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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  May 19, 2018 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT

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- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith. he's front and center on the trump beat for the new york times. one of a handful of reporters at the nation's best news orgs whose daily scoops have made journalism great again. he's michael schmidt, this is overheard. (montage of audio clips) mike schmidt, welcome. - thanks for having me.
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- good to see you, probably not for the first time, someone says to you, the president's been talking about you today. right? do you have the story in the newspapers. we sit here today on an average sunday. you have a story with your colleague, maggie haberman in the new york times about the prospect of the president adding an attorney to his team specifically focused on the threat of impeachment, this is an attorney who had worked on? - clinton. - clinton's impeachment. now, the president denies this is true, but he denies it in his own charming way, on twitter, and in doing so attacks the story that you wrote. this is kind of like the new normal, is it not? - yeah, and similar to other ways that he's attacked us, he sort of says that the story says something that it doesn't and it allows him to galvanize his people and to call us the failing new york times and plays into his narrative, and it's just sunday morning. - it's just a regular sunday morning. the thing he's denying, let's be clear about this. as you say, the thing he's denying is not the thing that is necessarily
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the basis for the story. - no, it's not really the rest of the story. we mention lower down, the story's about bringing in this lawyer, and moving into sort of a new phase as he deals with the mueller investigation. lower down, we say that some of the president's associates, people close to him, have raised questions about the legal team and said maybe this isn't. - this would be taikov, jason lo and john dowe. - correct. and so he says that the new york times purposely, falsely, wrote a story about how he's really angry with his legal team. and that's not really what the story's about, but that's okay. - this thing that you're doing, investigative journalism in the trump era, is so fascinating for those of us on the outside who consume it every day. not just people like me, who happen to be in the news business, and so we're watching from a craft standpoint, but just civilians watching it. this is a whole new ballgame, is it not? nothing like covering the obama administration. nothing like the kind of investigative reporting that you have now done for ten or more years at the new york times. - yeah, it's in this unusual place where
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the president today has opined on a piece that i wrote and it isn't the first time he's done it and it may not be the most important thing i remember from today. if obama were to ever weight in on a story that i wrote about him, it would be a defining. i know there's one time he said something about one piece that i wrote. i remember very distinctly. i'll never forget that. this is one of many, and probably will be more to come, and because the president says so many things, it's sometimes hard to remember them all. - is it the times in which we live, mike? is it this president? is it the technology, tools that are available to anybody to communicate to all of us, twitter, or what have you? or is it some combination of those things? - i think it's obviously a lot of different things, but the president himself is such an unusual character with a certain amount of energy and a certain amount of interest in pushing back on things and doing things in his own way, so unconventionally, and we're at a time where the media apparatus, the way that it's built
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fills, fits into that, well, and because of that you get a lot of donald trump. - you and i remember when we were in grade school or middle school, we may have been this boy, but there was always a boy who pulled the ponytail of the girl in the row ahead of him in class, pretending to hate that girl but actually secretly loving that girl. that's trump in the media. you have the ponytail, don't you? and he's that boy. (audience laughter) - he spends an enormous amount of time on his media, and it seems like it is his coverage that he cares about the most. maybe not even the facts. maybe not even the fact that mueller is - executive time isn't half of it, isn't the half of it, in terms of how much he pays attention to that stuff. - correct. and he believes he is his best spokesman. and that he can make his argument the best himself, and the more that he does that, the more that he will win you over. he really believes that he can convince you to like him and will go to great lengths to do that. when we interviewed him in july in the oval office, i'm pretty sure, we talked to him for about, a little bit more than an hour,
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about a little less than an hour. i'm sure he would have gone on for several more hours. he just would've kept on going and going, but hope was like, you guys gotta go. - and speaking of hope, by the way. hope hicks is now recently departed communications director. this is communications director number four who has departed, right? - well yeah. - it was, it was spicer, dubke, um, scaramucci, and hicks, now have all come and gone in the first 16 months. at the end of the day, whoever he replaces hicks with, the communications director of the white house is donald j. trump. - true, true. - i mean, that's part of the problem here. and it's the thing that we're talking about. - well, he, the thing is is that, he will tweet something that will undercut the message of what the communications department is trying to push that day. - [evan] correct. - and they're not on the same plane. - so why not just eliminate the middle man and let him do the job for it? - but the thing is, they have lost so many folks at the white house, i don't even know many of the folks that are still there. - yeah. - and i wasn't someone that covered the campaign, but i had some familiarity with the folks that were there, and i kind of wonder if there's
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empty offices in the west wing. - right, as you seek to do this kind of reporting, as you do this as part of your job, does the nature of the trump administration, which is both very leaky and filled with a lot of news that might be seen as on the unsavory or seedy side, relative to typical administrations, make your job easier or harder? - in some ways, it's easier. in some ways, it's harder. - how is it easier and how is it harder? - it's easier because our mission is as clearly defined as it's ever been. there's an enormous story here. there's a lot of, there's a lot on the line. we have been tasked with going out and doing everything to follow the facts and figure out everything we can about it. there's great enthusiasm internally and folks really want to learn about what we're doing and read our stuff. - right. - and that is a great environment to practice whatever you do. - there's a job to be done and you're doing it. - and it's clearly defined and it's important and it may never be this interesting.
