Zoe Daniel is tired. You can’t blame her. There is possibly no more demanding, difficult and unrelenting job in journalism right now than covering US President Donald Trump. As the ABC’s US Bureau Chief, Zoe Daniel is required to file several times per day to keep a gob-smacked Australian audience across the real time goings-on in the most chaotic, dramatic and newsworthy US Presidency in history.
“So, just another day,” she tells Mia Freedman when she calls to talk to her for the latest episode of Tell Me It’s Going To Be OK podcast about all things Donald Trump. They had just finished talking about everything from offending Boy Scouts to banning transgender soldiers and she has to get off the phone to rush off and talk on TV about it all.
It was 6:30pm in the evening for Zoe when they chatted, and like all journalists tasked with covering Trump (The New York Times have a dozen of them working on shifts because you never know when the President is going to tweet at 2am), she sounded exhausted, admitting she can never turn off her phone.
Zoe has been based in Washington since December 2015, and she is often in the press briefing room. The actual press briefing room that has been immortalised by The West Wing, Veep, House of Cards, Saturday Night Live and…..Sean Spicer
The full interview with Zoe is on the podcast and you can listen below, but here’s some of what she had to say about what it’s like to be up close and personal with the main characters starring in the circus also known as the White House.
You can listen to the whole interview with Zoe Daniel on Tell Me It’s Going To Be Ok, right here. (Post continues after audio.)
MIA: I’m fascinated to ask about your job. In terms of your day-to-day with a President who is basically enacting another campaign but against the media, what is it like to be part of the press corps?
ZOE: It’s hectic. It’s utterly relentless. That negativity towards the press doesn’t rub off on us so much because we’re in the national press so we’re not quite the target. But that said, I’ve been to many events where the crowd has been very much railing against us directly in our faces because Donald Trump’s been geeing them up with that anti-media message. I think one thing that’s frustrating is just getting clear information and clear answers on basic questions out of the White House can be quite difficult.
Often you get multiple different answers from multiple different people. So that makes it hard to just report things accurately. Simply. But it’s just, I think, the main thing for journalists overall is the relentless and completely unpredictable nature of this administration. Lots of veterans in the White House press corps said to me that they’ve never experienced anything like it. So it’s just a completely new beast.
MIA: Can you ever turn your phone off?
ZOE: No, definitely not.
MIA: So tell me about why and how Donald Trump has made this announcement about transgender people being banned from the military.
ZOE: Well, it was classic Donald Trump in that it came in a series of tweets. Essentially, he said that having consulted with military leaders and experts transgender people will no longer be able to serve in the US military. And that’s because of the so-called cost and disruption of having transgender service personnel.
Now, they’ve been allowed to be part of the military since mid-2016, by President Barack Obama, when an existing ban was lifted by the Pentagon. What we don’t know at this stage is what will happen to the between 3000 and 15000 transgender people who are currently serving, now that this ban is being put in place.
MIA: Why now?
ZOE: It could be the art of distraction! That would make a lot of sense.
Zoe Daniel, US Bureau Chief for the ABC. Image via Facebook.
Given his failure to push the health care legislation through Congress, continuing pressure on the administration over Russia, as well as the President-pointed attacks on the Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions.
It would definitely not be the first time that the President has changed the narrative by using his Twitter stream. That's how he talks to the people, that's how he controls not only the national conversation but often the global conversation.
MIA: I know what you mean about the tweets. They didn't seem like the usual Trump watching TV and tweeting something unhinged. It felt like a prepared statement that he was tweeting.
ZOE: So, it was a different language. And I think the fact that we've seen a change in his communications team over the past week may lend some weight to the argument that he either didn't write them or that a little bit more planning went into what he said.
MIA: It was only last week that Trump gave an extraordinary address to several thousand Boy Scouts at a jamboree.
ZOE: This was really bizarre. There's a huge crowd, around 40,000 people, not all of them were Boy Scouts but the majority of them were, around 14-15 years of age.
Normally the President would speak about service to the community, and strong values, and the importance of being a good American citizen.
