CNN's Jake Tapper On McCarthyism, Trump And The 'Jar Jar Binks Principle'

Apr 26, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 9:42 am

As CNN's chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper is often focused on breaking news and the latest political stories, but the host of The Lead and State of the Union switched things up a bit for his latest project.

Tapper's new novel, The Hellfire Club, takes place in 1954 Washington, D.C., during Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist "witch hunt." He says that although 64 years separate his characters from today's political players, many of the themes apply.

"I thought it would be fun to try to capture the 'swamp' and some other things about Washington and talk about 2018 in some ways, but ... from the lens of 1954," Tapper says.

Tapper describes McCarthy's efforts to attack and ruin opponents as "very resonant" to the current political climate: "They say history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. And there's a lot of rhyming when you read about McCarthy and when you think about President Trump."


Interview Highlights

On choosing to cut off Trump adviser Stephen Miller during a heated interview on CNN's State of the Union

I had never had an interview like that before. It's just appalling behavior. I read a tweet to [Miller] and asked him if he thought that helped or hurt the president's cause. It's the president's tweet, the president's statement. It's not that difficult a question, and it's pretty obvious that I was going to ask about it.

It was the "very stable genius" tweet that remains fairly notorious — or famous — depending on your point of view. ... [Miller went] through a litany of attacks on my network, on me, on me personally, saying that I don't care about manufacturing jobs, that I don't care about real people. I mean, it's just a lie, and I should've cut him off earlier. That's what I think. When I hear the interview I think, "Boy, that's brutal. I'm glad I cut him off, but I wish I had done it quicker." ...

All [Miller] really cared about was making President Trump think he was defending him. That appearance was not about convincing any of my viewers that President Trump is a "very stable genius" or has the answers. It wasn't even about convincing viewers that CNN wasn't being fair.

On how Miller was escorted out of the building following their on-air exchange

He kept talking during the commercial break. ... The same attacks on me and CNN and basically what you heard on camera he was saying off camera. Eventually we were ticking down and I said, "OK, you have to go." And he wouldn't go. And it got heated and eventually, before we came back from commercial break, he had to be escorted out. And then he went on Fox and denied it the next day which is also odd, because one thing we have an abundance [of] at a TV studio is cameras filming things. So it was odd to hear him deny that, but these people lie about everything, so why wouldn't he lie about that? ... He knows the truth. He knows a guard escorted him out of the studio, down the elevator, through the lobby, out the door. He knows that that happened.

On the Fatal Attraction-inspired SNL sketch about Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway trying to get back on his show

My introduction to it was from my wife, who normally does not wake up when I wake up Sunday morning (at 6 in the morning). But when my alarm went off, she was right there awake and told me, "You have to see this. ... They did you again on Saturday Night Live last night." I'm like, "Oh, were they mean?" (That's always my first question) ... Because even though I'm 49 years old, I have the soul of a gentle 8 year old. She says, "No, but you have to watch it." ...

So the first thing I noticed was that they were less generous about my hairline than they had been in the past, which I guess I had that coming. But then my wife thought it was sexist. She is a very strong and proud feminist and she thought it was sexist. Why is Kellyanne Conway being sexualized? Also, it's weird when it's you and somebody you interact with professionally and, like, all of a sudden they're doing a skit where it's sexual. It's just kind of odd.

On what he calls the "Jar Jar Binks principle," and how it applies to President Trump

Too often in this world, people rise to the level that they remove from their orbit anybody that would tell them Jar Jar Binks [from Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace] is a horrible character. [Star Wars director] George Lucas would be an example of that. I think he's one of the most brilliant people on this planet, but I don't know what happened with those [Star Wars] prequels, but they are not good. The prequels are not good and they made a billion dollars and they're successful and all that, but they're not good.

So I see the Jar Jar Binks principle everywhere, and I think it's important to keep people around you who will tell you when you're being a jerk. And I have lots of people like that in my life — many, many people. Some of them are even in my house. I think it's very important, and I think that President Trump is a victim of the Jar Jar Binks principle. I think he removes people from his life that tell him negative things and sometimes for survival they stop criticizing the president, sometimes for survival they leave, sometimes they get pushed out the door. But I think that's a problem with him and I think it's one for successful people to keep in mind.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jake Tapper, has had some challenging encounters with members of the Trump administration who he's interviewed on CNN, people who have stated falsehoods or evaded his questions. After Trump adviser Stephen Miller evaded Tapper's questions, Tapper terminated the interview, saying that Miller was wasting his audience's time. Tapper insists on facts and answers to his questions. He's CNN's chief Washington correspondent and anchor of "The Lead" every weekday afternoon and "State Of The Union" every Sunday.

In a few minutes, we'll talk about anchoring his shows in the Trump era. But first, we're going to talk about his new debut novel, "The Hellfire Club." It's set in Washington, D.C., in 1954 during the McCarthy communist witch hunt era. The main character is a history professor who becomes a congressman. Several key people from the period are depicted in the novel, including Senator Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, President Eisenhower and John and Robert Kennedy.

