinds of calls from the Obama people, too. It’s really Trump with his megaphone that is the difference, saying ‘the failing New York Times.’ We know it is good politics for him, we know that it makes him feel good, and we also know that he really pays attention to the paper and wants approval from the Times. He is the most combative president against the press that I have ever seen, and we worry when he calls us the enemy of the people. The concern is that somebody is going to get hurt. I do worry about that. That feels very different.
Different in what way?
Well, without going into details, we’ve increased security in the bureau. And reporters have felt uneasy at some of these rallies. Trump has just been so aggressive rhetorically, there is a concern that someone is going to act on it.
Have you ever gotten a hate communication or feared for your safety?
I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail over the years, especially when I was covering the White House, less so now because my byline is not out there. Some of it was unnerving, but I’ve never gotten a really ugly threat and I’ve never feared for my safety.
That hasn’t changed during the Trump era?
It’s certainly changed for some of the high-profile reporters in the office, but it hasn’t changed for me.
How has the makeup of the bureau changed?
The bureau is almost 50 percent women, which is a big change from when I was first starting. We still need to be more diverse, but we are getting there. And it’s a lot younger, many more people in their 30s and 40s now, and we have some people in their 20s. And they are more digitally focused. But everybody has come around to digital—all you have to do is look at the readership numbers on digital compared to print, although print has hung around a lot longer than anybody thought.
I get four newspapers in the driveway, and there are days I never take them out of the plastic because I’ve read everything online the night before.
Yeah, I know. I mean Steve still reads from print. We drive in together, I’m reading on my phone, of course I’m not driving, and he still has The New York Times squashed up on the dashboard, which he pulls out at red lights. And I’m like, ‘What?’ Print smudges everywhere. He still likes print.
Steve retired from the Times 10 years ago, but you still drive in together?
Yeah. He drops me off at the bureau and then he goes to the Peterson Institute [an economics think tank where he is a vice president]. I always say he is the most expensive driver in town.
Showtime made a four-part series called The Fourth Estate about the Times, and you appear in it quite prominently. How did that come about, and how does it feel being a TV star?
Well, I don’t feel like I am the star. Sam Dolnick and Dean Baquet [editors in New York] came to us with this. They really wanted to do it. But we were very apprehensive in Washington, we were concerned that sources would be exposed and that we would look stupid or arrogant or The Washington Post would just clobber us for a year and there would be a television record of it. So the deal was if you didn’t want to participate, you could just sit it out. We didn’t have any idea what was going to happen with it. And we didn’t know who they were going to focus on, and I don’t think they knew. But they kept asking to go to our houses, and the whole thing made me nervous.
Did they go to your house?
Yes, they went to my house. My dog, Otto, is in it.
Did you feel that the cameras inhibited your ability to be candid?
Of course, of course. They would wire me when I would go into the 9:30 meeting [when the day’s news is discussed with editors in New York], but then I would take it off right away because I was literally wearing a wire and I was talking to my colleagues. They would come down about once a week, and a little more often if there was big news breaking, and they would just park themselves in the bureau and they would be there for 12 hours. I was basically always aware they were there, and yeah, we were better behaved when they were there. But sometimes I would just get too busy with the news to care too much about behaving myself. So it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of us.
Do people now recognize you from TV?
All of five people have recognized me. I have been recognized a couple times outside the bureau, and once on a street in Brooklyn.
This is a human institution, and you are in charge. It must be a very difficult managerial job.
Yes, people are exhausted. But people also know this is a story of a lifetime. So there is a lot of adrenaline and energy going on. The first year, I think we thought, ‘Well, this can’t possibly last. This is not sustainable, this kind of presidency.’ And it turns out it is, right? So we now know we are in it for the long haul.
You seem to be saying that you’re prepared for at least another two years of this high-intensity, mercurial presidency. Things haven’t calmed down, things haven’t gotten more normal.
This is the new normal. We are fully expecting to go through 2020. After that, who knows?
Steve Roberts spent 25 years at The New York Times, half of them in the Washington bureau. He now teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. The Bethesda Interview is edited for clarity and length.