From Washington Post Reporter to Trump Cheerleader
Ronald Kessler has become one of President Trump’s biggest media supporters, seeing multiple reasons to congratulate rather than criticize.
That perhaps explains why Kessler’s new book, The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game, is so tolerant of the president’s manifest flaws—and so disparaging of mainstream news outlets that regularly publish critical stories about the president, especially the New York Times and Kessler’s former paper, the Washington Post, in a chapter titled “Scam Artists.”
Not that Kessler, who began his career in the 1960s at the Worcester Telegram as a trailblazing journalistic sleuth, denies that Trump has flaws. Indeed, less than 30 pages in, readers learn that the 71-year-old president is emotionally insecure and occasionally self-destructive, has bullying tendencies and a wicked temper which is sometimes aimed at the wrong person, never apologizes, and lies promiscuously.
“I’m always going to be a journalist. I always have been. That comes first,” Kessler told The Daily Beast concerning his acknowledgement of his friend’s shortcomings. Yet he argues that President Trump has already achieved remarkable success.
“On the economics side, there’s record-low unemployment, record-low black unemployment, and a zooming stock market until just a few days ago,” Kessler told The Daily Beast, adding that Trump’s rollback of Obama-era regulations is giving the business community the confidence to hire and invest. “On the foreign policy side, he’s getting rid of ISIS and removing restrictions on the military, he’s about to meet with the North Korean leader, getting Saudi Arabia to agree to combat radical Islamic terrorism…”
Trump doesn’t merely have the potential to be a great president, “he is a great president,” Kessler insisted. “He already has shown that, and that’s what we elected him to do and to be. So it takes some intellectual prowess to separate in your mind the results, the accomplishments, versus some of this unsettling business.”
Another way of putting it is that it takes the mind-bending flexibility of an intellectual contortionist.
Or, as Kessler writes on Page 4: “But beyond the outrageous comments and the tweeting, beyond the infighting and dissension, there was another story that the media largely ignored: sweeping presidential action that indeed was making America great again.”
Kessler was born in the Bronx, the son of a microbiologist father and concert pianist mother, and, after their divorce, grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts, taking the surname of his physicist stepfather. Nearly everyone he knew as a child was, among his parents’ friends in academia and the arts, a liberal Democrat, he recalled.
Kessler’s first foray into investigative journalism, as a college-student reporter for Clark University’s campus newspaper The Scarlet in the early 1960s, exposed racial housing discrimination in Worcester, Massachusetts—a report that prompted state anti-discrimination regulations well before President Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights laws were enacted.
Years later at the Washington Post, Kessler revealed how the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused membership to an otherwise well-credentialed applicant simply because she was black—a scoop that resulted in the revamping of the DAR’s admissions policies.
Yet, decades later, he cites one of his primary sources, Trump’s longtime butler and unofficial Mar-a-Lago historian Anthony Senecal—who became notorious during the presidential campaign for his virulently racist and misogynistic Facebook posts, referring to Hillary Clinton as a “LYING DECEIVING C**T !!!!!!!” and demanding the death of President Obama—as “a good guy” who provided “wonderful anecdotes.”
He’s forgiving of Trump’s poisonous, years-long birther campaign against Obama—even though Kessler once pointed out to the future president that it had zero basis in fact—as simply one of the then-Celebrity Apprentice star’s tried-and-true media tactics.
“There are two Donald Trumps, and that really explains 75 percent of what goes on with Donald,” Kessler said, by way of being an apologist for Trump’s ceaseless lying, that lasted more than five years until late in the 2016 presidential campaign, that Barack Obama might well have been born in Kenya and thus was an illegitimate president. “He makes these outrageous claims to get attention, to get the media focus and become the No. 1 topic of conversation, and, that, in turn, enhances his power as a leader…He knew it wasn’t true, but it served his political purposes…
“Just because you criticize a black person doesn’t mean you’re racist,” Kessler went on, adding mildly: “It certainly is not admirable to be making up stories.”
