How Philip Rucker keeps his cool while keeping Trump on track
Presented by Crosscut Festival
Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post
Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post
The relationship between the White House and the press corps is always something of a story in itself, but under the Trump administration it has become straight-up Shakespearean, filled with recrimination, fabrication, a rotating cast of characters, and even a doctored video.
Present for it all has been Philip Rucker, the White House bureau chief of the Washington Post. Rucker has made the most of his post, earning a Pulitzer Prize for his part in reporting on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He and his team also won a George Polk Award for that coverage, as well as the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for distinguished reporting on the presidency.
Rucker will draw on this experience for the "Covering the Trump White House" panel at the Crosscut Festival, May 3-4 at Seattle University. There he will share his insight into the first two tumultuous years of the Trump presidency alongside Washington Post colleague Ashley Parker (who also served on the Post’s award-winning reporting team), the National Review’s John Fund and Darlene Superville of the Associated Press. The conversation will be moderated by Adam Levine, founder and CEO of Words Matter Media. Rucker will also moderate a conversation with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
Before heading to the festival, Rucker answered a few questions from Crosscut about what it’s like to interview President Trump, whether the Post has home-field advantage in D.C. and gaining trust in the era of fake news.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does having the home-field advantage play into coverage?
We do not receive special treatment, nor do we have any advantage as Washington’s news organization of record. That said, President Trump and his aides and advisers read The Washington Post carefully, and routinely react to our coverage, both positively and negatively, which can be helpful when we’re trying to seek information or get our reporting calls returned.
In a time where there is distrust of the media, how do you gain the trust of the Trump White House?
My Post colleagues and I have gained the trust of officials in the Trump White House simply by doing our jobs professionally and fairly. We are rigorous about getting the story right and we have high standards. We interact with sources with honesty and integrity. We check facts before publishing them and, on the occasions we make a mistake, we are quick to correct it. On some stories, we cite a dozen or more sources, which speaks to the depth and rigor of our reporting.
How do you respond as an interviewer when the president pushes back or changes the subject?
I’ve interviewed President Trump numerous times, both during the campaign and in the Oval Office, and have found it can be difficult to steer the conversation. I come with a list of questions I’d like to get through, but I also try to stay nimble. I listen carefully to his answers and look for opportunities to follow up or dig deeper. When he tries to change the subject without answering my question, I find a tactful way to double back to my original question.
How does the president respond when you push back?
It can be difficult sometimes to control a conversation with President Trump, in part because he does not like to be interrupted. But when he veers off track, I try to politely interject and steer the focus back to my questions — and, fortunately, Trump tends to respond to questions when they are asked. In the instances when he pushes back, I try to keep my cool and to stay focused on the questions at hand, reminding myself that it doesn’t serve our readers to get into an argument with the president.
You’re speaking at on the “Covering the Trump White House” panel. What do you hope to discuss with your fellow panelists?
I am excited to share an inside view of the Trump White House and talk about what it’s like to cover this administration. I’ve traveled all over the country, and the world, chronicling Trump’s campaign and now his presidency. It is the most exhausting but also the most exhilarating job I’ve had in journalism. The free press is under assault like never before in modern American history, and I’m looking forward to explaining why and how we do what we do every day.
Are there other panelists or topics that excite you about Crosscut Festival?
In addition to the Trump White House panel, I am excited about my fireside chat conversation with Sen. Jeff Merkley. I am eager to hear his thoughts on the Democratic presidential contest already well underway. I’m also interested in the immigration discussion, and hope to get a chance to meet Macklemore, although his panel overlaps with my own. Lastly, I can’t wait to visit Seattle and find the best salmon and cup of coffee.
Crosscut presents two days of thought-provoking conversations and innovative thinking, tackling the most important issues of our times. Journalists, politicians, authors, and newsmakers from our community and around the nation come together to take a hard look at the people, policy and events that shape our lives.