But Donald Trump, as is his signature style, got up and gave a very political partisan, adult oriented speech. And this has really enraged parents and also former scouts who didn’t think that was appropriate, and it's caused some backlash for the Boy Scout movement.
MIA: So they were gathered for their annual jamboree - and treated it like a campaign rally. He used crass language, “Why the hell would I talk about politics”, he talked about being at a cocktail party with the hottest people in New York....” What were some of the other things that he said that has caused particular consternation?
ZOE: It was the inappropriateness of that language that you're talking about, criticising Barack Obama's politics, criticising Democratic politics - generally and as you said - repeatedly saying I'm not going to talk about politics and then.. talking about politics.
And also that the kids were then chanting “USA USA USA” in response. And I think there was a distaste for that as well, in the sense of ..did they really know what they were doing?
MIA: The Boy Scouts has been called on to condemn what the President said and have essentially apologised. But it's slightly complicated because, from what I understand, the head of the Boy Scouts is also the head of a big telco, AT&T - who are waiting on government approval for a merger?
ZOE: This is the problem in the US with politics and money, business and lobbying- that all those things are tied up together. So it makes it very difficult for organisations to speak out and condemn.
MIA: So speaking of former Boy Scout beleaguered, weak, Jeff Sessions - what the hell is going on there?
ZOE: So, Jeff Sessions was appointed Attorney General by Donald Trump. After he was appointed, it came out that he'd had several meetings with the then Russian ambassador to the US Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
Sessions argued that he had had those meetings in the course of his Senatorial duties, back when he was a Senator. But due to the controversy around those meetings, he recused himself from any involvement in the Russia investigation and essentially handed responsibility for that investigation over to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, with President, Donald Trump. Image via Facebook.
Donald Trump very much views his cabinets in the context of “you need to be loyal to me”. Now that Sessions has recused himself, he's effectively of no use to Donald Trump - which is what is at the core of this.
The thing is that what it comes down to - getting back to the end game, is the special counsel, Robert Muller, who was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, who is the deputy Attorney General.
Therefore - if Jeff Sessions is sacked does that then lead to Rosenstein being sacked? And does that then lead to Lulla being sacked and is that then the end of the Russian investigation?
MIA: Would we have a constitutional crisis?
ZOE: Potentially, yes!
MIA: It's been six months, we’re 13 percent of the way through..., and it seems like Trump is really not going so well when he bumps up against the constitutional limitations of his personal power as President.
ZOE: He's clearly a very independent spirit. He has run a business as an independent chief executive and has never had to bump up against these things before, as you said. He also has a team which is largely stacked with friends, family and business associates - most of whom don't have a lot of government experience. But he doesn't like to be controlled by anyone; I think that's pretty clear.
The other bottom line is that all of these distractions are making it very difficult for him to actually do the things that he talked about doing at a policy level. I would say though that I spend a lot of time talking to people who supported Donald Trump. People who voted for Donald Trump. And most of them are still behind him 100 per cent.
MIA: Why do you think that is? Based on what?
ZOE: Firstly, they think that he's being nobbled by a media that's against him. They think, that the dysfunctional nature of the U.S. Congress is making it very difficult for him - and I don't think that's untrue.
The thing is that there is a seeming inability for politicians on opposite sides of the aisle to even have a conversation - a functional conversation - about policy issues here. Automatically, you would be against it if it's been suggested by someone who is on the opposite side of politics.So I think in general the US community finds that very frustrating and they don't see that as his fault.
MIA: Are you in the press briefing room? Are you, do you work out of the White House?
ZOE: Sometimes, it depends what's going on. But yes I do go in, often.
MIA: So can you tell us a little bit about how Sean Spicer was perceived and how the press received the information... or the news that he was out and Mooch was in? Were you surprised?
ZOE: I don't think there was any surprise. Obviously Sean Spicer has been known for being fairly… well… for struggling in that role. For gas. For not saying the right thing in the briefing room. Being unable to answer questions. Having a fairly fraught relationship with the press. And in this case - for not even giving briefings, because seemingly Donald Trump wasn't happy with his television performance.