Jake Tapper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. My first question is, what's wrong with you? You're writing a novel when you host a show six days a week. You have to prepare for presidential debates, town hall forums. You have a wife and two children. You do cartoons at the end of your Sunday show. How did you manage to write a novel, and why would you want to take that on? I mean, wouldn't you rather take a nap or something (laughter)?

JAKE TAPPER: So I will grant your larger point that something is seriously wrong with me. I agree with that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: I have just stumbled upon all these rich moments in history that I didn't think I would be able to write about well in a nonfiction way but thought it would be fun to try to do it in a fictional way, all these interesting things from the 18th century and from the early 1950s and just Washington lore. And, you know, I think after living in Washington, D.C., for a generation - more than a generation - there were just a few things, impressions, I have of this town that I thought would be fun to capture in a work of fiction.

And in terms of how I did it, it was just a lot of - first of all, just focusing on the outline was a big part of it because then I had a blueprint, and it was much easier to write. And then second of all, I carried around a laptop with me, and I just subscribed to the if you have 15 minutes here or an hour there or time on a plane or time on a train, grab it, and the time adds up.

GROSS: So why is it set in 1954?

TAPPER: It's such an incredible time in history, and we don't really pay a lot of attention to it in a pop culture way understandably, I guess, because it's sandwiched between World War II and the '60s, which were, you know, arguably bigger and more important decades. But it's such a great decade because on its surface there is this serenity, and it seems benign. It's the Eisenhower years. Everything's going great. But right underneath the surface, it's awful. There's McCarthyism. There's the Red Scare. There is the atomic race. Civil rights are basically nonexistent in the section of 1954 that I write about, early 1954. The Supreme Court decision Brown versus the Board of Education is about to come down, and everyone's bracing for it.

1954 - McCarthy enters the year at the height of his power. And then there's also just these random, weird events that take place. Puerto Rican terrorists burst into the Capitol and shoot it up and shoot five congressmen. There's the comic book hearings, which are this bizarre moment where the U.S. Senate blames comic books for juvenile delinquency. So it was just such a rich era I thought it would be fun to try to capture the swamp and some other things about Washington and talk about 2018 in some ways but doing so from the lens of 1954.

GROSS: OK. So you mentioned the Senate subcommittee hearings on, like, indecent publications. These are, like, comic book hearings because comic books were considered to be perverting the minds of the children who were reading them. I want you to read a passage from your book that takes place at the comic book hearings. And your main character, who is now a congressman, Charlie Marder, is doing some of the questioning. So just set the scene for us, and then I'll ask you to read the passage.

TAPPER: So one of the themes of the book is compromise and how much are you willing to compromise in order to achieve an ends, whether it's to protect the United States or to be successful. And Charlie and his very strong wife, Margaret, have been very skeptical of the comic book hearings that he's been invited to participate in, yet Charlie, much to his wife's chagrin, completely throws himself into the task. This is all while this big conspiracy is swirling around them. So in this scene, the day of the comic book hearings finally comes, and Charlie volunteers. He wants to participate and challenge this one guy testifying, Danny Gaines (ph), who is a stand-in for the very real William Gaines who participated in the real comic book hearings. So here's that scene.

GROSS: Didn't William Gaines do Mad Magazine?

TAPPER: He ultimately went on to do Mad Magazine, that's right, because he was chased out of doing the comics that he was doing before because of these insane comic book hearings blaming comic books for actual murders and suicides of children.

GROSS: OK, so read that passage for us.

TAPPER: (Reading) Mr. Gaines, I'm Charlie Marder, the congressman from this district. I recognize the name. You were recently appointed to the seat. Your dad helped get it for you. Charlie could hear some quiet gasps from the audience and some rude guffaws, but he smiled indulgently. That's me, Charlie said, prompting some appreciative laughter. Perhaps you can help me understand something. Perhaps, said Gaines. You say that children who read your comics won't be swayed by the demonstrations of evil and gore since they know it's just a story. Correct. No impact on them at all, these lessons of how to kill your father and frame your mother because they won't buy you the doll you want. None whatsoever. And yet you say definitively that the lessons you preach against prejudice in those very same comics are absorbed by children. We believe so, yes. These are basic lessons of morality.

So help me understand. Why would the good lessons be heeded and the bad lessons ignored, Charlie asked. More murmurs erupted from the audience. The television cameraman pushed his lens closer to Gaines' face to capture the dramatic moment as he realized that he had just acknowledged that his comics had an influence on the behavior of children. Very clever, Mr. Marder, he finally said, but none of this hides the fact that this whole hearing is a sham.

GROSS: So I ask you to read that part because, one, I'm interested in the comic book hearings but also because it's you doing an interview scene basically (laughter) capturing the inconsistency in what somebody has said. So I'm interested in how you thought through that scene and whether Charlie Marder's questions in that scene come from actual questions in the comic book hearings or if it's rather a question you wish somebody had actually asked.

TAPPER: No, that was pointed out during the comic book hearings that there was an inconsistency in what the comic book merchants, the publishers, were claiming. And one of the things I try to do in this book is point out that there are very few people in the book who are purely good or purely evil. There are a few, but there are a lot of people in the gray, including Charlie. And that's one of the things about Washington that I find is that a lot of times the bad guys might have a point about something or the good guys might be wrong about something. And so this was Charlie kind of adapting to that and finding an inconsistency even though ultimately he didn't believe in what he was doing. Charlie doesn't think comic books cause juvenile delinquency. He was doing this to endear himself to powerful people who wanted him to participate in it.

