Behind the story: Olivia Nuzzi on how she got Hope Hicks to talk

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks on February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

CJR interviewed Olivia Nuzzi at the beginning of 2017, and inquired about her new job as Washington correspondent for New York.Things are obviously different than they have been in the past,” she said, “and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how everything unfurls in Washington over the next four or eight years.”

She wasn’t wrong. And in a short time, the well-sourced Nuzzi has focused on Donald Trump and his White House advisors, but also adjacent personalities like Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and Roger Stone. She’s also examined oddities like Rand Paul’s assault at the hands of his neighbor, and tragedies like the case of the late Seth Rich, a young man smeared by Fox News.

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A through line of Nuzzi’s stories, particularly noticeable in her longer features, is her ability to talk to seemingly everyone. This is certainly the case with her latest story, Monday’s “What Hope Hicks Knows,” a profile of the outgoing White House communications director. What follows is another installment of Behind the Story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain at how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited—as told to CJR by the author, Olivia Nuzzi.

 

 

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This was one of several ideas that would always come up. Oh, maybe I should revisit Hope Hicks.

I’d profiled her 2016, but a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor. And even the pieces from great reporters, like Annie Karni’s profile for Politico, lack a sense of her. And it’s a criticism of my current profile of her, too, that who she is doesn’t come through. So Hicks always stayed in my head as somebody who I might want to revisit, because she’s been fascinating for almost the duration of Trump’s political career. And I felt like I understood her a little bit.

 

In late January, the Times had a report about what Hicks allegedly said on Air Force One in regards to Don Jr. and obstruction. She started to emerge more in the media in a way she hadn’t really before, as part of these really ominous stories about Russia. That’s when my editor suggested it as a story. I was excited, because of course I wanted to take another crack it. While the GQ piece was important to meit was my first magazine featurethere was a lot I wish I’d done differently.

The first week of February, when the story came out about Rob Porter and his ex-wife, I got the go-ahead.

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I did not initially want to reach out to Hicks. I was thinking, Fuck, she’s in the middle of this shit personal news cycle. And I was afraid I would look ghoulish by reaching out immediately and saying, “Hey, I’m doing this big piece about you, as of today.” I thought it would kill my chances of obtaining any access at all, if it seemed like this was going to be a narrowly focused piece about the news cycle. But then I thought, well, that’s my job. And I’d rather her hear from me directly that I’m poking around.

So the first thing I did, on February 9, was send a request for interviews to Hicks, for her and for the president. Until the last minuteuntil last weekI thought I might get the president. But in the end I think it’s probably better that I didn’t, in terms of how the story reads. He sucks as an interview, and it could’ve been distracting to have him in there.

 

Hope came back to me and said no. I was thinking, Are you kidding me? You’re not going to sit down with me, and the president isn’t going to sit down with me? I find it pretty difficult, in this White House, to get people on the record who have direct knowledge of whatever it is you’re covering. I don’t want to rely on what Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hogan Gidley told me in my interviews, though Gidley is pretty candid. I need something on the record.

Hicks pushed me off on Sarah, who said no. I pressed her on why not. She said, “because he is the President of the United States and it’s not the best use of his time. It’s possible I can provide a quote from him about Hope but nothing beyond that.” I wrote back, “I’m happy to conduct the interview while the president watches Fox & Friends, if that would be more convenient.” She never responded. I hate this attitude from officials, as if the president is somebody who he’s clearly not. But it didn’t matter.

 

I thought I might get the president. But in the end I think it’s probably better that I didn’t, in terms of how the story reads. He sucks as an interview, and it could’ve been distracting to have him in there.

 

I kept all my notes from the GQ story. I reviewed my transcript of the Trump interview—six minutes, it was the shortest thing everand I realized I hadn’t used the best quote. I was like, Was I stupid? Why didn’t I use the good quotes in that piece?

 

When I got an email from Hicks telling me she’d be unavailable for the story, I took that to mean I’m unavailable for an interview in a formal way. So I kept going back to her and saying, Look, I think it’s really important that we talk, that I get your perspective. I know there are things you are frustrated with and disagree with, and I think it’s really important that, if I’m going to write something definitive about this period in your life, you have some say.

 

I get to the White House, and sit down with her. I had not seen Hicks in person since I ran into her in the West Wing in, I think, August. We’d had a brief conversation, and I remember her saying that she just goes home every night and microwaves a Lean Cuisine. It was so unusual, because it’s not like we’re girlfriends, where something that revealing would be a normal thing to say if you bumped into me. I thought back to that a lot.

