Scoop

CBS’ Major Garrett on Working in Trump’s White House of ‘Disdain and Deflection’

President Trump’s administration, says CBS’ chief White House correspondent, is ‘disdainful of the whole set of ground rules, the whole architecture of the briefing.’

Mandel Ngan/Getty

CBS News’ Major Garrett has chronicled every president since Bill Clinton, and none of them were fans of the coverage they received or, for that matter, of the reporters who populated the White House briefing room.

But Donald Trump has upped the ante—and not just because the 45th president has publicly labeled the Fourth Estate “the enemy of the people” and endlessly trashes every story he dislikes as “fake news.”

“The biggest thing you have to understand about both Sean and Sarah,” Garrett told The Daily Beast, referring to Trump’s first White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, and his second and current one, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “is that they represent a cultural shift in the White House… And the cultural shift is one of disdain and deflection.”

The 55-year-old Garrett, ensconced in a leather-upholstered booth at Bistro Bis, a favorite watering hole for senators and House members in Washington’s Hotel George a few blocks from the Capitol, is a physically imposing guy with an authoritative-looking steel-gray mane, a stentorian voice, and a television-friendly tendency to speak in punchy sentences when not sounding off in prettily shaped paragraphs.

Garrett has been CBS’s chief White House correspondent for the past five years—the capstone of a journalism career that he began three decades ago at newspapers in Amarillo, Las Vegas, and Houston.

Next, he migrated to the nation’s capital to cover Congress and then become deputy national editor for the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, wrote books on politics and policy, and later morphed into writing for real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman’s U.S. News & World Report when it was the also-ran newsmag competing with Time and Newsweek.

“A lot of White Houses have used the deflection part, but none have been as disdainful,” Garrett said over a morning cup of coffee. He’d already downed a hearty breakfast during the 8 a.m. taping of his weekly Beltway-focused podcast, The Takeout—an episode featuring former Trump campaign operatives Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie chatting and noshing with Garrett and his fellow interviewer, CBS News political director Steve Chaggaris.

“Disdainful of the whole set of ground rules, the whole architecture of the briefing, of the interaction with the White House press corps,” Garrett continued. “The disdain is new. And it comes from Trump, pure and simple.”

Sarah Sanders, who was named the president’s chief spokesperson after Spicer resigned last July in muted protest of Trump’s ill-fated hiring of the loose-tongued political novice Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director, declined to comment for this article.

But Spicer, who regularly tangled with the CBS correspondent during his six months at the briefing room lectern, quibbled with Garrett’s take on the Trump White House’s allegedly contemptuous posture toward journalists and journalism.

“I think that’s an over-characterization,” Spicer told The Daily Beast. “But I think there’s definitely a view that a lot of reporters frankly have earned that characterization. Major does try to report straight stories; he is tough, and he is fair for the most part. He’s not the YouTube clickbait reporter that several of his colleagues are.”

Spicer continued: “You can see a few of these other people who make it about themselves, and try to figure out how to sensationalize or hype it up. Rather, Major is just looking for the story and looking to get to the bottom of the story.”

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Although Trump’s political ambitions had been percolating in Washington ecosystem for years, Garrett didn’t meet the reality television billionaire in the flesh until Aug. 11, 2015, in Birch Run, Michigan, six days after the notorious Republican debate in Cleveland.

In the middle of a news conference, Trump spotted the CBS correspondent and immediately recognized Garrett’s presence as the establishment media’s validation of his then-longshot campaign.

“Major! Fantastic!” Trump crowed, gleefully pointing at the CBS reporter. “I watched you with President Obama two weeks ago. He was not thrilled. I’m sure I’ll be more thrilled.”

It was a reference to Garrett’s question to a clearly angered Obama at a recent presidential press conference.

Citing the Iran nuclear deal that didn’t free four American hostages, Garrett asked: “Can you tell the country, sir, why you’re content—with all the fanfare around this deal—to leave the conscience of this nation and the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”

“I gotta give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions,” Obama had sarcastically retorted. “The notion that I am content?...Major, that’s nonsense!”

Minutes after his maiden encounter with Trump, Garrett got a one-on-one interview, but the candidate quickly ended it and stalked away in a huff, calling the CBS correspondent a “dishonest reporter,” after Garrett politely declined to agree that Trump had won the debate in Cleveland.