GROSS: You wrote this novel over the course of at least four years. So you started during the Obama administration, then continued working on it during the Trump administration. Did that change the focus, the emphasis, of the novel at all?

TAPPER: It did a bit, and also it did not because of me but just because of events. So let me explain. There is a lot in this book about the Washington, D.C., swamp, and there's a lot in this book about Joe McCarthy and what he was doing to the republic in early 1954 and in the previous years, which was smearing and lying and behaving indecently, ruining people and the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, and the media to an extent as well, just letting him do it because they were afraid that if they said anything they would be attacked, too. So obviously, that's very resonant to what's going on today with President Trump. They say history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. And there's a lot of rhyming when you read about McCarthy when you think about President Trump. Obviously, President Trump is not searching for communists. It's different, and they're different people, but the dilemmas were the same.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk. In fact, I want to talk with you about your work as a journalist now. So my guest is Jake Tapper. He has a new novel. It's called "The Hellfire Club." And he's also chief Washington correspondent for CNN, anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday afternoon and then the Sunday morning show "State Of The Union." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED MITCHELL'S "SWINGING THE BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent for CNN, anchor of CNN's "The Lead," which is on every weekday afternoon. And then he comes back for the Sunday morning show "State Of The Union." And now he has a new novel called "The Hellfire Club" that's set in 1954 during the McCarthy era.

Let's talk about your work as a journalist now. And I want to start with a clip from one of your greatest hits, so to speak.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this is your interview with President Trump's senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller. This is from January 8 of 2018. And you're talking to him about Michael Wolff's then-newly published book "Fire And Fury," which was a behind-the-scenes look of the early days of the Trump White House. So here is an excerpt of that interview. In fact, this is the final part of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

TAPPER: I want to ask you because you obviously are very offended by the notion that this book "Fire And Fury" paints a picture of President Trump as not mentally up to the job. On Saturday, President Trump put out a series of tweets trying to defend himself on this issue of fitness. And he said, quote, "actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from very successful businessman to top TV star to president of the United States on my first try. I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius, and a very stable genius at that."

Do you think tweets like that help or hurt the cause that the president is stable enough for the job?

STEPHEN MILLER: Not only do I think they help it, but I think in the toxic environment that you've created here and CNN and cable news, which is a real crisis of legitimacy for your network - and we saw it, of course, with the extremely fake news you reported about the Don Jr. and WikiLeaks story that was a huge embarrassment for your network...

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Just like the huge embarrassment you had when you got the Comey testimony wrong.

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Which was never given a proper accounting.

TAPPER: ...I'm trying to get to the issue of the president's fitness, which a lot of people...

MILLER: Well - and I'm getting to the issue of your fitness.

TAPPER: No, you're...

MILLER: But the president's tweets absolutely reaffirmed the plainspoken truth. A self-made billionaire revolutionized reality TV and tapped into something magical that's happening in the heart of this country. The people that you...

TAPPER: The president has an approval rating in the 30s. I don't know what magical you're talking about.

MILLER: The people that you don't connect with and understand - the people whose manufacturing jobs have left, who've been besieged by high-crime communities and who've been affected by a policy of uncontrolled immigration - those voices, those experiences don't get covered on this network. As to why - I mean, to prove the point, I was booked to talk about the very issues I'm just describing, and you're not even asking about them because they're not interesting facts to you.

TAPPER: That's not true. I have plenty of questions on immigration.

MILLER: And there - what some people will recall...

TAPPER: You've attempted to filibuster by talking about your flights with the president.

MILLER: No, I'm not. I'm - no. Hold on a sec.

TAPPER: I want to ask you a question because...

MILLER: No, don't be condescending.

TAPPER: I'm...

MILLER: Jake, Jake...

TAPPER: Stephen, the president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason - no, the reason why I want to talk about...

TAPPER: The president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason why I want to talk about the president's experiences, what I've seen with him traveling to meet dozens of foreign leaders with his incredible work on major...

TAPPER: OK. You're not answering the questions.

MILLER: No.

TAPPER: I understand...

MILLER: You have 24 hours a day of anti-Trump material...

TAPPER: Stephen, you're being...

MILLER: ...And you're not going to give three minutes for the American people...

TAPPER: I get it.

MILLER: ...To hear the real experience...

TAPPER: You're...

MILLER: ...Of Donald Trump.

TAPPER: There's one viewer that you care about right now. And you're being obsequious. You're being a factotum...

MILLER: No, no, 'cause you're being...

TAPPER: ...In order to please him. OK?

MILLER: No.

TAPPER: And I think I've wasted...

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: I think I've wasted enough of my viewers' time.

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: Thank you, Stephen.

MILLER: Hey, Jake...

TAPPER: As Republican lawmakers call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, in a major reversal, Democrats are now coming to his defense. What changed? We'll ask the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Wow (laughter). So that was Jake Tapper with Stephen Miller.

TAPPER: I haven't listened to that since that happened.

