on with kara swisher

Jake Tapper on the Difference Between Trump and RFK Jr.

Kara Swisher talks to the anchor about dealing with liars, covering 2024, and the drama at CNN.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Courtesy of the subject
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Courtesy of the subject

Two and a half years after leaving office, Donald Trump still retains a grip on American politics with the current 2024 GOP front-runner facing multiple indictments, an assortment of Republican challengers, and an always growing list of perceived enemies. One member of the latter group is Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent at CNN, the network the former president loves attacking more than any other. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Swisher spoke with Tapper about how he feels about drawing Trump’s ire as well as how the Trump era influenced the writing of Tapper’s latest novel, All the Demons Are Here — a political thriller set in post-Watergate D.C. and the third book in his Charlie and Margaret Marder Mysteries series.

In the excerpt below, Swisher and Tapper debate how to cover Trump’s third presidential campaign, the recent turmoil at CNN over that very issue that helped lead to the downfall of CEO Chris Licht, and why Tapper thinks Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s lies are even more dangerous than Trump’s.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: What impact do you think [Trump’s classified documents] indictment will have, first on the GOP primary, and second, national turnout?

Jake Tapper: It’s tough to say. Predictions when it comes to Donald Trump are a risky venture. Based on polling, it seems as though it has caused a rally-around-the-flag effect to a degree. And there are very few Republicans beyond Will Hurd, Chris Christie, and Asa Hutchinson, it seems — unless I’m forgetting any who have discussed, in serious terms, what these allegations are in a way that is akin to what Mark Esper, Trump’s former secretary of Defense, or Bill Barr, his former attorney general, has said. So there isn’t anybody aggressively making the argument: “This is why …” — I mean if you’re Ron DeSantis and you’re running for president against Donald Trump, it seems like that’s an opportunity, like — “This guy can’t be trusted with the nation’s secrets.” That’s at least what Esper said. But because people who would, I think, be able to capture the Trump base have been reluctant to do so, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve really had any effect on his primary support.

In terms of his general support, I haven’t seen any indication that he has done anything to win over the people who voted for him in 2016 and did not do so in 2020. All those people in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Milwaukee or Detroit, all the people who turned out for him, all those Republican women, all those independents, they do not seem to be any more supportive of him than they were. And in fact, you could even make the argument that they’re even less supportive given what’s happened with Roe v. Wade. So I don’t really quite understand it just as a political analyst, but Jonah Goldberg had a really interesting column the other day where he said he thinks the — you should read it yourself because I’m not going to do it justice — but it was something about the purity test in Republican politics now being more important than victory.

Kara Swisher: It’s interesting because in your book you do talk about people shifting on Nixon, and they did make that leap. Why hasn’t that, having studied that and written about it in your book, why hasn’t it happened here?

Jake Tapper: There are a lot of reasons. One of them is we’re in such a different media environment than we were with so many more channels and voices. And generally speaking, that’s a good thing. But it also can be a bad thing because misinformation is so prevalent. And also I think that at the end of the day, even if the Republican Party was very, very late to it, Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater and all the rest did take that walk and go to the Nixon White House and tell him that it was time to resign. And we don’t see that level of courage in terms of speaking out against somebody that they do not like and do not trust and do not think will be able to win among current Republican leadership. The most you can hope for is silence, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But generally speaking, people see Jeff Flake and Bob Corker and Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and they think, I don’t want to end up like that.

Kara Swisher: All right. Let’s do a lightning round. I want to ask you what lessons you think we’ve learned from 2016, 2020, and beyond and how media should cover each of these stories:

The states, particularly the recent Supreme Court decisions impacting everything from affirmative action to gay marriage, or gay-marriage wedding invites?

Jake Tapper: Right. Well, I think we should cover those decisions as honestly and accurately as possible and show the ramifications of them.

Kara Swisher: Will the more recent ones have as much motivation as the abortion issue for impaction, the 303 case?

