Former Clinton press secretary talks Starr investigation, media coverage of Trump

Joe Lockhart. Courtesy photo.

Joe Lockhart was named White House press secretary three days before the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998. Lockhart talked to CJR Editor Kyle Pope about how the Clinton administration played defense against the press, and why Clinton’s impeachment convinced him the press is non-partisan. He also makes the argument that TV networks should air Trump only on a delay, to allow them to fact check the president.

This transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

 

KP: I’m interested in stepping back and looking at the last couple of years, how the Trump team has managed or mismanaged its dealing with reporters.

JL: Well I think there’s a there’s a couple of ways to look at it. One is they have broken a lot of the norms of how the White House communicates with the public. It used to be, the main mechanism was either the president, at a press conference or a speech, or the White House briefing room. There has not been a White House briefing now in over 200 days. So that’s gone. 

I think most presidents and their political teams have tried to appeal to the people who are with them, and then also the people who are wavering. They’ve tried to broaden the coalition continuously, beyond the people that elected them. This administration’s done just the opposite. They have only concentrated on communicating to their base, the people who are with them. 

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KP: So they’ve gone deep rather than broad.

JL: Exactly right. And they’ve used, more aggressively than any previous president, the new tools that the internet and social media platforms provide. So the typical communications construct of Washington and the presidency is broken completely. Whether it’s obsolete, we’ll know sometime in the future. Maybe this is just an anomaly that will come and go and we’ll return to the norms that you know I think people have become accustomed to. 

 

KP: I think what we’re supposed to say at this point is this strategy hasn’t worked, and that this administration is dysfunctional, and that the press operation is broken. But is it? I mean he’s done an amazing job of getting his point of view out. Is there any part of you that says it hasn’t been terrible from his point of view?

JL:  Well, I mean I look at it personally and thought that boy, if didn’t have to brief, my job would have been easier. And if I could just not tell the truth, things would have been a lot less complicated. Yeah I could just say whatever I wanted. It will be tested in 2020. His poll numbers have been remarkably stable, but they’ve been, historically, the worst numbers any president has seen since the Gallup organization started looking. He rarely gets above 40 percent and there’s just no president in recent history that didn’t get above 50 percent. So his poll numbers are not good. I think that’s an argument against the theory. 

I think what they’re betting on is that, and this happens in politics a lot, you win one way and you think that’s the only way to win. Their formula  in 2016 was: we’re going to energize our base and depend on the fact that we can demonize our opponent to such an extent that we will squeak by. 

Whoever their opponent is will not come with the history that Hillary Clinton came with. You know, whether you believed Donald Trump’s version of her, or you believed the version she was selling, she had a long, controversial history. People had very strong feelings about her. 

There’s no one in the Democratic field, including former Vice President Biden, that the public feels that way about. So it will be harder to demonize. It will be harder to make the other candidate’s character the issue, when you have to defend three and a half years of being president.

I don’t think there’s anyone who will say with any certainty right now that he won’t be re-elected. I’m skeptical that he will be, but I can’t say with certainty. If he does win, you’ll find that everyone does it this way, because politics is an imitation business. Whatever worked the last time, everyone’s gonna do it the next time.  

 

KP: Let’s turn to the press now. I thought your piece in the Washington Post was really effective in conveying this like dark, bunker, all-encompassing sort of mentality that envelops you when you’re in the middle of something like this. How do you rate the coverage? How do you think the press has done dealing with this most extraordinary character? 

JL: It’s a really good question. I think, in some ways, this is the golden age of journalism. You know newspapers have gotten back into the game in a major way. The competition that goes on daily between the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and all of the other players reminds me of when I first got into this in the early 1980s.  

What Trump has been able to do is expose some real flaws in journalism writ large. One big one is, what do you do when someone just lies incessantly? The media has just struggled mightily with this across the board. There’s been this understanding where politicians will be careful, and walk right up to the line of lying, but not go over it. Well Trump has trampled the line, and the media still hasn’t figured out quite how to deal with that. Although now, you know, MSNBC cuts away. At some point within the last week, CNN has started doing graphics, basically saying what he said was a lie. So it has taken two and a half years to really figure out how to deal with a serial liar. 

 

KP: What should people do? Do you think fact checking and correcting them on the air, does that work? Or even if it doesn’t work is it our responsibility no matter what? 

