It was all in a day’s work during one of Donald Trump’s typically self-flattering, duplicitous, and peevish coronavirus briefings when ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl pressed him last Friday about the availability of ventilators for COVID-19 patients, and the president responded with schoolyard insults.
Trump angrily continued: “Nobody has ever done what we have done. Nobody has done anything like we have been able to do and everything I took over was a mess… So I wouldn't tell me what you are telling—you know, like being a wise guy.”
For the 52-year-old Karl, who has covered every White House since Bill Clinton’s second term, the cutie-pie/wise guy exchange—much like Trump’s spiteful back-and-forth this past Sunday with PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor and CNN’s Jeremy Diamond (again, over the shortage of ventilators)—was emblematic of the 45th president’s “Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde” personality disorder when it comes to his dealings with the Fourth Estate.
“It’s a vivid example of the way he has been from the beginning,” Karl told The Daily Beast as he celebrated the publication of his book, Front Row at the Trump Show, which includes a scene of Trump cutting short a December 2015 interview and screaming, “Fucking nasty guy!” because he didn’t appreciate Karl telling him that polls showed him losing to Hillary Clinton.
“You saw it when he screamed profanities at me and stormed out of an interview in 2015 and then came back in like nothing had happened and asked me to take a picture with him,” Karl said. “And that picture’s in the book, where he’s all grinning and I’m not smiling, like I’m still furious.”
Karl continued: “Even in the last couple of days, when he’s been doing what he did to Yamiche and doing what he did to me, he’s been saying that the media has been doing a good job. He even said something nice about Yamiche [“You’re a journalist,” Trump said. “A fine journalist.”] in the middle of personally insulting her in the same barrage of words.”
The president’s ire, Karl acknowledged, is often aimed at female African-American journalists like Alcindor, whose questions tend to get under Trump’s skin. The president singled out Alcindor once again during Monday’s coronavirus briefing, chiding her for a “really snarky question” about the dearth of U.S. testing for the disease, and for not congratulating him on the terrific job his administration has been doing.
“There was that two-day period where he went after Yamiche, he went after [CNN’s] Abby Phillip and he went after [American Urban Radio’s] April Ryan—all in deeply personal ways,” Karl recalled. During impromptu Q&As in November 2018, Trump told Phillip that she asks “a lot of stupid questions,” described Ryan as “a loser,” and dodged one of Alcindor’s queries by calling it “racist.”
“It was very striking,” Karl said. “There does seem to be a particular ferocity with which he goes after them.”
Karl’s book documents a Trumpian process that he describes as “the notion of truth being eroded.”
“It’s troubling,” Karl said. “There are people in this country who literally will not believe what they see with their own eyes… The thing that I am concerned about, in terms of American democracy, is that the notion of truth has been eroded in a couple of different ways. One is the repeated misstatements and untruths that have come out of the White House. And then there’s the sustained attack on good journalism, which means that roughly half the country questions what they read in the newspaper or see in a television news report.
“We’ve become a country where there is no common set of facts and understanding of what truth is. We’ve been deeply divided throughout our history. That’s not new. But overcoming the divide is impossible if you can’t agree on what the facts are.”
In Front Row at the Trump Show, Karl writes that the current White House’s assault on truth is “qualitatively different” from the workaday “spinning and stonewalling” of every other administration he has covered.
“I have seen senior officials in the Trump White House—taking their cue from the president—willing to just make things up,” he writes. “And at the same time, the president himself has waged a sustained campaign to make people think the truth is a lie whenever he doesn’t like the truth or it makes him look bad.”
Predictably, Karl’s book takes shots at former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Spicer’s successor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and her deputy Hogan Gidley, whom he classifies as comfortable, casual liars. Karl’s portrayal of Spicer is especially brutal—that of a former Republican Party apparatchik, well-regarded by the Washington press corps, who morphed under Trump’s employ into an unhinged prevaricator unable to control his temper.
“I didn’t really think much of it,” Karl said about Spicer’s appearance last week in the White House briefing room to ask the president a question in the guise of a freshly minted anchor for the Trump-friendly Newsmax cable channel. “I thought it was a little odd that he stood up to ask his question. I’ve never actually seen that. I’ve been in that briefing room under 14 different press secretaries, but I’ve never seen somebody in the briefing room stand up when called on. I also thought it was interesting that the president didn’t call on him by name… It was almost as if he didn’t know who it was.”
Reached by The Daily Beast, Spicer declined to comment.
Perhaps surprisingly—given Karl’s position as this year’s president of the White House Correspondents Association—his book also heaps criticism on one of his association's members, CNN’s pugnacious White House reporter Jim Acosta, accusing him of “playing into the explicit Trump strategy of portraying the press as the opposition party” and adding, “Don’t give speeches from the White House briefing room…”
Karl told The Daily Beast: “Regarding Jim Acosta, to paraphrase Voltaire, I will defend to the death his right to report from the White House, but I have some issues with the style in which he has done so… We can be tough, we can call out things that are not true, we can be aggressive in our questioning, but I don’t think we should act like we are part of the resistance.”
Acosta, like Spicer, declined to comment.
Karl has known Trump longer than anybody in the White House press corps or anybody currently in Trump’s cabinet or on the White House staff with the notable exception of Ivanka. Indeed, Karl’s book leaves the impression that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner who, along with Kellyanne Conway, barely make even a cameo appearance and come in for scant criticism, might be among Karl’s more valuable confidential sources.
“No comment,” he answered when asked if Kushner had something to do with Karl’s finding out, the day before James Comey did, that Trump was going to fire the FBI director. In his book, Karl is careful to state that he was forbidden by his source to share the information with ABC News or, for that matter, anyone else.
In another scooplet, Karl writes that first lady Melania Trump was influential in the president’s decision not to reinstate his widely condemned anti-immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border when he was considering such a move.
“Darling, we cannot do that,” Karl quotes Melania as telling her husband.
Karl first met the tabloid-friendly real estate impresario and reality TV star in August 1994 when Karl was a New York Post cub reporter eager for details—which Trump gladly provided—on newlyweds Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley and their Trump Tower “HONEYMOON HIDEAWAY,” as the Post’s frontpage headline screamed.
Trump gave Karl a private tour, which also resulted in four sidebars listing other celebrity residents of Trump’s building, real and imagined. “My editors,” Karl writes, “ate it up.”
Even though Trump likes to brand journalists as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”—a surefire applause line at the rallies he’s unable to hold during the current coronavirus crisis—little has changed since his publicity-hound days in Manhattan. Karl recalled that two days before his inauguration, the president-elect phoned him and spent 10 minutes bitching about a throwaway line Karl had uttered on ABC’s Good Morning America.
“I was amazed that he had time even to watch Good Morning America, much less get on the phone with me,” Karl said. “The president is somebody who cares intently about the way he is perceived and specifically the way he is perceived in the news media. He tracks the coverage of him and his performance far more closely than any other president I’ve covered. They all pay attention. They all care about that stuff. But with Trump it’s a whole new level.”