In Conversation with Robert Costa: What We Need to Know about the Trump Presidency

 /  March 7, 2017, 11:02 a.m.


Robert Costa is a national political reporter for The Washington Post and a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He has worked as the Washington editor for National Review, a political analyst at CNBC, and a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal. Costa is a University of Notre Dame graduate and received a Master's degree in politics from the University of Cambridge. The Gate’s Saisha Talwar sat down with Costa during his winter fellowship at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics to discuss his insights covering the Trump campaign and presidency.

The Gate: As a winter fellow, you moderated a seminar, “Inside Trumpism,” with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Why was the event off the record?  What are the implications of the event being off the record, and do you think an open forum would have been advantageous?  

Robert Costa: It was an honor to be invited by David Axelrod to come out here for a few days and have discussions with students, and to host a public event as well as some off-the-record seminars. The Institute of Politics told me it was their policy to keep these seminars for students only and to keep them off the record. I said, “If that's your policy, that's fine.” As a reporter, obviously, it's always better to have things on the record and to have discussions that are open to the public. But I think there is also value to sometimes having conversations just among students and to try to flesh out a topic with a guest. So, as a reporter, I'm always more comfortable in on-the-record settings. But I'm a guest at Institute of Politics and they arranged a program, and I'm happy to do the different programs they have arranged. I'm having a public event on Thursday that is on the record, in public, about the future of the GOP.

So the experience of being a fellow at the Institute of Politics is comprised of many private meetings with students, students who have been asking me a lot of candid questions about politics. I have given them candid answers, and I have not said whether those are on the record or not. I assume everything I say is always on the record, and my assumption was that for the Lewandowski event, someone may well record it. There's nothing to hide. But it's not my job as a guest at the University to have some kind of philosophical debate about the way the Institute of Politics runs. Maybe someone thinks that's my role, and I appreciate that argument, but I just came here to be a fellow. More important to me than anything is to just get to know students.

Gate: What is “Trumpism” and what motivated your decision to title the event using this term?

Costa: I think the question, "What is Trumpism?" remains kind of an unanswered question. That's what we spent some time trying to answer, and as a reporter I have always found that Trumpism is driven by instincts. It's driven by the instincts of Donald Trump, a long-time brash billionaire and self-styled populist. Trumpism to me is the melding of those Trump instincts with policy, and how that actually comes to life is the story of Trumpism. We saw throughout the campaign that Senator Sessions and Steve Bannon and other self-described populist nationalists really gave Trump depth on policy. What I tried to flesh out with Lewandowski and in my seminar with students on Tuesday was, “Where does this populism come from? What drives it? Is it really sustainable? Does Trump actually believe in all these hard-line nationalist policies, or does he just believe in his own popularity and sustaining his popularity?” Trumpism is not, to me as a reporter, a coherent ideology. It's still evolving, and so the interesting thing about being a fellow here is just trying to flesh out, in conversations in different ways with different people, how Trump is rethinking American politics and changing American politics in ways that are direct and indirect.

Gate: You mentioned the “melding” between Trump's instincts and his policies. Do you think that political pundits, politicians, academic scholars, and others are failing to recognize the nuances between Trump's rhetoric and his policies, both during the campaign and now that he’s assumed office?

Costa: I think everyone's still trying to understand this disruption within the Republican Party during the campaign and, more broadly, nationally. What is causing Trump to get such traction with a segment of the country? In part, it's his personality and the way that he is confrontational and media-driven. But it's also about the politics of fear and the politics of nationalism and identity. So much of what Trump is doing deserves greater scrutiny and also greater study. There has not been great academic work on Trump yet because people did not think he was going to win. It seemed like a flash of populism, and now it's running the country, it's running the government and everyone is just trying to get their heads around what is actually happening.

So I think, as a reporter and in an academic setting here at the University, it's really just trying to dive deep into questions like, “Are these undercurrents something that's truly changing? Is Trump part of a globalist populist movement? Is he connected to Brexit, and Marine Le Pen in France, and Putin's nationalism to an extent? Is there some sort of growing worldwide thing that we're not even picking up on enough, or is this just an idiosyncratic aberration? Is this just a moment in time that's strange politically, and we will revert to the traditional right/left norms?” No one really knows, including those in Washington.

