“My jaw dropped when I heard it.”
That’s investigative journalist Jane Mayer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, speaking on the latest episode of the Recode Media podcast. She’s referring to one of the (several) shocking details in her recent story about the links between the Trump White House and Fox News.
According to Mayer’s sources, President Trump asked a deputy to pressure the Justice Department into suing to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger. Although such a lawsuit was filed — and ultimately lost — officials from the DOJ have long maintained that they were not taking their orders from the Oval Office.
“We don’t yet know whether it is the reason that the DOJ went forward, but I think it’s absolutely imperative that we find out, if it can be possibly found out,” Mayer said. “I think people ought to be put under oath and investigated for it.”
One of the lingering questions was whether Trump’s alleged orders were due to a desire to punish CNN, one of the most frequent targets in his years of anti-media rhetoric.
“If in fact this case was filed in retaliation against CNN because it had done its job really reporting on Trump, that is an absolute outrage, and a violation of the relationship between the press and this government,” Mayer added. “It’s an abuse of power. So if that happened, we really should know about it.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Jane.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me. I’m going to skip the rest of the usual intro because this is not a usual episode. This is sort of a mini-episode. Free, a bonus episode. You’re welcome.
This is a brief conversation I had with Jane Mayer, the great New Yorker writer who just put out a great story about the Trump administration and Fox News and how they’re basically the same thing. I’m sure you have read that story by now. If not, you should go read that story and then listen to this. This is me and Jane talking on the phone. You can listen to it right now.
I’m speaking with the New Yorker’s most excellent investigative reporter, Jane Mayer. Hi, Jane.
Jane Mayer: Hi, great to be with you.
As everyone listening to this knows by now, you published an amazing story about Fox News and the Trump administration and their very, very tight connections. You’ve done amazing reporting in the past about the CIA, the Supreme Court, the Kochs, other powerful institutions. What is going up against Fox and the Trump administration like in comparison to those other reporting subjects for you?
Well, I mean, it just took a lot of time, really, because it’s hard to sort of burrow your way in and really get the story, and that’s mostly the problem. It’s not that they’re so fearsome or intimidating, it’s more that it’s just hard to get in the door. They don’t like us, I think, the mainstream media, much.
In the old days, in the Roger Ailes days, Fox was famously combative and would go after reporters and leak embarrassing things about them. Maybe that was a little different, essentially reporting about it post-Ailes?
I think what they were infamous for also was going after people after things were in print. They had something called the Black Ops room on the 14th floor of the Fox headquarters in New York. And it was famous for going after Roger Ailes’s enemies by planting things in print about them, spearing their reputations. I interviewed a couple of people who had worked in that kind of part of Fox and they said that they put — I’ll use a nice word instead — and said they put junk on a loop and just kept hitting the person over and over and over again in print.
For future reference, you can curse all you want on this podcast. There’s no shit on a loop for you.
Oh, okay, well you can guess what word it was, but anyway they really went after people’s reputations in a nasty way. And I’m sure, when we were working on this, I felt that if I slipped up in any serious way, they would certainly tear down my reputation, too. So it took time also too, just to make sure that we crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s and got it. Right.
Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that, and I here I’m lifting directly from another media reporter, Brian Curtis, who I heard speculating about this. A lot of what you did here was put some stuff that we knew in context, and then there’s great new stuff that you unearthed. As you’re unearthing new stuff, like this incident about Gary Cohn and John Kelly and Trump — and I want to ask you about that — was there an impulse to say, “Oh, I’ve uncovered something. It’s new, it’s a hyper-competitive news environment. Let’s get that out now and then later we’ll do the longer, more comprehensive piece”?
Yeah, but we know, I mean, I come out of the newspaper world originally and have been at the New Yorker now for 20 years, and the difference is at the New Yorker, you don’t rush stuff into print like that unless you absolutely have to, for competitive reasons. But the beauty of the place is that you get to tell the whole story. It’s actually, if I’d been tempted to do that kind of work, I would have stayed at the Wall Street Journal or at a newspaper. I love this long form.
You love sort of luxuriating in one long thing when you can do it.
It’s more than that. It’s what you can do in long-form is it’s the opposite of what most people do online. Instead of being fast, it’s complete. So you can actually tell the whole history and you can flesh out the characters and you can explain how the dots connect. Everything else online is just the dots. So that’s what I love about the New Yorker is we can tell the whole story and try to make sense out of things. A lot of what I do is more … It’s explanatory journalism as much as it’s investigative journalism.
That sounds right. And then there are lots of folks like me who have taken your explanatory journalism and broken it up into dots. And one of the things that I focused on …
We like that, too.
Yeah. One of the things that I focused on and other folks have focused on is this incident with Gary Cohn and John Kelly and Donald Trump telling them, “I want you to file a suit. I want you to get the DOJ” — the Department of Justice — “to file a suit to block the AT&T-Time Warner deal,” which was revelatory because we’d sort of seen reporting that suggested that Trump wanted this to happen but nothing that specific.
Your reporting doesn’t say that they went ahead and did that. There’s a quote from Gary Cohn saying to the effect of, “Don’t you fucking dare do that,” but it doesn’t say it didn’t happen, either. What do you think actually happened once Trump told Cohn and Kelly? Or more broadly, do you think he directly affected the Department of Justice’s decision to file that suit?
If I knew that it is the reason that they — I mean, they did definitely go ahead and file suit, and not very long after that conversation. And it was an unusual suit and it was overturned in the courts. So we know it was a weak argument they were making, at least according to the courts, and so it’s unusual what they did.
Yeah, that said, but the DOJ, Makan Delrahim says out loud on the record, he told Kara Swisher, who I work with, “No, this is why I went ahead and did it. Any suggestion that it’s politically motivated is not correct.” So he’s saying on the record, “I wasn’t affected by Donald Trump.”