Weirdly, I think there was a kind of fondness for Sean Spicer that develops in a sense that he was someone who'd been put in a role and had to make the best of it. And much as it was a job that he accepted and that's on him - that is an extremely difficult job for anyone to do let alone when you're trying to explain the messaging of Donald Trump. So when he actually did resign I think some of the coverage was sort of a little bit sentimental in relation to his departure.
MIA: Was it hard to watch from where you sat right in front of him? Was it hard to watch him just up there struggling day after day.
ZOE: Yes that can be quite excruciating. It can be really difficult to watch. And not only with Sean Spicer even with Sarah Sanders who's also had to sell their message. But she's a different personality and she's a lot more confident in her ability to sell that message, and she has now been anointed as Sean Spicers replacement. But as you said, Spicey is now replaced by the Mooch, effectively, as communications director. So he will be the top of that communications team. And then Sarah Sanders comes in as press secretary. So she'll be often giving those daily briefings instead of Sean Spicer.
MIA: So who is the Mooch? And why is he there? I heard this week that he is who Donald Trump sees when he looks in the mirror. That’s what Donald Trump likes to think he's seen. He seems like this sort of brash, confident, sort of handsome, Italian little fighter.
ZOE: Yes. So he's got that New York thing going on. He's an entrepreneur. He's worked on Wall Street. He was… There was a meme that came out this week comparing he and Donald Trump's mannerisms. And they have exactly the same way of using their hands when they're talking which is really quite amazing to watch, if you get a chance Google it. It's really something else. But he's got a lot of spunk Scaramucci and that's why Donald Trump likes him. He's a great TV performer and he has talked the talk on Donald Trump's behalf over the last year defending his performance, defending his policies on TV and Donald Trump obviously likes him, likes the way that he performs on television and thinks that he can sell the message. And the thing is that you've got to remember that the role of the press secretary in the communications team is to actually sell the message of the Presidency and explain what the administration is doing. That's something that Sean Spicer has really struggled to do. Not necessarily you know because it's his fault. But it's a difficult message to explain.
MIA: But do you think it can be quite confusing?
ZOE: Often the message can quite confusing.
MIA: Yeah well because it changes every minute, doesn't it?
ZOE: The job of Scaramucci will be to try and find some clarity within Trump’s messaging and to get that message out in a way that Donald Trump thinks represents him fairly and accurately.
The question will be, “How long that influence lasts?”. We saw during the campaign when Kellyanne Conway came on board, suddenly the ship steadies and messaging was a lot clearer. And Donald Trump seems to be able to stick to a prepared speech in a few instances and not sort of go onto his own track as he tends to do at public events. But that only lasted a certain period of time. In the end, he is who he is. That's his personality. So the Mooch is going to have to work out just how much he tries to control that personality and how much he can channel that personality.
But it seems to me that Donald Trump's staff, trying to squash that personality - is always going to fail. He doesn't tolerate that.
MIA: Is it true that he wants to drag a desk onto the lawn of the White House and have a morning talk show?
ZOE: Well, haha, that's what he said. I mean, I think that was a really interesting.
MIA: Like state run television.
ZOE: He said that he was going to sort of have a little program every day explaining one of the President's policies or the administration's policies. I mean in a sense they've been doing that already because they have often been dragging one of the department heads into the White House briefing to talk about what their particular department is up to. So it's kind of an extension of that. But I think you'll find that Anthony Scaramucci's pretty canny about things like social media and messaging and he'll have some pretty specific ideas about what works.
Today for example in the briefing Sarah Sanders read a letter that had been sent by a nine year old to Donald Trump saying: "Will you be my friend?". Essentially a bit of fan mail and I'm pretty sure that Anthony Scaramucci's fingers were all over that.
MIA: I'll let you go. You have to get on TV. Zoe thanks so much. We're thinking of you.
ZOE: Thanks. My Pleasure!
You can listen to the full episode of Tell Me It's Going To Be Ok on iTunes or on the Mamamia Podcast app. You can like our Facebook here, for all the latest news on Donald Trump and pop culture you love.