tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS March 4, 2017 4:30pm-5:01pm PST
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by klru's producers circle, ensuring local programming that reflects the character and interests of the greater austin, texas community. - i'm evan smith. he's the breakout star of the political journalism class of 2016. a reporter for the washington post, whose dogged coverage of donald trump won him praise from his peers and legions of fans and just maybe a pulitzer. he is david fahrenthold. this is overheard. let's be honest. is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa one could say that he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak.
are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you actually. this is over. - david fahrenthold welcome. - great to be here - so a reporter in 2016, who people like and admire - (laughs) - you're like half unicorn, half bigfoot. - it won't last. - no it couldn't possibly be. we're not in a business that people like or admire very much these days. we're kind of between child molesters and irs investigators, right? the journalism business has seen better times. - right worse than congress actually - right. what happened? how did we get here? - how did we get to such a low ebb? - what did we do wrong? i thought we were doing the people's work? - well there's a lot of us in the business right. some of us do it well. some of us do it poorly. but mostly we're a good foil for everybody right? politicians on both sides see us as when things aren't going their way they find it's a convenient way to blame us. - right but the public believes them. they can blame us all they want but the public actually seems receptive to this idea. - right and also when people read the news
or watch the news the part that they agree with the regard as just right. how hard was it to find what was true? when they don't agree with something then they blame you. - they blame us the facts are the facts. - right if they disagree with the facts they blame us. - does it make you less apt to do the work you do? - no no not at all. in fact i have to say i'm kind of a counter example. this year i've had a really good relationship with readers, a really good relationship with the public. - right - the abuse has not been nearly as bad as it has been for other people. - only from the people you cover. - yeah and not even that much from them. one of the weird things about trump is i don't even get abused that much by them. they just ignored me a lot - are you offended? wait a minute. he's attacking other people, why won't he attack me right? - i did not think that. - (laughs) you know it's funny. throughout a lot of this campaign trump would go after individual reporters by name and - and occasionally the post - occasionally the post for a long time. but he's never actually tweeted about me. and i blame the fact that my last name is hard to spell for the fact that some other people don't abuse me. (audience laughs) i think they abuse congressman blake farenthold who
has a slightly easier to spell version of my name. - he attacked the congressman that's it we're gonna go back and look this up right now. - maybe they blame him instead. - so you worked for the post, you've worked for the post for 16 years - yes - it's been your one employer out of college. - right - right? - that's right - and you've covered congress, you've covered d.c. city government, you've covered the bureaucracy, - d.c. police - the environment. you did all that sort of stuff, right? you've covered a range of things. but never a presidential before. - well i had done a little bit of the 2012 campaign, in which the highlight of my 2012 experience was that i found a man in new hampshire who took his goat to meet all the candidates (audience laughs). - okay, great - and you remember john huntsman then. john huntsman spent like a thousand days in new hampshire and nobody liked him anyway. - he put all of his chips on that square. - and nobody liked him except for the goat guy and that was because his goat had bit john huntsman and huntsman was totally cool about it. and that was the one committed huntsman voter i met - this is like the last five minutes of every local newscast right? the human interest story - right - the goat story so that was like your only - nothing like 2016 - this was really the first big presidential. how do you get on the trump beat
if you're at the post. you've got a news room full of big stars. i mean this is not, i look at the post's work over this campaign and i think the post did the best work of any journalism organization. no close second and it was almost to a person, dan balls, karen tumulty, robert costa katie zezima. you go down the list, rebecca sinderbrand. everybody at the post did amazing work. you were one of many. - yes - how do you throw elbows and crowd yourself on to that team? - well it kind of happened by accident. i spent 2015 covering, i don't like parts of political journalism where you're one of 100 people following a candidate around. i wanted to be the one person doing the story i was doing. so that meant covering basically losers last year. so i spent a lot of last year writing about people who had no chance because i just thought they were interesting. so rick perry. actually when i flew to see rick perry give a speech, to start a profile of him, he dropped out in the middle of the speech that i saw him give. - you're like the sports illustrated cover curse, right? - it's like a mummy's curse. if touch you die. - you're dead. - so it meant that by the time we got to iowa, all the people i had covered, santorum, pataki, gilmore,
