Washington Post reporter Robert Costa says no "guiding principle" determines the president's choices, despite conflicting input from members of his inner circle.
By Ruth Steinhardt
President Donald Trump is having some difficulty navigating Washington, and his determination to be the sole arbiter of his own agenda makes him hard to predict, Washington Post reporter and “Washington Week” moderator Robert Costa said Tuesday at the George Washington University.
“There is not really a guiding principle driving [Mr. Trump] one way or the other,” Mr. Costa said before an audience at the National Churchill Library and Center.
The president’s inner circle, Mr. Costa said, is composed of disparate factions with conflicting agendas. Some transition team members have been interested in stewarding a traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts. Others, whom Mr. Costa called “the disruptors,” are hardline activists more invested in dismantling the administrative state. And the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, are “the people in the residence” with whom Mr. Trump vents, consults and shares ideas.
But Mr. Costa said that President Trump “makes decisions alone, on a lot of different levels.”
“He loves talking to people on the phone as he watches television at night,” said Mr. Costa, who has written some of the most intimate depictions of the Trump presidency. “That’s how he collects information. But it’s really him, himself, who makes decisions. He reminded me of that several times during the campaign. ‘It’s me who decides. I do the speeches. I come up with the ideas.’ …Trump prides himself on being the man at the center.”
Adding to the disharmony at the top of the administration, Mr. Costa said, is Mr. Trump’s conviction that special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into his campaign’s connections with Russia will taper out within a few months.
“But I don’t see that confidence reflected throughout his circle,” Mr. Costa said, and Mr. Mueller’s “tight-lipped” operation makes it a “black box” for reporters as much as for the president himself. He said developments like the indictment of former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pled guilty in October to lying to the FBI, came as a complete shock to members of the press corps.
“We know so little about what Bob Mueller is doing,” Mr. Costa said. “But that kind of makes the story fun, in a way, that it’s incremental.”
During an hour-long conversation with NCLC Director Michael Bishop, Mr. Costa also discussed his longtime study of and admiration for Winston Churchill, on whom he wrote his thesis as a student at Cambridge University.
“In my own life I’ve tried, in a very humble way, to follow Churchill’s example,” he said.
Mr. Costa, who covered the tea party for the National Review before joining The Washington Post, also said both political parties are dealing with populist anger fueled by the fallout of the global economy.
“There are forces now going throughout this country that are pushing people to question the American dream….and that is not a partisan issue,” he said.
Mr. Costa has been a journalist since his teens, when he reviewed concerts for the Bucks County Courier Times outside of Philadelphia. He said some of his most memorable career moments have been serendipitous—as in a peculiar 2015 encounter with former Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), then House speaker, which became comprehensible when Mr. Boehner announced his retirement the following day.
Mr. Costa said his goal as a reporter is never to make assumptions but always to approach individual stories with openness and objectivity. He has an “institutional belief” in the importance of a nonpartisan mainstream press, he said, even a flawed one.
“I was annoyed growing up by a lot of pundits,” he said. “I felt I was always being told what to believe or told what they thought. I didn’t care a lot about what people thought. I wanted to know what was happening. So I said to myself that if I ever became a reporter, I would not tell people what I think.”
Mr. Costa said he makes a point, during television appearances, of checking himself with the phrase “based on my reporting.”
“I say it to catch myself,” he said. “Because then I don’t start saying, ‘Well, this is what I think.’ People don’t care what you think. They care what you know. I want to be someone who knows things, who can acquire information and share it.”