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at the same time, the consequences and the stakes are very high. any type of mistake will, could be, you know, have enormous impact. obviously, we're always just careful as we can be but in this, this environment, we do everything to, to make sure we are right. so we're under a microscope in a way that's different and that can be challenging. - the microscope would be there without the president tweeting about you. it's certainly there with that. - it's just, the pressure is turned up. the temperature is hotter. - and the frame around it, i'm reminded of this every day. that you know, when you started at the times as a news clerk in '05, you became a reporter in december of '07, so ten years ago you were doing this work or a version of it. ten years ago i was running a magazine as opposed to what i do now, but basically at that time, both of us were in journalism at a time when the public's default setting was they trusted us. today, we're in journalism at a time when the public's default setting is they don't trust us. and so the stakes are that much higher for a variety of reasons, but none more than our industry is really on tender hooks
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right now in terms of how the public consumes us and regards us. - i understand those numbers about the public's feelings, but at the same time, we are more read than we've ever been. - well, yeah, the nature of the failing new york times is the fake news. that's the fake news. - and we have more people paying attention to what we're doing and we're reaching more people because of online. and we have more people paying than they've ever. we have built a great thing around our business where we have monthly subscribers paying online for digital access. more so than we've ever had, so i understand that the public is skeptical of the media. i understand the president has a big microphone, a big megaphone to go after us. but at the end of the day, we are more read and i think more relevant than we've ever been. - you can argue that the people who don't trust the media are not in the pool of potential new york times readers in all likelihood, anyway, right? - that, that is true, and there is a larger issue in the country where you can get whatever type of media you want.
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and i just hope that we stand out as the most unbiased, you know, hardest-hitting folks that there are. - i know that you defend, not reflexively, but thoughtfully, the work that the times does and the work that the media does. i wanna ask you to put yourself in the mind of bum phillips, the old football coach. you're an old sports guy. you know the old bum phillips line that he could take his guys and beat your guys then he could take your guys and beat his guys. i want you to now flip this around. make the argument on behalf of those who don't trust the media. what are they right about? what are you doing wrong from their perspective that you think is a legitimate criticism? - um, i think that one of the biggest problems that we have and that we need to do a better job of is explaining to people what we do, what our mission is, what we're trying to accomplish, and what that looks like. i think that we sometimes think that we just put stuff out there, people will accept it and they should just trust what we have to say. maybe we don't have to show all of our homework. but i think we're in an era where
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we have to show all the homework. - well that's how it was before, right? you would just sort of pronounce from on high, this is the news, and that was it. - correct. - and now you've gotta show your work. - and we have more ways to show our work. let's say i'm writing a piece about an investigation that we've done for several months. we can post the documents online. we can post transcripts of our interviews that we do. we can bring people in. and i think the more that we do that, the more that people will trust what we are doing. we are not omnipotent. we do not have the power of subpeona. - you make mistakes occasionally. you gotta cop to those mistakes, correct them, and move on. - and that is, that humility, is something i think people really appreciate. and it's hard, it's hard. - let me come back to the question of doing this kind of work in this white house. what do you think about the white house press shop, relative to other white house press shops or other press shops at other big institutions you've covered? - um, i, they're not as relevant as i would say that other ones have been because they're not often providing reliable, extensive information.