they were all gone. so they sent me to follow trump around. to write a story. basically the oh my god - were they trying to kill him is that what they were trying to do? - no. it was supposed to be donald trump may actually win the iowa caucuses. religious conservative iowa, donald trump the three time married mogul might win. so they sent me to follow him around in a caucus state. and i'm in waterloo, iowa watching trump give a rally. and trump stops the rally in the middle and says, come on up here people from this local waterloo veteran's organization. i'm going to give you a check. that's something i'd never seen before. he gives them this giant golf tournament sized check - like a novelty check - yeah it says donald j. trump foundation on the top make america great again on the bottom. it's for $100,000. so he gives them this check and they say thank you and he goes back to the rally. so he's using his charity basically, as a prop in his political rally. if you remember a few days earlier, trump had held this big fundraiser for veterans in iowa - right - skipped the republican debate - i think he said he had $6 million. - said he raised $6 million total and that $1 million of it was his. so i see him give this big check to people and i don't know anything about charities
but i know you can't do that. - there's a law. - there's a law that says that non-profits like the donald j. trump foundation can not get involved in political campaigns. to me i thought what clearer evidence could there be that he's using his charity as a prop? so that was one thing that i was interested in. the other thing was i saw him give out these big novelty checks and then he stopped. and he'd only given out about $1 million. and he said he'd raised six. so where's the rest of the money. so i came back. i had no candidates to cover because all my other candidates were dead and i thought alright, why don't i just spend a couple of days and figure out what happened to the rest of the money. figure out if trump broke the law and figure out what happened to the rets. - did you do this on your own or did you go to an editor at the paper and say i want to chase this? - this part was basically on my own because i didn't think i was assigning myself something for nine months. i thought i was assigning myself, - so a skunk work and if then it made, you go to your bosses and say look what i've got. - yeah and thought there's no way, i thought i would call the trump campaign and they would say oh yeah, here's the rest of the money. because who would ever stiff veterans in the middle of a presidential campaign? who would say i've raised $6 million and then not give it out. so of course they must have given it out. so i started calling them
and calling veteran's groups to try to figure where the money went and it wasn't a couple of days. it wasn't an easy question to answer. that was february first that i saw him give the check out. it took me until the end of may to get them to cough up where the rest of the money was. - so did the trump campaign not respond to you when you made initial calls? - they responded to me a little bit along the way. by the beginning of march we knew where about half the money was but they said okay we're not gonna tell you any more. and through all this was trump had said on the stage, i'm gonna give a million dollars of my own money, in addition to this money i had collected from other people, one of the six million is mine. well where was that? that was the part that i was most concerned about. that's the money he has the most control over. i asked questions, i couldn't figure out the answer. until something really interesting happened. at the end of may i get a phone call from corey lewandowski, who was trump's campaign manager at the time. and he says mr. trump has given out his million dollars to veterans. but i can't tell you who he gave it to or when or how or in what amounts. it's all secret. except for fact that you should just know absolutely he has given money. - take our word for it. - take our word for it.
but i didn't want to take their word for it. this is a huge campaign promise. i'm not gonna just take their word for it. so i said okay how can i figure this out? in the old days you just would have to call all eight zillion veteran's organizations. you'd never really be sure that he hadn't given it out. but now there's twitter. and there's a way to put out these requests in a way that a lot of people will see it and that trump will see it. - this is one of the amazing parts. in some ways your reporting over the course of the story was as modern and as tech forward as it could have been and in some ways it was literally ink on paper as old school as it could have been. but the tech forward part was you used social media, twitter specifically. to essentially crowdsource the information that you were trying to get from these guys. - that's right. so i thought the veterans philanthropy community is not huge. so i could tweet to veterans of foreign wars, disabled american veterans, and other groups that deal with veterans in a way that not only the national press corp could see, because they're all on twitter. trump could see because i'm putting his handle on the tweet. and the idea was okay i'm gonna ask all these people hey did you get any of this million dollars donald trump gave out?