GROSS: Oh, what'd you think listening back to it?

TAPPER: He's even worse than I remember.

GROSS: (Laughter). I remember seeing that as it happened on a Sunday morning. And I thought, oh, wow. Have you ever done that before, ended an interview by saying the guest was wasting your audience's time?

TAPPER: No. But I mean, I'd never had an interview like that before. I mean, that's - it's just appalling behavior. I read a tweet to him and asked him if he thought that that helped or hurt the president's cause. It's a pretty - I mean, it's the president's tweet, the president's statement. It's not that difficult a question. And it's pretty obvious that I was going to ask about it. It was the very stable genius tweet, which remains fairly notorious - or famous, depending on your point of view - to this day. And to, like, go through a litany of attacks on my network, on me personally, saying false - I mean, saying that I don't care about manufacturing jobs, that I don't care about real people - it's just a lie. And it's just - I should have cut him off earlier.

GROSS: It seems to me what he's doing there is a strategy, you know, a deflection strategy. Instead of answering the question, he's criticizing you. He's criticizing CNN. He's criticizing fake news. And he's not answering the question at all. Do you think of that as a strategy of just, like, deflecting - trying to make you and your network seem like you're the problem?

TAPPER: Right. Obviously, yes. I mean, a hundred percent. But then also, just the notion that a toxic environment has been created by CNN is - it's just not true. I mean - see, this is what he - this is what they want to do, is they want people like me to then get into the gutter and talk about who's guilty or who's not guilty.

But I'll just say this, it's very clear that there are basic standards of truth and decency that have nothing to do with partisan politics that this president and his minions regularly violate and regularly abuse and cross - whether the president is deriding a former aide, making light of his struggles with drug and alcohol dependency or mimicking a reporter who has a disability or claiming that Ted Cruz's dad has some connection to the Kennedy assassination and on and on.

It's just very clear that, regardless of your position on trade or immigration or terrorism or taxes, positions that I do not make a judgment about one way or the other, there's a whole policy level of the Trump administration that we just try to discuss and debate in the way that we would discuss and debate any policy. But then there's these lines that are crossed.

GROSS: As an interviewer, I'm interested in how you handle this, when the guest won't let you speak - 'cause I think another tactic that Stephen Miller was using in that interview was to not stop talking...

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To not allow you to get in a question, to not allow you to insist - in an audible way, 'cause he's talking over you - to insist that he answer the question that you asked as opposed to just hurling insults at you and your network and the media. So what goes through your mind when that's happening - about how soon to jump in, how much to try to talk over him?

TAPPER: Well, first of all, what was going through my mind is, I have known Stephen Miller for years.

GROSS: Oh, you have?

TAPPER: Yeah. He was a press secretary on Capitol Hill. And until that morning, I had a fine relationship with him. I mean, I have his number. I have his email. I had even defended him a few times on Twitter and places like that when there were things that I thought had gone too far - like calling him a Nazi I think is a bit too far considering that he's Jewish.

So I was surprised 'cause Trump's going to leave someday. Maybe it will be a full two terms. Maybe it won't. But I'm going to be here, and Stephen Miller is going to be here. So I'm always surprised when people, on a professional level, throw away a relationship. But then beyond that, it was just an eruption of indecency that I just wasn't expecting.

GROSS: Now, I've read that Stephen Miller refused to leave the set after the interview and had to be escorted out by security. What did happen?

TAPPER: He kept talking during the commercial break.

GROSS: Talking to you?

TAPPER: Yes.

GROSS: Trying to make what point?

TAPPER: Just the same attacks on me and CNN and, I mean, just basically what you heard on camera he said, but he was saying off camera. And eventually, you know, we were ticking down. And I said, OK, you have to go. And he wouldn't go. And it got heated. And eventually, before we came back from commercial break, he had to be escorted out. And then he went on Fox and denied it the next day, which is also odd because, you know, one thing that we have in abundance at a TV studio is cameras filming things. So (laughter) it was odd to hear him deny that. But these people lie about everything. So why wouldn't he lie about that?

GROSS: Did you release the tape of him being escorted out?

TAPPER: No, because I don't want to be the story. I don't like being the story. And I mean, he knows the truth. He knows that a guard escorted him out of the studio, down the elevator, through the lobby, out the door. I mean, he knows that that happened. He didn't pose a threat to me. But he was not leaving the studio, and we were coming back from commercial break on a live TV show.

GROSS: Did the Trump administration stop sending him out after that?

TAPPER: I haven't seen him very much on TV since then. I think he went on a couple more times. I think it's one of the reasons that you don't see him on very often is likely because that's how he comes across on TV. Probably after this interview airs, they'll put them out three times just to prove me wrong because...

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: ...That's how the Trump administration rolls.

I mean, they - we know this from reporting that Maggie Haberman from The New York Times will report something or CNN will report something, and then President Trump will not carry out what he was about to do just to spite us. So he'll wait three extra months to fire Rex Tillerson just because we had said he was talking about firing Rex Tillerson.

GROSS: Really? You think that's his strategy?