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- you mean they're lying. - well, um, they, they don't always provide the most accurate information. - right. - and they don't always provide a lot of information. the obama press shop would put out a lot of things, there would be a lot of background briefings and such, and seems to me that there's less of that that goes on so it makes them sort of less relevant, but back on the point, you have a president who is out there being his own spokesman and pushing his own agenda. - and you subscribe to the theory that a president's tweet is an official statement from the leader of the free world, so you have to regard it. - well, what do you wanna call it? - well, you know, there's a twitter feed that is like you know, a real statement from the president, where they take the president's tweets and they turn them into, they almost make them look like. - [schmidt] a press release. - official press releases because effectively, they are. - yeah. - right, if the president says it, it's a statement from the president. - but it raises a question about how we cover the tweets. how should we do that? - talk about that. - if the president says a wide range of things,
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some things that are false, some things that are offensive, some things that are outlandish, some things that are stupid, some things that are insightful, some things that are making policy, some things that undercut his own policy. so how do you take that and how do you cover that? i use this term of the stupid human trick. sometimes we follow the stupid human trick out the window. the white house or the president will do something that is off, is head-scratching, but at the end of the day, does it really cut to the heart of an important issue that is going on? - well, probably not any more than last night at the rally, as we sit here, there was a rally last night that he had in pennsylvania that was ostensibly for the congressional candidate but was really about him. most of these things are. i don't think he mentioned the congressional candidate for like the first 18 minutes more than once. i mean, any more than him referring last night literally to chuck todd, as a sleeping son of a bitch. that was the phrase he used to describe nbc's political director and the host of meet the press chuck todd.
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so there was a lot of media coverage of that. you can argue that is that gonna affect the outcome of any major issue before the president or before the white house or in the world? no, but is it not news that he called chuck todd a sleeping son of a bitch? of course it is. - and are we learning anything new about donald trump in that? are we learning something that reaffirms our views of him? - well, he upgraded chuck todd from sleepy eyes to a sleeping son of a bitch, so the nickname has changed. we learned that, right? - it needs one of many, many things that fall into this category of different behavior of a president that we still struggle with on a daily basis. how do you cover that? - there's a cottage industry of people in washington for years and years who are agreed that presidents don't have more press conferences. are you in that group? - um, to some extent, yes, to some extent, no. i think that it is always great when you have a chance to learn how the president views these important issues. i had a chance to interview the president in december at his golf club. - oh yes you did. - and i sort of took the perspective
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that i was gonna, the president, i was trying to get as much information as i could out of the president, and i was gonna ask him questions and get out of the way and try and learn as much as possible. - well, so let's set the scene. i mean, i wanna talk about this because you had to, you know, you got a little guff for this, which i think was unfair, personally, but you did get guff. so you were, if i'm remembering the story, you and chris ruddy, who is the - president's friend. - [evan] president's friend, who is also the ceo, or president of, or, - newsmax. - of news max. so you and chris ruddy are having dinner? - lunch. - lunch, and at another table at mar-a-lago is the president. - it's at his golf club. - his golf club. - mar-a-lago doesn't have a golf course. - pardon, so it was at his golf club. it's not at mar-a-lago. so tell the story. so you're having lunch, and there's the president. - and the president calls ruddy over, and i come up behind ruddy and ruddy says, mr. president, i have mike schmidt of the new york times with me, and the president looks up at me as if what are you doing in my golf club? and then he says, oh michael, and he remembered our interview in july.
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- in the white house. - in the white house, and he thought that we had treated him fairly. and i went up and i shook his hand and he immediately launched into a thing about salt. it's state and local taxes. something i know very little about, but they had just passed the tax bill and he was very, very proud of that, and wanted to be his best own spokesman. and starts going on and on with me about that. and the problem is, i really wanted to interview the president, but i didn't have my recorder out. - is that why you went to the golf club? - um. - you were just gonna have lunch. - chris ruddy asked me to have lunch. we knew the president was gonna be there. - and so you thought, oh. - i've often thought that if i could get to the president that he wouldn't be able to say no. - couldn't resist. a chance meeting, couldn't resist. - correct. - and indeed. - well, so what happened is that i didn't want, the president can get easily distracted and i have all these people at the table and so whatever, so what i did was was i, i got down like a catcher, i squatted down like a catcher next to him, and he went on for five minutes about taxes and i didn't really understand much of it but i said to him, i said, you know, my legs were killing me, i was a catcher as a kid, but they,
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i said to him, i said, look, this is all really interesting, it sounds new and different. i'd love to interview about this. he says, great, let me finish eating and we'll sit down and do this. so i go back to my table, assuming that maybe in a half an hour, there's a 50/50 chance he'll do it, and within five minutes, i hear michael, michael, get over here. and we go to this big empty table and we talk for half an hour. - just the two of you. - just the two of us. - and this is again where whoever is the communications director at the time is thinking oh god. - correct. - had that person even been there, because this is not normally how it works. - it's very unusual to get an interview with the president, but it's even more unusual to just get a one on one. it's just the two of you. - unchaperoned. - unsupervised, correct. - right, and so you talked to him for a while, and after the, and you brought it up, and of course, every reporter in america's going god, schmidt, how did he get that? right, like newman, right? they're all kind of like, just cursing you. but at the same time, you then, the next reaction is well, why didn't he ask this? well, how come he didn't do that? well, why didn't he ask hard questions? - so we now, showing our homework,
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released a transcript. and when people look at the transcript, i mean, there's a lot of folks that are very angry about donald trump and feel that he needs, you know, basically to be held as accountable in real time as possible. and folks said, well, you asked the president questions and allowed him to talk but you didn't stop him every time he said something outlandish or something that was inaccurate, to tell him that and to do that in real time. and which, if you sort of have to be in front of the president to understand this, but he talks so quickly and he talks over everyone that if i were to have done that, i would not have gotten anything. it would have been a herky-jerk thing where he would have been bouncing around to different things. and i figured, if i have a half an hour, and my job, my first job, is as an information gatherer. - get the president on the record on various subjects. - correct, and that, and the other thing he thinks, if you say to him like, no mr. president, that's inaccurate.
