ABC's Jonathan Karl on Trump's Press Briefings: "He's Enjoying His Time in Front of the Cameras"

Jonathan Karl at the White House 5-16-17 - ABC News Publicity -H 2020
Martin H. Simon/ABC News

The network's chief Washington correspondent is a frequent target of the president's trademark derision, but he doesn't buy it: "President Trump respects me."

Judging by the way he talks about him, you'd think that President Donald Trump has nothing but contempt for ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl.

During his daily novel coronavirus task force briefing on Monday, Trump called Karl a "third-rate reporter" who "will never make it."

That's not how he really feels about him though. "He constantly goes back, and he will viciously attack reporters and then treat reporters like they're his best friend," Karl says. "There's a Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on here. He's said very nice things about me."

In his new book, Front Row at the Trump Show, Karl writes about covering Trump over the last 25 years, starting when he was a reporter for the New York Post.

Karl spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the president's idiosyncrasies, his daily kayfabe with the media and his fondness for giving press briefings.

How do you think President Trump really feels about you?

I think that President Trump respects me and gets a bit irritated at my questions and my reporting at times. But I think ultimately he knows me and he respects me, and he almost never fails to call on me or answer my questions. I think that's because he's familiar with me and he knows, ultimately, while he gets upset he knows that I will treat him and the office with respect.

Why do you think he's lashed out so frequently at reporters during his coronavirus press briefings?

At almost every briefing he has had, he lashes out at a reporter or multiple reporters. Part of it is because he has a genuine frustration with how this crisis has been covered in the news media. But part of it is a show. He lashes out at the press because he knows his supporters like it when he lashes out at the press. He also lashes out at the press when he wants to divert attention from something.

The confrontation is irrelevant. The important thing is the underlying question. To me, I don't care if he criticizes reporters or if he criticizes me. That is not what's important or relevant. The attacks can be personal. They can be over-the-top. They can be harsh. But I don't think they are relevant. I don't actually take offense. He can call me a "third-rate reporter" or a "cutie-pie" or a "wise guy" or whatever name he's come up with. I'm going to continue to pursue the line of questioning that is relevant to everyone who is watching. The back-and-forth gladiator fight with reporters is completely irrelevant and non-important.

But can you understand why members of the public and the media take such offense to his attacks on journalists like you, particularly during a national crisis?

I understand why it upsets people. He's attacking a free press. He's attacking people who are trying to do a very important job of informing the public — attacking people who, by the way, come to work every day in an environment that is arguably not particularly safe. So I understand why people take offense on our behalf, and that's fine. But what I'm saying is we shouldn't take offense. As a reporter, the last thing you want to do is to turn this into a story about yourself.

Isn't it hard to not take the bait when he's attacking you personally?

Covering Donald Trump is a constant battle not to take the bait. The attacks will come. They're predictable as the sun coming out in the morning. So you just have to remind yourself, first of all, for the large part, I don't think he even means it. He's doing it to distract. He's doing it because he wants the media to be the opposition party, not a free press. So you have to constantly remind yourself it doesn't matter.

Does he ever indicate to you, behind the scenes, that he doesn't really mean what he says about you?

Yes. Just minutes after he lashed out at me as a "third-rate reporter" who was "never going to make it" … he looks at me and he calls on me very deliberately for another question. He made a very deliberate point to call on me again. The message is: Don't take it personally.

He constantly goes back, and he will viciously attack reporters and then treat reporters like they're his best friend. [New York Times White House correspondent] Maggie Haberman has seen this 1,000 times. He's spent a lot of time talking to Maggie Haberman, and I know for a fact he respects her.

Is it tiring to have such a large gap between his public behavior toward reporters and his private behavior toward them?

There's a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on here. Vicious attacks in public and then right after acting like he's your best friend, and this happens publicly and privately. He's said very nice things about me. He changes — he goes back and forth.

Donald Trump is a big consumer of the news media. Donald Trump consumes more news than any other public figure I've ever seen. He watches the shows. He reads the stories about himself. He is obsessed with how he is portrayed in the news media. He courts reporters. He wants to be in the middle of every story, even if the story isn't positive. The attacks on the press are really often just part of the show.

Do you think Trump enjoys the spotlight of the daily briefings and having the opportunity to sort of shape public perception about the government's response to the virus?

Donald Trump may insult reporters, but he spends more time with reporters than any president we have ever had. This is a crisis. I'm not saying he's enjoying the crisis, but he's enjoying his time in front of the cameras. I think he likes the visual of being surrounded by the government's top experts, and he likes the back-and-forth with the reporters. There's something about it that he enjoys, I think including the combat.

What do you make of the ongoing debate about whether TV networks should broadcast the briefings?

I think the briefings are valuable. You have a chance to ask the president questions, but you also have a chance to ask the president's top experts. I think that's really valuable and really important. I don't know that they should be carried live, wall-to-wall. There's certainly parts of these briefings that are not particularly helpful, that are not particularly informative.

First of all, the broadcast networks are, by and large, not carrying these briefings live. The question of whether or not the networks broadcast them — that's a legitimate question, but I think it's happening a lot less now.

Donald Trump's newest White House press secretary is campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany. Is there any chance she tries to reset the administration's relationship with the press?

I assume Kayleigh will be a more high-profile press secretary. She has, in her role as spokesperson for the Trump campaign, I think she's generally had a pretty good relationship with reporters. She's responsive, which is a big thing. I think that it's the toughest job in Washington, with the possible exception of chief of staff. So we'll see how she does, but I think she'll almost certainly be more high-profile and starts off with a pretty good relationship with reporters.

This year's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, originally scheduled for later month, has obviously been postponed. As president of the WHCA, do you think the dinner will end up happening this year?

We certainly hope the dinner is going to happen this year, and we're working very hard to reschedule it. And I hope to have an announcement soon about a new date.