On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, former White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, now the co-host of the popular liberal podcast Pod Save America, talks about his new book, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump.”
You can read some highlights from the interview here or listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network where I dispense parenting advice to any and all guests like Dan Pfeiffer, from Pod Save America, that’s him laughing. I’m just gonna thank you guys in advance for telling someone else about the show, thank you. Welcome, Dan.
Dan Pfeiffer: Thanks for having me, man.
My intro here says you’re Dan Pfeiffer from Crooked Media, that’s not correct. You’re Dan Pfeiffer from Pod Save America.
Which is part of Crooked Media, correct.
Normally, when we have a guest on we say, “Oh, you worked at the White House, you were communications director, that’s a big deal, tell me about that.” We’ll get to that part. What’s it like to be a co-host of Pod Save America, the world’s favorite ... everyone’s favorite political podcast?
I don’t know that it’s everyone’s favorite. I can think of a few people, many of them work at Fox News, who are not fans of the podcast.
I bet they’re secret listeners.
That’s exactly right, they’re self-hating listeners of Pod Save America. I mean, it has been the most unexpected, fun journey to be on. When we originally started Keeping It 1600 back during the 2016 election, we were working with Bill Simmons on The Ringer, it was just a little thing we were going to do for a few months.
So you and Jon Favreau did it once a week for giggles, basically.
Basically, yes. We basically did it for giggles and then it did better than I think any of us possibly imagined. We thought it would be like our family, maybe some Obama staffers would listen to it, but people listened and then so we eventually added a second podcast with Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett on Mondays. The idea was that we were going to stop after the election.
I have very specific sense memories of listening to you driving around Minneapolis, driving around town at the Republican Convention, you telling me not to worry about it, walking on the beach later in August telling me not to worry about it. Then we got worried.
You should not have listened to me is the basic point. So election ends, we think we’ll end it after the election, we’re gonna hang around for a few months. Barack Obama had promised me an interview and so we’re like, “Hang around ... we wanna do it after the election.” So we hang around, we do that Obama interview, fold up our tents, go on. Cause it didn’t seem, wasn’t sure what the utility of it or the interestingness of it would be.
And you were gainfully employed, right? You were doing CNN hits?
You were doing comms for GoFundMe?
Right, I had many other jobs and this was a small hobby, and then we decided to re-launch once Trump won with a more political focus. The idea being, maybe we can use this platform to explain the unexplainable but also engage democrats as they were trying to figure out what to do. Looking at what was happening with the Women’s March, the airport protest, could we find a way to help tell these people, based on our experience, like, what are the things they could do to make a difference, to organize for the future?
It’s the same podcast but the ideas were also going to engage you and try to get you to be politically active, instead of just listening, want you to go do something?
During the campaign, we would encourage people to knock on doors and vote, but the context was different and it felt like the stakes in this current moment where Trump was president were so high, and we wanted to do something in politics. And we had been able to build this audience with Keeping It 1600, could we continue it and then leverage that audience for something? And it has grown beyond our wildest dreams.
So now what part of your life does being a Pod Save America co-host occupy? You’re on tour with the guys sometimes?
Yes, I’m on tour ...
You’ve got a new baby, congratulations. You’ve got a new book, “Yes, We (Still) Can,” which is why you’re here, congratulations on that. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on but it seems like you’re more engaged in the podcast than anything.
Much more. I sort of made a decision last fall that the podcast had reached a point that I wanted to be able to dedicate more time to it. Not just have it be a one- to two-hour-a-week hobby, to be able to get out there on the road. We’re doing basically three or four shows a month. We’ve been in more than a dozen states in the last year or so. We’re trying to go to swing states, meet with activists, have candidates on the show, and I wanted to be able to dedicate more time to it because it became ... it was clear that it was having an impact at some level and was more important to me.
So I left my job in Silicon Valley — that was back in September — and since then I’ve been doing the podcast, I do some stuff for CNN as a CNN contributor, I finished this book, which I’m not sure I could have done with a podcast and a job, and then as you mentioned, most importantly, our daughter was born a month ago and that’s now Job One, Two and Three. And then I started to do the podcast when she naps and the book is done so, fortunately, now we’re just out here talking about it.
So you have multiple gigs, it seems like your life ... I was reading the book and at one point you lay out the structure of your day — well, it’s not even your day, just your morning from like 4:50 a.m. up until like 7 a.m. — and there’s just shower, answer emails, read yesterday’s news. Seemed very structured, very rigorous. I know it’s rigorous now you’ve got a new baby, but it also seems like it’s probably more looser and less structured. Do you like that after years ... you’d been in the White House for how long, six years?
I was in the White House two years on the campaign and six years in the White House. Yes, I do. I very much enjoyed having my life back and I talk about in the book how there just came a moment where I couldn’t take not ... like I had lost so much of my life, I hadn’t seen friends, I had missed weddings. There’s a ... one night, right before I decided to leave, my wife who also worked in the White House at the same time, we were planning to go ... It was a Saturday night, she’d been pretty quiet, I think the president might have been away at Camp David or something, and we were going to go see a movie, something we hadn’t done in a long time.
Right before we were supposed to leave, something happens and I have to get on a conference call with all the senior staff to talk about something. We then have a very vigorous debate about something, and I think my side of the argument for what we should do lost and so I was fuming mad.
And so we’re sitting though dinner, pre-movie, I’m very mad, I’m kind of grumpy about it. I finally come to terms with it, I might have had a beer and now it’s time to go to the movie, and we get to the movies, and my wife who helped plan all of President Obama’s press events, gets an email that says, somewhat related to the conference call we just had, that we’re now gonna put on this event like 36 hours later. So, she spends the entire movie ...
