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CNN's Jake Tapper On Kellyanne Conway And Knowing When To Cut People Off

Aug 30, 2018
Originally published on August 31, 2018 10:07 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we continue our series with Emmy nominees. You may not think of news shows when you think of Emmys, and maybe that's because there's a separate ceremony for the news and documentary Emmys. We start today's show with Jake Tapper, who's nominated for two of those Emmys - one for his CNN Sunday show "State Of The Union," the other for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway on his weekday show "The Lead," also on CNN. We talked about that interview when I spoke with Tapper in April.

His Kellyanne Conway interview was just one of his challenging encounters with members of the Trump administration in which the interviewee stated falsehoods or evaded his questions. After Trump adviser Stephen Miller evaded Tapper's questions, Tapper terminated the interview, saying that Miller was wasting his audience's time. We talked about that interview, too. When we spoke, his debut novel, "The Hellfire Club," had just been published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's talk about your work as a journalist now. And I want to start with a clip from one of your greatest hits, so to speak.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this is your interview with President Trump's senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller. This is from January 8 of 2018. And you're talking to him about Michael Wolff's then-newly published book "Fire And Fury," which was a behind-the-scenes look of the early days of the Trump White House. So here is an excerpt of that interview. In fact, this is the final part of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

JAKE TAPPER: I want to ask you because you obviously are very offended by the notion that this book "Fire And Fury" paints a picture of President Trump as not mentally up to the job. On Saturday, President Trump put out a series of tweets trying to defend himself on this issue of fitness. And he said, quote, "actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from very successful businessman to top TV star to president of the United States on my first try. I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius, and a very stable genius at that."

Do you think tweets like that help or hurt the cause that the president is stable enough for the job?

STEPHEN MILLER: Not only do I think they help it, but I think in the toxic environment that you've created here and CNN and cable news, which is a real crisis of legitimacy for your network - and we saw it, of course, with the extremely fake news you reported about the Don Jr. and WikiLeaks story that was a huge embarrassment for your network...

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Just like the huge embarrassment you had when you got the Comey testimony wrong.

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Which was never given a proper accounting.

TAPPER: ...I'm trying to get to the issue of the president's fitness, which a lot of people...

MILLER: Well - and I'm getting to the issue of your fitness.

TAPPER: No, you're...

MILLER: But the president's tweets absolutely reaffirmed the plainspoken truth. A self-made billionaire revolutionized reality TV and tapped into something magical that's happening in the heart of this country. The people that you...

TAPPER: The president has an approval rating in the 30s. I don't know what magical you're talking about.

MILLER: The people that you don't connect with and understand - the people whose manufacturing jobs have left, who've been besieged by high-crime communities and who've been affected by a policy of uncontrolled immigration - those voices, those experiences don't get covered on this network. As to why - I mean, to prove the point, I was booked to talk about the very issues I'm just describing, and you're not even asking about them because they're not interesting facts to you.

TAPPER: That's not true. I have plenty of questions on immigration.

MILLER: And there - what some people will recall...

TAPPER: You've attempted to filibuster by talking about your flights with the president.

MILLER: No, I'm not. I'm - no. Hold on a sec.

TAPPER: I want to ask you a question because...

MILLER: No, don't be condescending.

TAPPER: I'm...

MILLER: Jake, Jake...

TAPPER: Stephen, the president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason - no, the reason why I want to talk about...

TAPPER: The president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason why I want to talk about the president's experiences, what I've seen with him traveling to meet dozens of foreign leaders with his incredible work on major...

TAPPER: OK. You're not answering the questions.

MILLER: No.

TAPPER: I understand...

MILLER: You have 24 hours a day of anti-Trump material...

TAPPER: Stephen, you're being...

MILLER: ...And you're not going to give three minutes for the American people...

TAPPER: I get it.

MILLER: ...To hear the real experience...

TAPPER: You're...

MILLER: ...Of Donald Trump.

TAPPER: There's one viewer that you care about right now. And you're being obsequious. You're being a factotum...

MILLER: No, no 'cause you're being...

TAPPER: ...In order to please him. OK?

MILLER: No.

TAPPER: And I think I've wasted...

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: I think I've wasted enough of my viewers' time.

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: Thank you, Stephen.

MILLER: Hey, Jake...

TAPPER: As Republican lawmakers call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, in a major reversal, Democrats are now coming to his defense. What changed? We'll ask the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Wow (laughter). So that was Jake Tapper with Stephen Miller.

TAPPER: I haven't listened to that since that happened.