 

I never approached her cynically. Like, Oh, I’m going to be a human being to this person and not treat them just like a vessel for information with the hopes that the long game will work out and one day I’ll get a big interview, or they’ll facilitate some other kind of big get for me. But looking back, throughout the last two and a half years, the fact that I’m a reporter that she would respond to—I didn’t exploit that for all it was worth, which probably makes me a terrible reporter. But I’m not in a position where my job is to cover the news of the day, and I don’t feel competitive with the reporters who do that, so I thought about her more as a subject, in a big-picture way, than as a source. I never violated a trust on any of the stuff she said casually or when she wasn’t careful about being off the record. I’m always conscious of that stuff anyway. I would never do that to anybody, unless there was significant news value. But I think there was a consistent trust. I assume that’s what led her to allow me some entrée into her life, and to know that I wasn’t going to fuck her over.

 

It’s hard to say how long I talked to Hicks. It’s not like I can say, Okay, she gave me 45 minutes for a Q&A. That’s not the way it worked out. It wasn’t like there was a plan, it just happened the way it happened.

I was trying to come at her life and her experience in as many different ways as possible. I kept up with the ins and outs of her sister’s life via Instagram Stories. I was even trying to exist on her schedule a little bit, which I did not nail because I’m not a morning person. More often, doing this piece, I was still awake at 4am, which is when she wakes up.

 

When I’d interviewed Trump in April 2016, I asked Hicks what seemed like a fucking ridiculous question: If he wins, would you want to be the press secretary in the White House?

I always think back, with all that’s going on with Mueller and obstruction and her testifying: She didn’t even want to be there. It’s not like Corey Lewandowski, or any of these people who were thinking from day one, I’m going to go and be White House chief of staff. She was not thinking of it that way. There’s that great part of [Mark] Leibovich’s Kurt Bardella profile; he notes that on Bardella’s Facebook page, he wrote that he wanted to be the White House press secretary. That’s the type of person who’s normally in Washington. Meanwhile, Hicks hated the place so much she didn’t even stay for most weekends.

 

I think there was a consistent trust. I assume that’s what led her to allow me some entrée into her life, and to know that I wasn’t going to fuck her over.

 

I keep a notebook, but my head and my hands don’t work at the same speed. Mostly it’s just for me to remember who to call or if I need to go somewhere. I record everything I can with a digital recorder. Usually, if anyone is skittish about that, I just explain that you don’t want to rely on my note-taking, that it’s better for both of us if this is recorded.  

Some White House officials record conversations, too. But some of them haven’t been political professionals, or haven’t dealt much with the media, and they’re freaked out by the recorder thing. One time, Jared Kushner literally called Secret Service on me because I said no when he asked me to delete a recording of him in the West Wing. I hadn’t even been recording him, but I said no on principle because that’s fucking ridiculous.

 

John Kelly’s statement about Rob Porter was obviously a big question when I started the piece. It’s just so typical of this White Housesomebody’s name is on a statement and we still have to ask who’s responsible for it? I feel like you would normally just say it’s obviously John Kelly, the chief of staff. Is he so inept that we don’t know if he really knew what words were being attributed to him?

So I started asking about that statement. I don’t want to say it was a frustration, exactly, for Hicks. I think she looked at it as, I’m going to take the bullet for the team; but a big part of why she left, in the end, was stuff like that. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, even though I did that through the entire piece, but I think she felt like she was on an island with that Kelly thing. These anonymous sources were blaming her and saying her judgment was bad based on something that, according to five senior White House officials, she didn’t do.

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One of my questions, initially, when I was doing these interviews was, Okay, you guys read these stories, or you see CNN, and whatever you say about them—that they’re “fake news”they’re not making up White House officials talking to them. There are people on your staff who are leaking against other members of your staff. What does that feel like to know that you might turn on CNN in 20 minutes, and someone you were just in a meeting with called up a reporter or producer and and either told them what happened or, if you’re saying it’s not true, lied about what happened? How do you deal with that?

 

I keep a notebook, but my head and my hands don’t work at the same speed. Mostly it’s just for me to remember who to call or if I need to go somewhere.

 

Kelly’s statement was drafted during a meeting in Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s office, and there were, I think I was told, a dozen people around. Her office, behind the briefing room, is really big by White House standards. My understanding is that John Kelly was standing in the doorway, where it’s not even clear he sees Hope Hicks. He dictated the initial draft of the statement, and Hicks didn’t even pipe up.

 

If I had more time, I probably would have included something about the issue of reliability in general with White House officials. Like, I have five of these senior White House officials, and the ones I’m quoting on the record are Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The people I’m quoting on the record here are known liars. When you’re saying, This is what they’re saying happened, and it’s in direct conflict with what people on background, or deep background, are saying happened, who do you believe there? I guess you go with the known liars who are on the record? But who the fuck knows, right?

