"It was difficult to get your bearings": Jake Tapper on the media, the 1970s and the Trump era

CNN host talks about his new political thriller, the media's failures and the deep roots of the Trump crisis

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 9, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Jake Tapper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jake Tapper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I believe this is a true story, although one's memories are always subject to mythology: At some point in the late '90s, I gave Jake Tapper his first major writing assignment in national media, when I was an editor at a long-since-deceased New York pop-culture magazine and he was a junior staff member at the Washington City Paper. I don't remember anything about the story we did together — no doubt he was paid a hilariously large freelance fee, at least compared to the way the business works today — but I certainly remember thinking that this young man had ambition, considerable talent and the kind of internal engine that was going to take him places. 

To be clear, I claim zero credit for anything Tapper has done since then, and I didn't predict he would become one of the most recognizable faces, and most respected hosts, in cable news. Many of the people who yearn to sit in the anchor's chair aren't willing to do the work of learning to be reporters first. He was, and he did. Not long after that magazine article, Tapper joined Salon as our Washington correspondent. I had nothing to do with that; I already worked here, on and off, but almost entirely on the culture desk. By the time Jake moved on, partway through the George W. Bush era, he had established himself as a D.C. reporter with deep connections and abundant insight into the murky inner machineries of the nation's capital. 

I doubt I need to tell anyone reading this that over the intervening 20 years, Tapper has thrived amid the increasingly tumultuous and disordered landscape of TV news. After a decade as lead Washington correspondent for ABC News, Tapper joined CNN in 2013, where he has surfed the tides of that network's internal scandals and multiple personality crises, winning several broadcast journalism awards in his various roles as nightly news anchor, star interviewer and weekend talk-show host.

I reconnected with Jake Tapper recently for a "Salon Talks" episode, first and foremost to talk about his new novel, "All the Demons Are Here," the third in an entertaining series of thrillers about a fictional political dynasty that strikes me as a not-so-coded allegory about the roots of the now-implacable divisions in American politics and culture. Yeah, he writes books too — the time management skills involved are daunting to someone like me. Let's get to it: The video of our conversation is below, and a transcript follows, tightened up a bit for the sake of clarity.

What our readers might not know about Jake Tapper, who has been a leading host and anchor on CNN for about 10 years, and before that at ABC News, is that you were at one time the Washington correspondent for That's going back 20 years or even a bit more. I'm sorry to out you that way. Or both of us, I guess.

It was some of the most enjoyable journalism experiences of my life, no question. I think it was from 1999 through roughly 2003, and it was just such a great experience. I know you were there too, Andrew; it was the dot-com boom and also a time where the rest of the media had not caught up and realized that they needed to be posting online all the time. We could scoop everybody just by posting when we were done with our stories instead of waiting until 6 a.m. the next day.

Salon, in that period —I mean, I'm sure it's fun now, but that was a really rare, joyous period. I don't want to compare it to anything, because I have no idea, but it must have been what it was like to be at the Washington Post in the '70s, just a rare lightning-in-a-bottle kind of moment.

We could certainly reminisce a lot more, but we're here to talk about you. Let's start with your new novel, the third in the series.

Yes, "All the Demons Are Here." It's the third in the series about the Marder family, a fictional political family in D.C. The first book, "The Hellfire Club," takes place during the McCarthy era. The second book, "The Devil May Dance," takes place during the Rat Pack era, and this book takes place in 1977. They are, hopefully, fun thrillers that are also historical fiction in which my fictitious characters play with real-life characters from that time, whether Joe McCarthy or Roy Cohn or John F. Kennedy or Frank Sinatra to, in the most recent book, Evel Knievel.

That's an especially enjoyable aspect here. In this one, you have people appearing as fictional characters who not merely are real people, but real people that you have met. 

"It's incredible. As somebody who also dabbles in fiction, let me just also say, I couldn't have written any of this."

Yeah, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the main ones. The book is narrated by two characters, Ike and Lucy. Ike is an AWOL Marine, very demoralized and disappointed in the leadership of the U.S. He is now working on the pit crew for Evel Knievel in Montana. His sister, Lucy, is an aspiring journalist in Washington, and her heroes are Woodward and Bernstein. This is 1977, so it's three years after Watergate. "All the President's Men" the book has come out, "All the President's Men" the movie has come out, their book "The Final Days" has come out.