TAPPER: Oh, yeah. Oh, we know it's his strategy. He doesn't want - yes. He doesn't want to prove us right. He'll tell people he's about to fire Rex Tillerson. We report it. And then just to mess with us and to prove us wrong, he waits a few months. I'm sure you've figured this out, Terry. I listen to your coverage. He's an unusual man driven by a very strong sense of grievance.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Tapper, the anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday and "State Of The Union" on Sundays. His new novel is called "The Hellfire Club." After we take a short break, we'll talk about his interview with Kellyanne Conway and the subsequent "SNL" sketch with Beck Bennett as Tapper and Kate McKinnon as Conway. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "MAJOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jake Tapper, CNN's chief Washington correspondent and anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday and "State Of The Union" every Sunday. He has a new novel, his first, called "The Hellfire Club." It's set in Washington in 1954 during the McCarthy era. When we left off, we were talking about his work at CNN and how he handles interviews with people from the Trump administration when they promote falsehoods or evade his questions.

So there was a period, I think, when CNN or you in particular - you can tell me which - had decided not to book Kellyanne Conway from the Trump administration because - because why? Like, tell us that story of the brief period when she was not booked on the network.

TAPPER: I don't remember it that clearly. As I recall right now, it seemed as though there was a period where there were a number of Trump administration - Trump White House guests going out and just lying and saying things that just were demonstrably not true and attacking the press. This is early, early in the administration. And this was also around a time - this is January or February of 2017. So the last time the president did that - did a press conference - a full press conference solo. And, you know, there was just a lot of - just falsehoods, a lot of lies being told. The media doesn't cover terrorism. This story's fake news. That story's fake news - stories that have been proven to be 100 percent true. And as I recall - and I might be remembering this wrong. But as I recall, Kellyanne Conway was in the middle of that. And we decided not to book her one Sunday. But it wasn't like we were never going to book her. It was more just like we weren't going to do it one time. Or maybe there was a period that we weren't doing it. But it wasn't like a hard-and-fast don't ever book her again.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

TAPPER: And then, you know, and then I ended up booking her on "The Lead" in February, 2017, anyway. And we had a very, very long interview about all the lies that President Trump was telling. But, you know, it is always a balance between booking people from the Trump administration - or any administration. But we can't pretend that the Trump administration is normal.

GROSS: So I want to play an interview that you did do with Kellyanne Conway. This was right after the period that we're talking about - February 7, 2017. And Kellyanne Conway is counselor to the president, who's also one of his main spokespeople on talk shows. And so earlier in this interview, you're talking about how the president had accused the press of not covering terrorism. And then you show a collage of CNN reporters from around the world covering terrorist attacks. And then you talk about the murder rates and how he's misrepresented that. So this is an excerpt of your February 7, 2017, interview with Kellyanne Conway. So this Jake Tapper with Kellyanne Conway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAPPER: I guess what I'm getting on here is there is a larger campaign being waged by President Trump and by the White House to undermine the credibility of everybody in the news media except for certain supportive outlets. And for instance, earlier today, President Trump made a quote about the murder rate being at the highest level it's ever been in 47 years. He said that. And he said nobody in the media reports on that.

There's a reason that nobody in the media reports on that. It's not true. The murder rate is not at the highest rate it's been in 47 years. It spiked a little. It went up a little. But it's still much, much lower. It's 4.9 people per 100,000. That's dwarfed by the murder rates in the 1990s and before that in the 1980s. Facts are stubborn things. And to say that we're not reporting something that happens not to be true, therefore, we're not to be trusted, that's a problem.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Well, Jake, if I can take that broader issue of our relationship with the media, I mean, I'm among if not the most open press person in the White House. I'm now being attacked by the media, including networks that are familiar to you. And I'm just going to keep soldiering on. I mean, I came to this White House to serve this president who's serving people.

I have in my portfolio here veterans. I have women and children. I have opioid use. And we're working on all of that. I sat in on the sheriffs' roundtable today. I sat in on the Veterans Affairs. And I know that that's something near and dear to your heart because I see you often give voice and visibility...

TAPPER: I do.

CONWAY: ...Lend your considerable platform to our fallen soldiers and to our brave men and women in uniform. On that, we agree. And if we can find areas of agreement, give me a call because I sat in on that. I sat in on a similar meeting in Mar-a-Lago over the holidays - a working session. We had some of the top minds - the top minds and leaders in health care here to the White House today, so they can advise specifically on Veterans Affairs.

TAPPER: You're not...

CONWAY: Not a single person there said, oh, you know, President Obama didn't - nobody said that. It was basically how do we move forward so that the structure is better, the responsiveness is better. I can't imagine anybody disagrees with President Trump when he says, if we don't take care of our veterans, who are we really as a nation? So if we can find areas of agreement...

TAPPER: It's not addressing what I just talked about. What we're talking about is the fact that the White House is waging war on people who are providing information - sometimes risking their lives to do so - saying that nothing we say is true. All of it is fake. I would much rather be talking to you about veterans' issues.

In fact, I would - when it comes to the Trump administration, I would be much rather covering immigration. I would much rather be covering trade. And I would much rather be covering draining the swamp and counterterrorism. But instead, every day there are these sprays of attack and sprays of falsehoods coming from the White House. It would be better if they were not coming from the White House for me and for you.

