On Monday, Daniel Lippman, co-author of POLITICO’s morning newsletter “Playbook” and a Washington reporter for the media organization, was on campus to talk with students about the current state of Washington politics and the media landscape. The Chronicle interviewed him that morning about recent events in national politics and how some Duke alums were involved. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: What does a typical morning look like for you, where you produce this newsletter every morning?

Daniel Lippman: It’s kind of a funny tale this morning, because I got to North Carolina yesterday, and I did MSNBC this morning from Raleigh. So they took me from the Washington Duke Hotel and drove me up at 4:15 a.m., and I did a couple TV lines on MSNBC. 

A typical morning is waking up between three and four with my colleagues Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman. We work in a Google Doc to produce Playbook, then we file to our editors by 5:30 a.m., and it gets out to our readers by 6 or 6:30 a.m. So it’s a lot of last minute cramming, but it all seems to work out. But it’s kind of a miracle when you start with an empty Google Doc pretty much at 3 a.m. and by 6 a.m., it’s completely filled up with juicy news.

TC: Tell us how the Playbook differs from other morning newsletters and how it differs for you to write something that early in the morning compared to regular news.

DL: So Playbook has been around for about 10 years—the same as POLITICO. POLITICO started with 35 employees, and now we are at 500 worldwide, so it’s been a lot of growth. We are now in Florida, New Jersey, New York and Europe. We have POLITICO Europe as well. How Playbook differs from other newsletters, is that it was sort of the original morning tip-sheet. When Anna, Jake and I took over about a year and a half ago, we really doubled-down on getting scoops and breaking a lot of news. 

This time with Trump, it’s a great time to be a reporter in [Washington]. We’ve kept the hard news and breaking news, but we’ve also kept the sort of ‘page six’ part at the bottom of Playbook with the birthdays and the ‘spotted’ senators having dinner at whatever restaurant they were at last night. That sort of keeps it light because there is a lot of news that is hard news and serious, but we kind of like to have fun things sprinkled throughout the newsletter.

TC: One of the things that I’ve noticed that’s really cool is your birthday section.

DL: That is one aspect of the community newspaper element of Playbook. You have this core group of readers who work in politics and media and policy and on the Hill. They kind of like to know whose birthday it is, so they message each other and say ‘Oh, I saw your name in Playbook.’ Some people don’t like the birthdays, but most people like them. They sometimes email us and ask if we can put them or their friends in. We get about a dozen birthday emails a day from people who want to be in mentioned or want their friends to be mentioned or don’t want their age in the news. It’s pretty fun.

TC: Just this past Tuesday, we saw a bunch of local and state elections. Can you just tell me a little bit about what you saw there and some of shifts that happened, particularly in Virginia?

DL: Sure. So in Virginia, in a very anticipated election, the Democrat won. Ralph Northam, the Democrat, beat Ed Gillespie, who is a Republican Beltway insider. Democrats want his election to kind of be a canary in the coal mine in terms of waking Republicans up and saying Democrats are on the march and going to maybe take control of the House next year. 

There is so much energy on the Democratic side. You saw that in New Jersey, Chris Christie, his picked successor—current Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno—lost to the Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and an ambassador. Among Democrats, there is the sense that they never wanted Trump to win, obviously, and they were very surprised by it, so they want to kind of have the resistance in Capitol Hill and take over the House and maybe even the Senate. [Taking the Senate] is unlikely right now, but the House is really up for grabs.

TC: Particularly in Virginia, Duke students may have been paying attention because we had a Duke alum, Justin Fairfax, who won the lieutenant governor’s seat. 

DL: Yeah, Justin Fairfax. I kind of wonder if Justin is going to be governor one day too. 

TC: Also on the subject of Duke alums in politics—last Thursday night, per a report by CNN, we learned that Stephen Miller has been questioned in the investigation with counsel Robert Mueller. He was questioned about the discussion over James Comey’s firing. How would you describe the mood in Washington regarding the investigation?