I know them a little because Washington is a small town and people come on cable news. Carl Bernstein has worked at CNN at different times. I've worked with him. It was fun to put them in the book in their peacocky '70s incarnation where they really were the brightest stars in journalism. They appear in the book twice, and I sent them copies of the book and said, "I know you've been depicted many times by many bigger names than Jake Tapper, but I hope you enjoy it." They both seem to like it.

They are the journalistic North Stars for Lucy. I mean, this is an era in journalism where everybody wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein because they had played a role in exposing the corruption of the Nixon administration. That ended in his resignation, obviously, and that really showed the power of the press. 

The problem with Lucy is instead of pursuing that in journalism, she ends up getting taken in by this Murdoch-esque family that is starting a Washington tabloid. Max Lyon is the patriarch, and he's a thinly-disguised version of Rupert Murdoch. Their newspaper, the Washington Sentinel, is pursuing a much more tabloidy way of doing business. In 1977, with the Son of Sam murders and the like, that really was the beginning of the rise of tabloid journalism. It's not just the New York Post and Fox. I mean, it's everywhere. It's at CNN. It's at Salon. The news business is different now than it was in 1977. Some of it maybe is not so bad. I mean, tabloidy can also mean compelling, can also mean eye-catching. It doesn't have to be disparaging, but [laughter] generally it's mostly negative.

Salon's Washington columnist, Brian Karem, writes about this nearly every week, complaining about the direction of the media. I couldn't help but see a bunch of historical themes in this book, about the media and a lot of other things. You're writing about the '70s, but you're also writing about now. There's an element of prehistory here, about how we got to the way journalism is today with the rise of "alternative facts." 

And race-baiting journalism. Yeah.

And also the germs or seeds of our political situation today. I'm not going to go there in this conversation, but somebody could try to decode this book: "At last, we can figure out what Jake Tapper really thinks about politics."

Well, in "The Hellfire Club," I was writing that basically over the course of 10 years in my head, but it takes place in 1953-54, and it's in Joe McCarthy's Washington. McCarthy was already a character in the book, and between draft one and draft two I made McCarthy a bigger character in the book because Donald Trump — I forget exactly where we were in the editing process, but he was running for president and then he got the nomination and then he became president. There are obvious echoes of Joe McCarthy in Donald Trump, and it's not even theory. There's connective tissue.

I mean, Joe McCarthy's protégé was Roy Cohn, and Roy Cohn's protégé was Donald Trump. These are just facts, and there are similar themes in how McCarthy got press attention. I read this book, you'd actually really love it, an old book by Jack Anderson about Joe McCarthy written in 1952, two years before he was censured by the Senate. It lays out how awful Joe McCarthy was, but also lays out how much the media just played along with that and didn't do their jobs. At one point, I tweeted some of the pictures of those pages and tweeted them out.

There were lessons that should have been learned in 1953 and 1954 that were not learned by the media, and that continued throughout decades and decades, including not just the Trump era but preceding Trump. This is all just a long way of saying it's important to learn from history and then you can understand today much better.

"There are obvious echoes of Joe McCarthy in Donald Trump, and it's not even theory. There's connective tissue."

I have Evel Knievel running for president in this book, which is something that happened briefly as a stunt in 1972 in real life, not as a serious campaign or anything. But I thought, well, what if Evel Knievel had done that? There are a lot of similarities with Donald Trump, and again, this doesn't have to be seen in a pejorative way. They have an uncanny ability to get media attention, they have diehard fans, they have a real gift for showmanship, and it might not be the kind of thing that everyone likes. But Evel Knievel had a huge fan base — cover of Sports Illustrated, cover of Rolling Stone, etc. Obviously, Donald Trump's popularity speaks for itself. There are just themes in American pop culture and politics that are fun for me to play with.

Maybe about a third of the way through, you have a description of the division in the country between people who think that Evel Knievel is some sort of repulsive sideshow joke, and the people in other parts of the country who think he's fantastic and follow his every word. I was like, OK, I think I get the reference here!

It's like the show "Hee Haw," right? I mean, it wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but it was very popular for a long period of time.

One of the themes of this book is that a lot of the things that we think are brand new, like the Trump era or the George W. Bush era, are not as new as we want to pretend they are. These are enduring themes in American culture and American politics.

Which I think in some ways can be reassuring. In some ways it can be disappointing, but in some ways it can be reassuring. We've gotten through periods like this before, where presidents started wars that were not necessary with hundreds of thousands of people dying needlessly, which is not to say no one should worry about the autocratic trends we're seeing in American politics today. But we have been able to persevere. We just have to keep up the good fight. Those of us who believe in democracy.

