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CNN Host on US Election

'It's Gonna Be Really Nasty'

SPIEGEL talks to Jake Tapper, CNN's Chief Political Correspondent, about the resentments fueling Donald Trump, the media's easy treatment of the candidates and why this election is about to get very dirty.

Brooks Kraft / DER SPIEGEL

CNN anchor Jake Tapper

Interview Conducted by and
Saturday, 6/4/2016   04:12 PM

SPIEGEL: Mr. Tapper, Donald Trump insulted reporters during a press conference in New York this week. He has repeatedly done so in the past. He tweeted that the media is on a witch hunt against him. Does the media treat him unfairly?

Tapper: Well, we call it "vetting" in this country; it's our job. I don't know if "witch hunt" is the right term, especially in this country where we have actually had witch hunts. I don't think it's a witch hunt. Hillary Clinton's people have been complaining about a Wall Street Journal story about a million-dollar pledge that was sent at a CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) conference to a for-profit green energy company where friends of the former president owned the company. It is the responsibility of the media to make sure that we are thoroughly vetting not just one candidate, but all candidates. It's probably better if candidates leave the media criticism to others, especially during a contentious presidential race.

SPIEGEL: Trump complained that CNN made him look bad intentionally, and that he wouldn't watch you anymore. How distorted is his relationship with the media?

Tapper : I wasn't watching that specific show Mr. Trump referred to, so I don't know what we were airing, but he is somebody who likes to criticize the media, and I think there is a certain degree of working the refs, as we say in sports when you accuse a referee of being unfair in the hope that the next time there's a call, maybe he will be a little bit more reluctant to be tough on your side.

SPIEGEL: According to a study, Trump got $1.9 billion worth of air time during the campaign by this spring alone. Did the TV stations broadcast too much Trump?

Tapper: That's an academic construct, not a fact, that he got $2 billion in coverage. And that coverage includes coverage that Mr. Trump did not like. So I would take issue with that study. I understand the criticism of the media for one thing, without question, and that there was too much airing of the Trump rallies, just start to finish, with no editorial content, no fact-checking. And it wasn't done equally with other candidates. It wasn't done as fairly as it should have been by any network, and certainly, that is an area where I think the criticism is very fair.

SPIEGEL: Almost no one challenged Trump in the first months of the campaign with critical questions and tough research.

Tapper : Some of the people interviewing him have let him get away with murder, so to speak, but I don't think it's fair to say all of us have. I've been asking him tough questions since last June.

SPIEGEL: Trump invented a new media approach during the primaries, turning himself into the call-in candidate who called in to almost every major TV talk show. How could this happen?

Tapper : Hillary Clinton is now doing call-ins as well. In-person interviews are always preferable to ones conducted by satellite, which are preferable to call-in interviews. But all are better than nothing. As a former print reporter, I don't discount the potential importance of phone interviews, especially when no interview is the only other option. The bigger problem has been reporters who don't challenge the candidates. The coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton needs to be stronger in general. This is the most important job in the world. The difficulty of getting it should be considerable.

SPIEGEL: When Trump is being asked tough questions, he repeatedly makes mistakes. Does this damage his reputation?

Tapper : He has a very, very loyal group of supporters. Things that might alarm readers of DER SPIEGEL or people who haven't made up their mind who they're going to vote for or moderate Republican pundits, have not bothered his supporters.

SPIEGEL: His supporters seem to not care about certain things he says.

Tapper: They are very committed. He went on to very handily dispatch the most talented Republican field of candidates that I have ever seen. People like Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, were not even allowed to participate in the main debate. There's a disconnect between what people -- the people sitting around this table -- might think about Donald Trump's appearances and his voters.

SPIEGEL: What do they think about the disgust that Trump provokes?

Tapper: The more the media and leading republicans like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan got upset about things that were said and done, the more Trump's voters seemed to like it and approve of it.

SPIEGEL: What did the media and the political establishment miss over the last few years?