JL: I’ve been saying this for a while, and no one agrees with me, so take it for what it’s worth. I think, particularly on television and radio, anything that’s live, and particularly cable, there is an implicit agreement between newsmaker and journalist. You’re going to be playing by the same set of rules, and you’re going to try your best to tell the truth. And in return for that, and for being as responsive as you can to whatever is being asked, or the issues of the day, you get access to them putting you out live.

But Trump has broken his end of the agreement by lying, openly. So what I think they should do is say, ‘You know what, we’re going to put you on the air, but we’re not going to put you on live. We’re going to let you talk, and then we’re going to have an editorial person to say, we’re about to show you the president, and, when he says these three things, he’s not telling the truth.’

The problem is, when you give him 15 minutes to rant and rave on TV, and then a couple of talking heads come on afterwards and say, well that wasn’t true, the damage is done. 

The impression is left. You can’t unsee it. If I were running a cable network, I would not put him on live, because he has lost his right. He won’t keep up his end of this bargain.  

 

KP: And you said there is a second thing.

JL: Yeah, this was the big problem in 2016. There’s this idea that you have to be even-handed. So if Trump has this problem, his opponent must have a problem. And in 2016, no matter what he did, as soon as there was a piece on whatever travesty he created that day, there would be a piece about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Which was was the most over-covered, exhaustive error in judgment among journalists. 

I’m not saying that it wasn’t a story. It was not a six-month story. It’s certainly not a two and a half year story. There’s this idea that, if we’re tough on one person, we’ve got to be just as tough on the other. And there’s some reason to believe that that will change going forward. On the other hand, you cannot turn around right now and miss a story about Joe Biden in Ukraine. Well there’s no story there. 

 

KP:  So we’re now in the middle of this impeachment process. How did the coverage of President Clinton change during that moment? Did the tone or approach of the coverage change?

JL: Well it’s a really interesting thing to look back on. Comparing the two are a little bit of apples and oranges. The feeding frenzy part of the Clinton time was really the investigative portion run by Ken Starr, the independent counsel. And then there was a real sense of, every day there was another leak out of the office, with another piece of information. 

Now, with Trump, we’re in the investigative part. We went through Mueller, which was a stealth investigation, because they didn’t show anybody anything. And now we’re doing an investigation people in Washington are accustomed to, where you get an update three times a day. So that’s different. 

By the time we got to the impeachment part of it, we actually felt like we were playing on a much more level playing field. There was a bunch of Republicans fighting a bunch of Democrats. And in fact, I think we won that fight. 

 

KP: You write in the Post that you knew what the outcome was going to be, and you knew what you were going to say afterwards. You said:  “We had a strategy. We would say, ‘this is all partisan,’ and the president would stay focused on the people’s business. Simple.”

JL: Yes, it was simple, and it was a it was an effective message. And most importantly, it was a durable message. 

I’ve been talking about how the president changed his message today. Because when Jeff Mason asked him a question about what did you hope the Ukrainian president would do, Trump realized his answer doesn’t work, because he wanted the investigation. And so today, he’s got a message that’s durable, which is: “I did it. I’d do it again. And I’ll do it with other countries, because there’s nothing wrong with it.” And he’ll just keep repeating and repeating that.

I think underlying both of these things, and hopefully giving people some insight into how it’s covered, is that the media does like to look at these things as a political contest, where there’s a winner and a loser. 

When we got to impeachment in 1998, it was a partisan conflict. And the fact that we were better at bringing our case, and executing our strategy—we got a dividend with the press. What they like to reward is winners, and punish losers. That may sound overly simplistic, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and that really is one of the driving factors. 

 

KP: You don’t think it was partisan? 

JL: No, no, not partisan. I think the press is decidedly non-partisan. They want to show in their stories that’s somebody won and somebody lost. Somebody got ahead today, and somebody fell behind today. 

 

KP: I’ve always viewed political coverage as everybody wants to be contrarian. If you’re up, they want you down. If you’re down, they want you up. That wasn’t the dynamic that you saw?

JL: I think there’s a good bit of that in the presidential races, where, as the closer you get to the possibility of actually being president, the more people want to take you apart, and look under the hood, and see everything. 

I think this is a little bit different. I just think that there is a handicapping of political strategy that’s built into the system, and it kind of feeds on itself, so if you’re on the wrong side of it you’re getting piled on to. And if you’re on the right side of it you feel pretty good. 

