In Conversation

Covering ‘A Very Stable Genius’ with journalist Phil Rucker ’06

Phil Rucker and Very Stable Genius book jacket

As White House bureau chief for The Washington Post, journalist Philip Rucker ’06 B.A. helps write the first draft of history amid the chaos of the perpetual news cycle.

In a new book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America” (Penguin Press), Rucker and co-author Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter at The Post, go beyond the day’s headlines, providing a comprehensive account of Trump’s first three years in office, drawing on 200 sources.

Rucker, a former reporter and editor for the Yale Daily News (YDN), recently spoke to YaleNews about the challenges of covering the White House and his early days covering the university’s administration.

In writing the book, what service were you hoping to provide readers?

We both have covered the Trump presidency, though in different roles, these past three years, and it’s been a dizzying experience. There are crises every hour of every day, and we as reporters on the beat have trouble making sense of it all.

We got the sense that the American people also had trouble making sense of it all. We wanted to hit pause and write a real-time history of the first term of this presidency, and understand what happened behind the scenes and why the president made the decisions he has made. We looked at his statements, his motivations, and tried to figure out some patterns and through lines.

To the extent that this book is providing a public service, I think it helps the public better understand what’s been happening inside the Oval Office during this extraordinary period.

Is it particularly challenging to write a book in this fast-paced news environment and its seemingly ceaseless string of controversies? Did you worry your material would become stale?

In the Trump presidency, Monday’s bombshell of a story is an afterthought by Wednesday. To write a book in this environment is incredibly challenging. We kept at it while hoping that excavating additional detail, dialogue, and color to events we had reported in real-time would have an impact and value despite the speed of the news cycle.

A lot of the power in “A Very Stable Genius” is not so much that we’re telling you about new events that you didn’t know happened, but that we’re offering new information concerning events you already know about, which helps you better contextualize and understand them.

What’s it like to cover the Trump White House, and was reporting in the book different than the reporting that drives day-to-day coverage?

It certainly has been a much more challenging administration to cover than the Obama White House, which I also covered for The Washington Post. The process of reporting is the same no matter who is president. The job is to figure out things that the administration doesn’t want us to discover. We go about finding ways to get that information. We develop sources and review primary documents. We try to piece together kernels of information and detect patterns.

The process of reporting in the book was a little different in that we wanted it to be a comprehensive history of this period. We wanted to make sure we were complete in our reporting. We didn’t want to rely on a half-dozen key officials to be our narrators, but rather we wanted to try to talk to everyone who was in the room during all these moments, which ends up being a lot of people. We interviewed more than 200 people, including top administration officials, and friends and advisors to the president, and other people who had special, firsthand experiences to share.

Were you surprised by people’s willingness to talk to you and share concerns about the administration?

It was challenging at first to get things going, but we found that each time we interviewed a principal for the book, we would learn new information, which led us to securing additional interviews and identifying additional sources. In the final two months of working on the book, we were doing our fact checking, which is a rigorous process that involves going to everyone we’ve placed in a scene or whose motives, thinking, and actions we describe in any way, and verifying with them that our account is correct. We were able to learn so much more information because people who initially shut us out all of sudden became sources. By the end of the project, we had spoken with most, if not all, of the key players who have served in this administration. The exception being the president himself, who agreed to do an interview with me and then backed out as the hostility between him and his aides and The Washington Post and the press corps writ large intensified.  

What went through your mind when you learned that you and your coauthor had been called “stone cold losers” on Twitter by the president of the United States?  

To be honest, we had two thoughts. On the one hand we thought it was great because it showed that the president was paying attention to our book. It couldn’t have been better in terms of drawing attention to it. On the other hand, a reporter never wants to be in the line of fire like that. It’s deeply uncomfortable to be attacked by any official or source, let alone the president of the United States. We wish he didn’t have that kind of personal animus towards us or any other journalists. And while he attacked us personally, he has not contested any of the details we reported in the book, nor have his staffers. Nobody has challenged our reporting.

You got your start at the Yale Daily News and currently serve on the paper’s foundation. What drew you to the YDN when you arrived on campus?

I started at the Yale Daily News very early in my first year. I didn’t know coming in that I wanted to be student journalist, but I was interested in it, and I got hooked right away. There was a great sense of community at the YDN. I loved that being a reporter there gave you license to stick your nose everywhere and understand the campus in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t as an undergraduate. It gave you license to challenge the administration and ask questions and be in the know, which I loved.

I was a general assignment reporter my freshman year. In my sophomore year, I covered the academics beat, which included the Yale College administration and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The big story on my beat that year was Peter Salovey being named the dean of Yale College. That was my big scoop. I broke that story. He became a source of mine and he’s been a terrific Yale president.

Do you recall any specific tussles with the university’s administration during your YDN career?

There were always tussles with the administration. One thing I really appreciated about then-president Rick Levin was that he really cared about the YDN and prioritized the student journalists. I was news editor my junior year, and I edited all the campus and university coverage. President Levin set aside a time every night when one of our reporters could call him at home and run through whatever stories the staff was working on. He was very accessible and he saw that as an important part of his role as the university president.

Do you have any advice for aspiring reporters on campus?

Yale doesn’t have a traditional journalism school, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become a great journalist going to Yale College. My advice is that if you’re interested in being a journalist, then practice journalism. Get out there and report and write stories for the YDN or one of the other great publications on campus. I came away from my undergraduate years at Yale with the best preparation to be a journalist, which is the opportunity to ask questions, and report and write stories. 

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