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he'll say no no no, it is, because of this and then this and this and you're just jumping around. - well, you're down a rabbit hole. - correct, and you're not gonna, you're not gonna change his view on things. so, i tried, i said, look. there's you know, i'm sitting in front of the president. i know there's like five big issues. north korea, there's mueller, such that i need to get to, and i'm gonna try and do that as fast and as, you know, as efficiently as possible, and get out of the way. we're not here to hear me asking you know, talk. - you're not there as an advocate. you're there as an information gatherer. that was the phrase that you used. and of course, the people after the fact are like mike schmidt's in the president's camp and duh nuh, new york times and then like, a minute later you published six stories just ramming it up the president's nose on investigative stuff that you did. i mean, not looking to do that, but this wasn't about somehow, you or the paper siding with the president. it was just like a pebble and a half. - yeah, and within a week, i wrote a 2000-word story on all new aspects that the president may have done to obstruct justice and it was not a flattering story about the president at all. i mean, we, we write, you know,
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where we have the facts. - right. - and people sometimes don't understand. - yeah, on this question of the president obstructing justice and mueller investigation and the stuff that you've been working on. do you think we, we have the story yet that we see the outlines and the contours of the story? i keep wondering. it's like those uh, puzzles, where they say what's this, and then you go, i think it's this, and then when the camera pulls back it turns out to be a completely different thing than you thought. i can't tell at what stage pulled back from the thing we are yet. do you know? - well, a few things. the thing about this story is that i can't tell you if we're in the second inning, the sixth inning, or the ninth. - you can't tell me because you can't or you can't tell me because who the hell knows? - i have no idea, 'cause who knows? and the other thing is, is back on sort of the humility thing, there's a lot about bob mueller's investigation that we don't know about. - right. and that's proven. every time he does something, and you go, god, there were no leaks. how were there no leaks? there are always leaks? - correct. - right? he's been the leakest, freest of leaks of like, right? - it's been a, it is very hard to get inside of it and we are constantly
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surprised by documents and indictments. - so there's 13 indictments of the russian folks a couple of weeks ago? that was like out of nowhere, right? they announced rosenstein's gonna come out and do a press conference. nobody knows what this is about. is he resigning, right? is he firing mueller? and then there's these indictments and you're like how did no one know, right? - but based on what we do know, the easiest way to sort of look at mueller is like this. there's sort of three buckets. there's a obstruction bucket, there's a collusion bucket, and there's a finances bucket. - right. - the thing that we know the most about is the obstruction bucket. there's all of these things he has done since has been in office about his own actions. - right. - the firing of comey, the asking of loyalty, the, the constant internal meddling with the justice department. - amateurs think they can make a case out of that bucket. - correct, correct, and not just amateurs. and that's the thing where we have the most information about the president's behavior. on the collusion bucket, while there are a lot of things that people say raise questions
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and do all these different things, we don't really know a lot about the president's actions in regard to collusion. there's just not a lot of things that we publicly know about. - and he keeps doubling and tripling and quadrupling down on the idea that there was no collusion. - well he said. - as recently as in the tweet about your story this morning. - or when i sat down with him in december and i didn't ask one question about collusion and he said there was no collusion 13 times. - it's like who asked? - yeah, i didn't ask that. - it's like, you know. - and so in regards to his, his behavior, we just don't, there's the don jr. meeting in trump tower in 2016, which looks, you know, odd, and there's still a lot of unanswered questions about it, but in regards to what the president knew, we just don't know a lot about it. - but then there's this bucket, which is the finances bucket, and if i remember correctly, when mueller was appointed, the president said, basically, don't go there. you can't go there. that's not your purview, when in fact, mueller can do whatever mueller wants. - in, in, well, but mueller can also get fired. - right, but, the charge that mueller has as part of you know, this investigation,
