May-June 2021

Bethesda interview: Manu Raju

CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju on being inside the Capitol as insurgents stormed the halls, and what it’s like to cover the Hill during a pandemic

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Manu Raju at home in Chevy Chase, D.C., with his wife, Archana Mehta, and their 5-year-old twins. Photo by Michael Ventura

Just after 4 p.m. on Jan. 6, Manu Raju, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent, was in his recording booth in the Senate press gallery when he heard a pounding on the door. The U.S. Capitol Police had come to evacuate Raju, his two producers, and the 18 or so other media people in the room and escort them to a more secure location in the building. A few hours earlier, Raju and the others had been ordered to stay in the gallery for their protection as insurgents stormed the halls of Congress. Raju couldn’t see the rioters from his windowless booth. Instead, he was going on the air every few minutes with reports that he was receiving via texts from lawmakers and congressional aides on the House floor and in ransacked offices in the Capitol. Until he was being evacuated, he had no idea that rioters had been just down the hall from where he was broadcasting.

“It was the first time that I fully got a sense of how much danger we were in. That entire third floor was trashed. There were hand sanitizer stands knocked over. Desks were knocked over. There was this slippery film on the ground and the railings, all this white film that had been the result of tear gas that had been shot all around the third floor,” Raju says. The whole area smelled of smoke grenades. “The reality was that none of us were secure, and we just didn’t know that until later.”

Since joining CNN in 2015, Raju has appeared on camera five days a week (often more), chasing lawmakers through the U.S. Capitol and around the country on campaign stops. In 2016 he traveled with Marco Rubio during the Florida senator’s presidential run. “It’s nonstop,” Raju, 41, says. “But that’s what we signed up for.”

A first-generation Indian American, Raju was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. His parents emigrated from India in the 1970s, and his father, a neonatologist, spent 30 years at the University of Illinois Hospital. His mom worked at a local library. In high school, Raju ran track and played on the football and basketball teams, and was president of his Hindu temple youth group. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison he majored in business administration but covered sports “on the side” for his college newspaper, The Badger Herald. He interned at two TV stations before deciding to forgo business and give reporting a shot. “I started to enjoy it, I started to learn it. I was about to graduate, and I was thinking to myself, maybe I should try this journalism thing and see what happens,” he says. “The beauty of being a journalist is that you don’t necessarily have to have a journalism degree.”

Raju’s parents moved to Gaithersburg during his senior year of college, when his dad took a position at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. After graduating in 2002, Raju moved in with them for a few months before landing a job covering environmental policy for Inside EPA, a website and weekly newsletter owned by Inside Washington Publishers. He joined the staff of Congressional Quarterly in 2004, then worked at The Hill for a couple of years before taking a job at Politico in 2008. He worked there for seven years until “a job opened up at CNN covering Congress and the timing was right,” he says.

Raju met his wife, Archana Mehta, in 2005 while living in Washington, and the couple eventually settled in Chevy Chase, D.C. A year and a half ago they moved to a larger house less than two blocks away to give their now 5-year-old twins “more room to run around in.” With the couple’s son and daughter mostly in Zoom school and Mehta, vice president of marketing and business strategy for Gaithersburg-based Recovery Point Systems, working from home, Raju says being on the Hill most days keeps him “out of their hair.”

In late February, on one of Raju’s rare days off, Bethesda Magazine caught up with him on Zoom.

Was the insurrection at the U.S.Capitol the scariest story you’ve ever covered as a correspondent?

I’ve gone to rowdy rallies and political events—nothing even comes close to this. [CNN anchor] Jake Tapper said to me, ‘I never thought [talking to] our Capitol Hill correspondents would be like talking to war correspondents.’ That’s what it felt like.

At what point did you realize this wasn’t just a regular protest but an unprecedented situation?

The first scare we got was as the [election] certification was starting [about 1 p.m.]. We were getting reports from the Capitol Police about a potential bomb scare…but that does happen from time to time. At one point we were hearing from sources that things were getting pretty out of hand outside and that we’re on lockdown. That was a little nerve-racking. This was only the second time that’s happened. Then we started hearing reports that the protesters have breached the barricade around the Capitol. But it was still not a real concern in my mind that they could actually get inside the Capitol—it’s one of the most fortified buildings in the whole country. Then I got an email from the Capitol Police saying, ‘internal security threat—go into your office, lock your doors and don’t leave.’ That was a pretty alarming alert. The truth is, I didn’t know the full extent of things until days later.

What was your wife doing while the insurgence was going on?

She was texting me a lot, nervous about what was going on. I was getting texts from family, a lot of friends, staffers, people I haven’t heard from in years, reaching out, saying, ‘Are you all right?’ The good thing for my family was that I was on TV reporting, so that gave them some level of assurance.

What time did you get home that night?

I got home about 3 a.m. and was back on air at 8 a.m. I only got about two hours of sleep. I probably could have told my bosses I needed to sleep for a few more hours, but it was too big of a story, and I wanted to be back in the middle of it again to tell people what I saw.