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It was pretty striking that you have, quite early in the book, a group of Republican senators talking about Richard Nixon and recounting the famous Barry Goldwater anecdote, which anybody who knows the tail end of the Watergate saga has heard many times. The question that comes up today is that we didn't see anything like that happening in public with the most recent president. OK, Mitt Romney and a handful of other Republicans have spoken out, but they're pretty lonely voices out there. Do those kinds of conversations still happen among Republicans when the doors are closed?

I think so. I mean, just to give credit to some people, there have been Republicans who have been more outspoken on the subject of democracy, or the subject of telling the truth in opposition to Donald Trump, who held elective office. A lot of them lost elective office or didn't run for reelection. Sen. Bob Corker didn't run for re-election. Sen. Jeff Flake, who is the current ambassador to Turkey, didn't run for re-election. Liz Cheney gave up her job. Whatever people think of her politics other than on this issue, she knew that she was basically ending her political career, at least in the short term, by being on the Jan. 6 committee. Adam Kinzinger, who is now a colleague here at CNN, basically knew that he was not going to be able to win against a more Trumpy person in a Republican district that the Democrats had redistricted him into. So there are a few. I think there are conversations. 

"I think that there is a wisdom that it's possible that the only Republican who can lose to Joe Biden is Donald Trump."

If you look at the House and the Senate, especially the Senate, there is not a run to endorse Donald Trump among Republican colleagues, although you would think a former president would merit such deference. There isn't. I'm trying to think — I mean, I'm sure Tuberville has, but there isn't a groundswell of Republicans who have endorsed him. A lot of them are just staying out of it. I think a lot of Republicans in the House and Senate, and probably the governor's offices, too, would prefer that he just go play golf and retire and accept his place in history and the good things he did, in their view, and move on. I think they'd much rather not have to deal with — look, I think Joe Biden is pretty vulnerable, the polls indicate that he is. I think there is a wisdom out there that possibly the only Republican who can lose to Joe Biden is Donald Trump.

Instead of that, of course, they and the rest of us have to go through, literally and metaphorically, the trial of the next year or so, which is going to be unbelievable. 

Literally and metaphorically the trial, yeah.

It's a cliché to say that this is an unprecedented situation. People say that sometimes when it isn't true. But this really is an unprecedented situation.

Sure. Something I was reminded of on social media — I do read social media and constructive criticism and I do absorb it — one of the things somebody said when I referred to the unprecedented prosecution of Donald Trump was, "Don't forget that the actions he took were unprecedented. That's the reason for the unprecedented prosecution."

I always make sure that my writers, when we're preparing the scripts for the day — it's not just unprecedented prosecution. It's unprecedented actions taken by Donald Trump that led to this. Nobody has ever refused to leave office or tried to incite violence to have the election overturned. Yeah, I mean, it's incredible. And as somebody who also dabbles in fiction, let me just also say, I couldn't have written any of this.

No one could.

Because it would be perceived as too broad. "That would never happen! That's not true! I mean, I feel bad for people who have to write political fiction today for TV shows or whatever. Go back and watch "Veep" and 80% of the stuff that seemed wild back then has already happened.

I think, just knowing a bit about you and your career, that this was dear to your heart: There's a sort of tribute in this book to the vanished moderate Republicans of the Northeast.

Well, there's my main character, Charlie Marder, who is the star of the first two books and a co-star in this last one because his kids are the stars. I did that for a number of reasons. One, it's more fun to write for characters who are in their 20s because they'll screw up a lot more easily and credibly than people in their 60s. And two, I don't know, I just wanted to try something new. But Charlie Marder is — the book series starts in 1954, and he's an Eisenhower Republican. He's a World War II hero, Eisenhower was his general, his governor is Tom Dewey. He's a Rockefeller Republican. There is or was a whole strain of moderate Republicans. There that there are three or four of them out there, like Congressman Mike Lawler in New York and a few others here and there. But there are not a lot of them left. That's true.

I was trying to figure out if I could place Charlie Marder exactly. There were quite a few prominent Republican senators from the Northeast at one time, but he's not closely based on anyone real.

No. He's like a mix of John F. Kennedy, John McCain and Jack Kemp, some of the war heroes that have served in Congress, but no, he's entirely fictitious. He's an alcoholic, also. He self-medicates because of his PTSD, which they didn't even have a name for after World War II. But no, I just try to make him a flawed but sympathetic character who one can project — well, I think he believes all the right things.

