Jonathan Swan on migrating to the Biden beat
Jonathan Swan, the star national political correspondent at Axios, has built a reputation as one of the most enterprising and deeply sourced reporters covering the White House. But for a brief period over the summer, his exasperated visage, captured in a combative TV interview with President Donald Trump and memed into the annals of internet fame, earned him a moment of celebrity that is rarely afforded even the most high-profile of journalists.
For Swan, 35, the realization that his face had unexpectedly become a social media sensation became clear when friends from his native Australia, who don’t normally follow American politics, messaged him in shock that his well-coiffed mug had hit their shores. “They’d realized I’d finally made it when Snoop Dogg Instagrammed me,” he said wryly in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday. “That was, I think, one of the things that really impressed my friends more than anything else.”
Of course, Swan’s quizzical expression, which spoke to many Americans dismayed by Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, would not have gone viral at all if his aggressive line of questioning hadn’t so effectively exposed the president’s effort to deflect responsibility for his mishandling of an unprecedented national crisis. But Swan, a tireless Trumpologist, was well prepared for the task, thanks to his four years delivering a fusillade of scoops on such consequential matters as the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while providing readers with a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Trump’s mostly unstructured life in the White House.
His reporting, in its totality, amounts to no less than a scrupulously detailed chronicle of the president’s time in office — one historians will surely appreciate, and which his colleagues in the field have had no choice but to reckon with as they’ve sought to keep up. “He bedeviled me,” Maggie Haberman, The New York Times’s White House correspondent and another uniquely sourced Trump whisperer, told JI, laughing with what sounded like a mix of awe and frustration. “There are many instances in which he has scooped me, which I think I’ve repressed the specifics of,” she said. “You just always have to watch out for him.”
With just under two months remaining until Inauguration Day — when Trump’s tumultuous run finally comes to an end — Swan remains on the prowl, averring that he has no intention of letting up in his coverage before the clock strikes noon on January 20.
At least for the moment, he is reluctant to reflect on Trump’s legacy, noting that he won’t yet allow himself to “get philosophical about what it means for the country” because he doesn’t think he has anything profound to say. “I haven’t sat back on a rocking chair and pondered my time covering Trump,” he said. “It’s obviously been a bizarre experience.”
His reporting, the implication was, should speak for itself.
But from a procedural standpoint, Swan was more than ready to expound on his experience covering the White House during what has been one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, culminating in what Swan described as a “poisonous non-transfer of power.”
The Trump administration is a singularly leaky vessel, discharging an unmitigated stream of secrets from anonymous officials and other ensigns in Trump’s orbit. Swan, a beneficiary of many of those secrets, said there was never any dependable rhyme or reason to the pattern with which leaks spewed out. Reporters simply had to be ready with their buckets to catch the excess drippage.
“Things were sort of blurted out and leaked out and shaken out,” he recalled. “I used to laugh at some of the commentary you’d get from people who used to work in previous administrations — ‘Oh, this story was clearly the press shop.’ It’s like, give me a break. That’s not how this Trump White House worked. There was not this delicate strategic planning going on where they packaged things up and put them out. It was just a daily fire hose where they were sort of reacting to mostly overwhelmingly negative stories.”
Even in the twilight of the Trump era, Swan said, the leaks continue to flow. “We just published a story this morning about Trump’s legal team having yelling matches, a lot of infighting over their strategy, and they’ve just thrown Sidney Powell under the bus for floating a conspiracy theory that was too much even for Rudy Giuliani,” he said. “The leaks are still there.”
Despite his reporting prowess, Swan has at times been accused of being too cozy with the Trump administration. Two years ago, in another televised interview with the president — the first installment in Axios’s new HBO show — Swan broke the news that Trump was planning to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship for immigrant children. But he was ridiculed for the seemingly giddy manner in which he brought up the order, and for failing to challenge Trump on a factual inaccuracy.