It’s hard to know who to believe. Most of the time it’s probably no one. In this case, because I had multiple White House officials saying one thing, and because, I think, at least three of them were on the record, I guess you report what’s on the record, right? You report that versus the one person off the record who says, You know, actually, it’s X, Y, or Z. Well, if that’s true, then why don’t you go on the record with it or on background?

 

But again, who the fuck knows? It’s a difficult thing; I think about it all the time. They are saying this thing is true, but they also say that the sky is orange.

 

I was trying to get Lewandowski to talk to me, every day, for weeks. He said he would, and then he fell off the face of the earth. We have kind of a contentious history, which seems pretty typical for him, with reporters and everyone else.

I was also trying to talk with this guy who lives in the basement of the Turnberry Solutions townhouse, where Lewandowski lives upstairs. I headed over there from the White House. I tried to knock on the basement door, but the gate wasn’t open. Then I walked up the steps to the main door and knocked for, like, 10 minutes. And I’m knocking, knocking, nobody’s answering. But after a while, I just touched the door knob, and the door was open. I walked in and I’m in the house, by myself. So I took this photo of the quote on a wall. I peered around but I didn’t walk fully into the house. I texted my boyfriend, You know, I just walked into the house, because nobody was answering at the door. And he said it probably wasn’t legal and that I should leave. I was like, Fuck.

I went back outside and continued to knock on the door for awhile longer, and then Jason Osborne, who works at Turnberry Solutions and worked for Trump in the final stretch, answered the door.

 

In political reporting in Washington, there’s not a lot of door knocking. You mostly call people, text them, email them. So Osborne seemed caught him off guard. It was a Friday evening, you could tell that he did not want to have me come in, but I convinced him to give me a little bit of a tour of the place, and he was nice. He offered me a Coke. I did not tell him that I had already been inside.

Face-to-face interviews are always better. I always feel like people are more honest with me, especially when you’re dealing with White House types, or at least you get a better sense of when they’re being dishonest. It’s just better for establishing relationships and trust with people, too. I find, especially with White House people, they are more inclined to give you their real insight if you’re having an in-person conversation. So whenever I can, I say no to phone interviews. I was supposed to have a second interview with Kellyanne Conway, because our first interview was only 30 minutes. They kept trying to do it on the phone, and I just wasn’t interested.

 

They are saying this thing is true, but they also say that the sky is orange.

 

I sat down with Kellyanne Conway in her office for this piece––and she still seems bitter about that profile, even though everyone thought she probably loved it because I was “humanizing” her. It’s not like it was a source-building exercise for me, you know? She didn’t talk to me for months after that. She still has never said a word about that profile to me, not a word.

I got to her office, and she was like, “Everything that you see in here is off the record.” Excuse me? She looked around, pointing her finger, and said, “Everything you see in this room, in this office, is off the record.” I said, “I’m sorry, we’re having an interview that is on the record, right? And you’re telling me that the fact that we’re in your office is off the record?” She was like, “No, you can say that you’re in my office, you just can’t describe anything that you see in here.” Oh. I’d already described the office in great detail, previously, so I don’t really give a shit. I was like, Okay, sure, whatever.

I think she was still unhappy because I had described her having Spanx in a bag on the floor of the office. But don’t tell a reporter you have Spanx in a bag if you don’t want them to report that you have Spanx in a bag.

 

First of all, let me preface this: I’m not in any way comparing myself to Gay Talese. But he once said something like, If your subject is surprised by the piece that you write, you did something wrong. That is very much my approach. I’ve had people tell me, Oh, this reporter was so nice during the interview and we had such a great time, and then the piece tore me to shreds. Or, This reporter was so tough on me, and then the piece was so nice.

I just don’t work that way, personally. When I interview people, I’m really open about my own thoughts and theories about the person, even if it’s just a source and not the subject themselves. I’m really open about the way I’m thinking. I find that if people know where you’re coming from, maybe they’ll make an effort to pull you off of your notions by providing you contrary facts or a point of view. Or maybe they’ll be really helpful and tell you things that will bolster your theories or your point of view.

 

Don’t tell a reporter you have Spanx in a bag if you don’t want them to report that you have Spanx in a bag.

             

Sometimes you can’t help angering sources or subjects. Like Kellyanne Conway, I was really open with her about the way I was thinking about the piece. I wanted it to be a nuanced look at Kellyanne Conway, and I wanted it to be different from the other profiles. And I think I failed in a lot of ways, but not in ways that she could reasonably feel betrayed by. But sometimes sources or subjects aren’t reasonable.

 

Olivia Nuzzi. Photo by Victoria Stevens.