So you wreck dinner?
I wreck dinner, she wrecks the movie. She spends the entire movie in the lobby, because there is no cell coverage in the theater. So she’s got to be on her BlackBerry and on the phone. So we just like ... we can’t, we can’t live this way anymore. That was around the time we decided to make our mutual exit and move to California.
So you spent eight years working with the press, fighting with the press, yelling at the press ...
Sending angry emails to the press.
Sending angry emails, telling people to go fuck themselves or be on the receiving end of that suggestion. Now you’re in the press, right?
I mean, sort of, yeah.
CNN, you’re a podcaster. You’re the press. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but what didn’t you realize being on the other side of the table for eight years that you’ve figured out now in terms of perspective of how the press is doing or not doing their job?
I think it’s changed ... The whole situation I write about this in the book has changed dramatically from the moment I started working with the press in January 2007 for Obama. If you think about that period in time, Facebook was basically mostly for college kids, Twitter was something mostly used by people in the tech industry and not broadly, the iPhone did not yet exist, you couldn’t watch news on your phone. Snapchat, Instagram, all those things were ...
The iPhone barely existed.
The iPhone didn’t even come out until the fall of 2007.
So we’ve been part of this massive change. And then you add into that the financial crisis and how that affects media, just the idea of what the quote-unquote media is has changed dramatically from ’07 to now.
You say that 80 percent of your time used to be spent sort of thinking about the conventional press, “How is NBC and the New York Times gonna cover this?”
“What interview should we do?” “Which outlet should we advance the story to to get the biggest bump?” “Should we do the New York Times?” It was very ...
And if you thought that way now, you’d be out of a job.
I say this in the book, that if you ... if the communication’s director for the 2020 campaign spends a fraction of that amount of time thinking about the quote-unquote legacy media, then they will lose. Because, just the tools of communication changed, and what it means to be the media. Like you say, you’re a member of the press now. But ...
And you wince, but you are.
Yeah, I mean, if you think about a world where the press used to mean, you know, reporters for reputedly objective newspapers and television outlets, and now it means everything from those people, CNN, the New York Times, to far-right outlets that are basically adjuncts of the Republican National Committee, Fox News but also Breitbart, Free Beacon, and then people who host progressive podcasts.
And so, that’s one of the things that I have learned or where my opinion has adjusted over time is like media criticism, generally, like why didn’t the press do this or it’s the press’s fault, is a fallacy because it’s too broad a term to mean anything. Right? Like you can be angry at one individual outlet for how they did a certain thing but to say it’s the press’s fault doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s too broad.
It’s funny though, people have a hard time letting go of that, there’s still an ongoing debate about what responsibility the press have and the way they covered Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016.
Yeah, it seems like it was three decades ago but it was only two years ago.
Little brain damage. And there’s still a lot pointing to that front page cover of the New York Times and that picture of Clinton and Huma and people hold that up and say, “This is why she lost.” And I can believe that, but we also spend a lot of time talking about every other part of the media and how they may or may not have influenced votes. I guess the answer is, “All of the above.”
Right. Right, I think you can look back — and as I’ve said, I don’t it’s the press’s fault that Donald Trump won. When someone wins an election by 70,000 votes over three states, everything and everyone is somehow responsible for something. Does Hillary probably win if James Comey decides to write a memo instead of a letter? Probably. Does Hillary Clinton win if John Podesta and the DNC’s emails don’t get hacked? Probably. Does Hillary Clinton win if maybe she goes to Wisconsin or Michigan? Maybe.
We’ve made Facebook a boogeyman over the last year.
Everything ... there are so many things that bear some responsibility, I think it is fair to say that. And it shouldn’t even be a debate, the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email was massively disproportionate to the quote-unquote underlying offense, and that’s in part because — and I am guilty of this as well — we all thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, and so everyone covered it like Hillary Clinton was going to win. So, she was given the scrutiny of the president of the United States and Donald Trump was given the scrutiny of a sideshow.
And this is not to say that people didn’t vet Trump. There were incredibly in-depth, aggressive, investigative reporting.
If you wanted to know what was going on with Donald Trump, it was all available out there.
Yeah, it absolutely was. What has changed, I guess, in some way in both our media and political culture is the ability of quote-unquote elite entities to exact consequences for bad behavior doesn’t exist. The Republican establishment who did not want Trump to win — either the primary, in some cases the general — they were unable to do anything that impacted the actual vote.
If you’re upset about his comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape or just being an unrepentant racist on a daily basis, they couldn’t really do anything. And the media’s ability to be a referee for fact-checking and lying ...
Every time it looked like, “Well all right, this is the end for him, he can’t possibly get past calling John McCain, impugning John McCain, that’ll be it,” over and over and over. It seems like part of this is a media discussion and part of it’s a politics discussion.
Yeah, it’s both, they’re intertwined.
What responsibility do the Republicans have? When Obama was elected, the campaign collectively got a lot of plaudits for how smart you guys were about social media and you figured out how to raise money on the internet, you spend time talking about how you got Obama to do “Two Ferns” to help get health care going. So, it wasn’t like you guys were unaware of sort of the power of digital media, but it seemed like the big shift was that it was still relatively contained, you guys could do a novelty, like doing a Marc Maron show or a Zach Galifianakis show, but then you’d go back and do standard press. And it seems like all that has been blown out now.