Jake Tapper: We’ll see. It obviously is going to have an impact. I think a lot of colleges have been preparing for this decision. John Roberts has been against affirmative action as long as I’ve known who John Roberts was. And so I think a lot of colleges were preparing for this and have been preparing for ways to keep their student body as diverse in every way, ideologically, geographically, internationally, etc., even with a decision like this. So I don’t know what the impact is going to be. It is possible the impact will be minimal, but it’s certainly something we’re going to cover.

Kara Swisher: Biden’s age and health, from the sandbag fall to misspeaks on Russia invading Iraq, how are you going to be covering that?

Jake Tapper: In the same way we covered it in 2020, which is to acknowledge it’s real, and anyone who pretends it isn’t … Look, he was always a gaffe machine when he was in the Senate and then when he was vice-president. When he was running for vice-president, I had a blog. I was at ABC News, and I had a blog called Political Punch, and I had a regular feature that was called “Oh That Joe.” And it was just transcripts of gaffes that he made from the campaign trail. Before anyone gets mad at me, it was a favorite among people on the Obama campaign because they knew of his propensity to … Anyway, I had to stop at “Oh That Joe” No. 50. I had to stop because he got elected and I’m like, Okay, well, probably [time] to retire this feature.

Kara Swisher: You’re not going to bring it back perceivably.

Jake Tapper: Well, now, it’s gaffes combined with the fact that he’s 80.

Kara Swisher: Right. Yeah.

Jake Tapper: And I can’t speak for you, Kara, but I’m 54 and I don’t have the same brain I had when I was 30.

Kara Swisher: I’m smarter than before, Jake. Anyway.

Jake Tapper: No, you might be wiser. You might be wiser than before.

Kara Swisher: No. I’m sharp as a tack. I’m going to go all at once, Jake. Suddenly, I’ll be like a doddering fool.

Hunter Biden’s deal with federal prosecutors and assorted Hunter scandals?

Jake Tapper: We cover it. We have been covering it.

Kara Swisher: Okay.

Jake Tapper: And we need to cover it. There are these whistleblowers who allege that there was much worse and the DOJ didn’t listen. Then you have the former U.S. Attorney Wise, who says he had complete control, and he’s a Republican appointee, a Trump appointee. We just cover it all. Look, Hunter Biden is who he is. It’s pretty clear who he is. In addition to being an addict, he’s a guy who ethically has … There’ve been questions about his behavior, and I think it’s worth covering. It’s also worth covering in context. The context of everything that’s being said in terms of how fact-based any of it is or how evidence-based any of it is. But I’m not going to shy away from covering Hunter Biden. He is the president’s son and has made a lot of money being the president’s son.

Kara Swisher: And what about Trump’s lies? How do you change … Again, this is the third election, presumably. From 2016, many thought the media laid down on the job. 2020, maybe the media didn’t necessarily. How do you do it? How do you cover him as a normal candidate?

Jake Tapper: Well, he’s not a normal candidate.

Kara Swisher: Yeah.

Jake Tapper: He’s not. He’s a former U.S. president who arguably incited a violent insurrection. His lies about the election certainly were the reason for what happened on Capitol Hill that day. He is somebody whose words have caused violence and caused threats of violence. We saw that just a few days ago with one of his —

Kara Swisher: So how do you cover him then?

Jake Tapper: As he is. We cover him as he is. He’s the leading Republican nominee, and he says things that are not true, but we have to cover him. We can’t ignore him. We can’t pretend he’s not there. We can’t pretend he’s not leading in the polls for his party’s nomination. We have to explain why. We have to talk about the issues that people find compelling. Although to be honest, the people who are still left in the Trump tent who want to talk about the Abraham Accords and the tax cuts, Trump doesn’t really talk about that all that much.

Kara Swisher: No. He doesn’t talk about policy.

Jake Tapper: No.

Kara Swisher: There’s no policy.

Jake Tapper: Not really, other than his grievances and the deep state and the rest. But he’s the leading Republican nominee for president, and he has as good a chance as anyone of becoming the next president of the United States.