As for the corrosive impact on democracy of the president’s relentless trashing of legitimate reporting as “fake news”—an epithet echoed by authoritarian regimes around world, most recently by the Kremlin in its denial that Russia-supported Syria perpetrated a chemical attack in Douma—“I don’t want to get into that,” Kessler said dismissively.
“I would rather that he focus on particular stories” instead of broad-brush attacks, Kessler said of the president’s press-bashing. “I think that would be more productive. But I don’t think it’s so alarming. The fact is that the press has debased themselves and their reputation, as shown in the polls. If you weigh that against what he says, I think it’s more important what they’re doing—which is to engage in dishonesty.”
In The Trump White House, Kessler enumerates what he describes as various instances of major-media duplicity in their coverage of the president, especially involving the ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton, and the Trump camp’s possible collusion with Russian actors.
Citing an Aug. 14, 2017, Washington Post story that he believes unfairly hyped the collusion angle concerning the efforts of foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos to stage a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, Kessler argued that the headline—“Trump campaign emails show aide’s repeated efforts to set up Russia meetings”—should instead have stressed internal campaign emails that suggested that campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others were unenthusiastic about Papadopoulos’s endeavor.
“That should have been the end of it,” said Kessler, who shares Trump’s belief that the ongoing Russia investigations, and especially the media’s urgent coverage of them, are unjustified.
Yet, as Michael Isikoff’s and David Corn’s No. 1 best-selling book Russian Roulette points out, that wasn’t the end of it. While Trump campaign aides expressed initial concern about Papadopoulos’s attempts to broker a meeting, and Manafort emailed a colleague that Trump “is not doing these trips,” the now-indicted campaign chairman also suggested that he was not necessarily opposed to forging a Russian connection.
“It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send a signal,” he added in the same email—a sentence not quoted by Kessler—while Papadopoulos ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is a cooperating witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. That line from Manafort—which didn’t appear in the Post story—was made public as part of Papadopoulos’ October 2017 guilty plea, and Kessler said he was unaware of it.
“I like Ron. I’ve known him for decades—though obviously I don’t endorse his point of view,” Isikoff, a former Washington Post colleague of Kessler’s, told The Daily Beast. “There’s no question that he’s done groundbreaking work over the years, and was always extremely well-sourced in law enforcement circles and that has yielded major scoops. His reporting helped bring about the downfall of an FBI director—no small accomplishment. And he was always generous in helping other reporters,” including Isikoff.
Kessler, who enthusiastically cast his ballot for Trump in Maryland—a blue state that Clinton carried by 60.5 percent to 35.3 percent—has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush faced off against Al Gore 18 years ago (and ended up writing favorable books about Bush 43 and his first lady Laura).
Describing himself as a social liberal, Kessler said the attacks of 9/11 turned him into a national security hawk—and indeed he backed the Iraq war and wrote a book on the CIA, with the agency’s eager cooperation, that justified the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists.
In his latest book, Kessler resolves nearly every instance of Trump’s bad judgment in the president’s favor, blaming mistakes on underlings.
The ill-advised firing of FBI director James Comey and the equally unsuitable hiring of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci are the fault of “Teflon aides” Jared and Ivanka; the widespread media portrayals of a chaotic, backbiting White House are partly the handiwork of senior counsel Kellyanne Conway, whom Kessler brands “the No. 1 leaker.”
Conway, who routinely ascribes critiques of her job performance to sexism, vowed on Fox & Friends last week, “One day, I will have my say,” but declined to comment on the record to The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, in a chapter titled “Interview with the President,” Kessler recounts his less than hard-hitting questions to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where Kessler and his wife Pam, as usual, were attending the annual New Year’s Eve celebration.