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he can go here. how the reaction, how the president reacts to that, that's what the president does, but he could go there. - when we spoke to the president in july, we got him to say that if mueller was looking into his finances outside of russia, that it would be a red line. if you talk to folks around the president, they'd see no subpeona or question or request related to the president's finances that has come up by mueller. so when you look at the bucket, the finance one, is the one we know the least about. - so is the president's position, it's okay to look into jared kushner's finances, just don't look into mine? - my guess is that he probably wouldn't be comfortable with that, but we don't, on the finances thing, on everyone, we don't have a lot of insight. - we just have a couple minutes left. let me turn this around on you. why did you wanna do this work? you went to a small college in pennsylvania. your first job was, as we said, as a news clerk at the new york times, answering the phones and doing the bottom of the totem pole stuff, right? you've only been at the times for your entire career. what made you wanna do this work?
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- well, it beats working. (audience laughter) - well, you know what? true, it does. - i've had the chance to do an enormous amount of different see, an enormous amount of different things. - well you used to be a sports reporter. - correct, i've seen enough baseball games that i probably don't need to go to see another one. - ever again. - i've seen, and i was a huge baseball fan as a kid, but i've seen incredible baseball games and incredible. - were you a yankees fan or a mets fan? - i was a mets fan. - you were a mets fan. sorry for you. (audience laughter) - it's okay. and so i've seen that. i've seen, i've spent a year in iraq. - right, in fact, you not only spent a year in iraq, but you broke one of the great investigative reporting stories during that time with the documents that led to the haditha story, right? - i got very, i got very lucky. we found some classified documents. - in a junkyard. - in a junkyard. - in a junkyard. - correct, correct. they were, they were, it was all of this stuff left over from us bases that had ended up in an iraqi junkyard and we went to get some color for a story and there's, we're walking out and i see this, these papers and said what are these? they said well, they tell our guys,
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we've been burning these binders for days. - oh, god. - and to make our carp, and i said, well, what do you have? and there's, well, there's this one? and we pick it up and it says classified. said we'll take all that. (audience laughter) - back the truck up. - we'll go with those. so and that was, the internal classified investigation of the marine massacre. - you got to do that. you broke the fifa story. - i was in the, i got to be in the lobby when all these fifa guys got arrested. - right. - and i doubled my twitter followers in seven hours. soccer's much more interesting. - soccer, soccer fans, great, best twitter followers. you did the hillary clinton private email story. - correct, travel with the president. - you did the bill o'reilly sexual harassment story, right? - i've had the chance to do a lot of very, very interesting, different things in a very relevant way, at a place where my values, whatever my values, line up with my career. - and so say, for the record, what those values are. what is it about this work that speaks to your values?
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what are your values? - that i believe that society is helped the best if they have a clear factual picture of what's going on. and that we are gonna go out and we are gonna follow the facts without fear or favor and try and bring that to people in a digestible way so they can understand the world around them and have a way of viewing it that is accurate. - that's pretty good, i have to say, as definitions of the work that we do go. pretty good, so. - so, it's, but, when you work for a place, whose motto is, you know, without fear or favor. - [evan] it's pretty easy. - you know, we're gonna do that, and you look at that and you say well, i believe in facts. i believe that's the best way that society should be. i'm not a political person. i didn't vote in the 2012 election. i didn't vote in the 2016 election. i just sort of see myself as a, as a fact getter. - honest broker. - that's what we try to do. - i love that. all right, mike schmidt, thanks so much. good to be with you. i appreciate it. (applause) - [voiceover] we'd love to have you
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join us at the studio. visit our website at to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - i think that to understand what's going on inside the white house and what people are telling the president and how that may be impacting his decisions are as important as the simple fact of him going out and looking for a new lawyer. i think that the more sunlight that we can bring to that, the more that we understand the president, what may be motivating him and what may be going on. - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart.
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