“I’m trying to keep my face as neutral as possible,” the CNN anchor protested on Wednesday, the morning after his epic, 25-minute televised clash with presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway—in which the usually feisty Conway wilted under fire as Tapper repeatedly called out her boss for what he politely referred to as “falsehoods.”
“Sometimes I’ll have a reaction to something that’s said because sometimes people say things that are legitimately surprising,” Tapper told The Daily Beast, explaining his spritzed-by-cold-water response—an eye-blink, followed by a head-shake, the universal signifier of WTF—when Conway tried to defend a White House list of supposedly “under-reported” terrorist attacks that CNN and other media outlets had actually covered extensively.
At the climactic moment—after Tapper scorched the Trump White House for having “such little regard, day in, day out, for facts, for truth”—he demanded that Conway account for a bogus allegation that the then-president-elect unleashed during a Jan. 11 press conference, when he refused to take a question from CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
“Are we fake news, Kellyanne—is CNN fake news?”
“No, I don’t think CNN is fake news,” Conway conceded, an answer that put her in direct conflict with her boss and much of the messaging from the Trump White House.
Indeed, the Washington-insider Axios news site reported on Wednesday that as a result of his dustup with Conway, “Republican operatives were urging at least one conservative-friendly website to write Jake Tapper hit pieces…”
Tapper, an even more active Twitter user than the president, has responded to this rather alarming report with humor—retweeting fake opposition research (“When I worked @cnn I often saw @jaketapper steal @JohnKingCNN red pens,” claimed comedian Pete Dominick) under the hashtag #TapperDirtFiles.
The Washington Post, for one, couldn’t resist publishing a GIF, under the headline “Your Magic Eight Ball for 2017: Jake Tapper Disapproves,” showing the anchor mugging in distaste.
“I am not aware of it,” Tapper insisted concerning his grim on-camera visage. “I understand that people are meme-ing it. That’s amusing to me, but it’s not intentional.”
The 47-year-old Tapper—who hosts both CNN’s weekday afternoon program The Lead and the network’s Washington Sunday show State of the Union—is a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, a frequent celebrity guest on late-night talk shows (including his scheduled appearance on Wednesday’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert) and a recurring object of satire on Saturday Night Live—usually portrayed tangling with Kate McKinnon’s Conway.
He emerged during the 2016 campaign as perhaps cable television’s toughest and most persistent interrogator; at one point last summer he pressed the future president 23 times about whether it was racist to claim that a federal judge in Indiana, Gonzalo Curiel, couldn’t be fair to him in a lawsuit against Trump University because the judge’s parents happened to be born in Mexico.
Trump repeatedly refused to respond, dodging and weaving until Tapper finally demanded, “If you are saying he cannot do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?”
“No, I don’t think so at all,” the candidate—trapped—at long last answered.
Not that Tapper has been a particular favorite of Democrats. In one of the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, mused: “Why is Jake Tapper such a dick?”
And years ago, when Tapper was ABC News’s White House correspondent and bumped into then-Secretary of State Clinton, he breezily asked her which of her many titles over the years she liked best.
“I prefer any of them to what we call you when you’re not around,” she quipped, according to The Washington Post.
“I’m an Independent,” Tapper told The Daily Beast, when asked how he’s registered to vote in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and two children. “I’ve long been an Independent. And I am an independent by thought also.”
Tapper said his politics have evolved since he was an aide a quarter century ago to Democratic Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (now Marjorie Margolies), Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, and a family friend from his hometown of Philadelphia. He was also a public relations advocate for a gun control group.
“When I was younger, I had political views, but I’m almost 50 and you’re reaching back to when I was less than half that age,” Tapper said. “The longer I have spent in Washington, D.C., the more I’ve realized that no party owns a premium in ideas or ethical behavior, and I don’t look at either party and think that it represents my views.”
As for John Podesta’s moniker for him, “I would say probably there were people who were my high school teachers and can relate to that accusation about me,” he said. “But in general, the way I am to authority figures is not necessarily how I am in real life.”
If Tapper were to join any party, it would no doubt be what President Trump and his chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon have dubbed the “Opposition Party”—one of their many insults for the Fourth Estate.
Tapper—who responded on the air to Bannon’s recent demand that journalists “keep their mouth shut” with a simple “No!”—said the Trump White House’s anti-press antagonism, along with a deep aversion to facts, is all but unprecedented.
“Politicians say things that are not true all the time,” Tapper said. “Sometimes it’s out of ignorance, sometimes it’s purposeful deception, sometimes they’re selling something and they hope what they’re saying is true, but it turns out not to be true. This didn’t start with Donald Trump.”
However, Tapper argued, this president has taken things to a new level of aggression. “There sure seems to be an effort by the president and the White House to discredit all media except for supportive outlets. And the effort is to say everything we report that they don’t like, or they don’t find flattering, is fake news.
“And to further bolster their argument, they are very clearly stating things that are demonstrably false—and saying we, the media, are not reporting on them, and citing our refusal to report things that are not true as an example of how we are fake news.”
The bogus list of allegedly ignored terrorist attacks is a recent example, although Trump on Wednesday afternoon tweeted a report on a new poll suggesting that his White House is more widely believed than the nation’s news media.
“The reason why it matters is because this is a campaign to discredit people who are trying to hold an administration accountable—which is our job,” Tapper said. “This is not to say that media in the last three months have not made any mistakes… But to focus on everything that’s ever been reported about him as fake news has a debasing effect and corrosive effect on what journalists do. And it’s unhealthy for democracy.”
Tapper said he won’t be deterred from pointing out Trump’s prevarications.
“I said to Kellyanne—and I meant it—that I would much rather be covering President Trump’s polices. I would much rather be focused on his actions to change the nation in the way he and his supporters see fit.
“But it becomes difficult to cover when one has to point out that the president is telling falsehoods. It’s not fun, but I wouldn’t call it exhausting. It’s certainly challenging.”
Tapper doesn’t seem to be letting up in his critical coverage of the administration. On Wednesday’s installment of The Lead, in a segment titled “Conflict of Interest Watch,” he highlighted Trump’s tweet attacking Nordstrom department stores for “so unfairly” dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line due to slow sales.
“The president of the United States has now spent more time dressing down a clothing retailer than he has Vladimir Putin,” Tapper told viewers.