“I asked him why he thinks Democrats and the mainstream media don’t understand why such measures as the tax cut help the middle class and create jobs”; “why [do] they ignore the progress the Trump administration has made”?; “I asked Trump why he believes working-class people understand him more than other groups”; “How much of the animosity is all about jealousy toward you?”
And so on and so forth.
It’s the sort of indulgent, nonjudgmental acceptance, coupled with cheerleading, that one reserves for a friend.
In Kessler’s case, he got to know the self-celebrating real estate and casino mogul when Trump was regrouping from multiple business bankruptcies and Kessler was researching his 2000 book The Season: The Secret Life of Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society, in which Trump was lionized as a righteous disruptor of the snootily prejudiced Palm Beach culture.
“He was coopted years ago,” a veteran Washington reporter said, asking not to be identified in order to express a widespread lament among Kessler’s former colleagues and competitors.
Many of them are shaking their heads that this prize-winning former Washington Post journalist—whose reporting had exposed corruption in the federal government and malfeasance in the insurance, real estate and health care industries, prompted corrective legislation, and even toppled an FBI director—would, at age 74, fall so deeply in the tank.
“I guess Trump helped him on his Palm Beach book, and they formed a relationship, a friendship, and he started flying down to Mar-a-Lago and hanging out,” said the veteran journalist. “It’s a classic tale of getting co-opted by your sources. That’s the peril of all reporters—get close to somebody and then you sort of lose your perspective.”
A second Washington journalist, who also asked for anonymity, speculated that, like former CBS News correspondents Bernie Goldberg and Sharyl Attkisson, Kessler had been radicalized by—and was reacting against—the left-leaning assumptions of the Beltway journalism elite: “Maybe he sees himself as the former Washington Post guy who can blow the whistle on liberalism in the media.”
As for the idea that the president is really Kessler’s friend, “That’s kind of crazy,” this journalist said. “Donald Trump doesn’t have any friends. He’s the most transactional human being I’ve ever covered.”
To hear Kessler tell it, a mutual acquaintance provided an introduction during his Palm Beach research after he expressed his wish to interview Trump—who had transformed the down-at-the-heels Marjorie Merriweather Post estate into a posh private club and, unlike other clubs in the snobby town, made a point of admitting African-American and Jewish members.
“Donald called me [at home in suburban Maryland] and we talked for about 20 minutes,” Kessler recalled. “He wanted to get a sense of what I was up to. He was very thoughtful in the way he asked questions, very relaxed, and very different from the caricature he creates of himself on TV. And that’s what everyone comes away with when they actually meet him. He wanted to know what my interest was, what I was trying to achieve, and he evaluated my answers and decided to cooperate.”
Trump invited Kessler and his wife Pam (with whom this reporter worked long ago on the “Weekend” section of the Washington Post) to fly down with him to Mar-a-Lago on his gold-fauceted and toilet-seated Boeing 727-200 jet.
“We found it all to be a lot of fun,” Kessler recalled, adding, half in jest but wholly in earnest, that after writing a series of well-regarded books on the Secret Service and the FBI, “I decided I wanted to go to more parties and drink more champagne.” (One of those books resulted in the 1993 dismissal of then-FBI director William Sessions after Kessler documented his abuses of luxury travel and other perks of office, in a more innocent era when such abuses, quaintly enough, were considered firing offenses.)
On the flight down to Palm Beach aboard Trump’s private jet, “At one point Pam and I started to dance to the music on the plane,” Kessler said, “and Donald walked in on us. He always says he likes Pam more than me. She definitely is a big plus in our partnership”—in which Pam Kessler helps with reporting and editing.
When The Season was released, Kessler accepted Trump’s offer to host a book party for him at Mar-a-Lago, where the Kesslers have been regular guests in the nearly two decades since. “He never forgot how I did a factual job on him, whereas he was being attacked by the media and facing financial difficulties,” Kessler recalled.
“He appreciated that, and when he would write me notes, he would refer to me as a friend,” he added. “So it just continued in that vein.”