You’ve been at the epicenter of all the political news in Washington since President Donald Trump’s election. What has that been like for you?
It’s a lot. The uptick is extreme, and we’ve never had an uptick like this before. I’ve been in the middle of watching politics for 20 years in Washington, but this is definitely different. We’re bombarded with everything now. Typically, during the course of the day, there would be two to three stories that would circulate, but now it’s everywhere, everything, all day, all night, and on weekends. And Twitter is now more relevant than ever before. I was talking to a friend who actually has an audio alert for when the president posts something. As I’m talking to you, that reminds me that I need to do that.
As someone who’s covering the news, what do you make of this change?
The way we used to cover news is no more. I grew up in the era of Walter Cronkite where you didn’t know the journalists’ political persuasions. You trusted them. There was no social media; we didn’t have to think about Twitter, or the internet. I remember in college they told us, “Be ready for the information superhighway,” and now it’s here. They should have told us not just to be ready, but beware.
It’s extreme, and there’s a hunger now for immediacy, be it news, or responses from people. And that has caused the news cycle—the news machine—to go into overdrive. This is the first time in history where a newsmaker, a high-profile person, can talk directly to their constituency, their fan base, without going through the filter of the media. We used to be the ones who would ask the questions that we heard from the groundswell of Capitol Hill. And now, you don’t have to read the story because you can watch it happening.
Trump seems to have taken it to another level. You could argue that Barack Obama had access to the same type of technology.
But the issue is we didn’t see him tweeting everything. He didn’t watch a TV show and tweet about it, or tweet something that would throw firebombs everywhere and people were scrambling to determine if it was real, if it happened, what does it mean. He wasn’t a president who would be his own press secretary. Now, you have the day’s activities set, then all Trump has to do is send out a tweet and the whole day has changed. And these are big news pieces, so then the question becomes, what do you as a journalist focus on? It’s tough.
It also seems like there has to be scrutiny of what the White House is saying.
This president doesn’t believe in being politically correct. He goes from the gut, and what he thinks comes out. And this is what some people love about him—the realness of him. He is one of the people, but there’s a flip side, too, because your words can change markets. It can cause anxiety from other world leaders. Words mean something.
You’ve been in the news yourself lately, whether that was when Trump asked you to set up a meeting with black lawmakers, or reality TV star Omarosa Manigault claimed you were being paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Obviously that’s not something that normally happens with journalists covering the White House. What has that been like for you?
[Laughs] It’s been rough. I choose not to talk about the particular situation that happened between me and Omarosa, but what I will tell you is there were plenty of people who saw it. Yes, we had been friends for 20 years. Yes, during the summer she had asked me to be in her wedding, but yes, also in October, she started sending me these crazy emails saying things that were not true. It’s about my career, my journalistic integrity, that I’ve built for 20 years. And I’m not going to lose that for someone who comes back to Washington who’s trying to smear the media. This is all part of a campaign, but for a friend to do this to a friend? That’s a problem. You don’t want them asking questions? You don’t want them being a part of the White House press corps? The press is a part of the framework of this country. We were built into the Constitution by our founding fathers. It makes no sense to me.
Nationally, it seems like respect for journalism is on the rise, with readership at The New York Times and The Washington Post increasing. Still, it must be difficult to continue working with what appears to be an increasingly hostile White House.
I do the job that I’ve been doing. I talk to my sources and newsmakers, people from other presidential administrations, Democrats and Republicans. It’s the same job, we’re just under attack. Why? I’m still trying to figure that one out. There’s anxiety, but you know what, I still have a job to do. My company is 1,000 percent behind me, flatfooted. It means a lot to have that support.
I wanted to talk about your book, At Mama’s Knee, which looks at race relations through the lessons that mothers teach their children. How did it come to be?
Since I was a kid, there was something in my spirit about writing a book, but that didn’t come back into my mind until I started working at the White House. A friend of mine who really inspires me and he’s been a mentor to me—his name is Norman Hall and he works at The Associated Press—said to me once, “You cannot sit next to the seat of power and not write a book. You see things and experience things other people will never experience.” And he was right. So I started writing my first book, The Presidency in Black and White, and it took about 17 years to write.
History hit me hard personally, not just at the White House, because I had to talk to my children about race. They attend a predominantly white, wealthy school where people don’t normally have to talk about it. But that school, along with other schools in the area, closed early because of what happened after the funeral of Freddie Gray in 2015, and I had to talk to them. I can’t just talk to presidents of the United States or newsmakers and leaders around the world about issues of race. I would be remiss if I had not talked to my children and told them why they were being dismissed from school early and why this was happening. It really started one day when I was at work and my baby daughter called me and said, ‘Mommy, is it true that a kid got killed because he was playing with a gun?’ And the reason she called was because my aunt told her to bring her toy Nerf gun in the house because she did not want it to be misconstrued as a real gun because of what happened [to Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014.] My 6-year-old’s mind did not understand the dynamics, and I had to explain to her that this was very real. She was nervous, she was scared, and she didn’t believe me. I had to show her the video, walk it through with her. But I also had to tell her that at the end of the day, there was hope.
The day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, I was watching what happened in the White House. I was screaming, ‘That’s Mondawmin Mall, that’s Monroe Street!’ These were the haunts I used to go to as a kid—I remember going to piano practice on Tioga Parkway, next to Mondawmin Mall. This is my town. My family kept telling me, ‘Get home, get home, get the girls.’ So I drove home, with tears in my eyes. I was so scared that night. The next day, I decided not to go to work, and sure enough, school was let out early again. So we drove up the street to the local grocery store and I tried to keep it light, set a tone that we were going to be ok. Then I saw this Confederate flag on the back of a pick-up truck, brandishing around in the wind as the truck was driving around this maze of a parking lot. I looked out the window at these other women who were by the store, and I said, ‘Is that what I think it is?’ My oldest daughter did not know what it was, so I had to tell her, and she started to cry. I tried to get a picture of this person and the license plate and I called the police. By waving that flag, they were adding fuel to a fire. I believe in freedom of expression, but this was not the time. Wisdom was needed. And I was very fearful that something could erupt. I still have pictures of it in my phone.
How have things changed for you and your family since Freddie Gray’s death?
My kids are more aware now. I love the way my oldest approaches it. She has friends from every walk of life, but when there are questions from other communities, she breaks it down in a non-threatening but informative way, as a 14-year-old. I’ve had teachers from her school call me and tell me how they’re so happy at how she is able to talk to kids from other communities who don’t understand. It makes me feel great that my kids understand that we live in the world that we live in, but that there’s still hope. They have Jewish friends, Asian friends, white friends, black friends. And I love the fact that they are able to come together and say, ‘Hey we’re different but we celebrate each other.’ That’s the world that I hope for. That’s the United States that I’m desperately hoping for.
Did you ever consider leaving Baltimore, especially since your work is in D.C.?
I did. But my family and my friends are here. Baltimore’s a real town. I love Baltimore. I’ve been here pretty much my whole life. . . . We have a lot of hurts in Baltimore, but we also have a lot of greatness. And there will be a time, I believe, that Baltimore will have its renaissance. Yeah, we’ve got Band-Aids on some of the ugly things, but we are rising. And that’s one of the reasons why I won’t leave.
Do you see any other books in your future?
Yes. [Laughs] It won’t be a surprise when it comes out, but it will be a page-turner, that’s all I’m going to say.