The logistics of Mara Liasson's job at NPR haven't really changed with President Donald Trump's administration. But what has changed is the volume of news that she covers. And she does her best to provide the context listeners need.
On the morning I was to speak with Mara Liasson, President Donald Trump had taken to Twitter to call actor Robert De Niro “a very low IQ individual” for the two F-bombs he dropped at the Tony Awards.
As for Sen. Tim Kaine, running for re-election in Virginia? “… A total stiff.”
The days since have been rocked by the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which has resulted in children being separated from their parents as they try to enter the United States illegally.
As the national political correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), Liasson has had a front-row seat to it all, and compared covering Trump’s presidency to drinking from a fire hose.
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“I have always felt like one of my jobs is telling listeners the difference between the truly consequential and the merely outrageous,” said Liasson, who will speak at The University of Washington’s Kane Hall on Friday, June 22. “But sometimes they are one and the same things.” (The event is sold out.)
The logistics of Liasson’s job haven’t really changed; she still starts some days at 4:30 a.m., and leaves the office after “All Things Considered” ends around dinnertime. And she’s still trying to explain what is happening at The White House.
What has changed is the volume of news that she covers. It’s a 24-hour cycle, fed by a commander in chief who uses Twitter like a pack of matches, setting news cycles aflame at all hours.
“His metric for success is dominating the media narrative,” Liasson said. “That, to him, is the same thing as being successful.”
She painted a portrait of the Trump White House that brought to mind my high-school cafeteria.
“There is no such thing as a secret,” Liasson said. “No advanced planning. Lots of chaos. And he likes that. He likes conflict, and having his advisers duke it out.”
But last week was a different week. Instead of a series of things, covering Trump involved two big things: the North Korea summit with Kim Jong Un and the G7 summit, where Trump said he would impose tariffs and damaged relations with our neighbor, Canada.
“That’s when we got a clear view of what ‘America first’ policy means,” Liasson said. ” ‘America first’ doesn’t mean America alone. Although, the impression you got from last week was yes, it does.”
Her impression: Trump believes that he alone can fix things.
“He believes very strongly in the power of his personality. ‘I go from my gut, my instinct, my touch and feel.’
“On the other hand, he is more and more showing us that we are in the third season of The Trump Show,” Liasson said. “He is even more of a one-man band. He has been unleashed.”
That was clear when Trump got rid of some of the advisers who Liasson said “acted as guard rails.” (Most notably, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who left in March, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who found out he was fired via Twitter.)
Then, during the G7 summit in Canada, Trump agreed to a group statement on trade, then changed his mind. In the process, he called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak.”
“We saw him really give the finger to the G7 and attack a U.S. ally in a way we have never seen before, and then we saw him flatter the most murderous dictator in the world,” Liasson said of Trump’s praise for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “He probably took it further than any American president has. ‘You’re talented, you’re funny.’
“Trump has broken a lot of norms and conventions,” she continued. “But this week he has broken some very big ones.”
Still, there is progress in Trump and the North Korean dictator talking “and not threatening to blow each other up,” Liasson said. “[Trump] can take credit for that.”
She quotes Winston Churchill: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
Liasson’s job is physically exhausting not only because of Trump’s hold on the news cycle, but because of NPR’s many platforms. Most of the time, she is doing so-called “live two-ways,” during which she is talking to the show’s host. That means she has less time for bigger, produced pieces that give the news context.
“It does take a toll,” she said. “Trump makes a lot of news.”
To stay sane, Liasson works out on her elliptical machine at home.
“I don’t run or drink heavily,” she joked. “But I try to work out.”
The hope is that those who show up to see her at Kane Hall will be up for a “lively and civil discussions about policies and democracy and democratic institutions,” Liasson said.
She likes interacting with listeners: “Listening to myself talk,” she said, “I can do without.”
Instead, Liasson hopes people will bring their questions and concerns with them to the event, and allow her to tap into her experience covering six presidential elections, and serving as White House correspondent for all eight years of the Clinton administration.
“A lot is going on, and a lot of really important things are going on,” she said. “The world is in a state of disruption and real change and we’re not sure where it’s going to end up.”
So while some of us may want to scream, or cry into a pillow, it would probably serve us well to come out to Liasson’s talk and try to make sense of it all: the tweets. The children being separated from their parents. And whatever else happens between now and then.
“Being an American citizen is a tremendous responsibility,” Liasson said. “The demands of being an American have never been greater than they are now.
“Crying in your pillow is not the thing to do.”