Kara Swisher: So that obviously leads us into the CNN part of it. “How to cover Trump” blew up a bit at CNN after the Trump town hall. Many think the interview shouldn’t have happened. I am not one of them. I think there should be as many interviews of Donald Trump as possible. I’d love you to sort of unpack that. How do you look at the fallout from that at this moment?

Jake Tapper: I think that a lot of the fallout was … Well, look, it’s nuanced, so I don’t want to paint anything with a broad brush.

Kara Swisher: Okay.

Jake Tapper: First of all, there is the question. Donald Trump is the leading Republican nominee for his party’s nomination. Should he be covered? Is a town hall where voters get to ask him questions, the moderator gets to ask follow-ups, is that in the public’s interest? I am of the opinion that it is. Now, some people might say “no,” but I am of the opinion that it is. You agree with me, I think, on that.

Kara Swisher: Yes, I do.

Jake Tapper: So then the question becomes how we do it, we meaning news media and not just CNN. And also, what are people offended by? Because I think a lot of the reaction that there was, people were like, “Oh, it was a Trump rally.” Well, that wasn’t a Trump rally. That was a group of, as we do for all of our town halls, Republican and Republican-leading independents from that state, in this case, New Hampshire. Just as we do for Joe Biden, it would be Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents for Iowa or South Carolina or wherever. So what were people … people, “Oh, it was a Trump rally.” No, that wasn’t a Trump rally. That is a sampling of Republicans and Republican leaning independents in a red state. “Oh, they were behaving like this. They were behaving like that.” The question I would have, and I say this, truly with all due respect, what are you offended by? The airing of it or the existence of it? I’m not talking to you, but the people out there who are offended by it. Is it the airing of it or the existence of those people?

Kara Swisher: Hmm. Not the existence of those people, but I wouldn’t have stacked it with anybody. And I do think, even Tim Alberta’s piece, which I’ll bring up in a second, the Atlantic piece, repeatedly makes a point that Chris Licht, who was your former boss, quoted as “extra Trump-y.” I don’t think they should be stacked at all with people, supporters.

Jake Tapper: Yeah. I saw that quote in the Alberta piece, but —

Kara Swisher: Chris Sununu said they were. Lots of people said it was pretty Trump-y.

Jake Tapper: My understanding, and I was not there and I did not play a role in the town hall, but my understanding is that the audience was picked in the same way the audience was picked for all of our other town halls going back years and years. And I will say, having done the Nikki Haley town hall, which was a few weeks later, again, it was Iowa Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and Nikki Haley, who’s from South Carolina, got a polite applause. And then throughout the night, people liked her. They listened to her, and she got a lot of applause at the end. Now, she’s not there saying or doing the same things, but people could have said, “Oh, we stacked it with Nikki Haley supporters.” We didn’t. But it’s a Republican and Republican-leaning crowd and she is who she is. Donald Trump is incredibly popular with the Republican Party. I don’t know who the individuals were. You can’t hear people who were there who were not applauding or not laughing or not clapping, but regardless of what Chris Sununu or Chris Licht said, my understanding is it was picked the same way.

Kara Swisher: Right. Yeah.

Jake Tapper: As any other one.

Kara Swisher: I’m not sure that’s the best way to stack an audience in general, but that’s just me.

Jake Tapper: Well, but then you’re saying we should have done something different for Donald Trump that we didn’t do for the other Republicans.

Kara Swisher: What would you have done differently? Because you said you wouldn’t do a town hall, for example, with Robert Kennedy Jr. because he spreads “dangerous misinformation.” I still think Trump needs to be interviewed compared to Robert Kennedy. Let me just say that personally.

Jake Tapper: Yeah.

Kara Swisher: But what would you have done differently there, if you could go back and change it?