CONWAY: Agreed. And let me just say it has to go both ways. I mean, I do, Jake. I sincerely...

GROSS: Well, she goes on after that. But anyway...

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Agreed, agreed. I mean, she conceded the point.

GROSS: So I hear you trying to be very respectful during that interview and just like letting her talk and then at some point saying this can't go - this is my interpretation - hearing you say, at some point in your mind, she's trying to play out the clock, and I have to get her back on point. She's not answering the question.

TAPPER: Right.

GROSS: So again, like, the strategy of how long do you let somebody talk before reminding them that they're totally avoiding the question.

TAPPER: I mean, it's completely subjective. Kellyanne Conway wanted to make a point about what she would rather be talking about. Obviously, she didn't want to talk about the fact that the president was attacking the press for not covering something that wasn't true. And I don't blame her. And I think one of the things that we need to keep in mind here is that, for all the Kellyanne Conways and Stephen Millers in the world, the problem here fundamentally is President Trump. And you hear Kellyanne Conway conceding the point that it would be better for everyone if President Trump weren't coming out with sprays of falsehood and attacks on the press every day.

So I mean, look. It's a subjective thing when to stop somebody - when to cut them off. I mean, you don't want to lose the viewer. You don't want the viewer to think you're rude. You don't - there's a - to be completely candid, there is a gender dynamic of a man telling a woman to stop talking.

GROSS: Oh, that's really true. That's a good point.

TAPPER: You don't want the viewer to think you're a jerk. You're not letting the person talk. I mean, you know, you want to let the person give an answer. But at a certain point, you have to steer them back. You know, I don't know that I do it perfectly. I don't - you know, when I - when you play these clips back to me, I think, wow, I let them talk for too long. But I'm sure at the time I was thinking, God, I'm going to jump in as soon as I can here. But, you know, it's so subjective. And it's live TV. It's not on tape.

GROSS: Absolutely, absolutely.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

TAPPER: But fundamentally, I mean, I just think that what we need to remember here is that Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway and how they behave and how they act is completely a manifestation of how the president of the United States behaves.

GROSS: So after your interview with Kellyanne Conway, "Saturday Night Live" did a sketch with Beck Bennett as you and Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway. And it's a kind of "Fatal Attraction" spoof.

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: So she's in the Glenn Close role. So you walk in the door after a day on the set at CNN. You turn on the light. And there she is waiting for you, angry that you've cut off communication with her. So first she tries to seduce you into taking her back and talking with her. When you brush her off, she takes out a kitchen knife and comes at you with the knife. Did you see the sketch in real time?

TAPPER: I did not because I do "State Of The Union" on Sunday mornings.

GROSS: Oh, of course.

TAPPER: So I go to bed relatively early. My wife stays up late and watches "Saturday Night Live." And Beck Bennett had been doing the Jake Tapper role all season, which was - independent of the "Fatal Attraction" skit - a huge honor. So the idea of being spoofed on screen live - especially considering I pretty much got away scot-free in terms of how harsh they were to me, as opposed to, say, Sean Spicer - you know, it was an honor.

Now that skit, that was a different thing because it was - my introduction to it was from my wife, who normally does not wake up when I wake up Sunday morning at 6 in the morning. But when my alarm went off, she was right there awake and told me, you have to see this. And I said, what? They did you again "Saturday Night Live" last night. And I'm like, oh, were they mean? That's always my first consideration - were they mean? - because even though I'm 49 years old, you know, I have the soul of a gentle 8-year-old.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: So I - she goes, no, but you have to watch it. You have to watch it. So the first thing I noticed was that they were less generous about my hairline than they had been in the past, which I guess, you know, I had that coming. But then my wife thought it was sexist. She is a very strong and proud feminist, and she thought it was sexist. Why is Kellyanne Conway being sexualized?

GROSS: Yeah, and I should say Kellyanne Conway's wearing like seductive lingerie in it because first she does try to seduce you into taking her back, yeah.

TAPPER: Also it's weird when it's you and somebody you interact with professionally, and like all of sudden they're doing a skit where it's like sexual. And, you know, I mean, it's just kind of odd (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TAPPER: ...You know, in a way. But, I mean, that skit was not a huge hit in the Tapper household. But, generally speaking, I think they're very funny.

GROSS: Good, OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my guest is Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent for CNN, anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday afternoon and anchor of the Sunday morning show "State Of The Union." Now he's the author of a new novel called "The Hellfire Club" that's set in 1954 during the McCarthy-era. And there's a lot of, like, real characters from that period - politicians and others, TV characters - who figure into the book. So we'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG "IN BETWEEN DAYS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper. And he's the anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday afternoon. He anchors the Sunday morning CNN show "State Of The Union." Now he has a new novel called "The Hellfire Club" that's set in 1954. And it's about a congressman, and there's a lot of like intrigue. It's a thriller kind of. And there's a lot of characters from that period - real characters from the period who figure into the story.

So Jake, one of the things you've done is anchor presidential primary debates, presidential debates. What's your favorite type of format for those kinds of debates? And if you could change, like what would your ideal format be?

TAPPER: Well, first of all, let me say that they're so much fun. I mean, I remember watching...

