Carl Bernstein is an American investigative journalist and author.
Carl, why is it your motto that a reporter has to give the best obtainable version of the truth?
That’s what reporting is. Good reporting is the best obtainable version of the truth. This is the mission of the reporter.
Do you think that the journalists of today are living up to it?
You can’t make mass generalizations about journalism. In America today there is a tremendous amount of great journalism and there are also awful things being done in the name of journalism. There are far fewer great mainstream reporting organizations than 40 years ago.
Is their reporting good?
The reporting of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, three great reportorial journalistic institutions, is very good, and in covering the Trump presidency they have been fabulous. It is a renaissance of great investigative reporting, with story after story. Television news is a different beast, but there has been a lot of excellent coverage of the Trump presidency on TV, especially cable TV, both at CNN and MSNBC.
“Trump, in all his wretched excess, is someone Made in America, a product of our peculiar cultural forces….”
Today in the U.S. do you have a President that is against the press as never before?
It is more complicated than that. He disdains and hates a press that is truthful when it comes to reporting on him, but Donald Trump adores the press in a perverse way. He has manipulated the press since he was a young adult and he wouldn’t be anything without his use of the New York tabloids – the Daily News and the New York Post – in the 80s and 90s. He understands the press and created the mythology of himself and promoted all his self-inflation and infatuation in their pages. Trump wouldn’t be president of the United States were it not for the press. The amount of free air time that he was clever enough to obtain and be given on the cable news networks by saying so many outrageous things during the primaries was a really grievous abdication of editorial responsibility. An essential element of the best obtainable version of the truth involves journalists deciding what is news.
Would you say theirs is a love and hate relationship?
It’s about reporting on him factually and truthfully and contextually. What comes through is a picture of an authoritarian; ignorant, dangerous, sometimes unhinged, sometimes smart as a fox, sometimes crazy like a fox. I am struck by how many Republicans on the Hill and those in the top ranks of the military and intelligence realms tell you they think that he’s unstable and unfit for the presidency.
Do you agree that he’s very dangerous?
It’s dangerous to have a President of the United States who is as demonstrably uninformed and uninterested in the truth as this President is. He doesn’t know our history. He is surprisingly uninformed about much of what goes on in America, and even more so about the rest of the world.
And yet he still seems to hate the press?
His hatred is of those who get in his way. He dealt the same way in business with those who questioned his actions or said he was a con-man. You cannot accurately accuse the press or the media of hating Donald Trump. They’re really trying to report on a chaotic, three-dimensional presidency and president, with context. He is trying to cover up, undermine and impede a legitimate investigation into what his ties and those of others in the campaign and his business operations have been to Russia. The great ‘mainstream’ news organizations – and some of those that are not traditional ‘mainstream’ – are doing a remarkably good job. This is especially true when you consider that this President of the United States lies almost reflexively, and with no apparent compunction, and instructs those representing him to do the same.
Like all demagogues he can’t stand being contradicted?
As I said, he’s authoritarian. And on the whole question of racism, whether or not he’s a racist he certainly has made a fundamental part of his calculation stirring racism and encouraging racism. He has a racist history in business, of not renting his apartment properties to African-Americans to the point where the Justice Department had to take action.
Are the people who voted for him racists?
90 percent of the people who call themselves Republicans in this country voted for him. I don’t think you can call all Republicans racist by any stretch or means.
Do the people who voted for him now regret it?
One of the really disturbing things is how slow it has been for people who describe themselves as principled Republicans to disassociate themselves from his most demonstrable outrages. They have been willing to enable and not condemn an awful lot of what Trump has been doing.
Even though he has not been true to his campaign promises?
It’s true that he has not been able to deliver on his primary promises, but he has done an awful lot of important deregulating and very consequential things by executive order. Now he’s flailing, partly because he’s been unable to get some of the major things he wanted and partly because he’s not competent.
But surely he was competent earlier in his career and in the reality TV show, the Apprentice?
I talked to a lot of the top producers of The Apprentice before the election. Not the principal producer, he won’t talk to anybody, but four or five of those right under him. They all disdain Trump. They all say he was lazy. They all say he was abusive. They all say he was unprepared when he showed up on set. Take after take after take, he hadn’t done his homework. The same picture we are getting of him as President. Mostly he operates from his gut, without any kind of thoughtful preparation.