but even if they didn't, someone else might see it and say hey you didn't ask us but we got money. so maybe you wouldn't find the whole iceberg but you'd find the tip of the iceberg. and maybe trump would see it and respond in a way that would give us more details. - yeah - so i spent a day tweeting and accomplished nothing. i learned nothing. the people all responded saying they hadn't gotten the money. i thought this is a huge waste of time. but trump saw. and it turned out that actually when lewandowski told me that he'd given away his million dollars that was completely wrong. that was totally false. the money was still in trump's pocket. it was only after my day of tweeting at all these groups and looking for the money that trump actually did give the million dollars, all in one fell swoop, to a group that he'd known for years. - now we should say that although this was the current year and this wouldn't have been available yet. in previous years when you're investigating somebody's charitable giving, which you eventually did do over time, you would simply have tax returns available. tax returns would be a helpful primary source document. but in this case we didn't have, and still don't have, trump's tax returns. - in previous years clinton , anybody who'd run for office previously
had released their personal tax returns. which would show what they'd given. - if you were investigating somebody else's charitable giving you would have it right there on paper. - it wouldn't be much of an investigation. - it wouldn't take any time to resolve. - in this case trump calls me and says okay i've given this million dollars. - he personally calls you. - he called. this is the last time i talked to him. - stop. i gotta know about this. this is actually interesting. because he may have you killed at some point. so i want to ask you while i still can. so he calls the post switchboard? what does he do? does he call your cell phone? - well no i had been asking all along to talk to him. and in the past you could just call him. like when i had written stories about him in the summer of 2015, you could just call his cell phone and get him. now as he rose in the polls it was harder to get a hold of him. but i had been asking okay, have him call me. so he did. this is the last time we talked. he called me and he said yes i've given the million dollars away. long after lewandowski said he already had. i said did you only give it now because i was asking about it? he said you're a really nasty guy. you just a nasty guy. - just for asking that question? - yeah he didn't answer the question. it was the strangest interview
because then i'm not gonna argue with him about whether i'm a nasty person, but i had other questions that i wanted him to answer. what happened to the other money that other donors gave you to give away? where is that? - the other five million. - the other five million. so i'm not just gonna argue with him so he would say oh you're a nasty guy, you're terrible. i would go back and ask a factual question. he would reset. he would give some factual answer which would then devolve into more insults of me and then we'd go back again. so the strangest interview. - but that was the last time i talked to him. we talked then, i wrote the story. - so at what point did you decide to expand your focus from that specific $6 million to all charitable giving by donald trump? - it was after that. so trump after he called me, he had this angry press conference at trump tower where he described giving away the rest of the money that people had entrusted him just for the veterans thing. remember he called the media a piece of work and insulted people. then marty barron, our executive editor said why don't you look at all his charitable giving. basically if he's willing to play fast and loose with money for veterans in the middle of a republican presidential primary, has he been keeping his promises before
when basically nobody was looking? - right and at that point you broke out the big chief tablet. we actually wondered what was it? is it a notepad? was it a notebook? because the museum ought to have your, whatever this thing was that you wrote on. - it was a legal pad. so i though okay now, the question then became trump over his lifetime had promised to give tens of millions of dollars away. he has this weird dichotomy where he's always telling you how rich he is. he's so rich he doesn't need more money. he's so rich. like that's the first word of "the art of the deal." i'm so rich i couldn't use any more money. but yet he's always hustling for more money. he's trying to sell you steaks or classes, - the gold plated make america great hats for christmas - right - i got an email probably today about that. - right - so he's always like this guy who says i don't need more money but he's always hustling for your money. well how does he suqre that? it's always well it's for charity. trump university, the profit's going to charity - charity - trump water, going to charity. he told howard stern all the money for the apprentice, $2.5 million a year, was going to charity. - but no proof of that. - no proof of that. so let's try to find again, the tip of the iceberg.
