Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter on Trump's "Really Odd" Evasions, Abusive Bernie Bros (Q&A)
The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold says the president and his administration "don't tell their own story," but Trump supporters are "much less vitriolic" on Twitter and email than Sanders supporters were during the campaign.
Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed charitable giving was an integral part of his own mythology during the campaign. So when he boasted during a televised fundraiser before the Iowa caucuses that he had raised $5 million for veterans and would also donate $1 million of his own fortune, David Fahrenthold began making calls. The Washington Post’s national political reporter contacted more than 450 charities that Trump claimed to have supported over the years. He found one donation — to the Police Athletic League in New York for less than $10,000. His reporting elicited a quintessential Trump rebuke: “nasty guy.” And on April 10, it was among a package of stories that earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Another included the Access Hollywood bombshell in which Trump bragged about groping women during a 2005 hot mic conversation with Billy Bush. The revelations — which Trump brushed off as “locker-room talk” — spurred worldwide women’s marches drawing millions of protesters the day after Trump’s inauguration.
The 2016 campaign was intense: “All the lights in my house had burned out. My plants are dead. My children don't know me,” laughs Fahrenthold, 39, a married father of two children under 5. “I really thought, OK, this is going be really intense in 2016 but on Nov. 8, there’s a hard date when it's over and then I can rest and catch up on everything that I had delayed doing.” Not likely. These days, Fahrenthold, is digging into the Trump Organization’s various business tentacles.
When you’re doing these pieces about Trump, do the Trump people talk to you?
No. The Trump Organization has a spokesperson who will occasionally respond, to say no comment. It's better than covering the Trump campaign, which almost never responded to me. Except for May of last year when he called me a "nasty guy," the reaction is no reaction. There was a time in the middle of last year where I would ask the Trump people a bunch of questions before my story came out and they didn't answer my questions. But then after the story came out, they gave the answers that they should've given me to CNN. So after that, I started posting my questions on Twitter. They didn't try that again after that.
You spoke to Trump after your investigative piece about his charitable giving – or lack of. What was that like?
I’m not going to argue with him about whether I'm a nasty person or not. It was not a special designation for me at all. I did not feel special. So that particular conversation was back when he hadn't given away the remainder of the money that other people had given him to give to veterans. So he'd be like, "Oh you're nasty, you should be ashamed of yourself." And then I'd say, "Well OK, back to this other 2 million dollars you haven't given away …?" And then he would reset and answer that question factually and then his answer would devolve into, "You’re' a nasty person; you should be ashamed." We did that three or four times. It was really odd. After that, I got a little bit of abuse from people on Twitter but actually not that much. I got so much more abuse, on Twitter and email, from Bernie Sanders fans in 2015 when I wrote about Bernie than I ever did from Trump's people. There was one death threat from a Trump person but other than that the reaction that I got was generally much less vitriolic and much less in volume than the two times I wrote about Bernie.
What are the challenges to covering Trump?
For me, the hardest part about covering Trump and the campaign and now the Trump Organization is that they don't tell their own story. They don't respond. At least in my case they don't respond at all. So how can you be sure that you're telling their story accurately without them participating? I think they’re counting on that; that you will not write about them because you feel like you can't do it without them. But you don't want to give them a veto power over your story just because they don't respond.
Other than the conversation you had with him in 2015, has he ever called you personally to complain?
No. That's a sign that he really values your opinion if he tweets about you. Also I think sometimes some of my email traffic goes to Blake Farenthold, the [Texas] congressman whose name is a slightly easier to spell variant. He's a big Trump supporter so I think he does not like that. And he doesn't deserve it. I never get his abuse because my name is the harder one to spell.