GROSS: Oh, what'd you think listening back to it?

TAPPER: He's even worse than I remember.

GROSS: (Laughter). I remember seeing that as it happened on a Sunday morning. And I thought, oh, wow. Have you ever done that before, ended an interview by saying the guest was wasting your audience's time?

TAPPER: No. But I mean, I'd never had an interview like that before. I mean, that's - it's just appalling behavior. I read a tweet to him and asked him if he thought that that helped or hurt the president's cause. It's a pretty - I mean, it's the president's tweet, the president's statement. It's not that difficult a question. And it's pretty obvious that I was going to ask about it. It was the very stable genius tweet, which remains fairly notorious - or famous, depending on your point of view - to this day. And to, like, go through a litany of attacks on my network, on me personally, saying false - I mean, saying that I don't care about manufacturing jobs, that I don't care about real people - it's just a lie. And it's just - I should have cut him off earlier.

GROSS: It seems to me what he's doing there is a strategy, you know, a deflection strategy. Instead of answering the question, he's criticizing you. He's criticizing CNN. He's criticizing fake news. And he's not answering the question at all. Do you think of that as a strategy of just, like, deflecting - trying to make you and your network seem like you're the problem?

TAPPER: Right. Obviously, yes. I mean, a hundred percent. But then also, just the notion that a toxic environment has been created by CNN is - it's just not true. I mean - see; this is what he - this is what they want to do, is they want people like me to then get into the gutter and talk about who's guilty or who's not guilty.

But I'll just say this, it's very clear that there are basic standards of truth and decency that have nothing to do with partisan politics that this president and his minions regularly violate and regularly abuse and cross - whether the president is deriding a former aide, making light of his struggles with drug and alcohol dependency or mimicking a reporter who has a disability or claiming that Ted Cruz's dad has some connection to the Kennedy assassination and on and on.

It's just very clear that, regardless of your position on trade or immigration or terrorism or taxes, positions that I do not make a judgment about one way or the other, there's a whole policy level of the Trump administration that we just try to discuss and debate in the way that we would discuss and debate any policy. But then there's these lines that are crossed.

GROSS: As an interviewer, I'm interested in how you handle this, when the guest won't let you speak - 'cause I think another tactic that Stephen Miller was using in that interview was to not stop talking...

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To not allow you to get in a question, to not allow you to insist - in an audible way, 'cause he's talking over you - to insist that he answer the question that you asked as opposed to just hurling insults at you and your network and the media. So what goes through your mind when that's happening - about how soon to jump in, how much to try to talk over him?

TAPPER: Well, first of all, what was going through my mind is, I have known Stephen Miller for years.

GROSS: Oh, you have?

TAPPER: Yeah. He was a press secretary on Capitol Hill. And until that morning, I had a fine relationship with him. I mean, I have his number. I have his email. I had even defended him a few times on Twitter and places like that when there were things that I thought had gone too far - like calling him a Nazi I think is a bit too far considering that he's Jewish.

So I was surprised 'cause Trump's going to leave someday. Maybe it will be a full two terms, maybe it won't. But I'm going to be here, and Stephen Miller is going to be here. So I'm always surprised when people, on a professional level, throw away a relationship. But then beyond that, it was just an eruption of indecency that I just wasn't expecting.

GROSS: Now, I've read that Stephen Miller refused to leave the set after the interview and had to be escorted out by security. What did happen?

TAPPER: He kept talking during the commercial break.

GROSS: Talking to you?

TAPPER: Yes.

GROSS: Trying to make what point?

TAPPER: Just the same attacks on me and CNN and, I mean, just basically what you heard on camera he said, but he was saying off camera. And eventually, you know, we were ticking down. And I said, OK, you have to go. And he wouldn't go. And it got heated. And eventually, before we came back from commercial break, he had to be escorted out. And then he went on Fox and denied it the next day, which is also odd because, you know, one thing that we have in abundance at a TV studio is cameras filming things. So (laughter) it was odd to hear him deny that. But these people lie about everything. So why wouldn't he lie about that?

GROSS: Did you release the tape of him being escorted out?

TAPPER: No, because I don't want to be the story. I don't like being the story. And, I mean, he knows the truth. He knows that a guard escorted him out of the studio, down the elevator, through the lobby, out the door. I mean, he knows that that happened. He didn't pose a threat to me. But he was not leaving the studio, and we were coming back from commercial break on a live TV show.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in April with Jake Tapper. He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys, one of them is for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway. We'll play an excerpt of that interview and hear what Tapper had to say about it after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jake Tapper, the anchor of CNN's weekday afternoon show "The Lead" and Sunday show "State Of The Union." He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys. One of them is for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So there was a period, I think, when CNN or you in particular - you can tell me which - had decided not to book Kellyanne Conway from the Trump administration because - because why? Like, tell us that story of the brief period when she was not booked on the network.