so trump wouldn't help me at all and i thought well why don't i just make a list of the charities i think are most likely to have gotten money out of trump's own pocket. i'll just call them. i'll go down the list - how long was the initial list? - the initial list was a couple of hundred. when i wrote it down it was a couple hundred. and then i kept expanding it. thinking maybe he would call and volunteer and tell me something or maybe somebody else would know something. so i started writing it down on a legal pad and taking pictures of it, putting it on twitter. - putting it on twitter - the idea being that you can get a lot more information into a picture than you can into a tweet - yeah - i wrote out the ones where they said never, he'd never given them money in one color ink. so you could see visually, how hard i'm trying and how many places had said no we've never gotten his money. - right. and did the organizations you called respond in most cases quickly or at all? were some reluctant to cross trump? what was the story there? - almost everybody responded. so it started to grow and people started coming to me with things that i didn't even know i was looking for. i started out not really knowing what was legal and illegal in the world of charity.
and also not really understanding - this was not your area of expertise before. it is now. - to the degree that i had an area of expertise no this was definitely not it. just as an example of how this all turned so fast. i get a call one day, after i'd been out there doing this stuff for a while, from somebody in the palm beach area code. somebody i don't know. trump owns the mar a lago club in palm beach. the person says havi art trump. h-a-v-i art trump. okay that sounds like nonsense. almost all the time you get a tip like that it's useless. but this was the perfect situation. i googled that and immediately found a portrait of trump. - this is the famous six foot portrait? - this is another portrait. - a second portrait. - this is the second portrait. the six foot portrait we knew about already. that's the one he paid $20,000 for out of his charity. - out of foundation money. - right. i still never found that one. as a brief aside on that. i think you'll enjoy this. i get a picture of the six foot tall portrait. this was painted by a speed painter in five minutes. trump paid $20,000 for it. it's a picture of trump's face. it's sort of his normal skin tone
but done in kind of a neony sort of way. we get a picture of it but we couldn't get the rights to use it. so i'm thinking okay i'll put this into google image search and it'll show me another place. maybe it's hanging on the wall in the background of somebody's prom picture or something. i put this picture of trump's face into the google image search. this is not a lie, this is absolutely true, google says i think this is an orange. (audience laughs) and it shows me pictures of oranges, pictures of orange julius, orange juice. anyway. - literally can not make it up. - no. so now this person calls and tells me so now we know about this second portrait. a $10,000 portrait that trump had also bought in 2014 with money meant for charity. so from the tip from the google search i call the charity and confirm it. i get a picture of that new portrait. - that one you can get. - i do have the rights to. i post it online at like 10:00 a.m. one day. so the tax rules say trump can't just take that picture and hang it on the wall of his house. he can't hang it on the wall of his club. it has to serve some charitable purpose.
so i ask the trump people where is it? what's it doing? is it on the wall of a children's hospital? what's it doing? no response. so i put this out at 10:00 a.m. and by five o'clock that night, at that point i don't know where it is. it could be burned, it could be buried in a hole. it could be hanging on a wall in trump tower. five o'clock that night i get an email from somebody who is a twitter follower of mine in atlanta. stay at home mother alison aguilar. she had gone to the trip advisor page for trump's golf course at doral where you can put in user generated photos so there's like 500 photos of people's hotel bathrooms, the 18th green. she's been scanning them 20 at a time and she spots this portrait. - at the golf club. - at the golf club. okay so now we know from the trip advisor picture it was at the golf club in february of 2016. but where is it now? so at 6:00 i tweet that out. look we found this picture. we know where it was. there's a guy named enrique acevedo who is an anchor at univision. he does the 11:30 to midnight newscast at univision whose studios are in doral, florida. close to this club. he sees my tweet.
