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‘We are dealing with an utterly abnormal situation’: RNZ’s man in Washington, Simon Marks, on covering Trump

Morning Report listeners will be familiar with the crisp British tones of Simon Marks, messenger of daily astonishment from the White House. We asked him about the strange new world, his modest media empire, and the dangers of normalising President Donald J Trump.

Don’t know about you but my mornings these days usually begin with a bleary eyed stare at the “While you were away” posts that have been catapulted to the top of my Twitter feed. Almost invariably, they’re dominated by the latest steamy-eared outbursts by the actual 45th president of the United States.

Next, I flick on Morning Report, where Susie Ferguson or Guyon Espiner is probably interviewing Washington DC correspondent Simon Marks, as if by way of daily confirmation that President Donald Trump, and whatever it is that has just happened, is in fact real, and not the stuff of some delirious nightmare.

Marks, a former ITN reporter who founded the company Feature Story News in 1992, is fast becoming the heir to Connie Lawn as RNZ voice of the White House. For those of us who listen habitually to Morning Report, this momentous episode in history will be forever narrated in his brisk, modulated, if occasionally audibly gobsmacked, British intonation.

At the end of a week in which Marks witnessed, among other things, the dramatic resignation of national security advisor Mike Flynn over his links to Russia and Donald Trump’s other-worldly, epic press conference, I asked him over Skype how it feels to be the harbinger of daily astonishment.

Simon Marks: It’s a very strange thing. I suppose what has underscored the strangeness of it is that of course nobody for a moment imagined that this was where we were going to be. I think everybody thought the election would be over. Hillary Clinton was going to claw out a victory. And we would preside over a relatively quiet Christmas and New Year period while she put her government together and then everything would continue operating in relatively predictable fashion.

Of course, from the moment it became apparent that he had won, we have never stopped working. I joke with people that I haven’t had a day off since the Obama administration. I kind of wonder how long that is going to be true. I think it may be true for quite a while to come.

I cover events here for a whole variety of different international broadcasters, and one of them is Radio New Zealand, and has been for a very long time, and Radio New Zealand is very dear to my heart. What I’m trying to do, basically, is first of all communicate to people on a continuing basis that we are dealing with an utterly abnormal situation here. One can overuse the words “extraordinary” and “unprecedented”, and I have definitely overused them.

My wife actually banned me from using “extraordinary” during the course of the election campaign, and she recently said I’ve got to stop using “unprecedented”. But the reality is this is unprecedented and it is thoroughly abnormal, and if you don’t communicate than on a continuing basis, you then become somewhat complicit in what the White House would like everyone to believe, which is, “this is perfectly normal, this is normal stuff!” And what’s going on here is not normal. Michael Flynn was not a normal choice for national security advisor. Objectively, he was unfit to serve. That’s not my opinion, that is the viewpoint of the vast majority of people in this city. In fact, outside the Oval Office and the West Wing of the White House, you would be very hard pressed to find people who think that Michael Flynn was fit to be national security advisor. So if you go on the air and you talk about “national security advisor Michael Flynn”, and you don’t say, “who the vast majority of people in Washington think is totally unfit to serve in the US government”, you’re sort of complicit in the normalisation of a process that is abnormal.

This morning I think your words were, “We’ve never seen the likes of it before.”

What I’m trying to do is constantly communicate the idea that what’s happening here is totally off-base. There is no map for this. We are sailing every single day through uncharted territory. The press conference that just finished up at the White House – we’ve never seen anything like it here. And this is a president who, for whatever reason, is deliberately on a daily basis chipping away at public confidence in the fundamental institutions of democracy here, of open society government, he’s going after the courts, he’s going after the media, he’s going after the opposition. He’s going after polling companies. You name it he’s going after them in a bid to discredit them. And that changes the fundamental compact of what’s taking place in this city.

To see this sort of figure at the White House, who becomes enraged because he signs documents and then a court says, well, no actually you’re not allowed to do that, that’s not the way this works, and then he attacks the courts, is not something that, after 24 years here, I ever thought I would see.

But it certainly makes for an interesting working day.

President Trump lectures the press during today’s amazing press conference

Among those unprecedented elements you point to is that relationship with the media. In that press conference this morning, Trump went hard at the media again – he’s trying to frame it as him versus the media, as he did in the campaign. And it suits him. So I guess the challenge for you and in the press corps is finding the balance between fighting back and covering it detachedly. It’s hard, right?

Unbelievably difficult, because he’s picking personal fights. He’s literally picking a fight in that press conference with Jim Acosta, accusing CNN of having a tone of hatred towards him. And then when Julie Pace from the AP really tries to press him, for about the fourth or fifth time in the press conference, about whether any of his aides had communications with the Russians during the election campaign, she becomes his target. And there is an extent to which he’s using the media to divert everybody’s attention away from the things that we have to be talking about, which is: to what extent is the White House compromised in terms of its ties to Russia, if indeed they exist? He still has not explained why Michael Flynn was kept in top-level national security meetings two-and-a-half weeks after he, the president, learned that Michael Flynn was in fact a national security risk. So a lot of this is diversionary.

But it’s also fundamental. You know, Nixon had an enemies list, right back in the 1970s, and there were lots of household name journalists on that list. But we didn’t actually know he had the enemies list until it was disclosed during the Watergate hearings, in 1973. This guy’s making it clear that he’s got a list, and it’s a constantly expanding list, and you’re on it. That makes life very complicated because he has pierced the age-old compact that existed in this city, which is that the president and the reporters who cover him may not always have gotten along – sometimes they may have gotten along far too cosily – but the president of the day understood that part of the job of leading a country that professes to be the world’s leading democracy is taking uncomfortable questions and finding ways to answer them.