Gate: You mentioned the lack of academic work on Trump thus far—do you think there are any historical precedents that are particularly useful in helping scholars and politicians alike understand the president’s actions and ideology in this moment?

Costa: I think the power of being ubiquitous in the media has yet to be really fully understood. We had a political culture for decades that was driven by political advertising. Trump barely spent anything on advertising, yet he was able to get elected president of the United States. So I think we haven't fully processed how the dynamics of how to get elected president have changed. The data in grassroots organizing and paid advertising, which were really the metrics in which we evaluated things as reporters, perhaps mean less. If they don't mean less, they mean different things than what we thought. They don't have the same potency we once thought they did, and we have to be more self-aware about the limitations of the metrics we usually use to grade politicians or to report on politicians.

For example, we saw with the John Birch Society in the forties, this fringe view of the right, and we saw it in Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s. This kind of rowdy populism was always there, and racially charged politics were always there. Politics against the other, whether it was Muslims or Japanese or any kind of minority group, have always been present in American politics. But they have never truly had power that was so raw, or they didn't have views that were so raw and in power at the same time.

Gate: Trump has signed numerous executive orders in just over one month since he has assumed office. This type of expansion of unilateral action is certainly not unprecedented for modern presidents, but the rapid backlash he's already received may be cause for alarm. How do you think this speaks to Trump's legitimacy?

Costa: I think Trump is still trying to learn Washington. He's a total outsider. We have seen outsider presidents before, like Jimmy Carter, but Trump is different in that he has never had governing experience. Much of his White House staff has never had governing experience. They are really learning in this first month how to build a legislative agenda, how to get cabinet nominees through, how to build a White House. It has not been a calm experience. There have been many chaotic days for Trump.

I think in terms of his legitimacy, Trump feels like he's a legitimate president. He won the Electoral College vote. He has been inaugurated. There's still a large part of the country that's very wary of him, he knows that, because of the popular vote. He's a confident, brash president who also is aware that he didn't win the popular vote, and he's still trying to understand what it means to be president in terms of the responsibilities.

I think we want to judge Trump in a critical, aggressive way about his first month, about how he wasn't entirely ready to get the ship of state running, but at the same time it is only the first month, and we've seen with Trump before that he can make many stumbles and find his way back politically. I'm not entirely ready to write him off politically because of the chaotic first month. Trump has a way of recovering. He's not driven by ideology. He's driven by popularity. This could change. There could be a staff shake-up at some point, and if he had different people in there, maybe it'd be more effective.

Gate: Regarding Trump’s staff, what do you think is his appointment strategy?

Costa: I think there are multiple spheres of influence around Trump. He navigates these on his own. He balances these centers of power, and he sometimes has them competing against each other: you have the populist and nationalist in Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller at one wing of the White House. You have the mainstream Republicans in Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus. You have the family members. You have Mike Pence—the vice president is kind of in that mainstream sphere.

Then you also have the more moderate Democratic types: Gary Cohn, former number two at Goldman Sachs; Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, with the New York Democratic background. Trump is flitting between all of these groups, and he's trying to figure out how to navigate it. He uses these groups against each other sometimes. As we saw during the campaign he often pits aides against each other, but it's all about him. Trump is figuring out what's politically best for him. He doesn't really follow one of those specific groups. He takes this from that group and something from another group.

Gate: You recently wrote in The Washington Post about the appointment of Julia Hahn as an aide to strategist Steve Bannon, the controversial former Breitbart chairman. Why did you decided to focus on a fairly low-level appointment, when your other writings detail high-profile figures like Gary Cohn and Supreme Court nominees? Why did you decide to write about Hahn specifically?