I'm old enough to remember, for example, Sen. Lowell Weicker, a liberal Connecticut Republican who was defeated by a Democrat running to his right, a gentleman named Joe Lieberman.

Yeah, exactly. It was a different era. I mean, the only political views that I've had Charlie espouse are opposition to Nixon, because he thinks Nixon's duplicitous, he's known Nixon since the '50s, and opposition to the Vietnam War because he's skeptical of the generals. A lot of people who have served, and I'm thinking of Chuck Hagel and John Kerry specifically, are sometimes the most skeptical of the urgency with which generals want to send men and women into harm's way. And then Charlie is also pro-civil rights. I don't really have any sort of platform that he stands for beyond that. I just figured, OK, these are things that a moderate Republican would think that I think won't alienate the reader.

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You can tell that this is a book written by a journalist. A lot of research went into this to get the details and the chronology right. Obviously, certain things you're just making up, like Evel Knievel running an actual presidential campaign. But you did have to get things right: Was this news about Patty Hearst really on the front page while "Star Wars" was in the theaters? Because if you get that wrong, you get a whole bunch of angry emails from people.

It's true, and even with how diligent I try to be about this stuff… There's an amazing website, I'm sure you know about it, called It's a paid site where you can literally go and see newspapers, not just the copy, but the actual front pages of newspapers from the 1800s, let alone from 1977. Yeah, I'd go back and make sure: Is it possible that this would happen at this time? There's some liberties taken here and there, an event that happens in June I might have happen in July, but generally speaking I try to adhere to the world of reality.

Two things that astute readers have noted. One is that there's an invented character in the novel who is a former governor of Idaho, Lucky Strong. I say that he was term-limited out, and somebody wrote in to tell me that Idaho does not have term limits for governors. Another one is, that I have Lucy reminiscing about playing under the Resolute desk in the Oval Office in LBJ's White House. Somebody pointed out that LBJ had the Resolute desk removed during his presidency, and used his own desk from his Senate office. For both of those, it's Ike and Lucy telling the story, so Ike and Lucy got it wrong, not me. But I love having readers who are smarter than me.

One of the major criticisms, not just about you, but about you and CNN and the larger universe of cable news and broadcast news during the Trump years, was that there was a shift in tone or a process of adjustment, but one that took a pretty long time. I don't know whether that's completely fair because I do understand the pressures involved in sitting behind that desk every day and seeking not to appear overtly partisan, which I don't really have to worry about. But the question is, did you experience that as a tonal shift and was there any Rubicon moment where you realized that this was a unique and different situation?

I mean, I think it is true that Donald Trump is a disruptor, who disrupts for positive or for negative, and there are positive examples of it. For example, the Republican Party is no longer a knee-jerk, military-intervention-is-the-right-answer-for-every-problem party, and that's a positive. But obviously there are some negatives as well, and I think one of the things he did is by making facts and truth and basic decency into partisan issues. He knocked a lot of people in the media off their equilibrium. I think that's obvious. 

A good example, a notable example, is how much he knocked Fox News off its equilibrium, to the point that they just paid a $787.5 million settlement to Dominion Voting Systems because they felt the need to be "pro-lie" so much. They broadcast these election lies to the point that they settled for that astronomical sum, and there will be more payments that they have to make as well. 

"I try to do the best I can in bringing the news in a way that is fair and the best first draft of history that we can provide."

But on the non-Fox side of things, I think it's true that people, and I'm not holding myself out as an exemption from this, sometimes it was difficult to get your bearings as to what to report and how to report it. There is a philosophy that if everything's a crisis, then nothing's a crisis. I did try to adhere to that, because sometimes his tweets were so outrageous that folks would lose sight of stories that were of much more importance and consequence to individual Americans, having to do with the economy or immigration or whatever.

That's a long answer which is to say that I'm not holding myself up as an example of perfection during any era. We try to do the best we can. I try to do the best I can in bringing the news in a way that is fair and the best first draft of history that we can provide, while also taking a position only on two issues in particular, which is lies and decency. By decency I mean that if you tell four members of Congress, four women of color, that they should go back to the countries where they came from, which for three of the four was the United States, that's objectlivey racist. If Joe Biden had done that, I would call it out. Donald Trump did it, and we called it out. It was such a firehose of stuff coming at you that I don't think it was always easy to figure out the context and the importance of every single story. 