The 37th President of the United States Richard Nixon resigned in August, 1974, in the face of almost certain impeachment
The young Carl Bernstein and Edward Woodward
What about his Tweets?
The Tweets are not totally chaotic. The Tweets are a real road map of his mind, and what he believes and what he believes in and they’re often horrifying in that regard. That’s how we find out what he really thinks and believes in. That’s the real Trump. Not so much when he reads every once in a while from a Teleprompter.
Who is the real Trump?
I can’t think of many public figures of consequence in America in the last 30 or 40 years who have done so few admirable things in terms of the public good or the common good in their lives. Trump’s record is one dominated by self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment by any means, and questionable business practices.
But now he’s the President?
There is no evidence that he has changed. He is acting in total consistency with the way he’s lived his life. That includes the chaos and that includes the anger, and that includes the vitriol and the ignorance, the vindictiveness, and particularly the disdain for truth and the sensibilities of others.
There is a North Korean problem which is very bad and difficult. Is it very dangerous for him to be Commander-in-Chief?
It is dangerous to have a President of the United States about whom there is no evidence of the kind of methodical, careful consideration of information and issues and history that a President needs. You can have good instincts from the gut, which he would tell you he has. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. So far the evidence is dismaying.
Does he have good military advisers?
He’s surrounded by military people, McMaster, Mattis, Kelly, who have a huge burden to see that he acts responsibly because we have very little evidence that his instinct is to act responsibly. At the same time he’s somebody who does a lot more talking than doing. That’s one of the reasons it’s a dangerous situation.
“Trump’s record is one dominated by self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment by any means, and questionable business practices.”
Since the beginning of your career you have been very much used to being around Presidents. You played an important role in the Watergate impeachment. Have you always followed what happened?
I’ve been around it since I was a 16 year old who went into journalism in Washington in 1960. I’ve written a biography of Hillary Clinton – unauthorized, of course – and I’ve covered the Presidency for almost 50 years, but I’ve also had great opportunities to learn outside Washington – all over America and the world. I co-wrote a biography of Pope John Paul II and his role in the fall of communism with the great Vatican journalist Marco Politi.
Is the Trump presidency very different from any other presidency you have seen?
This is a unique presidency, with an aberrant president. There is no precedent for this. Trump took office at a time when the country was in a cold civil war, and his winning the presidency has brought the temperature of that cold civil war to a boiling.
What do you mean by a cold civil war?
Fighting a Cold War, with great intensity and increasing hatred on both sides, but without people fighting in the streets.
Are you saying there was a Cold War in America, between American people?
There was already a Cold Civil War that has been building up for a while, but Donald Trump’s actions and words and attitudes have exacerbated it to the boiling point, to near-conflagration. He has done nothing to bring the people of this country together, but rather he has divided them further and he’s ignited incendiary passions. He’s a demagogue.
What’s going to happen?
There is no way of knowing. He has never been a real ideological Republican; his views are more ideologically consistent with the Republicans certainly than with the Democrats; but who knows what he believes about some things? He believes what he says about immigration and he believes what he says about a lot of things that are indicative of his anger and resentments and hatreds, often things that are not based in fact or reality.
Do you think he will end up being impeached?
If you mean leaving office because of the impeachment process, impeachment is just the first step – you have to be convicted. Bill Clinton was impeached, but he was acquitted and not convicted by the Senate. You have to have a two thirds vote of the Senate to convict a President of high crimes and misdemeanors and be removed from office. That’s a pretty high bar, and it is a long, arduous process. Nixon would have been convicted in the Senate had he not resigned, but the impeachment and conviction of a President has never happened in our history.
But there are there ongoing investigations?
Yes. In addition to the Special Counsel, there are several congressional inquiries.
What have they found?
