(Reuters/Carlos Barria/PBS)

Tracing "Trump's Takeover": A chat with "Frontline" producer Michael Kirk

The Frontline filmmaker talks to Salon about covering a presidency that's "so out front and all over the place"


Melanie McFarland
April 10, 2018 10:58PM (UTC)

“Trump’s Takeover,” filmmaker Michael Kirk’s latest hour for “Frontline,” debuts on PBS member stations Tuesday at 10 p.m. It is a close and precise examination of Donald Trump’s steady and eventually victorious bid to take control of the Republican Party as told through the perspectives of Trump surrogates past and present, a few lawmakers willing to go in front of Kirk’s camera (notably Arizona Senator Jeff Flake), and journalists closely covering this administration.

In terms of its timespan, “Trump’s Takeover” begins with Trump’s ascension to win the Republican party’s nomination and closes with the only major political victory of his first year in office, December’s passage of the party’s tax bill.

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It is now April – tax month. Even so, that bill’s passage feels like it happened ages ago. And yet in a time when the shelf life of news feels precariously brief, “Trump’s Takeover” feels particularly pertinent. Right now Americans are waiting to see whether the president will trigger a constitutional crisis by firing special counsel Robert Mueller. This new hour largely steers clear of the investigation, instead drilling down on how what one of its experts referred to as a Faustian bargain came to be struck between Republican lawmakers and Trump. And it's a concise background work that explains why what could happen next may serve as a strenuous test of the GOP's soul as well as our democracy.

Contextualizing recent history to grant the audience broader basis of understanding what's happening now has long been the vital strength of “Frontline,” and Kirk, who served as the series’ senior producer from its 1983 debut through 1987, helped establish the framework upon which its reputation is built.  In the 35 years he’s spent with “Frontline” Kirk has covered a number of presidencies and produced hours examining each given administration’s key subjects and policies. He’s produced more than 200 national television programs.

Never before has he contended with a president like Trump.

“Here's the thing about the Trump administration, or about him,” Kirk observed on Monday, in a phone interview with Salon. “I'm not saying anything particularly surprising here, but every day it's a new tweet. And it's been our policy not to succumb. With him, that's really hard.”

No politician ever makes Kirk’s job easy, of course.  “But this [administration] has been completely different,” the producer admits. “It's all so out front and all over the place. How do you know what really matters and how do you stay true to your plumb line? That’s a hard thing to do when you take six months to make something, and so many things happen.”

Not long after hanging up with Kirk, the news broke that FBI agents had raided the home and office of Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. No doubt Kirk and "Frontline" will have plenty to reveal about the raid and all that results from it within the next few months.

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In the meantime, he had lots of interesting things to say about his experience in making “Trump’s Takeover” and its companion piece “McCain,” airing next week, as well as his candid thoughts on the state of journalism and documentary filmmaking as it is realized by outlets such as Vice. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’ve watched so many of your documentaries, not only the ones that cover the current administration but those addressing all the various elections and presidencies that have come before. Did you find that you had to approach “Trump’s Takeover” differently than previous works?

Well, I knew that we had to talk to Republicans about it who often in the past have been really reluctant to dish about the sitting President of The United States, whether it happened to be George Bush or somebody else. In this particular case, we've had pretty good luck leading up. I think this is our fifth Trump film, or a film that had Trump-related content in it. And we've started to, you know, the White House is actually letting us talk to some people. Not always the ones we want, but here and there we’ve begun to get a little bit of an inroad.

But it's never easy. The same is true with Congress. Whether we got people on camera or not,  we were at least able to talk to a number of people and the people who work closely with him. We got close with [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan. I really wanted to spend time with him. I knew we probably wouldn't get [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell this go around. But, I really wanted to talk to Ryan and we got close, but didn't quite make it happen.

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So that was the first challenge: Could we get Republicans from Congress to really talk to us about what they thought at the beginning and what they thought now. And in the end, Flake became the most realistic choice, because his story arc goes from the summer to December. We got a couple of lengthy interviews with him, which was very good for us just in terms of understanding the story.