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think the biggest thing that changed is Facebook reached a tipping point where it became the primary distributor for a large segment of the population of news, and once that happened ... So, you raised some of these things we did like, these YouTube interviews and stuff like that, we did them to communicate with people but we also did them because they would get mainstream press coverage and there just wasn’t ... the size of the audience of some of these digital outlets or social media platforms back in 2009, 2010, was not large enough to have mainstream ...
It wasn’t that you were ... you wanted to use the platform ...
We wanted both.
But you wanted ABC to write about the fact that you were using the platform.
Absolutely. We wanted to have the biggest impact we could with the digital thing but also have everyone be like, “Oh, look at all the cool stuff Obama’s doing,” because that will get more coverage than if we just did an event on student loans. If we did a YouTube interview on our student loan policy or we do slow jam the news with Jimmy Fallon on student loans, that’s gonna get a lot more coverage than if we do a roundtable with students suffering from student loans.
Right, and that’s the lineage, right? That’s Bill Clinton blowing a sax on “Arsenio” and that’s kind of a longstanding tradition of that sort of stunt stuff. But now it’s different. If you were advising ... if there’s a Democrat in office — because Trump’s a different category — but you now encounter a world where sort of all media is covered, everyone’s got a voice, at least theoretically, there’s entire sectors of the media that appear to have no boss.
We’ll talk more about that later. I mean, do you have a sense of how you would approach that job? It seems like an almost impossible job. If you don’t have Donald Trump who just sort of gets up and says what he wants, that there’s no way of controlling or strategizing that messaging.
The job is going to be nearly impossible. When I had it, it was harder than when Dan Bartlett who was Bush’s communications director had it. When Jennifer Palmieri and Jen Psaki — who were my successors — had it, it was harder than when I had it.
It’s just getting harder every day because the tools, the traditional tools that the president has to communicate, are getting less impactful on a daily basis. So, the way I would think about it is, we think about communications primarily right now as media strategy, and so you have to lift that out, right? And so I think the next communication’s director of the White House should oversee, should have digital content creation, videos, social, their press secretary should be a part of that, who is dealing with the press on a daily basis.
You should have someone who is, you should have an operation that is using, not just tweeting out every once in a while sending out a Facebook post, who is trying to organize around getting people to carry your message on those social platforms. Much in the way that we now go door to door and phone calls to communicate, we need people to use Facebook — and Twitter to a lesser extent — to organize actual people. And everything I say now about what will work ...
Will look outdated.
... will look outdated. You know, you look at this in 2004, when Howard Dean was running an internet-based campaign. The technology he was using to organize people was MeetUp.
Yes, still around. When we ran in 2008 ... think about this, Facebook was around and important and it was very important for students doing grassroots organizing for Barack Obama. But it was not ubiquitous enough for us to communicate with our volunteers, so we have to build our own social network called My BO, so that people could do essentially what they were doing on Facebook to communicate with other people. We never thought about Twitter in any real way.
I think Obama may have sent one tweet, that was it. And then by 2012, you have a huge portion of the campaign that is focused on using Twitter for rapid response and media strategy. 2020 is going to look so different. We don’t know what the new things are yet so, it is ... like that’s what I would say now, but if someone were to play this back to the White House communications director on January 21, 2020, it’s gonna seem pretty stupid.
We’ll play it back. Before we play it back, let’s take a break.
I’m back here with Dan Pfeiffer, formerly of the White House, now the author of “Yes, We Still Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter and Trump.” You kind of spell it out. There’s a photo ... there’s an interesting piece of art here, do you want to describe it?
It is a picture of Barack Obama dunking on Donald Trump.
So you’ve got the Twitter metaphor right on there.
That’s exactly right.
That’s very good, it’s very 2018, or maybe it’s 2017. If I’m able to understand the metaphor, it probably is outdated.
That’s fair enough, fair enough.
That’s very good. I want talk about a little more, a lot more about your time in the White House. You were communications director. Explained in plain English what that job means.
The communications director ...
What it used to be.
What it used to be. When I had that job, which was from 2009 to 2000, basically through the re-election. That job meant you were the person who planned, organized and helped execute the president’s communications and message strategy.
Not the press sucker, not the person on the podium.
That’s where it’s on the podium, although that person was part of my operation.
So we would ... so you’d think about what are the strategic goals at the White House? What are we trying to do? Are we trying to pass this bill? Are we trying to defeat this piece of legislation? Are we trying to inform people about a national crisis, like a swine flu epidemic or hurricane? What are the strategic objective at the White House? Now, how do we go, what is the best way to communicate our message and our agenda to the American people? And then you have a wide variety of tools through that — presidential events, interviews, press conferences — and sort of plan that out and make sure that that happens.
And then working with whoever the senior adviser was at the time, David Axelrod, on the message. What is the story we’re trying to tell and how are we telling it?
So in my write-up business, I often spend a lot of time with “Corpcomms” people and they’re often very important, and they’re often very useful to me as a reporter. They generally don’t have decision-making power and very often they’re treated as sort of ... The people we deal with once we’ve made the decision are the ones that are gonna talk to people like me.
When I watch the “West Wing” and when I listen to the stuff, you guys do on lots of covers, there’s a lot of energy spent talking about what the “Comms” people do in the White House. Is that simply just because that’s what journalists spend their time on and that’s who they like to talk about and that’s who they see the most? Or is “Comms” a more significant position at the White House because it’s messaging to the country as suppose to trying to sell a new ...
Yeah, I think it is. I mean, there may be some bias in that.