Already it is clear that we’re dealing with very serious events and evidence and certainly the appearance of a cover-up and possible obstruction of justice by the President, and many other suggestions and allegations that need to be thoroughly investigated. He fired James Comey, the Director of the FBI. He pardoned Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in Arizona who had refused to follow the law in regard to immigrants. The sheriff’s pardon seems partly intended to hold out the promise of pardons to those who are under investigation in the Russia matters. The example of pardoning the sheriff may convince some of those people not to talk. We don’t know where these investigations are going to go, but we know they’re are very serious and that they’re closing in on him. This question of ‘collusion’ with Russia is a complicated business and only part of the investigations. Many inter-related areas of his campaign and businesses and those of his aides and associates and even family are under intense scrutiny. Perhaps ‘collusion’ is not altogether the right term and what investigators are seeking, in part, is evidence of whether Trump and/or those closest to him knew in advance of Russia’s attempts to intervene in our election on his behalf, and either encouraged it or did nothing to stop it.
Is what you are saying that the situation is very dangerous, like during Watergate?
Far more dangerous. Especially because this president of the United States seems determined to ignore and contradict evidence of what Russia did in terms of undermining the American electoral process. The system worked in Watergate. The press did its job. The judiciary did its job and Congress did its job. The people of the United States came to a consensus that we had a criminal President and he had to leave office. By the end of Watergate there was not a huge division in the country. Nixon may have been a criminal President from the beginning of his presidency to the end, but he was a substantial person and a substantial intellect and he understood history and the country. Nixon was a politician who always wanted to be President of the United States, and was brought down by his almost tragic character flaws after he’d achieved the Presidency he’d always wanted. Nixon was accused and was guilty of great abuse of his presidential power and authority, in addition to conspiring to cover up what he had done. The whole Trump equation is different. We’re really looking at apples and oranges here in regard to Trump and Nixon. There is nothing remotely tragic about Trump, among other considerations. The most obvious similarity is that both Trump and Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press the issue, instead of the conduct of the president and those around him.
There is another fundamental difference between our era now and Watergate: Fewer citizens are interested in and open to the best obtainable version of the truth today. There is no metric to measure this, but it seems obvious: For many years now, more and more Americans have been seeking out news and information to reinforce and buttress their already-held beliefs: political, cultural, religious et cetera. Instead of opening themselves to the best obtainable version of the truth, as happened during Watergate and was more the norm until the scorched-earth cultural and political wars of the past quarter-century.
Carl Bernstein at the Newseum in DC (c)2014 Sam Levitan Photography
Is Trump a dilettante?
Worse than a dilettante, but the fact that Trump is not of the political class and has never been a politician is not necessarily the problem. It could be a strength if the right person were to emerge, who has no political background, to be president. Our system hasn’t been working very well with politicians of late, and one of the reasons Trump won is because he said unequivocally, and people identified with it: “The political system is broken.” It is, he’s not wrong about that.
Is this a major reason why Trump won?
Trump identified some basic difficulties about the American condition in his campaign. What he said about the so-called elites of the country having failed us is right. Too many of our institutions aren’t working: our educational system isn’t working, our political system isn’t working, and our medical care system isn’t working. The three institutions that really continue to function with brilliance in this country are the military, entertainment, and tech. I don’t want to oversimplify something that’s vastly complicated, but the great post-war American meritocracy has ceased to function. The real opportunities in our country are greased for the children of the wealthy and connected at the expense of those from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. Trump hardly presented a coherent analysis of such things, but he hit some nerves.
What will happen?
We’re still a country of the greatest potential on earth, but we are being strained as never before in our modern history, not just by Trump. Trump has taken some of the frayed strings that were already there and is pulling at the very fabric now. He exploits the differences between Americans and pursues a strategy that is the opposite of trying to unite our people.
Do you mean that it’s not all his fault and that he is a consequence of the situation?
No, he is partly a consequence of it, but our underlying problems remain. He has subjected this country to division and danger as a result of his character flaws, his fundamental dishonesty and lying, his malevolence, and his lack of competence; and his spectacular ignorance and understanding of our own history and that of the modern world. That is a very different kind of danger than we have ever faced.
Because he says things that other politicians or diplomats have never said?
He says a lot of things that people have been wanting to hear and some of those things have a resonance rooted in legitimacy. Some. But he is also a provocateur and he knows he’s a provocateur and he intends to provoke. That’s part of what he does.
What is he interested in?