TAPPER: I don't remember it that clearly. As I recall right now, it seemed as though there was a period where there were a number of Trump administration - Trump White House guests going out and just lying and saying things that just were demonstrably not true and attacking the press. This is early, early in the administration. And this was also around a time - this is January or February of 2017. And, you know, there was just a lot of - just falsehoods, a lot of lies being told. The media doesn't cover terrorism. This story's fake news. That story's fake news - stories that have been proven to be 100 percent true.

And as I recall - and I might be remembering this wrong. But as I recall, Kellyanne Conway was in the middle of that. And we decided not to book her one Sunday. But it wasn't like we were never going to book her. It was more just like we weren't going to do it one time. Or maybe there was a period that we weren't doing it. But it wasn't like a hard and fast don't ever book her again.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

TAPPER: And then, you know, and then I ended up booking her on "The Lead" in February, 2017, anyway. And we had a very, very long interview about all the lies that President Trump was telling. But, you know, it is always a balance between booking people from the Trump administration - or any administration. But we can't pretend that the Trump administration is normal.

GROSS: So I want to play an interview that you did do with Kellyanne Conway. This was right after the period that we're talking about - February 7, 2017. And Kellyanne Conway is counselor to the president, who's also one of his main spokespeople on talk shows. And so earlier in this interview, you're talking about how the president had accused the press of not covering terrorism. And then you show a collage of CNN reporters from around the world covering terrorist attacks. And then you talk about the murder rates and how he's misrepresented that. So this is an excerpt of your February 7, 2017, interview with Kellyanne Conway. So this is Jake Tapper with Kellyanne Conway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAPPER: I guess what I'm getting at here is there is a larger campaign being waged by President Trump and by the White House to undermine the credibility of everybody in the news media except for certain supportive outlets. And for instance, earlier today, President Trump made a quote about the murder rate being at the highest level it's ever been in 47 years. He said that. And he said nobody in the media reports on that.

There's a reason that nobody in the media reports on that. It's not true. The murder rate is not at the highest rate it's been in 47 years. It spiked a little. It went up a little. But it's still much, much lower. It's 4.9 people per 100,000. That's dwarfed by the murder rates in the 1990s and before that in the 1980s. Facts are stubborn things. And to say that we're not reporting something that happens not to be true, therefore, we're not to be trusted, that's a problem.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Well, Jake, if I can take that broader issue of our relationship with the media, I mean, I'm among if not the most open press person in the White House. I'm now being attacked by the media, including networks that are familiar to you. And I'm just going to keep soldiering on. I mean, I came to this White House to serve this president who's serving people.

I have in my portfolio here veterans. I have women and children. I have opioid use. And we're working on all of that. I sat in on the sheriffs' roundtable today. I sat in on the Veterans Affairs. And I know that that's something near and dear to your heart because I see you often give voice and visibility...

TAPPER: I do.

CONWAY: ...Lend your considerable platform to our fallen soldiers and to our brave men and women in uniform. On that, we agree. And if we can find areas of agreement, give me a call because I sat in on that. I sat in on a similar meeting in Mar-a-Lago over the holidays - a working session. We had some of the top minds - the top minds and leaders in health care here to the White House today, so they can advise specifically on Veterans Affairs.

TAPPER: You're not...

CONWAY: Not a single person there said, oh, you know, President Obama didn't - nobody said that. It was basically, how do we move forward so that the structure is better, the responsiveness is better? I can't imagine anybody disagrees with President Trump when he says, if we don't take care of our veterans, who are we really as a nation? So if we can find areas of agreement...

TAPPER: It's not addressing what I just talked about. What we're talking about is the fact that the White House is waging war on people who are providing information - sometimes risking their lives to do so - saying that nothing we say is true. All of it is fake. I would much rather be talking to you about veterans' issues.

In fact, I would - when it comes to the Trump administration, I would be much rather covering immigration. I would much rather be covering trade. And I would much rather be covering draining the swamp and counterterrorism. But instead, every day there are these sprays of attack and sprays of falsehoods coming from the White House. It would be better if they were not coming from the White House for me and for you.

CONWAY: Agreed. And let me just say it has to go both ways. I mean, I do, Jake. I sincerely...

GROSS: Well, she goes on after that. But anyway...