DL: So it’s pretty unprecedented to be living in D.C. during a special investigation by a counsel with a lot of power. Robert Mueller—he has a technical boss, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general—but he really has unchecked power to charge anyone he wants as long as he gets court or grand jury approval. He’s digging into the Trump campaign and their alleged ties with Russia. You already saw Paul Manafort and Rick Gates get charged a few weeks ago. 

I don’t think most people expect Stephen Miller to get charged. As long as he tells the truth to investigators, he’ll probably be fine. They are looking at Stephen because he was on Air Force 1 when they were discussing the statement about why they fired Comey, and he’s just involved in a lot of stuff with Trump and Don, Jr. too. Because he’s the main speech writer and the policy advisor, it’s only natural that he finds himself getting questioned. I’m sure he’s had to hire a lawyer. But the mood in D.C. is pretty electric in terms of how we’re waiting to see what happens next.

TC: The Trump administration is currently on a 12-day trip across Asia right now. 

DL: I wish I was on the trip!

TC: What would you say are the stakes are for this trip—not just for Trump in a political sense, but for the United States in terms of international diplomacy?

DL: I think that most people think that the trip went well until a couple days ago—when Trump started basically praising Vladimir Putin for his statements saying that he believed Putin about whether Russia interfered in the election. Then Trump actually had to reverse himself and say that he is on the side of the intelligence agencies, but that sounded like a little bit of a half-hearted statement because that’s usually what you say first. When you backtrack, that puts into question his credibility on this issue.

I think the stakes are that a lot of people in Asia are wondering whether the U.S. is still going to engage with Asia in the way that previous administrations did. President Obama had the ‘pivot to Asia.’ This is the future, and you see so much trade between Asia and the U.S. There is a lot of opportunity for American companies to expand overseas and tap into the consumer market, the new middle class that is developing all across the continent. So Trump is responsible for helping to cultivate that a little bit. They’ve really rolled out the red carpet in terms of trying to woo him in a bunch of the countries that he’s stopped in. 

TC: Your lead story this morning for Playbook was the tax reform that might be coming. The House is expected to pass a version of the bill this week, and the Senate Finance Committee is maybe passing their version of the bill. What do you think are their chances of getting a reconciled bill together before the next wave of elections and how important is that for Republicans?

DL: I think Republicans view this as a must-pass bill. If they go to voters in about a year’s time, and they haven’t passed anything in terms of major legislation, that’s a real loss for them. Republican voters and some Democrats gave all this power to Republicans, and if they can’t pass anything then why are they in office and why do they have all this power? So Democrats will make the case that Republicans have just been involved in responding to Mueller’s investigation and Trump’s tweets and not actually passing legislation that helps American families. 

I think the prospects are pretty good that there will be some form of tax reform or tax cuts because that is something that unites most Republicans. They’re just haggling over the details, but that’s still going to be a tough process, and it will kind of die a million deaths before any bill passes. But there is so much money being spent on lobbying in Washington right now because of this bill because everyone has their interests at stake.

TC: Going back to your role as a reporter—how has the Trump-era news cycle changed the way Playbook is reported and your role as a reporter in Washington?

DL: I think Playbook has pretty much stayed with the same even tone. We’re not going to call the president a liar everyday. We’re going to point out things that he says that are factually inaccurate. It’s our job to be a neutral arbitrator of the truth. 

In terms of articles, there’s so much news and so many tips that I get that I can’t even pursue every one. It’s a very competitive place right now. It’s always been competitive in [Washington], but particularly in this day and era, you see The Washington Post and The New York Times and POLITICO all butting heads in terms of journalistic scoops and seeing who can break more news in a fast way.

TC: What kinds of things do you think you’ve learned in this first year since Trump has been elected?

DL: I underestimated how many controversies and how many little kerfuffles—that’s one of my favorite words—that would be launched because of him. I kind of believed him when he said ‘I’ll be presidential,’ and so far he has busted those conventional ways of doing things as president. I didn’t think he would continue to tweet as much as he has done, and so that’s surprised me a little bit. 

In terms of things I’ve learned, it’s just to be dogged and to be aggressive as a reporter, to never give up and to pursue the truth as best as I can. It’s very important that journalists do their jobs in terms of holding powerful people and institutions accountable. That’s especially true now.

See the full interview here:

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