he remembers that it's four blocks away. he makes a reservation for that night. and he uses points. he doesn't want to give donald trump any of his money but he uses points. so he goes over to the club checks in and starts wandering the halls and convinces the cleaning folks to let him into the sports bar and bang there it is on the wall. so we went from 10:00 a.m. who knows where in the world it is to 12:30 at night. - this modern world of journalism - it's amazing. it would have taken me 10 years to find that thing on my own. - investigative journalism is not dead. period, paragraph. you're proving that and you're proving it in a way that combines the modern and the old school, right? - i think so. and people enjoyed it. that was the thing that people liked about it. it was a scavenger hunt. there was something tangible to look for. and also it was easier to tell the story of misuse of charity money when you have something like that. of course it's illegal to buy a portrait of yourself and hang it on the wall. - in the end we all in the media business and people are closely following this campaign knew what you were doing, paid attention, admired it. the public did not seem to believe
that the trump foundation, whatever it was or was not doing, was a relevant data point in the outcome of this campaign. - well i think you can't assume by the fact that trump won that people didn't care. i think people did care about that. - in the end they didn't care as much about that as other things. - yeah that's right. that's fine. you don't do this to try to beat trump. you do this - of course - so people can be informed. i think you're dependent always in the media on other media picking stuff like this up, the candidate, the candidate's surrogates. the trump foundation got some kind of lift from the campaign. president obama mentioned it once on the trail. the six foot portrait to mock trump. i did a lot of tv. there was some pick up on other media - yeah - i could only do so much. i can only sort of put it out there so much and if people are interested it'll go on its own. - let me ask you a question. why didn't you investigate the clinton foundation as closely? - because it was another person's job at the post. - so somebody else did it. - right - it's not that you didn't necessarily think this is a worthy topic of investigation but - i had done some clinton foundation stuff back in 2015
but at that point it had been sort of bifurcated. - and also the clinton foundation and the trump foundation, my sort of distanced reading of the two, different situations. - yeah. the clinton foundation is a public charity so it's big. it's designed to take in money from people other than the clintons. it does a lot of things. it employs a lot of people. - no problem knowing where that money went. - right, exactly. it employs a lot of people, it does direct charitable work. there it's a question of the moral responsibility of power, right? - right - clinton has power. did she use that power when she was secretary of state in a way that benefited her charity? for trump, it's a really small organization, the foundation. it doesn't employ anybody. it's a question of the moral responsibility of wealth. does trump feel, the fact that he's wealthy, does he feel a moral responsibility to help people who are less fortunate than him? and what you see is he actually tried, he knew that people expected he would feel that moral responsibility, but he tried to do as much as he could to sort of shirk it or to have an illusion that he was fulfilling it. - well he talked about it and the question is did he actually back up what he talked about? - right even though in the trump foundation, he used other people's money to do that, in a way that people thought they were getting money from trump. - most years of reporting and on a campaign,
you do the trump foundation story which happens over time that's enough. you also broke the billy bush access hollywood tape story. - yes - that was your story. - yes - you wrote that story and on the day you wrote that story that was the most concurrently read story in the history of the washington post website. - the champion story before this had been a story about a lady in borundi who had faked her own death and showed up to scare people at her own funeral. (audience laughs) it's a pretty good story. so that had been the most total views and the most concurrent views, meaning the most people reading it at one time. - right - so i should say, the number of people reading a story at one time, we have that on a big chart in the newsroom and 20,000 people reading a story at one time is huge. - is generally a lot - right - how many people were reading this story at one time - over 100,000. - at one time. - at one time. the little dial we have to measure it was literally spinning and the traffic servers broke because there was so much traffic. - and that was a story that within a very short space of time after you published that story, i think nbc published a version
of the same story or the video - right - it had been of course in their property prior and they had declined to publish it at that point you published it and then they went ahead and they published it. so it no longer became your story as an exclusive but you were first. - we were first. we got the story about 11:00 a.m. we go the tape about 11:00 a.m. on a friday. it was not something that i had been looking for. i'd been doing this charity stuff. - without asking you to reveal anything, you got a tip. - right. - that's what happens, right? why you? you were the trump foundation guy. - i was much better known then than i had been before. you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. - speaking of charity, right? - right. so we knew, the video, once it came in it was obvious. it's a five minute video. the first two minutes were trump and billy bush were on the bus. you can hear them but you can't see them. that was the part that we cared about. we had a couple of questions right off the bat. at 11:00 a.m. we get it. our video people tell me,
look we're gonna cut this and make it into a video. we're going to subtitle it so you tell what they're saying. we need til 3:30. 3:30 in the afternoon. that's the soonest we could have it done. so that's the time frame we had. so we had to call nbc to see if they were gonna sue us because it was their video. or if they were gonna say it was a hoax. and then we went to trump to see is he gonna say it's a hoax because as i said you can hear them you can't see them. you can't see trump's mouth moving so will they say oh that's not really him. we sent the trump people first a transcript of the offending part of the video and the said well it doesn't sound like mr. trump. can you send us the full video. there was some debate among the editors and they decided yes send them the video. that was a little after 3:30 and we were gonna publish it at four. at four o'clock as someone's walking over, this is how lame the stop the presses moments are in digital journalism. there's no presses, there's no big button to hit. there's someone walking over to her desk to hit the button to publish it and the trump people called so i told her to stop. they said we're gonna send you a statement. basically it's him.
