Q&A: Jonathan Karl On ‘Betrayal’ And Why Campaign Reporters Face Their “Greatest Challenge” If Donald Trump Runs Again

·13 min read

Jonathan Karl’s Betrayal focuses on the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and while it’s hardly the first book out this year to capture the tumult of 2020, it is an indication that the bombshells and revelations from that White House will continue well into the future.

Following Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s Peril, Michael C. Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election, and Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s I Alone Can Fix It, Karl’s Betrayal — with the subtitle The Final Act of the Trump Show — breaks new ground, with a heavier emphasis on the election’s aftermath and the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Among the details: The revelation that there was another detailed memo sent to Vice President Mike Pence’s team on how he could overturn the results of the election. This one came from Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign attorney, and was sent by then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to a Pence aide, according to the book.

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One of the newsier aspects of the book came because of the former president’s cooperation. Karl, now ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent after serving as the network’s chief White House reporter, opens the book with a post-White House interview with Trump, in which the former president admits that he was not overly concerned with safety of Pence during the siege, even though his loyal vice president had to scramble as the rioters approached.

“Well, the people were very angry,” Trump said.

“They were saying, ‘Hang Mike Pence!'” Karl added.

“Because it’s common sense…” Trump responded.

One of the central figures in the book, John McEntee, an aide to Trump who was suddenly elevated to serve as director of the White House personnel office, essentially was tasked with purging the executive branch of those suspected of not being sufficiently loyal to Trump. The effort went to sometimes absurd lengths, according to the book. In one instance, according to Betrayal, Meadows alerted a top staffer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that one of their assistants had liked a Taylor Swift Instagram post encouraging people to vote and, in the next swipe, expressing her support for Joe Biden.

Another theme is that well before January 6, the wheels were set in motion for Trump to claim that the election was stolen, as he attacked mail-in balloting; claimed fraudulent activity even before Election Day; and, when the returns did come in that evening, claimed victory even though states were far from finishing their vote counts.

Karl talked to Deadline about reporting for the book, the former president’s reaction, what he’s learned about how to combat misinformation and the challenge for reporters if Trump decides to try for the ultimate encore — to run again in 2024.

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DEADLINE: There have been a number of Trump books before yours. Did that concern you?

JONATHAN KARL: I was petrified every time another book, that there would be material that would duplicate what I was working on. And those were really good reporters. … So it was it was with some trepidation that I waited for each of those books to come out. But I just felt that I was focusing on my story. As I was writing it, it wasn’t like I was upping the ante or anything. I just I just felt like I had a game plan and a story I wanted to tell, and it was really a story about what led us to the disaster that unfolded on January 6th, so everything in the book in some way builds up to that moment. I knew that was different.

DEADLINE: When did you know that you were going to do a book? Was it before Trump even left office?

KARL: I kind of kept a very detailed journal of 2020, and that turned out to be tremendously helpful to me in writing this book. It reminded me of things that I would have forgotten about, frankly. … And in the journal I often write questions that I have about the news I am covering. I’m going to report what I can under the deadline pressure. But I know that there are unanswered questions, and I write those down with the idea that I want to go back and pursue and find out what was really happening.

DEADLINE: How do you decide that something is for the book and something actually is news that has to get out there immediately?

KARL: I covered Trump continuously during 2020. I didn’t hold back anything. But when you go back to do the book, it’s usually after whatever news events have passed, and you try to get ahold of the officials, the people that were there, and try to see what you can learn further than you couldn’t have learned at the time. … There are people who would have never talked to me while the news was unfolding. They were in the middle of it. Maybe they were too busy. Maybe they didn’t want any out while they were in the midst of it all. But they could be convinced to sit down for the sake of history and talk about what they had been through. It’s also very different when you when you’re sitting down with somebody and all you have is a tape recorder, and it’s an in-depth interview and it might go on for a couple of hours.

DEADLINE: Why do you think Donald Trump sat down with you for the book? He’s attacked you personally on several occasions.