Costa: I think she is an important person to keep an eye on. I first paid attention to her work a few years ago when she started writing for Breitbart, and she took a very aggressive, hardline stand on immigration. She was critical of Paul Ryan—she was perhaps more critical of him than any writer or commentator I have ever encountered. She had a platform in Breitbart that was powerful. Hahn became a thorn in the side of many Republican leaders including Ryan. Yes, she is young, and she doesn't have tons of experience, but she was at the center of this swirling storm of rising nationalism at Breitbart. Now, that storm has taken over the federal government, which makes her an important figure. And when Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to the president of the United States, specifically hires her to work directly with him at the White House, that give her real power.

It's important to understand how so much of policy is personnel, in that when Bannon hires Julia Hahn, he is really underscoring how important it is to have like-minded populist Breitbart-style Republicans with him in the White House, that he wants a power base and he wants the policy agenda for Trump to move in that direction. Yes, sometimes lower-level staffers aren't noteworthy, but when they are part of a broader trend in the country, they are.

If you look at Hahn's writings, I think you can really understand a lot about what Trump is doing. When she was at Breitbart, she wrote over and over again about similar themes, about the threat of Muslim migrants in the United States, the threat of immigration, illegal immigration especially, but also she was against legal immigration levels being expanded. She was against the Republican leadership. When you're trying as a reporter or a citizen to figure out what drives the Trump agenda, who these people are, read Julia Hahn and you get an insight into what Steve Bannon is all about and what Trump is all about.

Gate: You were once quoted as saying, “I'm not very comfortable always sharing my views and making an argument. I have my own views, but every day I try to wipe the board clean. Basically I'm a middle of the road guy who's mostly conservative who loves to report.” Can you speak to this statement and how it has, if it all, influenced your reporting style?

Costa: I'm so comfortable as a reporter. I love finding out new information, getting to know politicians like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, people from all sides of the political world and learning from them, listening to them, finding out more about what their agenda is and what they are up to. I have always loved politics and history, so being a reporter, without any kind of political views myself and not being a columnist, has always just been a very comfortable fit for me professionally and personally.

I try to avoid snark in how I report on things, but also try to be aggressive in how I report. It's not always easy because sometimes you do have reactions to things, but I think the readers deserve to learn more from an objective reporter about what's happening in national politics. I worked for four and a half years at National Review, a conservative magazine. I was a reporter there—never wrote a column or an editorial. It was like working at a trade magazine. When you work at a trade magazine you go in-depth on a subject for a specific audience. My audience was Republicans, and I provided them with a lot of inside information on Republicans. I think there was real value to being an objective reporter there, and now serves me well at the Washington Post because I got to know some of these key figures like Trump and Steve Bannon. You understand who these people are. I think the Washington Post is such a great place to be a reporter because we are all about investigations and scrutiny and being aggressive, and we also want to write narrative journalism that really tells the inside story. That's my favorite way of reporting—really trying to find out new information and working sources, and so that's what I do.

Gate: Did the Trump campaign make this political neutrality difficult for you?  

Costa: Not really. I feel like I just cover politicians. I feel like I get along well as a reporter with Senator Sanders, and I have had a rapport with President Trump. It's just because I'm trying to understand where they are coming from, whether they are from the far left or the far right. Our politics are really moving in strange directions so I think sometimes just being a steady boat on the sea is not the worst place to be. But the Trump campaign made it difficult for reporters. When I was reporting on the campaign the Washington Post was banned from covering Trump events for quite some time so I couldn't even enter Trump events.

That didn't stop me from reporting on Trump. I still actually got interviews with Trump, and I still would go into rallies just without a press credential. Trump makes it difficult but you don't give up. I don't try to take it too personally when the Trump campaign, the Trump White House, fights with the press or fights with me. Sometimes they will scream at you in this business, and they will hate you. You have to stay very calm and just realize you are not there to fight with them. You are there to investigate and report.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Saisha Talwar

Saisha is a third year studying political science. This past summer, she interned with ABC News' Political Unit in Washington DC. Previously, Saisha worked at Dow Jones and the McKinsey Social Initiative. On campus, she is a research intern at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats, and a tour guide for the admissions office. Saisha enjoys traveling and consuming unhealthy amounts of flaming hot cheetos.


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