Hugh Hewitt interview with Philip Rucker, White House Bureau Chief at The Washington Post.
Interview Audio: hhs-rucker5/16/17.mp3
HH: Philip Rucker joins me. Philip is the White House bureau chief at the Washington Post. Nine minutes ago, he tweeted national security team stayed far away from the Comey saga preserving credibility, but are the ones delivering the false White House spin this time. Philip, so I gather you believe that the McMaster denial was complete and false as opposed to parsed and true?
PR: Well, parts of his denial were parsed, obviously, a pretty effective spin job there. But you know, he did have the statement that it was false, that he was in the room, it’s not true. Dina Powell, his deputy, said that the story is false. She said that outright. And they’re simply not telling the truth. This story was bullet-proof. It was well-reported by my colleagues, sourced to U.S. officials, and the President himself this morning has confirmed that he did share this information with the Russians.
HH: On that point, I’ve read the President’s tweets repeatedly this morning, and I’ll read them again. But his tweets do not confirm the story that the Post ran. And I want to be very clear, I’m very concerned about this. I have one standard. My standard is that all classified material, but especially SCI, has got to be handled with extreme care, because it can result in catastrophe if it isn’t. So I have the one standard for Hillary, one standard for Donald Trump, one standard that I learned in 1983 when I went into the government. It’s one standard – extreme care. Carelessness is not acceptable. Negligence isn’t acceptable. You reported negligence and carelessness. The Post reported negligence and carelessness. Here’s what McMaster said.
HRM: “…that the President takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The President and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the President did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of State, remembered the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on the record account should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
HH: So Philip Rucker, at 8:08 am on Tuesday morning, I want this on the record as well. Donald Trump, an hour ago, tweeted as president, “I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH meeting), which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining…” second tweet, “…to terrorism and airline flight safety, humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.” I do not believe that is an admission on his part. He may yet make it one, and he may have [actually] done it, but that, those two tweets are not an admission that he released classified information. I don’t know how people can say that it is.
PR: Well, it’s an admission that he shared the facts that he’s talking about regarding aviation security to the Russians in that meeting. And he offers an explanation for it, a reason for why he was sharing that information. You know, he can’t be very specific in 140 characters, but you know, I read that as an admission that he shared some information with the Russians.
PR: But look…
HH: But it’s not an admission, stick with me on this, it’s not an admission that he shared classified information, is it, Philip? It’s not.
PR: I read it as an admission, yes, that it was.
HH: I just, honestly, it’s my lawyerly training.
PR: I think he, I think he, I think the President and General McMaster are going to need to come forward and answer some detailed questions about this. It’s an alarming report. It’s a really serious matter. U.S. lives are at stake. And these sort of games that they’re playing with words are not enough, I think, to satisfy the American people right now.
HH: Well, I agree with everything you said. I agree with everything you said. I want McMaster, I’ve been urging this from last night. And the question I would ask is, is there anything you wish the President hadn’t said and why? And did, was anything classified disclosed to the Russians? You know, that’s, I would those over and over again and do a Chris Christie-style, because it is so important, but I’m being very careful. When the President tweets this out, he’s just not admitting to anything, and the media doesn’t do itself any favors when they come up with admissions against interest. Now I have to ask you a hard question, because you’re a friend and I work for the Post and I love the Post. But when you guys ran the story on the President the other day, in it was the allegation that Rod Rosenstein –Rod Rosenstein, I’ve got the pronunciation down, thank God– finally, threatened to resign. He denied it. Do you stand by the original allegation, Philip?
PR: We do. That was a piece of reporting from my colleague, Sari Horwitz, who went back to her sources on the matter the following day and was reassured that he in fact did threaten to resign. What we don’t know is who he made, who he delivered that threat to. We don’t know how serious the threat was. We don’t know if it reached, you know, the level of the President or the Attorney General. But we do know that he threatened to resign, and the Washington Post stands by that report.
HH: That’s what I wanted, I wanted to hear from you. Now do you understand, I was with 1,000 people last night, 1,000 people in Denver, Colorado.