KARL: He’s savagely attacked me many times over the last several years, and then he’s come around and said really nice things about me. I mean, it just goes back and forth. So that’s not entirely new. There was a press conference where he called me … “a third-rate reporter” and said I was “never going to make it.” It was a really harsh attack in the middle of a press conference that was carried on national television. It’s kind of off-putting, but the amazing thing about that is he came back and called on me to ask another question later and that same press conference. The same press conference! So I wasn’t surprised that he let me down to Mar-a-Lago. I think that he had said twice publicly … that he thought that I treated him fairly in Front Row at the Trump Show, and it was a good book. … He also has a tremendous belief in his own ability to convince people of things.

DEADLINE: What about others in the Trump orbit, like former Attorney General Bill Barr? Why do you think they agreed to be interviewed?

KARL: I worked hard to get people to be on the record. I succeeded in some cases, not in all, but an amazing number of people who were right there in the middle of it all did agree to talk to me on the record, including Bill Barr. Chris Miller, who was acting Defense Secretary. In the case of Barr … I’d been asking for months, and somebody who worked for him said, “Yeah, he’ll do it,” but and they never got back to me at the time. So I kept on calling, “When are we going to do this?” And then finally somebody close to Barr said, “Why don’t you just call him on his cell phone?” And I actually didn’t have Barr’s cell phone. So this person gave me the cell phone [number], and Barr answered it, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do that. Why don’t you come over?” And that interview took a long time. Barr was one of the first people I sought after — and one of the longest to hold out before actually doing it.

DEADLINE: What did you do to get them to open up?

KARL: In some ways I think the key is you have a much more relaxed interview, and you let your subject talk and kind of lead the conversation along. I tried to keep myself out of it as much as possible and just get people talking. I wanted their stories, and I wanted to hear what they had witnessed. I wasn’t there to cross-examine them or to get a sound bite that could be used on television that night. And then the other key, and [Bob] Woodward has been a master of this, is as you’re talking to your sources, you also try to get them to point you to documents — whether it be notes from meetings, memos and whatnot. Some of the things that I’ve gotten the most attention in the book were the most difficult to get. I knew about that Jenna Ellis memo. I’d heard about it, probably sometime in the spring or so. But I couldn’t get my hands on it. It took me until almost when I was going to press, it was one of the very last things I got. And I was able to see it, hold it in my hands. I read it into a tape recorder, so I had the exact words, but I couldn’t actually take the thing with me. But I had heard of the existence of that memo. I had heard of Mark Meadows’ role in passing it on, but it was a real challenge to actually get my hands on it.

DEADLINE: One story that also got a lot of attention is what Bill Barr told you about Fox News host Maria Bartiromo, that she called him up in November and kind of berated him to investigate the election. She denies that story. Who do you believe?

KARL: So that also gets to the point of why it’s so important to have people on the record. Maria Bartiromo’s disagreement is not with me, it’s with Bill Barr. … When Barr told me that, I reached out to Maria Bartiromo to get her side of the story. I had her email address. I had her phone number. And she didn’t respond. And then I reached out to friends of Maria Bartiromo, people who know her. They gave me a couple of other email addresses that she used. I made multiple efforts to reach out to her, and radio silence. She did not respond. And then just as I was getting ready to go to press, I figured what I should do is I should go to Fox News and just make sure. Because I didn’t want Barr’s statement to stand without her having a chance to respond. Get her side of the story. So it was only after I called Fox News that I got a statement back, and it wasn’t from Maria Bartiromo directly. It was from a spokesperson for Fox News. … Now subsequently the book is out and she’s spoken about it. That’s interesting — who to believe. Who knows? It is interesting that Bartiromo does appear to be acknowledging that the conversation took place and says that it was Bill Barr who was yelling at her. And of course she takes issue with the notion that she was calling him to lobby on the issue. Some very interesting conversation happened there between those two people. [Bartiromo has said the insinuation that she was lobbying Barr or screaming at him was “absurd.”]

DEADLINE: How much do you think that, in the aftermath of the election, Trump was influenced by what he was hearing by right-wing talking heads? Or were they reflecting his claims that the election was stolen?