Jake Tapper: Well, just to touch on the Robert Kennedy Jr. thing, one thing I’ll say is his entire being and prominence, his entire public position, is based on lies about childhood vaccines that have saved the lives of tens, if not hundreds, of millions, if not billions, of children throughout the years. And one can see a direct cause and effect of what he says about MMR vaccines and the like breaking out every now and then … Just anybody listening, go Google: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Samoa, and measles — and you can read something about, that’s what I’m talking about. What would I have done differently? I think there’s an argument to be made what Fox did when they did their town hall like a week or two later, it was not live. I think there’s an argument to be made about that because then it can be produced a little better and …

Kara Swisher: Well, he’s a bit of a hot item. That’s the problem. It’s hard to do it live because he’s a liar, because he’s a persistent liar.

Jake Tapper: I have never seen anyone in public life, with the possible exception of Robert Kennedy Jr., who lies with such skill and abandon. That is true. I think Robert Kennedy Jr.’s actually worse, but that’s just my personal point of view.

Kara Swisher: Right. So you would maybe do it not live.

Jake Tapper: I think there’s an argument to be made about not doing it live. But I think these are all just like tweaks of the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue that I think a lot of people are upset about on the left and in the media is Donald Trump is the leading Republican nominee to be president, and he has huge support among the Republican voters. Journalistically, I’m willing to listen to any argument and discuss whether or not such a town hall should happen, how to do it differently, all of that. But I do think that that is, for some people, the fundamental problem they had with the town hall.

Kara Swisher: Okay. All right. But it was followed by, of course, Tim Alberta’s piece. It definitely tarnished CNN.

Jake Tapper: Who is this Tim Alberta of which you speak?

Kara Swisher: You didn’t read it? It was long.

Jake Tapper: I read it.

Kara Swisher: I read every word. It was the final nail, as they say, for Chris Licht. The reporting was that you liked Licht and you were an advocate for his attempts to reform the network. Is that the case? What has the fallout been from your perspective? Because you don’t run everything, obviously.

Jake Tapper: I don’t. I run my show, and I co-run State of the Union, and that’s it here at CNN. So that’s what I can speak to. I will say that I have known Chris for a long time. I’ve known him since he was at CBS News, and I was very excited when he came because I thought that he would be good. At that point, Zucker had already left, and, you know, I adored Jeff and I would like for Jeff not to have left, but he did. And so I was in a new reality, and the reality was, Well, who are they going to pick? And I’d heard a lot of names, some of whom I knew, some of who I knew by reputation, and Chris was, without question, the best name I heard, and I was excited about it.

Now, in terms of the larger question about what did I think about his mission, Donald Trump is a disruptor, and that is not meant as a criticism. I think even his fans would agree that he disrupts. Some of that disrupting is probably good, in terms of getting the Republican Party to think about wars and involvement in wars, in terms of getting the Republican Party to think more about the victims of free trade, as opposed to just corporate profits. I’m not saying that everything he has done has fallen in line with those principles, but I’m just giving examples of ways that his disrupting has been not negative. There has certainly been a lot of very negative ways of his disruption. I think that every news organization in America was disrupted by Donald Trump, especially by his attacking the media, his making —

Kara Swisher: And CNN in particular for sure.

Jake Tapper: Well, he focused on CNN. I’m not sure if it was because of his previous relationship with Jeff Zucker. I’m not sure it’s because of our position as the only non-, I would argue, nonpartisan, nonideological 24-hour cable news network. Whatever. But he picked on us a lot. But that’s okay. As Hyman Roth said, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

Kara Swisher: Godfather.

Jake Tapper: I think he disrupted everybody. I think he knocked everybody in the news media off. Look at the Fox Dominion lawsuit, if you want to see how one organization was knocked so far off its tracks that they thought that a reporter like Kristin Fisher should be fired or kicked off air because she was telling the truth about the election. That is —

Kara Swisher: Sure. Donald Trump doesn’t see CNN as nonpartisan, let’s be clear. He doesn’t. He talks about it. It’s very partisan, but go ahead.

Jake Tapper: Donald Trump … But you know …

Kara Swisher: Yeah.

Jake Tapper: If Fox airs something that’s not anti-DeSantis, he attacks them for being partisan.

Kara Swisher: Yeah.