To follow up on something you mentioned earlier . . . But it is noticeable that you don't have input from Ryan or other big Republicans in Congress. You’ve spoken to that, but I am curious, since I have seen them in past ‘Frontline’ documentaries, to get your take on why it is that, for this subject in particular, that they declined to appear on camera.

Well, it's never a direct, ‘Can't do it.’ ‘Don't wanna do it.’ ‘Aren't interested in doing it.’ It's always, and this is not news to you, it's always a scheduling conflict. It's, "We'd love to do this. We're interested in doing this but, we just . . . We can't get it together when you guys are here or when you guys wanna shoot."

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Senators and powerful congresspeople are harder to get your arms around because they won't leave the building. And in some ways our own limitations, logistic limitations, don’t allow for a 10 minute interview. I just say, "I don't want a 10 minute interview. I need an hour." I have to have an hour for what I do. I don't want to just to have you appear, Speaker Ryan, for 10 minutes and give me three stock answers.

The people who say yes, like Flake and others, are prepared to sit down. I mean, Flake has his own motivations, obviously. The real test is, are they saying something that's moving the narrative along in a way that's really useful? And an awful lot of the time, they aren't.

Let’s go back to something you said earlier about this particular presidency. We're not that far into it. But you said you've done, at least by your count five, five ‘Frontline’ episodes so far on Trump.

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I think so. Let's count them together. ‘The Choice,’ which was the woven biography of Trump and Hillary, so right before the election. Then there was ‘President Trump,’ which was a sort of pull together of the bits of that and the things we didn't get in the other film. So maybe it's one, together that's one. ‘Trump's Road To The White House.’ ‘Bannon's War,’ which was really a Trump film. So that's three or four. We did the two-hour ‘Putin's Revenge,’ which had a substantial Trump component. And then this one, ‘Trump's Takeover.’ And next week, ‘McCain’. So I guess that somewhere in there, there's five, at least five.

Okay.

We sort of vowed to ourselves we'd do 12 before he left, at least. The day after he was elected I said to Raney Aronson, the executive producer [of ‘Frontline’] and she agreed. I said, ‘It seems to me this is a little bit like it was on 9/11, where we just said, this is why we're here and had these resources and let's explain this. You know, let's talk about both how this happened and what's happening, because it's happened.’ And we'll keep doing that for as long as we can.

I have to say I find it interesting that you compared the election of Trump to 9/11 in terms of the coverage.

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I know, I know. It just seems like this: You know, we made seven or eight films during the Obama administration. We made probably 20 films about 9/11. We'll never make 20 about Trump. But as with 9/11 and all of its dimensions, what I'm really talking about is something really very important that anybody who does long form journalism would consider worth spending their time on.

. . . A lot of people can tell you they knew Trump was going to win. But, everybody missed that there was something going on out in the country, and that the implications of who Donald Trump is are historic, for at least our generation. It is a big important political story with ramifications that reverberate all through Washington, when you're there through every element of the administrative state, and the dark state, and every other state. You just really feel its impact profoundly.

Maybe 9/11 is first by a long shot, but this is big stuff. And in a way journalism isn't up to it. Things have happened to the journalism business. Good people are still trying to be good but resources are diminishing and there's again a kind of a sea change in the attitude of a lot of places, a lot of journalism organizations.

We’re in an already divided country. There's another film we had, about a half of a film about Trump, ‘Divided States of America.’ .It just feels like this division that's happening in the country and what his election means for that is profound. So, maybe I didn't mean to overstate it and certainly not insult anybody that lost anybody during . . . a lot of lives have been lost as a result of 9/11. But something really important is happening here. And from my point of view, as somebody who made a lot of films after 9/11 and a lot of films during the Obama administration, this feels equally as a powerful moment.

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Wait. You said you did seven or eight during Obama's administration. Do you mean during one of his terms in office, or over the course of the full eight years?