“It was a bad interview,” Swan acknowledged to JI, noting that it was his first TV interview and he hadn’t adequately prepared for it.
“Literally, the first television interview I ever did was the president of the United States,” he said. “I’ve been on plenty of TV shows over the years as a panelist, but I’d never actually done a sit-down TV interview. Probably’d be nice to start with, like, the mayor of some city or something and work your way up. It wasn’t probably an ideal situation, and I think it showed. I don’t think I did a very good job the first time.”
On the second go-round, this past July, he had sharpened his knives, arriving armed with an assortment of counterpoints as he challenged Trump’s misstatements at virtually every turn.
The fallout, according to Swan, has been long-lasting. “None of our Trump administration interview requests have been fulfilled since then,” he said.
In many ways, Swan’s needling of the president was a return to his roots. “The television interviewing in Australia and Britain is more adversarial and less deferential,” Swan said. “In Australia, there’s much less pomp and circumstance around the office of the prime minister than there is around the American president.”
Before decamping to the United States, Swan worked as a political correspondent at The Sydney Morning Herald, and he recalls his years down under with affection. “It’s a smaller pond,” he said, but that didn’t mean its reporters were any less effective at their jobs.
He singled out Pamela Williams, a writer-at-large at The Australian Financial Review, for praise. “Now, I’m a little biased — she is my mentor, and she’s a dear friend — but she is, in my opinion, the best investigative journalist in Australia over the last 30 years,” he said, “and she would clean the clocks of most reporters here in the U.S. at major publications.”
The feeling is mutual. “Jonathan’s been the most exceptional young journalist I’ve ever mentored,” Williams told JI in an enthusiastic email, adding: “He has a level of diligence, and a commitment to building sources that is a result of intense pressure: new to America, he was determined to dive into the deep and competitive pool of top Beltway journalism around the White House. And to work as hard as it took to rise to the surface.”
As the Trump era comes to an end, Swan — who worked as a political reporter at The Hill before joining Axios in 2016 — is now making preparations to cover the incoming Biden administration, even as he keeps one foot in the current White House and plans to stay connected to his sources with the hope that they can provide newsworthy material down the road.
He has found, for the moment, that it has been more difficult to cultivate sources in Biden’s orbit relative to Trump’s — a dynamic he anticipated but which he is still learning to navigate. “I’ve been told by my elders that I shouldn’t expect another West Wing to leak as prolifically as the Trump West Wing did,” he said. “I suppose that’s a shame. There was sort of real-time leaking out of the Oval Office, out of the Situation Room, and the culture of infighting and backstabbing — that will be hard to replicate, I imagine, for future administrations.”
The Biden camp, by comparison, “is a very disciplined and very tight-knit group of people who actually have real information,” Swan observed. In taking stock of the Biden landscape, Swan is coming to the conclusion that his reporting will “require a different mindset and a different approach,” he said with some level of mystification. “There’s just not going to be as many people willing to talk in an unauthorized capacity.”
Swan didn’t elaborate on what that approach would be, but Haberman — who will also be writing about the Biden administration — was confident that Swan’s coverage will be solid as he becomes familiar with the new terrain. “I’m sure it will drive the Biden folks crazy,” she said. “It will be great.”
Looking ahead to the larger stories, Swan mentioned the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of in 2018 and which Biden has vowed to reenter. “I’ll be covering the China story very closely,” Swan added. “I think the relationship with China, how they manage that, how they manage the politics of it and pressures from the left, pressures from the right, a willingness of some on his team to want to find areas to cooperate with China, but a political atmosphere where you’re going to get punished for that — it’s going to be a really interesting and obviously consequential dynamic to report on.”
Swan can also look forward to a new personal chapter. In September, he and his wife, Betsy Woodruff Swan, a national correspondent at Politico, had their first child. Swan took paternity leave after his daughter, Esther, was born, but he seems to have returned to work relatively quickly. “I took a couple of weeks — ish,” he said.