I believe it's still true that you were the host of the biggest event In CNN's history in terms of viewership numbers, which was in 2015, one of the first Republican presidential debates of that cycle.

Yeah, from Simi Valley, the Reagan Library. First we had an undercard debate of the people who didn't make the main stage, four people, and then we had the main event, with 11 candidates, which I do not recommend. But yes, I moderated that.

When that evening wound down, did you have a feeling that something different was happening in that election cycle?

Absolutely. It wasn't when it was over. It was in the first five minutes, because one of the first questions I asked, and I'm going by memory, so forgive me if I get this wrong, but I think it was the first question after opening statements, I believe I quoted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who'd been on the undercard debate, who had said that he would not be comfortable with Donald Trump's hands on the nuclear codes.

I think I asked Carly Fiorina if she agreed, and she punted. Then Donald Trump got to respond, and he just started attacking people on the stage like, "Why is Rand Paul even here?" Then I asked the same question to Jeb Bush. I might have the order of this wrong, but he did the same thing. Both Fiorina and Bush said, "Well, that's for the American people to decide." I remember thinking very vividly, in that moment, "Oh boy, they have no idea what they're dealing with here." This is the Tasmanian devil, Donald Trump, in terms of the energy and the uniqueness, and nobody had ever seen anything like it before. 

He was already No. 1 in the polls. It seemed like every one of them thought that somebody else would take him out, and then they would rise, as happened with John Kerry in Iowa in 2004. Dick Gephardt took out Howard Dean, and then Kerry became the nominee, ultimately. But it wasn't like that. You had to respond to Trump and make a more compelling case because he was capturing something in the air that was just very anti-establishment. There are other things in it, too. Obviously there's a degree of nativism and nationalism. There's some racism. It was a whole bunch of stuff swirling in there, but generally speaking he was such a phenomenon, and they weren't providing an alternative in any way. They weren't providing an alternate case. I was just like, "Oh yeah, they don't know what they're doing."

They couldn't compete with him on the level of performance. That's still a problem for everybody who tries to go against Trump.

I mean, performatively, there is no one else like that, other than maybe Chris Christie, in terms of just charisma and quickness and agility. There's a line in "All the Demons Are Here" where Ike is talking about Evel Knievel running for president, and he says something along the lines of, "All the qualities that enable somebody to be a great presidential candidate are the exact opposite ones that make them a good president," because of all the pandering and lying and showmanship and the insincerity and all that stuff. That's just part of being a candidate.

By the way, that's why I think it's wrong for Democrats to discount the idea that if Donald Trump gets the nomination, which he could very well get, that he will be easily dispensed of by Joe Biden. Who is not and never has been half the campaigner, I mean, even when he was like 40 or 50, let alone at 80. I remember interviewing him in one of the first pieces I did for Salon in 1999 or 2000 when he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Back then, people had their thoughts about him and their opinions about him, but he was a lot quicker. He was a gaffe machine, but he was a lot quicker. He's obviously not who he was 23 years ago. I mean, neither am I, but I'm also not president.

Tell us about the Hollywood adaptation of one of your books. Which is presumably not happening right now because of the writers' and actors' strikes.

No, we're on break with the strike. It's the second book in the series, "The Devil May Dance." This is the one where Charlie and Margaret get blackmailed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to go figure out if Frank Sinatra is actually mobbed up or if it's just an act. This is based on a true story: Sinatra, who had helped JFK get elected, wanted President Kennedy to stay with him when he came out to California in 1962. Bobby Kennedy stopped it because there was concern in the FBI: How could we be going after the mob while your brother's hanging out with Sinatra, who is literally friends with mobsters? 

This won't spoil the book, but JFK didn't go and Sinatra goes crazy. He had had all this stuff built up in his compound near Palm Springs, a helipad and extra rooms for reporters and phone wires and all that. He got a sledgehammer, and he demolished all this stuff. That's all real. So I just took that story and I put a mystery around it and had Charlie and Margaret go out there, and that was a lot of fun. 

Christian Slater is going to play Charlie. We have a major showrunner and a major streamer involved, but I've been told not to mention it publicly because of the writers' strike, so I'm sorry. I have to abide by my Hollywood masters. But yeah, it was all ready to go for the big pitch and then the strike happened. Everybody's still in, and hopefully, the big machers out in Hollywood will realize that the writers are not going to fold anytime soon and they have the actors on board and it's time for some fairness when it comes to these big deals.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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All The Demons Are Here Authors Books Donald Trump Jake Tapper Media Republicans Salon Talks