Talk about how important your job is.
Let me tell you how important I was. There’s probably some selective bias because we’re the front-facing people at the White House. We’re the ones briefing reporters or doing interviews or whatever else it is. I’m one of the people that reports to ... who call in and have questions but ...
So that’s the standard bias that you have if you’re someone writing about this. The person I talk to is very important.
Right, and there are lots of people with very important roles who get less attention because they don’t interact with reporters, right. But what is different is, communications is a vehicle to achieve everything the president’s trying to do. It is part of the legislative strategy, it’s part of the political strategy.
And the president sees it that way?
Yes, in our White House and every previous White House that I’ve ever studied or talked to people from. You are one of the president’s senior advisers. You’re in the room for the discussions because ...
So just as important as the person who’s actually gonna push the bill across in Congress or ...
Those people may disagree with that.
I think you are. Every legislative meeting on how to pass health care, the communications director or someone from the communications team would be a part of because we did a lot of press interviews when we were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act specifically designed to help pass the bill. You would try to show Democrats that you are providing them air cover for their vote. Or you would do local interviews in the districts of targeted members so that they would know.
It is the vehicle for doing all things because it is in many ways absent, the ability to launch wars, one of the president’s greatest strengths and assets.
You saying you did not have access to the football?
I’m not saying I didn’t but no, very clear I did not.
Who knows? There’s that guy at Mar-a-lago.
Yes, hopefully someone has hidden the football, by the salads or something, in the White House. I don’t know.
So, speaking of Trump, where we are now? Where I can tell you ... It’s partly part of my job with all this stuff. But even if it wasn’t, I could tell you how Hicks is or was, Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, they’re “Saturday Night Live” characters. They’re better known than other people who do comms and the press secretary.
It seems like in a lot of ways they have less power than everybody because everyone at this point fundamentally realizes that unless Donald Trump says it, it’s not a thing. He may also change his mind a minute later. But it seems that one of the problems covering the White House is the comms people and the press secretary actually can’t really communicate what the president thinks, for a bunch of reasons.
Right, and they have all taken whatever limited credibility they have when they got to the White House, and they ceremoniously lit it on fire, on the North Lawn. And so you can’t ... the White House press briefing which ... It happens every day and it’s good theater and it is on video ...
Bigger deal than ever, right?
Because something crazy’s gonna happen.
Yeah, but it’s always pointless. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has as much knowledge of what Donald Trump’s gonna do today as I do, because she’s either saying nothing or she’s saying what Donald Trump said two days ago, which will not be true two days from now.
So when you see the press increasingly demanding that Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied — she lied knowingly or she wasn’t communicating the truth — to me it seems like this is something we settled a long time ago.
But it seems like it’s only ramping up. And you had the incident the other day where the journalist from Playboy was yelling at her, “You’re a mother ...” It seems like you’re venting at the wrong person, in some ways.
Well, she makes a decision every day to go lie for a liar and her job is to ... the press interviewing is an interesting position because you work for the president but you are supposed to be the press’s liaison to the White House. Whether it’s Josh Earnest, Jay Carney or Robert Gibbs. It was their job to come in and argue for press access, to tell the president to do a press conference. And sometimes others, myself every once in a while, would argue against that or it wouldn’t work schedule-wise. But that’s their job.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders has decided. So there’s a couple of things we think about Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies, and I don’t really, the theatrics are fine. I’ve always thought probably better if we never put the TV cameras in the room anyway. So everyone can ... yelling is ... no one really benefits from arguing.
Remember when that was a concern the press had when Trump was coming in, they were gonna restrict access?
To the White House.
Yeah, I think once you’ve done it you can’t undo it. It’s ...
It turns out they love it. I mean, it’s laughable from when they leak whatever metaphor you want. And also Trump likes TV, of course he would want a TV performance daily.
I mean it’s, I can’t imagine a world, the idea that every day Sarah Huckabee Sanders briefs, Donald Trump stops what he’s doing and turns on the TV and watches it while eating a Taco Bell or whatever he eats. And then she has to go into his office afterwards and get critiqued on it. The briefing is important but it is ... Watching the briefing should be the tenth thousand thing on the most important to do list for the president of the United States.
Barack Obama would catch the briefing if it was on a TV in his outer office while he was waiting to go somewhere but would never sit and watch. He didn’t have the time.
You should be very busy.
Yeah, you have a lot to do. There are more things, your inbox is more expensive than your available free time on any day. Put aside the fact that Donald Trump has already spent three hours of the morning watching and live tweeting “Fox and Friends.” Then he’s gonna take an hour to watch the press briefing? But I think the lies, right.
So there’s two sorts of things that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is doing. One is she’s actually going out and saying what she believes to be the case, it turns out not to be the case. And I am sympathetic to that except she knows that’s not gonna be the most likely outcome.
She knows the things she’s saying, which been relayed to her by Donald Trump or Stephen Miller, is almost certainly not true at this point.
Yeah, and then there’s the big lies that she had — whether it’s the millions of fraudulent votes or those ... she is carrying lies, whether it’s the idea that it’s the Democrats fault about the child separation policy, which it is obviously not, and she does that every day willingly. She doesn’t have to have that job. I’m sure she would make plenty of money being the sixth member of the five on Fox or whoever else, but she chooses to do that, and she should be held in national contempt for that.
But should we care about her versus anyone else in the Trump administration? It seems like when we yell at her ...
Yes, we should care.
Okay, because it seems like, I mean, we’ve got Kirstjen, what’s her name?