HH: They don’t believe not just the Post, but the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. They just don’t believe it. They say you guys have got it out for Trump, and that you’re trying to kill him. What, Phillip, you’re the head of this. You’re the White House bureau chief. How do you respond to those people who just think you’re just trying to kill the President, not literally, but you know, figuratively?
PR: I don’t even know how to respond to that. That’s a ridiculous statement. You know, we, our reporting is based on fact, actual fact. These are not alternative facts. These are real facts. This is reporting that my colleagues and I conduct. We ask questions, we seek answers, and we report the answers and share them with the public. You know, Donald Trump has had a lot of problems in his first 115 days or so, and a lot of controversies, and we’re reporting on them fairly and accurately and aggressively and completely. And you know, a Trump supporter may not like to read what he or she reads in the Washington Post or in the New York Times, for that matter, but these are the facts, and this is the reality of what’s happening in Washington, and we’re not making things up here.
HH: But the reality that what’s happening…
PR: We’re sharing things truthfully, Hugh.
HH: Oh, I know that. You guys do your, you do terrific work, and you know I believe that. But I also, because I travel the country talking to people, I know what they think. They think that Rod Rosenstein came out and said “I didn’t threaten to resign,” and that Comey didn’t ask for additional resources, and then along comes along this story, and McMaster and his deputy say it’s false. And you know, the American public just gets confused. And so stepping back from these two stories, what you just said is important. There isn’t anyone with an axe to grind here. And I’d like you to repeat that. You’re just trying to do the best job of factually reporting, and you have sources that you trust that have told you he compromised national security by releasing SCI information. Am I right about that?
PR: That’s exactly right, and you know, I do, and my colleagues do talk to senior level sources inside the Trump White House and inside the administration every single day. That’s how we do our jobs. We’re reporting what they’re telling us. We’re reporting any information that we find. Sometimes, you know, different sources tell us different things, and it’s our job to talk to as many of them as we can and determine what the truth is as best as we’re able. There is no axe to grind. Nobody at the Washington Post wants to kill Donald Trump, as this person is suggesting. We’re just trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. We’re trying to shine a light where the President wants thing to be dark. We’re trying to tell people the truth and find out what that truth is.
HH: Has the same level of aggressiveness vis-à-vis the sensitivity of the information that Trump is alleged to have released in the Russian meeting, was that applied to Secretary Clinton’s server, in your opinion?
PR: From a media perspective, I would say absolutely yes. We actually were beat up day in and day out from the Clinton campaign for being so aggressive in reporting on her private email server situation and the fallout of that, which extended for more than a year.
HH: And so if you’re McMaster today, if you’re General McMaster, who has enormous reputation, he wrote the book about the military not telling the truth…
PR: And unfortunately for him, he’s sacrificed a lot of it with his false statement.
HH: So you think he absolutely made a false statement yesterday? You are 100% convicted, Philip?
PR: Well, I, let me rephrase that, with his misleading statements. I think what he said in his explanation to reporters was intentionally misleading in service to the President, and that’s disappointing to see. That’s the kind of thing that press secretaries do when they spin at the podium, not a decorated national security figure like himself.
HH: With a reputation for truth-telling in the Pentagon.
HH: And so that’s a pretty heavy statement you just made. And so you really are confident about your reporting here? I mean, you are, you’re going up against probably the most credible warrior in the United States other than Jim Mattis and McChrystal and a couple of other people. You’re that confident of your reporting, Philip Rucker?
PR: Well, I’ll tell you what. It’s not my personal reporting, but I, the Washington Post is very confident in the reporting of Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, and I think you know, we’ll see where this story goes from here. But we’re very confident in it. And there are a couple of details that you have not mentioned, Hugh, that I think are important for your listeners to keep in mind. One is that if the President did nothing wrong in this meeting, why then did the national security staff almost immediately work to scrub that, those details, scrub that information from these people reporting on the meeting?
HH: Great question. Philip, can you hang over one segment? Can you hold over…
PR: Yes, I can.