KARL: I’ll give you a corollary question to that, which is, how much was he influenced by the real fringe elements online that he often ended up retweeting and whatnot — the real kind of QAnon-esque, the Pepe crowd, the real fringe, in some cases clearly white supremacist-types online? How much was he influenced by them, and how much were they basically taking their cues from him? And I think it was a two-way street. Clearly there were a lot of people out there following Trump’s lead and parroting what he wanted to say. But he also latched on to stuff that he was seeing in the kind of far reaches of the internet. And how he ends up seeing those things, that’s a really good question. I don’t think I quite figured it out myself, to be honest. But he saw that stuff, and he embraced it and he made it his own.

DEADLINE: How did you decide that John McEntee would be a central figure in the book?

KARL: He was somebody who would come up in conversations that I would have, often as an aside, or somebody would grumble “McEntee, this” or “McEntee that.” McEntee was never the middle of the news as we were covering the events of 2020. But I kept on hearing bits and pieces about him. So when I took a really in-depth look at what this year was all about, I wanted to find out more about his role. I didn’t know what I would get. I mean, I didn’t know all this stuff was out there.

DEADLINE: The polling over and over again shows that Trump’s supporters or even the Republican Party believe his claims about election fraud. What do you think reporters can do better at countering misinformation?

KARL: I tried to as clearly as I could go through and examine the major claims that Trump made. It’s just looking at the actual facts. Were there ballot dumps in Detroit that came in late and totally switched the election and were fake ballots? Were there ballots under the table in [Georgia’s] Fulton County? Was there something funky about that? The truck driver allegedly drove ballots from Bethpage, New York, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Did that really happen? I went back and I actually examined these things. In some of them, I did it through the eyes of Bill Barr, because Barr himself had examined this. I know Barr has got some credibility, even now, among Trump supporters. He was the most popular Cabinet member among that kind of Trump base. And so instead of just saying, “It’s all lies, it’s false, there’s no evidence.” I said, “OK, let’s examine it.” Because you know what? It was confusing to watch the results come in on Election Night. It was confusing to see Donald Trump have a big lead at 10 o’clock at night, to still have a lead at 11 o’clock, and then maybe to go to sleep and wake up and find out, “Oh, my God, losing.” And I really tried to explain that. I explained how the votes were counted, where they were counted, what was happening. So you’re not just telling people, “It’s all lies. You’re believing lies.” You’re showing them and demonstrating in a kind of cold and factual way. And I hope that that does change some minds and convince some people. The facts are out there, and the facts are not with what Trump is saying.

DEADLINE: If Trump runs again, what do you think reporters should keep in mind in covering him just given what happened on January 6?

KARL: I think it’ll be one of the greatest, maybe the greatest challenge ever facing campaign reporters. How do you cover a candidate who is effectively anti-democratic? How do you cover a candidate who is running both against whoever the Democratic candidate is but also running against the very democratic system that makes all of this possible? I think it’s tremendously challenging, because you know that — especially now, more than ever — that he is just saying things that are not true, that are designed to misinform, that are designed to erode credibility and belief in our electoral system. And it’s actually dangerous. So how do you cover a debate? How do you cover a speech? How do you sit down for long live interviews with him as a candidate? I think these are really difficult questions because he is obviously not a typical candidate. He’s never been a typical candidate, but now he has been demonstrated to be a candidate that is trying to destroy the very system that makes this election possible. And yet we cover campaigns. That’s what we do. It is a very difficult, precarious situation, and I don’t know how it is going to play out, to be honest.

DEADLINE: What big unanswered question do you have about January 6?

KARL: What I would like to hear what I feel I would like to know more about is who is what Trump was saying and who he was talking to. I was able to piece together some of it. But there’s a lot more now about who Trump was talking to on that day and during the riot, and what exactly he was saying. There’s so much that rests on this executive privilege case [involving the January 6 Committee subpoenas] and getting it done quickly and getting those documents out.

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