Sam Donaldson, who was the ABC correspondent in the Reagan era, used to shout questions at Reagan, and Reagan would pretend not to be able to hear them over the rotor blades of the chopper. Sam Donaldson used to say there’s no such thing as a bad question, it’s only the bad answers that can hurt you. And this president does not buy into that compact. He doesn’t want to be taking questions from representatives of the AP, Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post. That’s why we’re seeing this jiggery-pokery going on, with suddenly Breitbart getting a front seat in the press room.

That’s not to say the press arrangements here were unimpeachable, they clearly were not. But that fundamental compact – that part of the job of running this democracy is occasionally being asked questions that make me uncomfortable – he has absolutely no interest in that whatsoever.

You’re not just, as you mentioned, an RNZ correspondent – can you tell me a little bit about Feature Story News and how that works?

We’re an independent broadcast news agency, and we’ve got 20 offices around the world. I started the company 25 years ago, this is our 25th anniversary year, which at some point we have to mark. We produce ready-to-air content for a whole variety of different 24-hour news channels, radio stations, single-subject TV shows, all over the world.

Simon Marks in the field

What shape does the day take?

My day today has included obviously the stuff I’m doing for Radio New Zealand, I’ve done several lives today for a 24-hour TV channel in Singapore called Channel News Asia, I did a live earlier today for a Turkish-based global news channel called TRT World, I do a lot for LBC in London, E News channel in South Africa – didn’t do them today, will probably do them tomorrow.

My 13-year-old’s bedroom doubles as a TV studio. Which has upside for him and downside. The downside is that at 5.45 in the morning I walk in and turn the lights on and say I’m very sorry I’ve got to go on the air. The upside is that he has a 75-inch plasma screen in his bedroom, which is more often used to play inappropriate video games than it is to beam me into people’s living rooms all over the place.

So the day begins at sort of six or seven in the morning with live TV broadcasts from home. Morning Report is my lunchtime activity, that’s normally around 1.15 in the afternoon here, in between a sandwich and a coffee. And then often the day will end with Checkpoint, late at night. Checkpoint goes out around 11pm here. I’m trying to do some taped stuff for Checkpoint but that gets complicated now because this news cycle never ends. And that’s a real change here. Never mind the obvious huge personality change and the political change. In terms of being a working journalist in this town, the day never ends. Because even if you get that email from the White House press pool, saying, OK, they’ve called what they refer to here as a “lid”, but which is basically code for, “the day’s official events are over, he’s having a bite to eat and he’s going to bed.” Well, with this president that just means he’s retreating into the family quarters of the White House and a Twitter storm will be right around the corner.

So we’re all, not just me but my other colleagues here – talk to people from BBC, from Sky, from ITN – are waking up occasionally at two or four in the morning to glance at the telephone to see what he’s tweeted. That is making life complicated.

You said you’d been in Washington now for 24 years. How did you end up there?

I sort of ended up in Washington more by accident than by design. I was working in Moscow, I lived in Moscow from 91 to 93, and I was the correspondent and bureau chief for an American cable outfit. The Christian Science Monitor newspaper had a TV division, and I was their Moscow correspondent and bureau chief right around the time of the Soviet coup against Gorbachev. And then basically they pulled out of the television business and asked me to stay on in Moscow and be their video correspondent. To cut a long story short, I cut a deal with them whereby I stayed in Moscow for a year, provided them for radio for which I did not charge them. And I leased their television equipment in Moscow and did not pay for that. So it was a barter deal.

We got incredibly busy, very, very quickly, because it was Russia and it was 1992 and everybody wanted coverage. And so at the end of ’92 we said, well this is quite good, why don’t we hire some people here to run the Moscow office and we’ll go and open a second office in Washington, which is how I came here.

I’d always wanted to come and live in Washington. It was a natural career progression, certainly in British television and radio – you often went from being Moscow correspondent to being a Washington correspondent. But I came here 24 years ago not anticipating I’d still be here 25 years down the pike. I’ve just never left.

However, it’s also important that I’m not an American citizen. I’m a legal resident, I’m a Green Card holder. But it’s very important to me that I’m a British citizen still, because that allows me to feel like, even 24 years on, with kids and a house and all of that kind of stuff, I am very much a foreign observer of what’s going on here, as opposed to a card-carrying voter.

You’ve had this bizarre month – not even a month yet, it seems impossible – where is it all going to be one month from now?

The question that everybody asks here is how much longer can this go on? In two ways. First of all the frenetic pace, some of which I think one is beginning to sense is deliberate. The sort of Steven Bannon, Breitbart News worldview is that the more chaos you can create and manage, the more you’ve got people constantly second guessing what you’re doing or what you may do, you’ve constantly got people on edge. So that’s definitely part of the strategy here now.

This city was not really built for that. This city is a relatively sedate place, you know. There are certain natural rhythms to life here, and rhythms to relationships that people enjoy here, that in many ways are not particularly healthy: the revolving door between government and media, the “I’ll cover you in the morning and take you out for dinner in the evening” approach to life was more than ready to be blown up.

So one question is how much more of this can the city take, and I suspect the city is reeling from what is going on. And I think the other questions is the bravado and bluster that is on display and was on display in that news conference, doesn’t resolve big questions that are not going to go away.

Where will we be in month? I have no idea. I got a text from a colleague today, saying, “What do you think are the chances he makes it to 2020?”

Does he make it though a full term, does this implode and some point? Is there an intervention and Republicans come along and say you’ve outlived your usefulness to us, we’re going to move you out? Or does he ride this populist tide all the way to 2020 and beyond? But if we all carry on working at this pace, it’s going to be very, very complicated.

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