HH: Great. Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, this is so important, America. Listen to this segment. We’ll be right back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
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HH: Philip, during the break, I went over to Roll Call, and I wanted to read a story about, it’s by John Bennett, and this is what the problem is. He’s talking about the two tweets from Donald Trump this morning, and he writes, in a follow-on tweet, “the President wrote he revealed the ‘Code word only’ classified data out of his own concerns about ‘terrorism and airline flight safety, humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to step up greatly their fight against ISIS and terrorism.'” I know one thing for sure. The President did not write that he revealed “code word only classified data.” That’s not true. I mean, that’s why the American…
PR: He used the word “fact.”
HH: He used the word “facts,” and so SCI is so different from “facts.” It’s just so, it’s important that you report your sources. But I want to get back to this general question of angst and how the divide in the country is now making it impossible to agree on a narrative.
PR: Yeah, that’s the big picture problem here. You basically have two Americas, and two Americas with two different sets of facts and two different sets of beliefs and two different types of media. And you know, you turn on Fox News, and this is not even a story. And you go to Breitbart, and the story is how terrible the Washington Post is to Donald Trump. I mean, it’s just two totally divergent narratives, and people are only willing to see one set of facts. But the problem is one set is facts, and the other set is falsehoods. Their can’t be two sets of facts. A fact is a fact.
HH: Now I am one of those places that’s trying to bridge that divide and talk to both sides.
PR: You do, and it’s admirable, Hugh. You do a great job with it.
HH: One of your, thank you, one of your colleagues, Jennifer Rubin, wrote this morning, “McMaster, Powell must quit. They intentionally misled the public. They need to go.” Jonathan Chait, no conservative, writes “I care more about my kids’ lives than his honor. He can write a tell-all afterwards.” I mean, this is from 0-150 miles per hour in less than 12 hours…
HH: And I ask do you agree with me that McMaster has to go out in front today and take a lot of questions and do a Chris Christie?
PR: I think he would help himself if we were to go out and take some questions. And I think frankly, somebody from the administration needs to take questions on this. And if it’s going to end up being Sean Spicer at the briefing, he needs to move beyond the simple I have nothing new for you on that, which we heard a lot of yesterday.
HH: Rod Rosenstein is, Rod Rosenstein is going to go up to the Hill next week, and he’s going to be under oath. If he testifies under oath that he did not threaten to resign, would that cause you to rethink the earlier story in the week, because reporters can be misled by other sources. It’s a game, right? People are, it’s the Game of Thrones.
PR: That’s reporting by my colleague. I can’t speak directly to Sari Horwitz’ reporting. All I can say is that the Washington Post stands by it, that she has reviewed all of this with her editors very closely and carefully and seriously, and the Post stands by their reporting.
HH: So what’s the level of stress in the newsroom? I mean, were you guys up all night working on this thing, because this is a, this, if he did this, it will be the worst mistake of his presidency to date.
PR: I think that’s correct. Look, my colleagues, Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, who wrote the story, an amazing scoop of reporting, spent much of the day, and frankly much of the weekend working on this story. But by the time it posted, the story was up there. And then it became a political fallout story, so the rest of us, you know, we’re talking to our sources trying to figure out what’s happening, or my colleagues on Capitol Hill, where they’re capturing the scene and the remarkable response from some of the key senators, including Bob Corker, the Republican of Tennessee. And the story continues from there. I’m going to be working my White House sources about it today to see if we can learn more about this meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak.
HH: You know, and the Russians, it hasn’t been commented on, yet, the Russians have a recording of this, because they were allowed to carry in electronic devices. I have to assume they recorded everything in this meeting, because no one, they were allowed to carry in equipment, which is violation of every rule in the world. Last question, Philip, in terms of the transparency here, does the President need to come out and talk about this, do one of his pressers?
PR: I think he should. It’s actually been far too long since he’s done a press conference. He seems to be hiding from the press. You know, look, Hugh, the big stakes, the high stakes for him is that he leaves on Friday for a major foreign trip. He’s going straight to Saudi Arabia, then Israel, and on from there. He doesn’t want this to hang over his trip. I think he needs to come forward, answer a full set of questions on this situation before he leaves America.
HH: Excellent advice from Philip Rucker, chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Thanks for staying a longer bit of time, Philip, always good to go to the source.
End of interview.