Trumped Washington looks very different to House of Cards

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank would know. Here are some of the dishiest quotes from his Walkley Media Talk.

Freelance investigative journalist and former Washington correspondent Anne Davies in conversation with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank at the July Walkley Media Talk

Ask veteran Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank about what it’s like to be a reporter — or a White House staffer — in Washington at the moment, and you get a picture that is less House of Cards (a calculating villain jogging late at night on still, damp streets, then suddenly past giant Abraham lincoln lit for maximum dramatic effect) and more like this:

At one o’clock in the morning, one of the Post’s six political reporters — up from just two during the Bush administration — is at the office, refreshing Twitter. “It’s shift work now, because you never know when he’s going to tweet. We had the covfefe tweet, which was I think at like 1am, so that’s the graveyard shift.”

Milbank is visiting Australia with the US Studies Centre. On Thursday night he appeared in conversation with freelance investigative journalist Anne Davies at the State Library of NSW as part of the regular Walkley Media Talks.

Back in a Trump-ruled Washington, Milbank is fast asleep. Early in the morning, his phone lights up. “I have made the very poor decision of whenever he tweets, it comes through as a text message, as if the president was texting me,” says Milbank, whose nationally syndicated politics column runs four times a week in the Post, and appears in 275 other newspapers.

Later that day, Trump picks up the print edition of the Post. WaPo staff know that the President doesn’t read things online, because complaints start coming from the White House only after the print edition hits stands. Funny thing is, a lot of the things Trump complains about might just have been leaked by his own staff, desperate to get their boss’ attention.

“When the president is speaking about these sources leaking, a lot of them are his closest advisors trying to get their opinions to him,” explains Milbank. “If one of the president’s appointees in the White house wants to gets the President’s attention, he leaks something to the Washington Post or the Times and the President will read it.”

Alternatively, the leaks come from the “disaffected federal bureaucracy”, who Trump has been targeting with budget cuts.

“My paper famously broke the story of the call with the prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull]. Now I was not reporting that and I haven’t enquired, so I don’t know who the source is, but I do know that the state department is in on those phone calls, so you can see why having a bureaucracy that is antagonistic towards the president generates more leaks.”

“Looking back to Watergate in the 1970s, there was Deep Throat at the FBI, but when you look at these stories, it’s ‘five people said’, ‘twelve people said’. You can sort of picture them all lining up to leak to my colleagues.”

A social-media obsessed president, tired journalists and government staff lining up to leak information to the press. All of this is, it turns out, is great for journalism, says Milbank, who credits Trump as having “unbroken our business model”.

“That’s the dirty little secret… It’s very good for clicks and for ratings, to the detriment of American society.”

Milbank is of the belief that American cable news is largely responsible for getting Trump elected — that by some estimations, the coverage they gave Trump was the equivalent of two billion dollars’ worth of political advertising.

This brings us to the fall of Sean Spicer, who “was a perfectly normal guy”. Milbank says that among the best pieces of journalism when it comes to reporting on Spicer was done by Australia’s very own Sydney Morning Herald, who created “Spicer-ize My Name”, following Spicer’s use of Trumbull instead of Turnbull and Joe instead of Justin when referring to the PMs of Australia and Canada. Now, anyone can type their name into a box and learn what Spicer might choose to call them during a press briefing.

Milbank doesn’t think Trump’s reign will end anytime soon: At a push, he’ll wake up one day and decide it isn’t worth the trouble. In the meantime, traditional press conferences have “essentially ceased to exist” and besides, the Washington Post has been banned from those that do happen. “You have to come in wearing a moustache and a coat as a member of the public.”

While Milbank says that we need not fear Trump achieving much because he is so easily distracted, he does take Trump seriously. It’s the great skill in Milbank’s columns: as Anne Davies put it, “Dana has a rare ability: he can make you laugh out loud at politics, but at the same time offer an incisive commentary.”

It isn’t easy. Milbank’s problem is one that many satirists have described in the wake of the reality-TV ruler of the first world: “When everything is absurd it’s impossible to parody.” Armando Iannucci, creator of the dark political satires In the Thick of It and Veep, referred to Trump as a “self-basting turkey”.

Milbank says that, “It’s really ceased to be funny. I mean there are funny things that my dear president does all the time, but they have real consequences — destroying real alliances and making a mess of real people’s lives.”

In the meantime, he’s trying not to let his articles become too hysterical. As his editor put it, it’s important to keep some adjectives in reserve — you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

It’s something Trump might just be able to help with. Barring fresh adjectives, there are always entirely new uses of old words: “There are still moments when you can have fun. When Trump said Hillary Clinton got ‘schlonged’, I had a lot of fun with that.”


Dana Milbank appeared in Australia with the support of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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