Nielsen, yeah. We should care about all of them.
They’re all lying now all the time. It’s not just Donald Trump, they’ve all ... it’s all carried down.
Yeah, if you weren’t really gonna lie, you’d quit or you got fired for not lying.
Right, it seems like the person we should spend time focusing on lying should be the boss.
Yes. Donald Trump should get all of the attention, but the press secretary and the secretary of Homeland Security, to take two examples, are, in a normal world, incredibly important people whose job it is to communicate important information to the public. So let’s take Kirstjen Nielsen, who uses Twitter to just bold-face lie.
This is recorded on a Monday, this will come out on Tuesday or Thursday many news cycles from now, but she’s lying about whether or not the U.S. had a policy to separate immigrants from their kids.
So the secretary of Homeland Security is not a normal government official, right? Her job is to speak to the country after a terrorist attack, a hurricane. She’s one of the people who will tell you if you were living on said Island, “Evacuate now.”
And the fact that she’s ...
“It’s safe to come back.”
“It’s safe to come back, your water ...” There are whole hosts of very important information.
Literally life or death.
Life or death. And she’s just like a low-rank Sean Spicer in that job, and that is gonna matter at some point. I remember in 2009 or ’10, one of these many years I worked there, when we had ... there was a swine flu epidemic and the government’s job was to convince people to get a flu vaccine, to undertake hygiene measures to protect themselves and their children from the flu, which was killing people.
And who’s gonna believe Kirstjen Nielsen when she goes out to do that? They’re not. And that is whether they lie about this other policy is terrible, and we wished we had better people in office, but the rubber hits the road on the things when the president’s job, or the president’s staff’s jobs, is to communicate to the entire country, not just the 38 or 41 percent who are Trump supporters. And they don’t understand that part of the job. They don’t care about that part of the job.
Are you, again, as a semi-detached or semi-casual observer, I’m astonished at the escalation of the lying. And each time we think we’ve cleared a new bar, they go further. Again, Donald Trump is someone who has lied his entire life without consequence, and then he gets to office. He starts with Sean Spicer making up what’s kind of a comical lie about crowd size. But now you’ve got Nielsen lying about a policy which again is not difficult to pass because you’ve got other people in the administration saying, “No, no, this is our policy, it’s on the record.”
Could you see this trajectory coming when you saw Sean Spicer showing up that first day saying, “This is the biggest crowd in history”?
Yes. I mean, I knew Trump was gonna be a very bad president. He is a worse president than you’ve ever possibly imagined, much worse. But we elected — Jon Lovett, my fellow Pod Save America co-host says we elected our worse citizen president. And so we are reaping the consequences of that on a daily basis. And it’s only going to get worse. And that’s why — and I make this point in the book — that 2018 is so critical. Because if they can do all this lying, all this corruption, all this obstruction of justice and keep control of Congress, then all bets are off for what comes next.
I mean we are, all the guardrails of our democracy will be gone because the only thing that’s somewhat hemming in, through public and Congress — which is just deep in corruption — and this White House — which is even deeper in corruption — is the idea of some electoral consequence for their actions. It’s not doing a lot but it’s like the emergency brake here, and if it turns out there are no consequences for that, then it is off to the races in a deeply dangerous way that will take us a very long time to come back from.
Dan Pfeiffer, you’re freaking me out.
The book is hopeful but it makes the point that to reach that better, more hopeful, place, we got to do all the things that Barack Obama laid out in his farewell address about organizing, marching and most importantly voting.
What’s it like writing a book about something that is both a memoir of your time — that part is sure fixed in memory — but it’s also about Trump and things are literally changing minute by minute, cycle by cycle. At what point do you, “I gotta stop, I can’t add this new outrage, I can’t have this new development.”
This was the great challenges of writing the book other than just sitting down and writing, which is in and of itself a challenge. There is a section in the book where I talk about my role as White House Communications Director and talk about how Trump has tried to change that. I had to rewrite that section five times, just to account for all the hiring and firings of Trump’s communications director.
I started it when they had this sort of no-name guy name Mike Dubke, and then Sean Spicer was sitting in, and then Scaramucci.
I think Hope Hicks is still in here.
Hope Hicks is in here. I put in Hope Hicks’s departure. I think it did make the galley, but for the galley and the actual book I had to add in a section about Hope Hicks leaving the White House to spend more time with the grand jury. So I had to make some decisions eventually about how to talk about Trump in the broadest way possible and how to beat him, as opposed to narrating the day-to-day. Bob Mueller is not in this book because, as I was writing the book, it was not clear to me Trump would not fire Bob Mueller between the final edits and what came out.
And I talked of your pal Alyssa Mastromonaco — winking at me back here — when she was prepping her book. So there are multiple “I was in the White House with Barack Obama” books out. There are more coming. One that’s gonna be written by Barack Obama.
Yes, it’s probably gonna be the best one.
How do you figure out, “Okay, this is okay to put in, this isn’t okay to put in. This is my story. That’s Alyssa’s story.” There’s stories in here about Alyssa and you specifically, her helping you out. She’s a good pal to have, apparently.
Yeah, she’s very ...
What was your medical condition in the end?
It ended up being ...
It’s in the book.
Yeah, it’s in the book. No, no, that’s a fair question. I was, I ended up having a blood vessel in my brain that spasms when my blood pressure gets to a certain level.
I’m gonna keep this podcast ...
