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The Trump Whisperer: A Conversation with David Fahrenthold

Before David Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for covering Trump’s candidacy, he spoke to the then-candidate on the phone last May. Trump called Fahrenthold “a nasty guy.”

One of Fahrenthold’s most impressive journalistic pursuits came after that conversation when he began to investigate Trump’s charitable giving. Trump had long made loud claims about his charitable donations, but Fahrenthold discovered that although Trump claimed to have donated millions of dollars spread among 400 charities, very few of those charities had any record of Trump’s supposed contributions.

Fahrenthold’s other bombshell report — on the 2005 Access Hollywood video in which Trump, on a hot microphone, says he grabs women “by the pussy” — became the Post’s most concurrently read story in its digital history.

Perhaps Fahrenthold’s most striking editorial innovation has been how he solicits help from the public over social media. In the Post’s write-up of Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer win, the paper noted that traditionally “reporters have kept their work ‘secret and guarded’ until they have developed enough information to publish. Fahrenthold instead shared his progress on stories via Twitter and openly asked readers for tips and information that guided his work. [Post editor Martin] Baron noted that this process now has a name: ‘the Fahrenthold method.’”

Fahrenthold and I discussed what he’s learned about Trump, how he “shows his work” to the public while reporting, and how embracing Twitter has helped him as a journalist.

* *

What is the most important thing you’ve learned about Trump?

He’s not strategic. He’s not somebody who has a long-term goal and takes actions every day incrementally. He’s relationship driven. He’s very short-term. He does things to hurt somebody or to please somebody in the short-term, and there’s often not a longer-term goal behind that.

I saw that in his charitable giving. There was no one cause. He didn’t take a cause like many rich people do and say, “Okay, I’m going to give most of my money to St. Jude’s or to University of Pennsylvania — or whatever it is.” He would give money in little pieces — usually because he met somebody who wanted money for his charity, or he had a friend who was being honored and he wanted to buy a table. They usually were social obligations that he took on right in the moment that he used charity to satisfy but never returned to any one cause. He recognized that being a rich person in the U.S. came with a responsibility to be generous, to be charitable. And he wanted to play the role. He wanted to seem as generous as he was rich. But in private, when it came to actually fulfilling those promises and to actually following through on the promises he’d made, he often didn’t. He would either not do it, or he would use other people’s money to satisfy the promises he’d said would come from his own pocket.

How does this lack of long-term thinking and strategizing affect him as president?

To me, the best example might be healthcare. How many different goals has he called for on healthcare? He’s called for repeal and replace; he’s called for straight repeal and delay. During the campaign, he called for something that was very different — basically giving everybody more coverage for less money. If he wanted a particular set of things, if he had settled on a particular set of policies, he could’ve advocated for them from the beginning. He had a lot of leverage in the beginning. He might have gotten those things, but now he sort of buzzes in to blast people like Lisa Murkowski from Alaska or Susan Collins [from Maine] for advocating things that he himself had advocated for not that long ago.

The Washington Post’s editor, Martin Baron, said you’ve “reimagined investigative reporting.” What is it that you have done differently?

Well, last year, the thing I found very useful was trying to involve readers in what I was doing, to show readers what I was trying to find out. To show them what I knew, what I didn’t know. Both to reassure them — to show them how hard I’d worked to find the things that I knew — but also to invite their help in identifying the things I didn’t know, answering the questions I didn’t have answers to. The lessons of that were not only that you should invite the public in to see what you’re doing, but also that a lot of covering Trump — and I think covering a lot of politicians — is building maps, and not usually a geographic map, but a map of what’s known. That, for me, was my notebook last year. I’m going to show you everything that I’ve done to try to identify where Donald Trump’s given his money. So I want to give you a resource beyond just the story. A piece of opening myself up to the public was providing a map that you could read from beginning to end, or end to beginning, or middle out, that would go along with a traditional story.

Is that kind of transparency the key to converting people who might otherwise think any negative news about the president and his polices is “fake news”?

Yeah, I think it’s part of that. We have so many more people who are reading us now that are usually tuned out of national politics after a big election. The people who come to us in that situation, they might know The Washington Post name, but they’re not regular readers. They may not know our reputation, and they may not even be really familiar with the connections of a newspaper — the rather confusing difference between a columnist and an analyst, and an opinion piece and a news story. I feel like if they don’t know it from our name, they should see it from our work — that what we do is better, what we do is trustworthy. It’s important for me to show people how hard I’m working to find these things out, and how many chances I’ve given the Trump administration to tell its side of the story. So that if you’re just coming to this and you don’t have a preset opinion about Trump — or maybe your preset opinion is the media’s too hard on him — here’s my work. Here’s how I’ve tried to get his side of the story. Here’s what I’ve done to try to make sure that what I know is right.

Read the rest of this interview at Longreads.

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