Tapper: A lot of substantive things that you have to give Trump his due for. On immigration, there is a degree of nativism involved in the demand to construct the wall, but I do think a lot of what's driving Trump supporters on the issue of illegal immigration and building a wall is a basic duty of a government to keep the nation's borders under control. Illegal immigration also has a huge impact on the American economy. And a lot of people think that the government has not taken this issue seriously.

SPIEGEL: Which other topics are important?

Tapper : Terrorism and trade policy are clearly topics where Trump expresses the fears and concerns of many American people. There is a widespread feeling in this country that the government has been too willing to go into trade deals that sent American jobs to Mexico or to China. The affected communities feel left behind. This is what Trump's supporters and Sanders' supporters have in common. It is one of the reasons for Trump's rise.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if people are finally putting their feet down.

Tapper : That's part of it, though certainly there are parts of this campaign that have been ugly. I understand all that, and I'm not justifying any of the more offensive behavior this campaign season -- I just want to make sure people also understand there are policy issues here as well, years of issues that have been ignored or at least not taken seriously enough by the Republican Party. The Republican Party was out of touch with a large plurality and ultimately a majority of their own voters.

SPIEGEL: What kind of showdown between Clinton and Trump do you expect?

Tapper : Nasty, ugly, horrible. We've already been through a primary season where things were said at presidential debates that I would not feel comfortable talking about to my children. And that's just the primary.

SPIEGEL: What does Hillary Clinton have to expect?

Tapper : This isn't her first rodeo. She's got a team around her that is already out there running TV ads. They're going to take on Donald Trump. We're going to hear a lot about a lot of people's lives. It's gonna be really nasty.

SPIEGEL: Trump confronted her with Bill Clinton's sexual behaviors. Monica Lewinsky's name has already come up.

Tapper: I think Monica Lewinsky is the least of it. That was a consensual relationship with a then 25-year-old intern. There are women out there who have made allegations about Bill Clinton's behavior that will be talked about. And this is about non-consensual behavior, allegedly.

SPIEGEL: The Republican establishment wasn't aware of many of their voters' feelings. Doesn't that apply to Hillary Clinton as well?

Tapper : A hundred percent. Trade is a big Achilles' heel for her. She promoted the Pacific trade deal, but she wouldn't take a position on it as a candidate and then ultimately she opposed it. This campaign is not just going to be about liberal or conservative politics. Trump vs. Hillary, that is outsider vs. insider, nontraditional versus establishment.

SPIEGEL: Who has an advantage?

Tapper: A majority of the American people think that the nation is on the wrong track. And a majority think that change needs to happen. This election is about change. To represent the Washington establishment is not a favorable starting position. I'm not saying he's going to win. But I think it's going to be a very hard-fought battle, and he's going to have some advantages. That said, his unfavorable ratings are staggeringly high and democrats have some demographic advantages -- and Trump certainly causes Latinos, for instance, to rally around her.

SPIEGEL: Trump has used very reductive expressions to defeat his opponents, like "Little Marco" or "low-energy" Jeb.

Tapper: This negative branding thing is new. I've never seen it used as effectively as Trump did. I don't know how that works on the international stage if he wins. He has said some not-nice things about Chancellor Angela Merkel. And he had some not-nice things to say about both David Cameron and the new mayor of London.

SPIEGEL: You've had both on your show, Clinton and Trump. Who is harder to interview?

Tapper : They're both a challenge but in very different ways. He is very unpredictable. She is very predictable. Both of them create their own challenges in terms of making news. There was a time when it was a lot easier to interview him. You could ask him questions every week, and that was great. He's a bit tougher to get. He is less willing to do interviews.

SPIEGEL: You have posters in your office of people who ran for office but didn't win. Who will be on the wall in November?

Tapper : If I knew that, I would be a wealthy man. Data journalists say Trump can't make it, but they were already wrong in the primaries. Half of my extended family are voting for Trump, and the other half are not. The very fact that so many members of my family are voting for him makes me think that he is part of a phenomenon that a lot of people in Washington, New York and California don't understand at all.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Tapper, we thank you for this interview.

About Jake Tapper

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