It’s super chill. So do I ask myself questions or this is on you? So when that blood vessel would spasm, I would have stroke-like symptoms because your body thinks it’s having a stroke, and I would lose feeling in one side of my body. So that happened on a couple of occasions. This is an example of what a crazy person I was, it happened one night at dinner back at 2013.
Press dinner, it was filled with reporters and I was having this very weird feeling of tingling all over my body, and I thought I was having an allergic reaction to what I ate. So, I got up to go to the bathroom and when I stood up, I was actually having trouble walking but I thought my leg was asleep, and I went to the bathroom and looked at my face.
I was afraid my face was exploding and I looked totally normal. I mean, other than the very dark circles, and pallid complexion of that part of my life, and came back to the dinner, I feel okay. I’m the main course at this dinner, so it’s all reporters talking to me and I’m trying to keep this conversation going and eventually I look down and I see that my shoe is off and my sock foot is on the concrete and we’re at an outdoor patio and I had no idea. And I’m like, “I have to get out of here because something is very wrong.”
This was dumb of me but I thought, “I don’t really wanna have some medical condition with reporters in the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, New York Times ...”
“It’s a bad look.”
Yeah, if it’s nothing let’s not have a scar, right? Leave the dinner immediately, call Alyssa, who calls the White House doctor, whose ... and by this time some of the symptoms started to subside, so the doctor’s like, “You should definitely go to the hospital, now.” So I went to the hospital. Alyssa met me there, they couldn’t really figure out what’s wrong with me, eventually they gave me some medicine to lower my blood pressure, it was fine.
I left the hospital at 3 a.m., went home, slept for three hours and I went back to work.
Because that seems like a good idea.
Yeah. I mean, at the time ...
You may or may not have had a stroke.
At the time, there was no other option. I didn’t even consider the idea I wouldn’t come in for this very important meeting that was at 9:30 in the morning.
This is part of the culture of the White House.
Yeah and it’s not good.
And it’s not specific to the Obama White House. You think you have a very important job. You do have a very important job. The thing couldn’t possibly go on without you being there and by the way, if you’re not there in the Trump White House, you’re gonna lose your standing.
Yeah, mine was more, we were in this big strategic debate about how the president was going to talk to the nation about a potential strike on Syria. I had pushed for, I had a very strong view of how we’re gonna do that. I had pushed people here. I did not feel that I was gonna lose my standing because that’s just not the kind of people I work with, but I felt an obligation that I had to be there. And also the president was in Russia at the time, ironically enough. So a lot of other senior staff, like Jay Carney who was Press Secretary at the time, were ...
Do you honestly believe that if this was different, you guys weren’t talking about Syria, if the president was here, if Jay Carney was around, that you wouldn’t have pushed yourself to go in?
No, I definitely would’ve done it.
This wasn’t how I justified myself. I was a crazy person, went to the meeting, walked out. In Alyssa’s office immediately, raw feeling and half my body again, and was basically carried out of the West Wing into a White House medical unit, was taken to GW where I spent a good portion of time ...
Lets’s not give away the full story because it’s in the book. But you’re okay now?
I am great now.
And there’s also a great story about you ripping your pants.
In Alyssa’s ...
I did rip ...
Which Alyssa was also involved in.
So what I was getting to in the beginning was, those are your stories, you get to tell the story of your non-stroke or maybe a stroke and your pants ripping. And Alyssa gets to tell some of her stories.
And then do you guys huddle together and say, “Listen, I’m ... there’s this anecdote that I want to spend time on, Ben Rhodes, you’ve got a new book coming out, are we going to overlap, do we care, do we have different recollections?”
We didn’t ... so the way I thought about the book, right, when I left the White House, you basically when you leave the White House, if you’re a longtime White House aide, you turn in the BlackBerry — because we had BlackBerrys back then — you turn in your badge, and then someone from the publishing industry greets you outside the gate and is like, “Will you write a tell-all book?”
And I was like, “No, I will not write a tell-all book.” But then ... and ... but I couldn’t ... so then it was like ...
Alyssa is giving me a thumbs up.
“Will you write a non-tell-all book, a tell-some book?
And I was like ...
You gotta show a little leg.
Yeah. And so I could not ... I was interested in telling a story, but I couldn’t think of what my angle was. Like, what is the unique thing that I’m going to say that’s going to be different than David Axlerod’s book that had come out the year before I left the White House, or would be in Barack Obama’s book, or some of these other ones?
And I couldn’t come up with anything until Trump won. And then when Trump won, I looked back at my time in the White House differently through all these things that I thought led to Trump winning. Changes in media, the rise of a propaganda operation, best invited by Fox News, the radicalization of the right wing, and I ... we ... the battle against the birther conspiracy and fake news. And so it’s like, I thought it was like, well, we dealt with some of these things.
And so knowing now that they’re going to lead to Trump, how do I look at them differently? How can I tell the story of that in a way that’s Pod Save America-esque funny but also can derive some lessons and ideas for Democrats who are thinking about how not just to defeat Donald Trump, but the basic ... the larger virus that is Trumpism in our politics.
So you turn it in to your publisher and that’s great but, “Come on, give me a better Barack Obama story.”
No, they were good.
They were good. I made it very clear, Barack Obama has his story, I say this in the introduction to the book, it’s not a tell-all book because I’m not an asshole. And it’s not a history of the Obama administration because I’m not a historian. And it’s not even a story, there are moments like the Bin Laden raid or some of the things around health care that I was ... not around for the Bin Laden raid but sort of the aftermath and how you deal with it.