 

KP: You didn’t feel during the Clinton impeachment process that the press was sort of rooting for impeachment, just because it’s a hell of a story?  

JL: I think that during the Starr investigation, there was a sense that the real value to a reporter to get a prominent place in the paper, or to be the lead of the evening newscast, was when you found something that was damning. Some damning piece of evidence. Exculpatory evidence didn’t carry much weight. 

So I think there was a sense that we don’t want to have run around for five months on this story and have at the end of it, there’s nothing. Not that they were rooting for Starr, but they were rooting for a good story. 

I think there was a strong sense in the last three or four months that Pelosi was holding everyone back, that she was holding back a great story. And she was not getting great press, when in fact her strategy was perfect. She literally was the old phrase: “Don’t shoot until you can see the whites of their eyes.” She was waiting until this thing was set, and she was willing to let it go away if the conditions on the ground didn’t change. 

People have asked me a lot about the liberal bias in the press, and I say I don’t think there is a liberal bias. I worked for a president who in 1998 got the worst press of any president up to that point. I think there’s a bias towards action. I think reporters want something to happen as opposed to someone to say “Everybody hold on, we’re gonna just let this sit for a couple weeks.” 

 

KP: So one last question. Based on your experience, what are the pitfalls that reporters covering this really need to watch out for? It strikes me that this is exactly the moment when any screwup is really going to be used in dramatic fashion by Trump and his team, and so I think if you’re a news organization you have to be so careful right now. 

JL: I think you’ve put your finger on one, which is to be super careful. The initial strategy during the beginnings of the Starr investigation, the Monica Lewinsky portion of it, was to basically stay alive. And one of the ways to stay alive was to get everybody to back off a little bit. And one of the more effective ways we did that was highlighting stories that were demonstrably wrong, and nobody wanted to have the full force of the White House pointing out how wrong a story was. 

I’ll give you an example. There was a story from a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. I can say this now, it was Glenn Simpson, who’s become famous. He called me one day and said, ‘I’ve got reports that so-and-so said this thing to the grand jury, can we get a reaction?’ And I said, ‘Glenn, probably not, but I’ll try.’ I ran it down, and turns out the person that he thought had said this hadn’t even testified yet.

I called Glenn well before five and said I’ve got to wave you off that story, here’s why. There was this long pause and he said, well we have a problem, because we just moved it on the Dow Jones Newswire. We were afraid someone was going to scoop us. 

After I finished yelling at him, I said, get your editor on the phone, we’re going to have to fix this. So he did. And I remember the editor, Alan Murray, said, well we’ll just do a correction on Dow Jones Newswire. And I said that’s not good enough, you put this story out into the ecosystem. Putting something on Dow Jones newswire is not going to fix anything. 

I said, I want a correction on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And he, rightly, said, but the story never ran in the Wall Street Journal. I said, but your readers also read Dow Jones.

So the next day, in a little box on the front page. It was amazing how they wrote it. “In a story that never appeared in this newspaper, we want to say that we got this wrong.” And you know it had the impact that I wanted. 

 

KP: That’s an amazing story. It all sounds very civilized and polite. What was your threat? 

JL: I didn’t really have a threat. You know what my threat was? I was appealing to their sense of journalism.

 

KP: My God, this is such a time capsule of a time gone by.  

JL: I think the other thing they need to do, and this may sound Pollyanna-ish, is just to remember how important this is. This isn’t your day-to-day fight. This isn’t about who’s moving the polls in what direction. It’s about whether the president abused his office or not. It’s that simple. And if he did, what’s the appropriate remedy. I think if they keep it that simple, they will not get caught up in who’s winning and who’s losing. And you’ll get better coverage. 

If you look at the last week to 10 days, I think the coverage has been excellent. I think it’s been deeply and well-reported. It’s been contextual, with the exception that some people have been irresponsible with the way they’ve treated Biden. But I think most reporters are trying as hard as they can to say he’s done nothing wrong. 

But this is a long fight. And I hope that they can keep that you know that there’s a beacon there that they should never lose sight of. It’s not about the day to day. It’s about a much more important principle. This isn’t a budget deal, where there will be a winner and a loser. There aren’t really winners here. The question is, is the system protected?  

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.