I would say around seven or eight. And probably eight by the time he got all the way around to the end. And we just, you know, I can't remember them all to tell you the truth.

You're saying that about someone who was in office for eight years versus, you've made six films about Trump, and he hasn't been in office for two. Or even one and a half.

Exactly.

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This takes us back what you said about the speed of news breaking all the time.

Yeah.Yeah.

With the speed of everything happening in with this administration, how many films might this presidency yield? You're saying that, "Okay, we've done like five or six already." But given the pace of everything that’s breaking, by the end of this year you may have enough for 12.

You just scared me to death.

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It's very possible. The last scene of ‘Trump’s Takeover’ shows the tax cut coverage, right?  That was in December. A lot has happened since then.

That's right.

Does that change the way that your schedule works, just in terms of planning?

No. As I said, we try not to succumb to the bright, shiny objects that continue to appear on the table. We keep looking for and we keep trying to pay attention to the big structural moments, the big things that really happen.

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It matters what happened to the Republican party over the last year, I think. It matters as we head into a midterm election that may yield a ‘blue wave’ or something even more surprising. Who knows?  So I try really hard not to succumb, and it's hard. But, to make it worthy of two hours  or one hour of somebody's time to watch and learn from it, and have it live on as a kind of  record of what was happening at a certain time, you have to be really selective about what you pick. And it's really hard to hold your fire sometimes, you know.

I'm curious to hear your take on what this particular administration tells you about, just in view of our longer history, about where we're going as a country.

I feel a trendline, you know, as do you. Is journalism getting better, more sophisticated, more intelligent? …I worry a lot about broadcast journalism and online journalism and digital journalism. I worry about the lack of curiosity and openness. I worry about that, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have this amount of time and money, and especially time to research, to edit and shoot and think about a [documentary] and time on the air. You know, it's a rare privilege and opportunity that I have that I don't see a lot of other people having and I'm sorry about that.

. . . You know, the rise of Vice is heartbreaking to somebody like me. It just breaks my heart for the people who have to practice it and the people who think they like it and watch it. People have always liked car accidents, you know. They will always like them. But it's not what I hoped the world would be embracing in terms of long form or broadcast or digital journalism.

When you say it's heartbreaking, what exactly do you mean? There are people who watch Vice and don’t see a problem with it.

It's bread and circuses. It's not considered. It doesn't feel considered to me. It doesn't feel thoughtful to me. It doesn't feel humanistic to me. It's voyeuristic, and it's slapdash. Its techniques are the techniques of the carnival. It's hard, I think, to be serious about the story. And I'm not saying by any stretch of the imagination we're perfect or scintillating to watch. I mean I struggled with how to keep it interesting for people. In an environment where they're used to getting their journalism in three-minute clumps from Facebook, how do I convince somebody to spend 52 minutes watching ‘Trump's Takeover’? Can I? Can I expect them to do it, and do I have the right to complain about somebody who can get a billion dollars and making, you know, whatever that is? That's always been with us.

So it's easy, I guess, to complain about Vice. It's harder but necessary to complain about where are the big companies that are making all the money. Where's their journalism impulses for serious stuff. They're covering it all day to day and that's always been with us, but where's the serious commitment to thoughtful and hard to make television because it . . . Journalism on television is a hard thing to do.

Especially when you’re contending with a flood. That may be more difficult in these days, not just in terms of the economic pressures that companies put on journalistic organizations. But the sheer deluge of distractions that seem to be demanding coverage while some other actions are going on behind the scenes.

It’s true. . . . In that environment it gets harder to compete when you want to say, take your time, slow down. Just spend an hour here, like meditation or something and just think about something that's happening and how big and important and structural, and maybe even epic, it is. We're right on the edge of the news. So it's like we're really what we used to call history on horseback, right. We really don't have time to really consider it the way that you might three decades from now. So we're right in the, just one day after. We go in just as the circus leaves town and look at what was left under the grandstands. It's really, it's still fresh and warm and there it is. It's just, it's not what happened today or even last week but it's close to that.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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