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Agreed, agreed. I mean, she conceded the point.

GROSS: So I hear you trying to be very respectful during that interview and just like letting her talk and then at some point saying this can't go - this is my interpretation - hearing you say, at some point in your mind, she's trying to play out the clock, and I have to get her back on point. She's not answering the question.

TAPPER: Right.

GROSS: So again, like, the strategy of how long do you let somebody talk before reminding them that they're totally avoiding the question.

TAPPER: I mean, it's completely subjective. Kellyanne Conway wanted to make a point about what she would rather be talking about. Obviously, she didn't want to talk about the fact that the president was attacking the press for not covering something that wasn't true. And I don't blame her. I mean, look. It's a subjective thing when to stop somebody - when to cut them off. I mean, you don't want to lose the viewer. You don't want the viewer to think you're rude. You don't - there's a - to be completely candid, there is a gender dynamic of a man telling a woman to stop talking.

GROSS: Oh, that's really true. That's a good point.

TAPPER: You don't want the viewer to think you're a jerk. You're not letting the person talk. I mean, you know, you want to let the person give an answer. But at a certain point, you have to steer them back. You know, I don't know that I do it perfectly. I don't - you know, when I - when you play these clips back to me, I think, wow, I let them talk for too long. But I'm sure at the time I was thinking, God, I'm going to jump in as soon as I can here. But, you know, it's so subjective. And it's live TV. It's not on tape.

GROSS: Absolutely, absolutely.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

TAPPER: But fundamentally, I mean, I just think that what we need to remember here is that Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway and how they behave and how they act is completely a manifestation of how the president of the United States behaves.

GROSS: The interview with Kellyanne Conway was supposed to last six minutes, it went for nearly 25.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: What was happening in your headphones during that interview? 'Cause one of the things I had to tell you is like, we're not going to commercial.

TAPPER: Yeah. We're not taking commercial breaks. Jeff Zucker was in the control room. He just happened to be in the control room in Washington, D.C., that day. So my executive producer was telling me just - we're going to keep going. Don't worry about the time - 'cause he had been told that by Zucker, the president of CNN.

GROSS: So after your interview with Kellyanne Conway, "Saturday Night Live" did a sketch with Beck Bennett as you and Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway. And it's a kind of "Fatal Attraction" spoof.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: So she's in the Glenn Close role. So you walk in the door after a day on the set at CNN. You turn on the light. And there she is waiting for you, angry that you've cut off communication with her. So first she tries to seduce you into taking her back and talking with her. When you brush her off, she takes out a kitchen knife and comes at you with the knife. Did you see the sketch in real time?

TAPPER: I did not because I do "State Of The Union" on Sunday mornings.

GROSS: Oh, of course.

TAPPER: So I go to bed relatively early. My wife stays up late and watches "Saturday Night Live." And Beck Bennett had been doing the Jake Tapper role all season, which was - independent of the "Fatal Attraction" skit - a huge honor. So the idea of being spoofed on screen live - especially considering I pretty much got away scot-free in terms of how harsh they were to me, as opposed to, say, Sean Spicer - you know, it was an honor.

Now that skit, that was a different thing because it was - my introduction to it was from my wife, who normally does not wake up when I wake up Sunday morning at 6 in the morning. But when my alarm went off, she was right there awake and told me, you have to see this. And I said, what? They did you again "Saturday Night Live" last night. And I'm like, oh, were they mean? That's always my first consideration - were they mean? - because even though I'm 49 years old, you know, I have the soul of a gentle 8-year-old.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: So I - she goes, no, but you have to watch it. You have to watch it. So the first thing I noticed was that they were less generous about my hairline than they had been in the past, which I guess, you know, I had that coming. But then my wife thought it was sexist. She is a very strong and proud feminist, and she thought it was sexist. Why is Kellyanne Conway being sexualized?

GROSS: Yeah, and I should say Kellyanne Conway's wearing like seductive lingerie in it because first she does try to seduce you into taking her back, yeah.

TAPPER: Also it's weird when it's you and somebody you interact with professionally, and like all of sudden they're doing a skit where it's like sexual. And, you know, I mean, it's just kind of odd (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TAPPER: ...You know, in a way. But, I mean, that skit was not a huge hit in the Tapper household. But generally speaking, I think they're very funny.

GROSS: Jake Tapper recorded in April after the publication of his debut novel "The Hellfire Club." He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys. After we take a short break, we'll hear from two more Emmy nominees - Stephen Colbert, host of "The Late Show" on CBS, and comic W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN's "United Shades Of America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.