You’ve been on the Hill practically every day during the pandemic. What changes have you seen since the start of COVID-19?

We used to be able to walk around with our own camera crews. I’d walk around with my own ‘chase’ camera, and that’s where we would buttonhole lawmakers—in the hallway. We’d put the camera in their face and get them to respond. During the pandemic, all the networks have cut back on those camera crews, for social distancing, and as a result I don’t have as many of those moments when I can grab someone in the hallway and put a camera in their face…our camera locations are all pooled. We’re still running around asking questions, it’s just mostly off camera now. It’s different when a viewer actually watches someone dodge a question—that has a different impact.

Has that made it harder to do your job?

Typically, members who are running for reelections in difficult races want to avoid the press. In the run-up to the 2020 election, the Senate was at stake and members were trying to avoid any press whatsoever. There are senators-only elevators where senators can go in and not answer your question because you have to get permission to ride with them. There are back stairways all throughout the Capitol—lawmakers use those back entrances and exits to leave the Capitol so they can avoid your line of questioning. It was easier for them to do it because there were just fewer of us around, and fewer cameras around.

Until you joined CNN, you were a print reporter. What made you decide to transition to TV?

[At Politico], I’d been doing more guest appearances on television shows. I was on Meet the Press, I did CNN a lot, I did the Sunday shows, Face the Nation. I was appearing as a panelist, and I was enjoying it. A big moment for me was when I was sole moderator [in 2014] for the Colorado gubernatorial and Senate debates. They were two big races and it made a ton of news, and I realized the importance of reporting on air and the impact it could have. That was a pretty revelatory moment in my career.

A lot of lawmakers have contracted COVID over the past year. Have you felt at risk when you’re on the Hill?

The Capitol has been a hot spot. The good thing is they just put testing in at the Capitol. That’s finally available, so I get tested now almost every day of the week when I’m up there. So at least I have some level of security that I’m not carrying it back home. For a while, there was no mask mandate requirement on the House side. I would interview members who were not wearing masks. I’d be wearing a mask. I always wear a mask everywhere I go there—I have to—but they don’t. There were some members who refused to; now there’s a requirement that they have to. On the Senate side, most members—except for one—wear a mask everywhere they go. But still, masks are not 100% effective.

Who’s the senator that won’t wear a mask?

[Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul—he says because he’s had COVID before he believes he’s immune now. That’s possible, but of course we don’t quite know the science behind that fully, whether he’s 100% immune.

What was the most important lesson you learned covering Capitol Hill during the Donald Trump years?

One thing I try to do as a reporter is tune out the noise, and during the Trump years the noise was intense. Being called an enemy of the people. What I learned is to ignore that, as hard as it can be at times. It’s a distraction. You really have to have thick skin or really just tune it out. The Twitter mobs are intense, but ignore the Twitter mobs the best you can and just try to move forward to report and do the job you were hired to do.

In January 2020, Martha McSally, then Arizona’s junior senator, called you “a liberal hack” during her campaign. What were you thinking at the time?

The moment that happened I was not thrilled about it, not because it hurt my feelings in any way—because it did not—but because I knew it would become a news story, and I do not like to be in the center of the story. I like to cover the news. I like to drive the news cycle. I don’t want to be the subject of an attack by a senator who’s just trying to get attention for herself. But the moment she said it I knew it was going to be a story and I had a duty to report it. She said it not just in front of me but in front of other reporters—it was going to be reported one way or [the] other. And she had her spokesperson walking around with her cellphone camera recording it—so it may have been planned to some extent. They tweeted out their own video of it.

How did the incident with McSally begin?

I was in the middle of covering [former President Trump’s January 2020] impeachment trial. I was asking her very fair questions. I asked her, ‘Do you support subpoenaing witnesses and documents…?’ She was a Republican senator up for election in a difficult race, and she had not said where she was on that, and that was a key question. The Democrats needed 51 votes to move forward, so of course I was going to ask her that question, and she did not want to answer that.

There was also some controversy around a story you reported in 2017—that Donald Trump Jr. had access to WikiLeaks information about Hillary Clinton before the public did during the 2016 campaign. It turned out not to be true.

Sometimes bad information comes your way and you do your best job to make sure you don’t report bad information. But if it happens, we have to acknowledge that. What we did was we reported a story inaccurately, and when we found out we were wrong, we ran a correction. No reporter likes to make a mistake, and I made a mistake and we corrected it. It also shows you that our job is to report honestly, and when you make a mistake you own up to it, and that’s basically what we did.

You were honored with the prestigious Joan S. Barone Award at the 2017 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner for a story you did on the 2016 New Hampshire Senate race. What made that story so special?

What I really like to do is sit down with politicians and press them with direct questions, and when they’re not answering, I like to press them until they actually respond. In the 2016 New Hampshire Senate race, both candidates refused to express their views on their [respective presidential candidates]. The Republican [then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte] wouldn’t say whether she endorsed Donald Trump, and the Democratic candidate [Sen. Maggie Hassan] wouldn’t say whether she thought Hillary Clinton was honest and trustworthy. That became a really good story because it revealed how the candidates were struggling with their presidential candidates.