GROSS: Oh, God, are they really?

TAPPER: Well, in a way...

GROSS: The pressure must be so extraordinary.

TAPPER: The pressure is very intense, and it's very high stakes and all that. But as a political junkie - as somebody who remembers watching presidential debates in the 1980s, when I was a kid, it's cool sitting in the best seat in the house and asking questions. That's just fun. And, yeah, I mean, it comes with a whole - it's not all fun. But that side of it is just an amazing experience and humbling and challenging and everything like that.

I will say - so we did the Republican - I moderated the Republican presidential debates in September, 2015. First, we did an undercard debate with the four people who didn't make the main stage. And then I did the main debate, which had 11 people because it was supposed to be the top 10, but then Carly Fiorina kind of like muscled her way onstage. So it was 11. And I will say that's too many people. You know, when you have 11 people and a - I think it was a three-hour debate. God, was it? Oh, my God. I think it was. Then it's just a crush for time. People are just so desperate to get to say something. I just - still echoing in my head is Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake - senators and governors - Jake, Jake.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: Oh, my God. So I think that's too many people. But that said, it's fun.

GROSS: I've often wondered if networks should have like a crawl at the bottom of the screen fact-checking so that the debate moderator wouldn't have to worry about that. You could just focus on the next question. But viewers would have this constant stream of corrections.

TAPPER: Yeah, I mean, you know, in a perfect world, it's like "Pop-Up Video" on VH1 back...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: ...Ten or 15 years ago, where, you know, President Trump or Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton says something, and it's just like, whoop, actually the trade deficit was...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: You know, but the truth is that having done fact-checking now - starting at the ABC News fact-check desk in 2004 and continuing throughout my career today, we do a weekly fact check for "State Of The Union" at cnn.com and factcheck.org, in partnership with them. I mean, we take it very seriously. The truth of the matter is that instantaneous fact-checking is tough - that it usually takes a little while to make it happen. The problem is it becomes easier if people repeat lies. And then you can do more instantaneous ones. Thankfully or not for this president and the fact-checking folks, he tends to repeat lies all the time, so they're able to recycle a lot of them. And maybe more instantaneous ones would be possible for future debates if there are future debates.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you're on a book tour now. My fantasy now is that in some greenroom as you're waiting to be interviewed, James Comey will be there, too, on his book tour. And after you interviewed him recently, you'll meet differently as new authors together killing time in the greenroom. I know that's not going to happen, but I've entertained the idea of what that might look like (laughter).

TAPPER: It's funny. Well, you know, he - I mean, that's a book tour. I'm very lucky. I'm having a good book tour. I get to be on FRESH AIR. I was on "Ellen." I'm going to be on "CBS This Morning." I mean, like, I'm very blessed. But James Comey is raising the bar for book tours. I mean, he's been everywhere - everywhere. It's insane. When I ran into James Comey right before I interviewed him, we were comparing book tour notes just because there are all these rules. Like, for instance, if you're booked on "GMA," if you're booked on "Good Morning America," then the "Today" show's never going to take you - except, if you're James Comey, they will. You know, it's just - you know, everybody is just throwing...

GROSS: Oh, he did both of them. Oh.

TAPPER: Oh, he did both. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, that doesn't usually happen. Wow.

TAPPER: Oh, he did Stephanopoulos, and then he did Savannah Guthrie. If you do CNN, then Fox will never take you. Well, yes, they did. And same thing with - I mean, he did my show, and then he did "Rachel Maddow" the same day. I mean, all of the unwritten rules that media organizations have about, well, if you do this, I'm not going to take you, were thrown out for James Comey. I mean, this was a - something unto itself. I mean, you've never had anything like this, a former FBI director writing a book blasting a sitting president.

GROSS: That makes it hard as an interviewer when you know somebody's going to be all over, and maybe they've already been all over.

TAPPER: I guess. I mean, you interviewed him relatively early. You were one of the...

GROSS: I did, yeah. You know, I watched George Stephanopoulos' interview with him at 10 o'clock on Sunday night knowing that just a few hours later, I'd be recording my interview with him. And Stephanopoulos covered so many points. I was like, oh, great (laughter).

TAPPER: Well, not only that, but George, to his credit - he did something like a four-hour interview, and they released the entire transcript. So not only were there all of the answers to questions that he gave that they aired on Sunday night, there were a whole bunch of questions and answers that didn't air. And, you know, for me, I was like, well, I'm not going to ask that. George already asked that, even if nobody knows. You know, they've released the transcript, so people saw. So yeah, that's a real challenge. But I felt that - you know, I think I was within that first group of 20 people that got to interview him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: I went after you. I went after George. I went after Savannah. I went after - I mean, at a certain point, even though I was the first cable news interview - at a certain point, we would look up, and he would be on French TV. And we're like, what is he...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: What - why is - how did they get in before us? But, you know, to the credit of the - of his team, I mean, you know, he was everywhere.