Right. And Trump has also said on the record, for what it’s worth, in public, that he wasn’t going to try to interfere. Instead, we actually caught him, and what he was doing was ordering Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, the top economic adviser in the White House, he said … Not only did he order him that day, he said, “I told him this 50 times to get this DOJ to file that suit.” We don’t yet know whether it is the reason that the DOJ went forward, but I think it’s absolutely imperative that we find out, if it can be possibly found out.
I think people ought to be put under oath and investigated for it. I just want to say, I feel very strongly about it as a reporter because if in fact this case was filed in retaliation against CNN because it had done its job really reporting on Trump, that is an absolute outrage, and a violation of the relationship between the press and this government. It’s an abuse of power. So if that happened, we really should know about it.
And we’ve seen calls in Congress and other folks saying, “We should follow up on this.” When you’re reporting this, when you learn about this, and when you’re finally getting ready to publish, do you expect that reaction? Do you think, “Wow, this, in particular, is really going to stir things up and I want it to.”
Yeah, I hope that people noticed and that people cared. I thought it was important from the … My jaw dropped when I heard it. And I did, I took it very seriously and I hoped everybody else did, too. And I reported it out as seriously as I could at the moment and I’m actually hoping to do a little bit more reporting on it. But truly, I think that people should be called in to testify on this.
Do you worry that a lot of your reporting in general and then specifically a story like this, because it focuses on Fox News and Trump, and I’m assuming that just about everyone in America has made up their minds about those two institutions already, might fall on deaf ears? Anyone who’s already worked up about Fox News and Trump will say, “Yeah, like I said,” and anyone who is an advocate will ignore it.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, this began actually as a profile of Bill Shine, the former co-president of Fox News who went over to the White House to become director of communications and deputy chief of staff. So he was a new character and I thought a good way to take a look at the relationship between Fox and the White House.
But all along the way you sort of think, “Oh, God, everybody knows that they’re close and so what’s new here?” And you just have to keep pushing and turning over more stones and having better interviews with people and more people until you feel like you can tell people something maybe they don’t know.
And you do cite a lot of existing reporting. Like you said, a lot of it is just putting it in context and saying, “I’m going to stitch together all of this stuff for you so you see it all in one place.”
From what I could see, there have been individual stories on Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with Trump that touch, also, on Murdoch’s relationship with Jared Kushner. And then there’ve been separate stories that take a look at, for instance, Hannity’s relationship with President Trump. But what I tried to do was to explain the whole interrelationship between Fox as a powerhouse media company owned, founded, and run by one of the most-storied media moguls of our time. And the whole Trump administration, what you find is their connections all the way up and down, and it’s much more interwoven both now and even looking back at the past history. It’s the rise of Trump.
It’s a great story. I have a technical question about how you do your job. So you’ve got this piece out. I think, again, most people listening to this will remember either the reporting you’ve been doing, you had previously done on Brett Kavanaugh, which is not very long ago. You wrote, you and Ronan Farrow wrote about Eric Schneiderman, the former attorney general of New York, and promptly he left as soon as your story came out. Are you writing multiple stories at a time or are you deep diving on one thing?
No, I’m a total monomaniac. I can barely do anything when I’m focusing on these stories. It sort of takes whatever brain cells I’ve got left.
Wow. That’s, wow. Okay. I kind of thought you’d say that, but I really don’t know how you were able to produce work of that depth that quickly because you’re really churning it out. And the more I talk, the more I realize that one of my editors is saying, “Yeah, Peter, you should pick up your pace a bit.”
I think I’m slow, frankly. I’m sure my editors think I’m slow, too.
I know you’re short on time because you’ve got a lot of stuff to do. One other unrelated question. You are the foremost authority on the Koch brothers. I’ve turned my mother-in-law onto your book. She says you’re now her biggest hero, so congrats on that.
Last year, Meredith, the publishing company, bought Time Inc. with money directly from the Kochs. There was a lot of speculation about what the Kochs did or didn’t want to do with that asset. At the time, Meredith owned Time and Sports Illustrated. They’ve since sold those off. They have insisted that they’re only investing in a publishing company. They’ve got no interest in wanting to touch the publications. You’ve comprehensively laid out how the Kochs are influencing American politics, in large part through the media. Do you believe that they’re actually going to be hands-off with this, with that publisher?
I wrote something at the time and I haven’t looked at it, the situation, since. So it could be that it needs to be updated, but when I looked at it at the time, I actually was convinced that they actually went into it for financial reasons. It was a really good investment for them and they were going to get a very good return on their money. And as much as anything else, they care about the bottom line.
So this is just like them investing in soybean futures. It just happens to be a magazine company.
Almost. They have, in the past, really wanted to have a big footprint in media. And I think people know that they took a look at the Tribune Company at one point and the LA Times. But I don’t think that’s what they were doing in this particular case. And actually these days, it’s no longer “they.” There’s really only one Koch brother who’s active. David Koch has pretty much retired from the scene for health reasons, and it’s all Charles.
Right. Okay, good. Oh, by the way, since we’re here lauding you, we should point out the Elle magazine profile, that in a masterstroke of timing came out I think last week, days in advance of this? And has an amazing anecdote about you and Jill Abramson going to retrieve your dog from your ex-boyfriend.
Retrieve the retriever. Mm-hmm.
Who was then living with Laura Ingraham, and I’m just going to leave it there and you should go read the story yourself. Jane Mayer, great to meet you.
All I could say is, it was 30 years ago, ancient history, but I’m glad I got the dog. So thanks so much. It was great to talk to you.
Thanks for your time. Take care.