he said that it's just locker room talk, you remember he said i apologize. - yeah right, right. - i apologize if anybody was offended. which surprised me. i had had so little luck from the trump campaign responding to anything that i had asked them about the foundation. i was surprised they would admit to this. but they did. - it's just stunning to me that they didn't try to delay or just not answer in the way that they had prior. they could have basically anything to keep you from publishing. would you have published if he hadn't responded? obviously you were about to. - we were about to. - you were about to. it didn't make a difference. - no that was not my call but the lawyers and editors had decided that we had done everything we could to make sure they knew about it and given them a chance to respond and they hadn't. - again i'll observe. among the many things that were different about this campaign than any previous campaign in our lives and we may never have this again. this kind of a story hits, it changes temporarily, the trajectory of the campaign. - it does. - and then ultimately it does not change the outcome. - and at the time i had thought that its legacy would be, trump had gotten away with so much that he'd done before
because it was so public. all the howard stern stuff. imagine if mitt romney had said one-tenth the stuff that trump had said on howard stern. we would have tarred and feathered him right? but now trump says it in public, he's playing this character, it seems like it's okay. well this was private, right and it was not just talk. it was him describing, this is how i act, this is what i do to women. then it set off this sort of inter-republican fighting. i thought that was going to be the legacy. remember paul ryan pulled back and trump attacked him. - well people said mike pence may drop off the ticket right? ultimately it didn't happen. - at some point in october, after that but before the comey letter. when it seemed like this was the biggest thing that had happened on the campaign. i was interviewed by this german journalist who at the time wanted to find out about this story. he asked me in this very german way, do you think that this is the peak of your life? (audience laughs) it will never get any better? i was like fine. that's better than writing about jim gilmore. but the comey letter. you have a lot of factors here. i've heard people say the comey letter was, i heard nate silver the comey letter
swung the race in a way. and that's not fake news. - we're never gonna know - right. - we're never gonna know - right - we're out of time. was this the peak of your life? i should ask you the (audience laughs) same question. i'm afraid that the german reporter took my last question. it's a good time to be doing this work. - it's a great time to be doing this work. we're now entering this era where i couldn't tell you what's gonna happen. it's completely uncertain but it's a great time in american journalism. i feel like i understand how to cover trump. a lot of other people do. - yeah - there's a lot of people doing great work now. i don't know what's coming next but i know that we at least are prepared. - are you still on the trump beat? - yes - and you'll stay on the trump beat? - of course. - on behalf of america thank you. - david fahrenthold thank you very much (audience applauds) great job. thank you. - [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests and an archive of past episodes. - with bezos he's somebody who'd
never owned a newspaper before. we knew don graham, our beloved former publisher had chosen him so he must have been good. but he's done things like when jason rezaian our reporter, was imprisoned in iran, when the iranians finally let him go, bezos went over there to get him. got him on his private jet and said where do you want to go? and rezaian was like, i want to go to key west. so they flew him straight to key west from the army hospital. - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy and by klru's producers circle ensuring local programming that reflects the character and interests of the greater austin, texas community