A short time later, after Trump climbed into his SUV for the next event, Garrett recalled, the candidate rolled down his window and called out to him: “You saw what I did there, right? Call me!”

“He loves it,” Garrett said about Trump’s perpetual gamesmanship. “He loves it every hour of every day. It’s the game he wants to play, and he wants to see it played around him.”

And the goal of Trump’s game?

“I wish I had an answer to that.”

Garrett started to take Trump seriously early on, pegged him as the likely GOP nominee after he won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and said that while he never predicted the Trump presidency, he never discounted it either.

Covering Trump’s general election campaign against Hillary Clinton, he felt the rage against the media by the candidate’s energized crowds.

“I was at those rallies,” he said. “I never had a body guard, but at those rallies the last two weeks of the campaign, don’t think my head wasn’t on a swivel. It was on a swivel every time we walked in. Batteries. Haymakers. Something coming out of where I don’t expect. Do you think I walked in reading my text messages? No. That is different. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Before joining the CBS Washington bureau, Garrett was in the same job for Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, covering Barack Obama’s White House when President Obama’s communications gurus declared open war on the right-leaning cable outlet, and Garrett was in the crosshairs.

It was, he said, “the most stressful period of my career”—even worse than when he was summarily fired by CNN, with no explanation, after a couple of years of covering President Clinton’s second term. Garrett, who had been hired in the late 1990s by then-CNN bureau chief Frank Sesno on the strength of his writing and extemporaneous speaking abilities, said he didn’t bother to seek a reason for his dismissal.

“I never guessed, and I don’t know why, and it didn’t matter,” Garrett recalled. “I’m an accidental television correspondent, and that’s not the identifying component of my life, not professionally and not personally. I was happy to go back to my life as a writer, and that did not scare me or depress me.”

He had spent a couple of years at U.S. News when his friend Brit Hume, Fox’s Washington bureau chief, persuaded Ailes to create a general assignment slot for Garrett, who went on to cover Congress and Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign for the network.

Garrett said he had little contact with Ailes—he recalled only four phone conversations with the late Fox News chairman and CEO—and insisted he had zero knowledge of the rampant sexual harassment, abuse and worse that was occurring inside the company he worked for. The sexual misconduct, Garrett pointed out, was concentrated in New York, not Washington.

Garrett—who is divorced from his first wife, former Fox News correspondent Julie Kirtz, and in June 2016 married academic Lara Brown, the director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management—promised that, unlike so many prominent men in the media business, such as his former CBS colleague Charlie Rose, he won’t be facing accusations himself.

“No. Unequivocally,” Garrett said. “Because I was raised by the mother I was raised by”—Kay Garrett, who died three years ago—“and because I learned from a mother who worked in the workplace and learned what she went through in the ’60s and ’70s. It taught me at a very early age how difficult it was, what my mother went through and I internalized it as a son. And it gave me a whole appreciation of everything in the workplace. I’ve never ever had a difficulty working with strong, knowledgeable, aggressive women. I was raised by one.”

Like some, Garrett expressed skepticism that NBC executives were ignorant of Matt Lauer’s misconduct—especially because several were present at a raunchy October 2008 Friar’s Club roast of the Today show star that lampooned and celebrated Lauer’s sexual escapades.

“3 Hours of Dick Jokes,” said the headline in a contemporaneous Village Voice account, which included this line from then-NBC President Jeff Zucker: “I don’t want to say Matt is a germophobe, but he’s the only guy I know who uses Purell both before and after he masturbates.”

“I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you I walked out,” Garrett said. “But had I been there, I believe with every cell in my being that I would have walked out. It’s unconscionable. It makes no sense to me at all at any level. And I’m not a moralist. I’m just saying it’s not funny.”

But back to Fox News.

The conflict between Fox and the Obama-ites reached a boiling point in the fall of 2009 when White House communications director Anita Dunn asserted that “Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.”

Ailes threatened retribution after reports that the White House had deliberately barred Fox News from the press pool then being offered interviews with Treasury official Ken Feinberg—it was an inadvertent error, the Obama staffers claimed—and Garrett was continually summoned by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to listen to bitter complaints about the cable network’s opinion shows.

While Gibbs and others claimed they weren’t specifically targeting Garrett, “they sought to indict the network I worked for and, by extension, me,” Garrett recalled. “And I told them: ‘Don’t tell me it’s not personal. I’m the most visible representative of the network you’re indicting on a daily basis.’”