They’re Barack Obama’s stories to tell and he’s going to tell them better. And I think that’s something that runs through all of the books that people have written, is we have stories to tell about what we saw, and then Barack Obama will have a better story to tell about what he saw. And so I wrote it, I didn’t run it by anyone, I didn’t check, I didn’t huddle with Ben Rhodes and say, “You tell this, I’ll tell that,” but I knew the things that were not my story to share.
Do you ... I assume that you, when Ben Rhodes’ book comes out, you flip immediately to the back to see how many times you’re in the index?
No, that’s a very Washington thing to do. That’s why when David Plouffe wrote his book about the 2008 campaign, he didn’t even put an index in the book so that people couldn’t do that.
Weird. You guys are weird people.
Well, we at least aspire to seem less terrible than most.
Speaking of terrible, you spent a chapter on Fox News. Like you just mentioned, that sort of in your mind seeded the environment that we’re in now. I thought for years, watching “The Daily Show” go into Fox News every day, I thought they overestimated the power of Fox News if you look at their nightly ratings on any given night, relatively small audience.
But if you watch Jon Stewart, what I got the sense of like, well, they’re watching Fox News every day so of course they’re being driven crazy by it. And I can imagine in the White House that you guys are being driven crazy by it. But it seemed like everyone was overestimating their power at the time. Now it’s literally Donald Trump’s favorite show. You can’t overestimate it.
Was there something about Fox in retrospect that you sort of fundamentally misunderstood? Or did you see it clearly and we just didn’t get it?
I think when we first started, we thought of Fox as a conservative media outlet. That was ... obviously didn’t like Barack Obama, who was not conservative, but abided by the same rules that journalistic organizations abided by. Like, yes you do a Fox interview, it’s going to be tougher, it’s going to be on conservative terrain. What it took a while to realize was that it’s not a journalistic outlet, it’s a propaganda outlet that hires journalists as beards, basically.
And like the metaphor I sometimes use, is like the — this is very dating myself — but it’s a “Beverly Hills Cop metaphor,” but like the quote-unquote journalists at Fox News, whether its Brett Baer or Chris Wallace, they’re the coffee grounds to smuggle the cocaine of propaganda.
Oh, I thought you were going to go banana in the tailpipe.
Banana in the tailpipe would have been good too, it’s fair enough.
Yeah man, by the way, part of their defense very often, and I just interviewed James Murdoch and it’s up and down the empire, is a version that which is whenever you’re angry about something, well, that’s just the entertainment wing of Fox News. That’s not actually the journalism of Fox News, somehow that’s cordoned off.
But yes, they’re not on the level. Yes, they represent in this case now the Trump White House, but you know, if you looked at their nightly ratings on any given night it’s a very small set. Most people are watching “Big Bang Theory” or something else.
So why does it matter that there is a irresponsible right wing media outlet that has a relatively small number of viewers on any given night?
Because I think it matters a lot more in our social media age, because what’s happening is, it used to be yes it’s these two million people who are watching Hannity, or that 500,000 people are watching ...
Right. And they’re probably going to vote Republican to begin with.
But what I think Democrats don’t fully grasp now but maybe didn’t grasp then — and myself included — for at least part of the time is what’s happening now is Fox is providing content — anti-Democratic, Republican, anti-Obama content, now pro-Trump content — that is telling a story, and then that content is being weaponized by people using Facebook to promote it.
And so now it is spreading like a virus throughout the body politic, and it’s doing so under the guise of news. This is not an RNC, like, it is essentially an RNC press release, but you can say, “Oh, it’s reporting, it’s Fox News,” and so it is spreading everywhere.
And you think it matters whether it comes from Fox News as opposed to random ... if it wasn’t Fox News pushing it, if it’s just random guy on the internet, you think at this point that still matters.
That it comes from a guy behind a desk in a suit.
A woman in a skirt.
It still matters.
Yes. That’s exactly right. It matters. This is the entire ... You know Gabe Sherman, whose book on Roger Ailes and Fox talks about this a lot, which is, this was the ... this is Ailes’ original idea. Ailes is not a journalist, he is a Republican, he was a Republican political operative. And he was basically using Fox News as a way to spread the conservative message, and to do it aggressively.
And too often, it’s changing. This is definitely changing. Trump ... the slavishness which they have attached themselves to Trump is changing a little of the perception within the media, but when we had our war against Fox, the rest of the White House press corps came to Fox’s defense. Now Fox did not reciprocate that, when the media, when Trump launched a war on the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN. And now I think people recognize that ... are starting more and more to recognize that the journalism part is nothing more than the thing that James Murdoch can point to when he’s talking to you.
Do you ... I’ve spent talking ... I’ve had him a couple times now, Oliver Darcy from CNN ...
Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed talking about this other part of the right-wing conservative media, which has now like metastasized way beyond Fox News. It’s individual guys like Mike Cernovich, still at Drudge Report, that sphere looks much bigger and it seems like in a lot of ... very often that stuff comes to Fox News from sort of that weird fever swamp of the internet. Do you think that’s a permanent feature or does that go away after the Trump era?
I think it’s probably a permanent feature for at least the foreseeable future, so I guess semi-permanent.
And there’s no lefty equivalent of that? Again, the standard sort of response for Fox News from a James Murdoch is, “Well, you guys got MSNBC, it’s the same thing.”
Yeah. Which is BS.
Which is no ... and there’s you guys as Crooked Media, but there really isn’t sort of the same ... There’s a couple unhinged lefty bloggers that we all sort of make fun of, generally, but it doesn’t seem to have the same equivalent on the right.
