Robert Costa on political reporting, history in the making, and `bewilderment’ in the Capitol

Washington Week and national political reporter for The Washington Post, Robert Costa speaks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies at WHYY.  (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

Washington Week and national political reporter for The Washington Post, Robert Costa speaks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies at WHYY. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

The room was full of listeners eager for insights from Robert Costa, political reporter for the Washington Post and host of PBS’s “Washington Week.” 

Costa, who is originally from Bucks County, and Dave Davies, of WHYY’s “Fresh Air, conversed at WHYY studios Saturday about public media, political reporting, and the roots of Costa’s career. 

“You are all living through history,” Costa reminded the audience as he discussed the presidential impeachment hearings that have been underway in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Costa is known for his breaking-news coverage of President Donald Trump, which has earned him the nickname, “Trump whisperer.” 

Davies asked Costa for his thoughts on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment strategy. Costa said it’s a “blessing” to cover such a “historical figure.”

“You feel it now, the changing tides in America. The lawmakers I’m covering every day are grappling with the rise of nationalism, a president who’s testing the limits of executive power, and you see Speaker Pelosi there in the center of it all,” Costa said.

For many years, Costa said, his reporting focused on understanding where the Republican Party is while it’s having this “historical reckoning.”

He explained how Trump’s presidency has stirred an identity crisis within the GOP. According to Costa, many Republicans find it difficult to interpret Trump’s conduct.

“Bewilderment is what I encounter so often when I’m in the halls of the Capitol,” he said.

People constantly ask him why more Republicans don’t speak up against Trump, Costa said. And he replies, “The answer is simple, they don’t know what else to do. They like being in power. I’ve seen it up close, so many lawmakers would rather stay in power than have any kind of public fight about President Trump.”

Davies asked Costa about the early stages of his journalism career. 

After graduating with honors from Notre Dame and then from Cambridge, Costa couldn’t find a job in journalism. On the brink of giving up, he got a fellowship at the National Review, the influential conservative magazine. 

Costa said he did not want to write conservatively, just about conservatives. In the end, he said, “It turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” 

His beat, starting in 2009, was on “the fringe of the American Right.” It was then that Costa got to know Donald Trump. 

The National Review gave him a “front-row seat” to the “constant turbulence, the rise of nationalism, and the fracturing of a major political party.”

Saturday’s conversation closed with Costa laying down the framework for being a successful national political reporter. 

According to Costa, it’s about building trust. Much of that trust, he said, comes from making a lot of phone calls. The key to being a national political reporter? Call just to “check in,” all the time.

“You cannot call people when news breaks. You have to call them all the time. So when you’re in a crisis, you’re going to take my call versus a hundred other people, because I called you during a non-crisis.” 

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