But if Fox and the White House were at war, “I was a conscientious objector,” Garrett added. “I wasn’t fighting the Obama White House, and I wasn’t a warrior for Fox.”

The pressures and clashes of that situation—in which Garrett was doing as many as 20 standups a day from the North Lawn while regularly absorbing the anger of the president’s top staffers for the sins of Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity—ultimately resulted, after less than two years of covering President Obama, in his quitting Fox News and taking a massive pay cut (from a salary in the $350,000 to $500,000 range) for the comparatively placid pursuit of writing about Congress for National Journal.

By late 2010, Garrett said, he had banked enough money to allow him the financial flexibility to take a relatively low-paying job as an ink-stained wretch. “I’m not a big spender,” he said.

“He was exhausted by what [former George H.W. Bush budget director] Richard Darman called the ‘now-nowism’ of television,” said The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, who was National Journal’s editorial director when he recruited Garrett from Fox in 2010 to write reported essays on the inner workings of Congress. “Working for a cable network, you were caught up in these daily waves that were probably just ripples, and everything, every day, was such an emergency, it wasn’t possible to take time to think. The political journalism of Washington has been kind of constructed as an inning-by-inning ESPN pitch-by-pitch analysis and Major was exhausted by doing that every day.” 

In hindsight—although Garrett denies it—his risky move to print journalism, when he was married with three young children, can be framed as a clever effort to launder himself from Fox News’ ideological taint in order to be considered for an even higher-paying job at a prestigious broadcast network.

Public animosity between Fox and the Obama White House subsided a few weeks after the press pool flap, when President Obama traveled to Beijing and granted 10 minutes of facetime to Garrett in the normal round of network interviews. But hostilities continued to seethe just below the surface.

“I’m sure it’s true,” Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, emailed The Daily Beast concerning the trauma and tension of Garrett’s time in the barrel. “Not all of Fox News played it straight as he. He was often caught in the crossfire, though by today’s standards, he was greeted with nothing but rose pedals. I, for one, always felt comfortable dealing with him.”

As with any number of reporters covering the Obama White House, Garrett occasionally clashed with Gibbs’s successor, former Time magazine correspondent Jay Carney, who became known for his acid sarcasm and mocking condescension in his televised set-tos in the briefing room, although Garrett said the Obama spokesman could also be “disarmingly charming.”

Garrett explained: “One thing that can be said about Jay—and it’s consistent with everyone I’ve seen who has left our profession and gone into politics—is that they feel, I think correctly, that they face a higher burden and are under a higher obligation to prove their loyalty within the system they join. And they develop a tenacity that is sometimes outsized to prove to the people who have brought them in that their loyalty cannot and should not be questioned. And Jay demonstrated that publicly and privately as often as he could.”

Carney, now the top corporate communications executive for Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, responded in an email: “As television reporters covering the White House go, Major wasn’t the worst. When he was at Fox, he clearly didn’t like being held responsible for the biased drivel his employer put on the air every day. And he tried, far more than his successor [Ed Henry], to maintain journalistic standards for his own work.”

Carney added: “It’s hard to tell, but I think he’s accusing me of being consistent—of not saying one thing in the briefing room and then contradicting myself in private conversations with reporters. I’m happy to say he’s right. Perhaps this year he’s gotten so accustomed to flagrant dishonesty from the lectern that he thinks it’s the norm.”

“Ever Jay,” Garrett responded with a laugh.

Born in 1962 when John F. Kennedy was president, Garrett grew up in San Diego in a middle-class household that took not only the the local paper and the Los Angeles Times, but also subscribed to all three newsmags and religiously watched Walter Cronkite every night. Both parents worked for AT&T—his mother as an engineer and his father as a marketing executive—but young Major, the youngest of three children, caught the journalism bug early.

Precociously gripped by the 1969 moon landing and the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Garrett recalled a moment, at age 13, when he and a neighborhood friend were getting ready to go skateboarding one Sunday afternoon, but first his friend showed him the family’s refurbished garage where the parents were starting an at-home business.

Atop a massive desk in the garage was a brand-new IBM Selectric typewriter beside a stack of blank paper. Garrett recalled that he asked his friend to wait, immediately sat down and began typing out made-up stories—or “fake news,” as they would be called today—about President Gerald Ford’s White House and the big doings in Washington.

After more than an hour, his friend returned and demanded: “What is wrong with you?”