 

Hicks’s family said no to an interview. I reached out to her sister and father multiple times. I understand, obviously. Her father has been a spokesman for the NFL; he has a lot of experience dealing with the press, and I’m sure he has reasons for believing it was in her best interest that the family not participate. I’d love to speculate about how they must feel about Trump. The fact that they refused to cooperate at all really made me wonder how much they were horrified by him. What were they afraid they might convey that would make its way into print? I just thought at one point or another they would have to break, but they did not.

I was surprised by the nos, and maybe that speaks to my arrogance as a reporter. I was not surprised by any of the yeses.

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I don’t outline stories, which is probably something I should do. I’m not organized enough to do it. I don’t plot it out. I remember talking to my editor at the beginning, before I had written anything, just saying, “Well, I think I’m going to maybe open with the story of the day that she quit and then I’m going to pull back and dig into some of the profile material and then get it to this conspiracy epicenter of her exit.” But I didn’t know what that would really look like.

 

I began writing the first section on March 9. But I had so much more reporting I needed to do. So I did another round of approaching sources, and I tried to get my conversations transcribed. There were so many interviews I didn’t use. There are so many good quotes, so many things I wish I could have worked in, but I just didn’t have the time to go through 25 transcripts line by line to sort through everything I had.

 

I love to write, which probably says terrible things about my writing. At least with politics stuff, I feel like there are journalists who write to report and and journalists who report to write, and I’m definitely in the latter camp.

I’m not a perfectionist, obviously, because nothing I’ve ever written has been anything approaching what I would consider perfect. I think all the time about how I’m going to paint the scene, how I’m going to convey X, Y, or Z, and what I could tell the reader that would make them understand how it felt to be there, how it felt to be the person I’m writing about, to the degree that I can understand that.

 

I wish I could say the structure was a premeditated thing, but to be honest, I was in such a rush, that was just the way it happened. As I was reporting it, I did start to think about it as a profile of Hope Hicks, but also as a profile of the West Wing being completely fucked in ways way beyond Trump’s awareness. And once I had those two pieces in my head, I’m not gonna write a biography of Hope Hicks at this point, you know? I was thinking about it as two stories, but not in a complicated, structural way.

 

I find, especially with White House people, they are more inclined to give you their real insight if you’re having an in-person conversation.

 

I wrote the last section on Friday. I felt like I needed a little bit of a curve, a new themesomething.

I had been up all night. The week was a disaster, and it was the third night that week I had stayed awake all night trying to write, which is never a good idea. I always get more done if I sleep a little bit. And it was like 4am; I was trying to write a last section. Around 7, it occurred to me that, Oh, maybe the paparazzi are outside of Hick’s apartment again. I knew they had stopped being there every day, but I thought, Maybe I’ll get lucky. And thankfully, it turned out somebody was there, this guy Matthew. I talked to him for a minute, watched it go down, went home, and wrote the last section.

 

Everything was done really fast and I feel absolutely terrible for making everybody rush. I think I made everybody really, really nervous. I was thinking about this while I was promoting the piece on Monday, like, the level of faith that everyone at the magazine had in a 25-year-old they’ve known, in most cases, for just a little over a year. I was like, Don’t worry, I promise it’s coming! I hate the word “humbled”like, who says that?but I’m really moved, I guess is the word, that they trusted me to not fuck this up and they took my word that I would get it done.

My print editor, David Wallace-Wells, is really good about transitions, which is somewhere I always struggle. I’ll go back and read some of the stories I did at The Daily Beast, and the sections feel disjointed or just don’t flow properly. He’s really good about identifying simple ways to fix that, things that make it into a feature rather than a staccato series of ideas. And he’s really good aboutI hate this phrasethe nut graf, helping me sort out the broader importance of the piece for readers.

It’s very collaborative. I’m surprised by how not-terrible the editing process is. I don’t fear being edited here at all, I actually enjoy it most of the time.

 

I don’t want to speak for him, but I imagine the fact-checking was an enormously difficult undertaking for Nick Tabor. I’m sure it was a nightmare. I mean, the last section was not written until the last day. In some cases, I assume he talked to unnamed sources,  but most of my conversations were recorded and transcribed. I’m so happy to have a fact checker, because I’m paranoid that I’m going to get something wrong. And Nick is meticulous but not so hyper-literal the way some fact checkers can be—like, once a friend told me a fact checker said they couldn’t use the word “trek” to describe a journey that involved a boat, because “trek” means “journey by foot.” I really trust Nick’s judgment.

 

You know how you’re working a piece, and you’re in such a rush to get it done that, by the time you lift your head above water and look at it, you’re surprised by what you made? It’s sort of like that with this piece.

All of my reporting for the last two years has led to this, in a way. It’s like a Greatest Hits of every character that had anything to do with the campaign and the early months of the administration.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.