Any other favorite stories you’ve done at CNN?

During Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, there was a moment when a key witness was behind closed doors and I got to break the news of what he was saying…and it was bombshell stuff. The witness had heard [Gordon Sondland, the former] ambassador to the European Union, and Donald Trump talking about Ukraine launching an investigation into Joe Biden. [The testimony] was central to the impeachment trial, and my competitors were all sitting there listening to me report it. We had just broken this huge story.

How did you get exclusive access to that witness testimony?

From years of source development.

Your brother, Sharat, is a television director in Los Angeles—he’s directed episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Minds. Was there any pressure on you or him to go into medicine like your father?

For a lot of Indian kids, their parents tell them they want them to be doctors or engineers and the like. My parents, to their credit, did not pressure me—they let me pursue whatever I wanted to do, and I really am grateful for that.

What was it like growing up in the Midwest as a first-generation Indian American?

There weren’t that many Indian people. It was a very white, very Catholic community that we grew up in, and for my parents, they really had a lot to learn. This was a foreign land for them. They didn’t know anybody when they moved here. I really hand it to them—coming to a brand-new culture, trying to figure it out. For me, I grew up assimilating into U.S. culture but also having a lot of connections to India. My parents wanted to ensure our Indian heritage stuck with us even as we were growing up in this country. We did a lot of stuff with the Indian community in the area.

Were there times for you as a kid when it was difficult to balance the two cultures?

When you’re a kid, it’s hard because you are trying to fit in, but it got easier as I grew up and understood why my parents were pushing to ensure that I stayed connected to my roots. In high school, I really started to appreciate my roots and my Indian identity and to feel very grounded. I was very comfortable on Saturdays playing sports, going to practice or playing games, and on Sundays going to temple and doing youth group activities. I was able to merge the two different aspects of my life.

How do you think being the child of immigrants has impacted you as an adult?

Coming from an immigrant family I think helps with your work ethic because my parents worked so hard and I watched them work so hard to achieve everything they did. My dad, in particular, came from pretty humble means.

Being on the Hill every day, you’ve missed your son and daughter doing remote learning. What are you hearing from them—or your wife—about that?

[My kids have] suddenly become totally adept at using their iPads for Zoom meetings—they are on Zoom meetings for virtual school all day. It’s funny watching how they navigate it. I watched them do show-and-tell on Zoom and it was hilarious watching them call on other kids asking questions. At 5 years old, they know how to use Zoom better than I do. But still, they need help. Thankfully we have a nanny who’s been a huge help in getting us through.

How does your family handle it on those nights when news breaks and you have to dash back to the Hill right after you’ve gotten home?

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, it was Friday night about 7 p.m. I’d been cleared for the night—nothing on my beat was popping. I’d gotten home about an hour before and was settling in for a relaxing evening. Suddenly I get a call from the desk saying ‘RBG has died. Can you call in immediately?’ She was such a momentous figure and had a huge impact on society, but the immediate question was: With weeks to go until the election, what will happen with the replacement? Will the Republicans be able to confirm a new nominee? Will they actually do that? Will any Republicans break rank, and will they stop it? I had a quick phone interview with [CNN anchor] Erin Burnett—I have my at-home studio, but it takes like five to seven minutes to set up and there was no time to do it. I said goodbye to my family and headed to Capitol Hill. This is a job where you can’t predict your schedule—thankfully I have an understanding family.

Do your wife and kids watch you on TV?

My wife watches a fair amount of CNN. My kids see me, but they’re not blown away or interested. They just think it’s normal. When we’re out and someone comes up and recognizes me, the kids think it’s really funny—they’ll laugh about it after.

Are you ever able to get a total break from politics?

When we go on [family] trips I really try to tune out. Last year, during the pandemic, we went to Virginia Beach for a week and I completely tuned out. That was August. It’s been awhile.

What are your favorite neighborhood haunts?

Comet Ping Pong—we love Comet. And [the Italian restaurant] I’m Eddie Cano. The kids love going out. We miss doing that, having a nice long lunch with the kids, going to museums at the Mall, going to bounce houses. Now we try to go to parks and playgrounds that aren’t too crowded.

What’s the first trip you and your wife are going to take with the kids when things are normal again?

I have a lot of extended family in India. We have not gone as a family yet—we had hoped to go this year, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. At some point I want to take the kids to see their extended family. I used to go there a lot when I was a kid—every few years to see my uncles and aunts and cousins. We want to start doing that once we get past all of this.

Now that you can’t go out, how have you and your wife been surviving the pandemic?

[My wife’s] a phenomenal cook. I’m her sous-chef—I’ll cut vegetables for her and wash the dishes afterward. I try to [cook] every once in a while, but it takes me twice as long, I make twice the mess and it tastes half as good.

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.