Jake Tapper: So back to the CNN thing. Do I think CNN or some individuals at CNN or some moments in CNN’s history during the Trump years, we were knocked off our equilibrium a little bit? Yes. Every media organization was to one degree or another. Did I think that we needed some sort of wholesale revision? No. I do not. Or there were some tweaks that were necessary. Yes. That is what I said to Chris when he came onboard. Our North Star here at CNN has always been the journalism, not preaching to the choir. We’re not an entertainment company with a news division. We are a news company, and we are not trying to preach to the rest of the progressive choir or the MAGA choir. We are our own unique being. That is what I thought Chris’s mission was, and I agreed with that wholeheartedly. Do I think there were moments that we got knocked off that? Yeah. But I think that we’re good now.

Kara Swisher: So right now, you had a lot of disagreement. Oliver Darcy got his wrists slapped for basically reporting. Um —

Jake Tapper: But name another organization that would have had a guy like Oliver Darcy even writing that, criticizing his own network.

Kara Swisher: Right. But he definitely was pushed back on. Obviously, Anderson Cooper spoke up. Has it stopped? Was the firing the right thing to do?

Jake Tapper: I’m not here to judge whether the firing was the right thing to do. I’m bummed that it didn’t work out with Chris. I am. I’m bummed that it didn’t work out. But I will say that things are really good right now, and this leadership team — and I will say right now, I am highly biased. I have known David Levy since the ’90s. And I knew Amy Antelis and Virginia Mosely when I interviewed for a job at ABC News in 2003. And I’ve known Eric Sherling when he was at GMA and then he helped me launch The Lead. Those four individuals are people whom I legitimately love and respect and admire and have been out for meals with just for fun, not just for work. So take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. But I think they’re doing a great job and the focus is back on our journalism, not on palace intrigue and not on media criticism.

Kara Swisher: Right.

Jake Tapper: And morale hasn’t been better in years.

Kara Swisher: What happened at CNN underscores a larger debate right now about whether more balance is a useful goal. Christiane Amanpour obviously said, “Be truthful, not neutral.” In prime time, people like Hannity and Alex Wagner have higher ratings than a lot of CNN shows. Do you think Americans prefer partisan news, at least on cable? Is that something … When you think about Let’s focus on the news, CNN’s done some really good reporting lately. Is it possible to do both, be neutral and also be popular?

Jake Tapper: It’s a good question. I got some really good advice when I got my own show in 2013 and I was freaking out about the day-to-day ratings. And Jimmy Kimmel is a friend of mine, and he said, “Stop reading them. Stop reading them. You should know what the general trends are for your show. And if there are things that your executive producer thinks you need to work on, that’s fine. But it will drive you crazy if you read the day-to-day ratings.” But your fundamental question, which was supposed to be the thesis of the Alberta piece as I understood it, a year ago, is, is there a world for …

Jake Tapper: … Nonideological, nonpartisan TV journalism? And I think there is. That’s what I watch. That’s what I want to watch. I don’t want to watch anything else. And I do think most Americans feel that way. It’s just that most Americans aren’t news junkies, and the ones who are, when there isn’t a big news story, might like, especially in prime time, putting on their team jerseys and rooting for their side. I think that’s certainly possible. But that’s not a long-term play, that’s a short-term business decision. And I think that it is important for —

Kara Swisher: Except your book is all about that, isn’t it? It’s about putting on your team jersey and wanting to be part of something that’s angry. And sorry to bring it back to your book, but that’s a big message from your book.

Jake Tapper: Well, that’s what [a character in the book, Lucy,] does. And let me also say, as a student of history, there is a place for ideological journalism. As you know, the origins of journalism in this country, the newspapers were … One newspaper would be a Federalist newspaper that supported John Adams, and the rival paper would be Democrat-Republican that hated John Adams. And there is a place for this. I don’t have a problem with ideological journalism. The question is how allegiant are those organizations to facts and truth, even ones that don’t comport with the biases of their audience? And are they willing to share those facts? And if they are not, then I don’t know you can compare those organizations with what we are trying to do at CNN.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Jake Tapper on the Difference Between Trump and RFK Jr.