He’s really ultimately interested in Donald Trump. We see very little evidence that he’s interested in the United States of America and its people as a cohesive conceptual entity. Where is the desire to bring people together, to do great things, to articulate that desire and to come up with programs and pronouncements to make it happen? What we’re watching is a rhetorical fusillade of venom, not soaring rhetoric to do great things. “Make America great again.” OK. What does it mean?
Is he a neo-fascist?
Whatever neo-fascist characteristic he represents is peculiarly American and doesn’t accord with the European models. Some of it is a little Peronist perhaps. But there should be no illusions about his authoritarian impulses, his demagoguery, his willingness to traffic in racism and his disregard for the rule of law and constitutional principle as an elemental aspect of inciting his core supporters.
“Trump is surprisingly uninformed about much of what goes on in America, and even more so about the rest of the world.”
You are a reporter but also a very prominent witness of the American life. Has this country changed a lot since when you were a child, when black people didn’t wash their hands in the same sink as you?
I went to legally segregated public schools in the capital of the United States of America until I was in the sixth grade, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown versus Board of Education, that our schools had to be de-segregated. Great things have happened in this country in the post-war era, for all our people: rich, poor, middle-class, black, white, straight, gay, men, and women. The United States has led the world and not just in terms of international security but also in the kind of society we have built. Yes, there have been some great mistakes and fits and starts. Vietnam, Iraq – disasters. We haven’t always been right, but we’ve never had rot at our core.
Is America now somehow rotten?
I’m not ready to say that we have rot at our core now. I don’t think we do. But we are having trouble fulfilling the kind of principled continuity that we had through the end of the 20th century. We’re having troubles internally and we’re having troubles in terms of how we relate to the rest of the world. We’ve always been the most complex culture, probably in the world, in part because we have such a mélange of people and histories.
Things have changed after the fall of Communism in Russia and with the rise of China?
We expected that in our triumphalism about the end of the Cold War with the Soviets that the post-Cold War era was going to be a great one for the United States and for the West. Yes, the post-Cold War era has turned out to be liberating for hundreds of millions of people, but also nightmarish in ways that we could not have imagined, for the United States but also for Europe. The fall of Communism did not produce the wonderful peace that we had expected, it produced great disorder. And we did not anticipate the age of terrorism.
Is there a great imbalance in America today?
We still have by far the most stable economy in the world and a uniquely bright economic future in a macro sense, but at the same time we haven’t fulfilled our obligation to our own people, especially working-class people who have had a decline in real income over the last thirty-some years. And we have created a modern plutocracy. We have had plutocratic eras in our past but never a huge plutocracy with tens and hundreds of thousands of Americans – this so-called ‘one per cent’-living a life of fat ease and privilege and advantage.
Isn’t America known for being a meritocracy?
That great meritocracy has been eroded by this new plutocracy, so that it is much more difficult for those of modest means to achieve in the way people of my generation of modest means were able to. Now the wealthy and the connected have a clear path to controlling institutions in our economy and politics that most other people don’t have a real shot at. So we have a real plutocracy.
Do you see these divisions elsewhere in the world?
All of the democracies, including the democracies of the former Communist East and the West, have divided countries and cultures. Every one. In terms of extremes, we’re talking about Hungary or Poland or the Czech Republic. The divisions we’re seeing are consistent, and the temptation is for demagoguery, for authoritarianism, something like what we’re seeing with Trumpism. Look at the anti-immigrant sentiment all over Europe, East and West. But it’s more complicated than just that. As are the nationalistic impulses.
At the end of the day would you say that somehow Trump understands America? That he’s a complete product of America?
Trump, in all his wretched excess, is someone Made in America, a product of our peculiar cultural forces, including the huge role that entertainment plays in our basic modern identity. He ran a very effective campaign based largely on his own instincts; he had a real understanding of what’s going on in the guts of a large part of America, and among the people who call themselves Republicans, not just working class whites. Again, he won with 90 percent of the Republican vote – and remember that Republicans control almost two thirds of the Governorships and State Legislatures in this country. So there you have a very big part of the equation. Trump was a very good fit for a big part of that Republican electorate. For a very big part of America.
September 16 2017
Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.