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During his Friday press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer — who showed up wearing an upside down American flag pin — was asked about the latest jobs report, which President Donald Trump has in the past dismissed as phony. Spicer responded, “they may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real today.”
On a typical day, CNN’s Jake Tapper would have addressed the moment on his weekday afternoon show, The Lead. But instead Tapper was at SXSW, where he gave a talk with MTV senior political correspondent Ana Marie Cox.
When Cox asked Tapper how he would have handled the day’s briefing, he said, “What we would have done is we would have presented the jobs numbers and talked about the real unemployment number. Then I would have explained what President Trump said throughout the campaign about how phony the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were and then we would have run the Sean Spicer bite, which would have pretty much explained itself.”
Cox followed up, “Would you have kept the resting bitch face?” Tapper laughed and motioned to his face, responding, “Whatever this is, I would have kept it.”
The journalists, who have known each other for years, were in Austin on Friday to discuss the media’s coverage of the 2016 election and the early days of the Trump presidency. Tapper, known for his dogged interview style no matter the subject, has become an even bigger figure in the mainstream media since Trump’s rise to power. A 25-minute video of an especially heated interview with Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway in February had been watched nearly 1 million times on CNN.com as of early March.
Cox, who interviewed Tapper throughout the one-hour panel, asked him whether he had changed the way he worked in light of the new administration. “I don’t think I changed anything,” he said. “I was doing the fact checks and the commentaries about the importance of empirical fact and truth during the campaign.” That comment prompted Cox to quip: “You were into facts before facts were cool.”
In response, Tapper noted that he was also hard on President Barack Obama’s administration. “To be completely candid, I did fact checks about Barack Obama, too, not at the same rate, nor was there a need for them at the same rate,” he said. “I know people that hated me back then but now like the fact checks I’m doing about Donald Trump. I feel like I’ve stayed consistent.”
The pair also discussed the rise of fake news and the Trump administration’s penchant to use the phrase when they don’t like a report. Tapper noted that even his 7-year-old son has picked up on the phenomenon, explaining with a laugh that he “now does an impression where whenever I’m bothering him he says, ‘fake news.'”
But what is going through Tapper’s mind when he’s in the middle of an interview and he knows the subject is lying? “It’s very frustrating,” he answered. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. … I’ve never encountered anything like this. I think it has a lot to do with this fact-free world where things can mean whatever you want them to mean.”
Tapper acknowledged that he didn’t expect his reporting to have an impact on the election. “I never think this is going to have an effect,” he said, explaining that he’s always thinking about the questions he needs to ask, regardless of how it impacts his relationship with the guest. “I’ve got two kids. They’re going to some day read back about this period in our history and I want them to be proud of me,” he added.
The panel ended on a light note. Tapper, responding to a question from the audience, said he feels “very, very lucky” about Beck Bennett’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. “When you see how they have gone after Sean Spicer — they got somebody probably 20 years younger than me, in much better shape, with far fewer wrinkles, a handsome guy. I feel like I really dodged a bullet.”
Tapper was originally scheduled to interview General Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but a last-minute change meant that Cox, who has covered politics for GQ and The Guardian, was asked interview Tapper instead.
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