CNN’s Jake Tapper on McCarthyism, Trump, and the ‘Jar Jar Binks principle’

Jake Tapper is CNN's chief Washington correspondent and the host of The Lead and State of the Union. His novel, The Hellfire Club, is set in 1954 Washington, D.C. (Corey Nickols/Getty Images for Pizza Hut)

Jake Tapper is CNN's chief Washington correspondent and the host of The Lead and State of the Union. His novel, The Hellfire Club, is set in 1954 Washington, D.C. (Corey Nickols/Getty Images for Pizza Hut)


As CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper is often focused on breaking news and the latest political stories, but the host of The Lead and State of the Union switched things up a bit for his latest project.

Tapper’s new novel, The Hellfire Club, takes place in 1954 Washington, D.C., during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist “witch hunt.” He says that although 64 years separate his characters from today’s political players, many of the themes apply.

“I thought it would be fun to try to capture the ‘swamp’ and some other things about Washington and talk about 2018 in some ways, but … from the lens of 1954,” Tapper says.

Tapper describes McCarthy’s efforts to attack and ruin opponents as “very resonant” to the current political climate: “They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And there’s a lot of rhyming when you read about McCarthy and when you think about President Trump.”


Interview Highlights

On choosing to cut off Trump adviser Stephen Miller during a heated interview on CNN’s State of the Union

I had never had an interview like that before. It’s just appalling behavior. I read a tweet to [Miller] and asked him if he thought that helped or hurt the president’s cause. It’s the president’s tweet, the president’s statement. It’s not that difficult a question, and it’s pretty obvious that I was going to ask about it.

It was the “very stable genius” tweet that remains fairly notorious — or famous — depending on your point of view. … [Miller went] through a litany of attacks on my network, on me, on me personally, saying that I don’t care about manufacturing jobs, that I don’t care about real people. I mean, it’s just a lie, and I should’ve cut him off earlier. That’s what I think. When I hear the interview I think, “Boy, that’s brutal. I’m glad I cut him off, but I wish I had done it quicker.” …

All [Miller] really cared about was making President Trump think he was defending him. That appearance was not about convincing any of my viewers that President Trump is a “very stable genius” or has the answers. It wasn’t even about convincing viewers that CNN wasn’t being fair.

On how Miller was escorted out of the building following their on-air exchange

He kept talking during the commercial break. … The same attacks on me and CNN and basically what you heard on camera he was saying off camera. Eventually we were ticking down and I said, “OK, you have to go.” And he wouldn’t go. And it got heated and eventually, before we came back from commercial break, he had to be escorted out. And then he went on Fox and denied it the next day which is also odd, because one thing we have an abundance [of] at a TV studio is cameras filming things. So it was odd to hear him deny that, but these people lie about everything, so why wouldn’t he lie about that? … He knows the truth. He knows a guard escorted him out of the studio, down the elevator, through the lobby, out the door. He knows that that happened.

On the Fatal Attraction-inspired SNL sketch about Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway trying to get back on his show

My introduction to it was from my wife, who normally does not wake up when I wake up Sunday morning (at 6 in the morning). But when my alarm went off, she was right there awake and told me, “You have to see this. … They did you again on Saturday Night Live last night.” I’m like, “Oh, were they mean?” (That’s always my first question) … Because even though I’m 49 years old, I have the soul of a gentle 8 year old. She says, “No, but you have to watch it.” …

So the first thing I noticed was that they were less generous about my hairline than they had been in the past, which I guess I had that coming. But then my wife thought it was sexist. She is a very strong and proud feminist and she thought it was sexist. Why is Kellyanne Conway being sexualized? Also, it’s weird when it’s you and somebody you interact with professionally and, like, all of a sudden they’re doing a skit where it’s sexual. It’s just kind of odd.

On what he calls the “Jar Jar Binks principle,” and how it applies to President Trump

Too often in this world, people rise to the level that they remove from their orbit anybody that would tell them Jar Jar Binks [from Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace] is a horrible character. [Star Wars director] George Lucas would be an example of that. I think he’s one of the most brilliant people on this planet, but I don’t know what happened with those [Star Wars] prequels, but they are not good. The prequels are not good and they made a billion dollars and they’re successful and all that, but they’re not good.

So I see the Jar Jar Binks principle everywhere, and I think it’s important to keep people around you who will tell you when you’re being a jerk. And I have lots of people like that in my life — many, many people. Some of them are even in my house. I think it’s very important, and I think that President Trump is a victim of the Jar Jar Binks principle. I think he removes people from his life that tell him negative things and sometimes for survival they stop criticizing the president, sometimes for survival they leave, sometimes they get pushed out the door. But I think that’s a problem with him and I think it’s one for successful people to keep in mind.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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