GROSS: Well, let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent for CNN, anchor of CNN's "The Lead" every weekday afternoon and anchor of the Sunday morning show "State Of The Union" on CNN. And now he has a new novel called "The Hellfire Club" that's set in 1954 during the McCarthy era. We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper, and he has a new novel called "The Hellfire Club." It's set in 1954 during the McCarthy era. He's also CNN's chief Washington correspondent, anchor of "The Lead" every weekday afternoon and CNN's Sunday morning show "State Of The Union."

I want to play another very short clip from CNN. This is from your Sunday show and - "State Of The Union." This is from April 8, so it's very recent. You were talking to Dr. Kelli Ward, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, and you were talking about chief of staff John Kelly - President Trump's chief of staff. But that's not why I'm playing it. So just listen to this short clip. I heard this while I was listening to your show, and I thought, I have to ask Jake about that when I interview him. So here it comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

TAPPER: I know that you're a big supporter of the president's, Dr. Ward, but I do wonder, you're also a leader who, I'm sure, know that it is important to have people around you who can tell you when you're messing up, when you're going too far, et cetera. I know I feel that way here at CNN in terms of having people around me telling me to cut it out. What advice would you give the president in terms of his chief of staff?

GROSS: OK, so that was it (laughter). So when people at CNN tell you to cut it out, what are they telling you to cut out?

TAPPER: You know, I think, first of all, let me just say, like, I think it is very important - it's - I call it the Jar Jar Binks principle, which is too often in this world, people rise to the level that they remove from their orbit anybody that would tell them Jar Jar Binks is a horrible character. And George Lucas would be an example of that. I think he's one of the most brilliant people on this planet, but I don't know what happened with those prequels, but they are not good.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: The prequels are not good. And they made a billion dollars and they're successful and all that, but they're not good. So I see the Jar Jar Binks principle everywhere. And I think it is important to keep people around you who will tell you when you're being a jerk. And I have lots of people like that in my life, many, many people. Some are even in my house, and I think it's very important. And I think that President Trump is a victim of the Jar Jar Binks principle. I think he removes people from his life that tell him negative things. And sometimes for survival, they stop criticizing the president. Sometimes for survival, they leave. Sometimes they get pushed out the door.

GROSS: So one more thing. You wanted to be a cartoonist when you were young, an editorial cartoonist. And I feel like you're drawing on that in your tweets because your tweets are usually really funny. And so did you feel that way - that you're drawing on some of the things that you wanted to do as a cartoonist when you tweet now?

TAPPER: Maybe. I mean, it's the same kind of writing in short form to make a point. There's a beauty in it.

GROSS: With humor.

TAPPER: Yeah, with humor. I don't - you know, I think the people who do it the best are people like Albert Brooks and Steve Martin. And, you know, there are a bunch of people I wish were on Twitter that aren't like Martin Short. But, you know, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers. Conan is hilarious on Twitter. So, I mean, I compare myself to them, and I'm nothing. But I do try to use - I mean, Twitter is a - it's - I mean, it's evil. (Laughter). We're all going to die because of Twitter. But by the same token, it is a rare thing unto itself. I preferred it, I have to say, when it was 140 characters. I thought that there was more of a challenge. It was like a haiku. There were limits. And now it's just rambling. I mean, I thought - and just as an artistic matter, I thought President Trump's tweets were better under the 180 character - 140 character instead of 280. They were - there was a, you know, a declarative statement, declarative statement, adjective.

GROSS: (Laughter). Exclamation point.

TAPPER: With an exclamation point, sometimes all caps. And there was a - beauty is the wrong word, but there was an art to them. There was a - there was something to it. It was a skill. And now they're just kind of like rambling messes. If he had just stayed within the lines, maybe those tweets would be as beautiful as they once were. And when I say beautiful, I mean horrific.

GROSS: (Laughter) Jake Tapper, it has been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. And good luck with your novel.

TAPPER: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Jake Tapper has a new novel called "The Hellfire Club." You can see his CNN show "The Lead" every weekday. His show "State Of The Union" is on Sundays. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Kathleen Belew about how the white power movement expanded consolidated in the '70s, '80s and '90s, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

I hope you'll join us tomorrow when we remembered jazz musician and songwriter Bob Dorough, who died Monday at the age of 94. He's known for his "Schoolhouse Rock" songs like "My Hero Zero" and "Three Is A Magic Number." He recorded his song "Blue Christmas" with Miles Davis and co-wrote the satirical song "I'm Hip." We'll listen back to a 1982 interview in which he was at the piano and played some of his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB DOROUGH: (Vocalizing). (Singing) Yeah, baby, you want some sounds? I can sing. Well, I'm hip. I'm no square. I'm alert. I'm awake. I'm aware. I am always on the scene making the rounds, digging the sounds. I read Playboy magazine. I'm so hip. When I dig, I'm in step. When it was hip to be hep, I was hep. I don't blow, but I'm a fan. Look at me swing, ring a ding ding. I even call my girlfriend man, I'm so hip. Now I'm deep, deep into Zen. Meditation in macrobiotics. And just as soon as I can, I intend to get in to narcotics. I got to try some of that stuff. 'Cause I'm cool, cool as a kook. I'm a car. I'm a cab. I'm a kook. I get so much out of life - really, I do. Skoo ba doo boo (ph). One more time, play "Mack The Knife." Let her rip. I may flip, but I'm hip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.