Right. So you think through what the right is, the quote-unquote fever swamp. And I thought that was a great podcast you did with Charlie Oliver.
It was one of my favorite.
It was really good.
So there’s the absolutely craziest people, like Mike Cernovich, sort of these pro-Trump Twitter personalities.
Crazy/smart, right? Because he kinda probably knows what he’s doing.
Crazy like a fox?
I mean, the Pizzagate people, right?
And the guys who walk into the pizza parlor with a gun.
Yeah. The consequences of that, right? And so then there’s Fox News, but then there’s Breitbart, The Free Beacon, Gateway Pundit. There’s this huge apparatus whose job it is to every day carry a pro-Trump message and an anti-Democratic message and to shape the conversation in politics and on social media about national affairs. And this is the thing: If you ask me what keeps me up at night about 2020, it’s not the Koch brothers money, it’s not Russia hacking, it’s not voter suppression laws. Those things also keep me up, but the thing that keeps me most up at night is this media advantage the Republicans have built up.
So you think about 2016, Donald Trump says something and then you have Fox, Breitbart, these Twitter personalities all pumping that in the most viral way possible, because they understand the benefits of outrage in the Facebook algorithm. Pumping that in to amplify its message and sort of flood the zone.
And Facebook says they’re going to dial that back, have less outrage, less fake news. Does that help you sleep better?
No, because the challenge for Facebook is they ... if you do the simple version, right, and understand it’s more than maybe the simple version, but simple version of their business incentive is they show you content with the most engagement. Post engagement is some combination, depending on the day, of “Likes,” shares, comments. And that’s why Breitbart does these outrageous headlines, because they want people to respond to it.
So now it’s a really engaged piece of content. And as long as their business model is keep as many people on the platform as long as possible so they can show them the most ads, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s a little like the NFL trying to fix the concussion problem.
It’s built in.
You can do some hedging, but it is the core of your business model.
You’re still big dudes hitting each other.
Right, so my point for Democrats is Crooked Media is an important part of this, Pod Save America is an important part of it, we need to build a progressive media infrastructure that is the Bizzarro version of the Republicans. It shouldn’t be propaganda, it shouldn’t be dishonest, it shouldn’t be racially divisive, it has to be the things that work best for Democrats. Inspirational, hopeful, fact-driven.
But we need these sort of nodes of amplification to carry the Democratic message, otherwise we’re going to get swamped again and spend all of our time talking about what Donald Trump wants us to talk about.
And whereas both someone who wants a different administration and also as just a regular human, that a lot of what I see in my Twitter feed and associated Twitter feeds are people ... like-minded people talking to themselves. And we’re all outrage about the way immigrants are being treated at the border right now. And there’s a lot of we must do something about this, we’re quote-tweeting Kirstjen Nielsen.
It seems like, several years into this, we still haven’t figured out how to reach audiences that aren’t us. Any advice to the next crop of candidates who try to bridge that gap?
I think that what is going to end up happening is we are going to need to do essentially the equivalent of door-knocking and phone-calling. But on Facebook. And so, like, let’s say we have a group of target voters, right, who ... we’re going to have to communicate with them and share with them content that we know from data, or from whatever else is content that matters to them.
So it’s not just, “I’m going to knock on all these doors,” like your job as an organizer is going to be, I ... this target voter here is someone who distrusts the quote-unquote legacy media, or they distrust CNN or the New York Times or whatever else. And so the organizer is going to have to show them, you know, via Facebook or text or whatever the messaging tool of the moment is, a piece of content from, say, the Wall Street Journal that says, like maybe we know they’re upset about corruption, and they’re not ... anything from the New York Times is fake news about corruption, but they believe in the Wall Street Journal.
So let’s show them from the news side of the Wall Street Journal this article about Tom Price’s private flights or Scott Pruitt’s problems. And we’re going to have to move offline organizing to online organizing, and it’s going to be hand to hand.
Seems even harder.
It’s going to be very harder.
Because even door-knocking you can literally go to someone’s door and knock on their door and maybe they’ll answer it. Social media, right, is constructed for you to create your own groups of people ...
We have the tools in our pockets now, right? Like your Facebook feed may be mostly people you believe in, but not entirely. Because it’s real people you went to high school with and college with. Right? Or whatever, someone important in your life, either one. And so a lot of those people aren’t going to necessarily, many of them will agree with you, not all of them will, and we will also have in our hand, a ... with our phones, our contacts.
And so there have been some nascent technologies put together by Democratic progressive tech companies, about using your contacts, like matching your contacts to voter file and data. And then you can communicate with them, like, your quasi-pro Trump uncle might be on the fence.
And you might have the capacity ...
Or, “We’re going to target people in swing states.”
Turns out you know these five people in Florida. Call them.
Yeah. So I think we’re going to have more of that because we now live ... we don’t have this broadcast model anymore where we just go out and say things to the world because information is filtering from this podcast, or from CNN to people, other than the group of people who are seeing it in the moment. They’re hearing about it second, third, fourth hand, and we’re going to have to see if we can find ways to pass that information along from a credible known source.
This is — we’re going to leave on an up note — that’s good, right?
There ... there is hope.
That felt moderately positive. Your book, oh yes we still can.
“Yes We (Still) Can,” it is hopeful.
See, we brought it all the way around. I was waiting for your publicist to, there he goes, gives me a thumbs up. Alyssa doesn’t ...
She’s giving you side-eye from back there.
Yeah, two thumbs up. Thank you. Thank you, Dan Pfeiffer, for coming.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.