“It was hard to have a baby probably anytime, I imagined, but this year was challenging,” Swan added. “But my wife, Betsy, is amazing, and I think one of the hard things has been my family hasn’t been able to come out for their first grandchild. They’re all back in Australia.”
Swan, who is Jewish, finds downtime with his family on Friday nights, when they sit down for Shabbat dinner. Woodruff Swan, who is not Jewish, has learned how to make challah for the occasion, Swan told JI with pride. “She’s very good at it,” he said. “We love doing Shabbat dinner.”
Otherwise, according to Swan, “you make your own weekends as a reporter.” Swan — who harbors ambitions to write books or perhaps longer magazine pieces — has little sympathy for reporters who complain about the notion that Trump has stolen their time and thrown their schedules into a state of flux because of his haphazard and unpredictable approach to governing.
While some journalists may be looking forward to a more tranquil period of American politics, Swan seems intent on maintaining the same competitive pace he has kept up for the past four years.
“There are plenty of people who have had it really tough in America over the last year, and particularly during the pandemic,” Swan said. “I don’t put White House reporters at the top of the list.”
How Andy Borowitz is preparing for November
Andy Borowitz is tired of writing about the president.
“Trump has gotten so boring,” the satirist groaned in a recent phone interview with Jewish Insider. “Who wants to hear more of this guy? We’ve given this malignant narcissist his wish, which is to pay attention to him all the time. Enough already! It’s time to move on.”
Borowitz will, of course, find out whether he gets his wish in November, though he isn’t necessarily banking on an outcome in which Joe Biden — his preferred candidate — emerges victorious. “I think it will either be a close election one way or the other — either Trump wins or Biden wins — or it will be a Biden landslide,” Borowitz mused. “But I don’t think it will be a Trump landslide.”
The 62-year-old humorist’s output has increased since Trump took office nearly four years ago, though Borowitz, who writes satirical news dispatches for his eponymous newsletter, published by The New Yorker, said he has had to slow his pace on occasion out of concern that he will demoralize his readers with depressing material.
“There’ll be days where I’ve already done two things and then Trump does some crazy briefing at five o’clock and I have a joke and I just can’t do it,” Borowitz said. “I just feel like, first of all, I’m kind of tired of doing it, and secondly, I just don’t want to wear people out.”
“Most of the top stories have involved Trump because he’s — and I don’t mean this ironically — supremely talented at getting attention,” Borowitz said.
That doesn’t mean that Borowitz thinks satire is dead, as some pundits have postulated. “I remember after 9/11, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, said that irony was dead,” Borowitz recalled. “We would never be able to make ironic jokes again, because 9/11 had somehow made us all grow up very rapidly, and that did not turn out to be the case. I think irony is alive and well.”
Still, Borowitz acknowledged that it has become more challenging, over the past four years, to write satire that won’t be mistaken for real news.
“It’s much more of a minefield because it is such a thin line between coming up with the most idiotic idea you might have and something that then Trump will wind up doing two minutes after you write it, and that has happened to me,” Borowitz said. “I think it’s also happened to The Onion. That’s why, to some extent, sometimes I don’t make up really fanciful stories. I mean, sometimes I do. I will make up things that are clearly fictitious scenarios. But sometimes it is really more a question of just reporting what is actually going on and taking it very much at face value.”
Borowitz cites a recent headline — “Trump’s Agreeing to Talk to Woodward Shows Downside of Never Having Read a Book in Entire Life” — as evidence for his case. “It’s actually not a fanciful headline,” he said. “I’m actually saying something that’s 100% true, which is, he’s not a reader. And then, in fact, at a press conference later in the day, he pretty much confirmed that my headline was true because he said he had never read any of Woodward’s books.”
Borowitz believes that his headlines, which he writes himself, are the most important part of his job. He wonders if his fans even read past them. “That’s actually the most important thing I do because the headline is 99% of the joke,” Borowitz said. “I don’t really know what the statistics are for people who click through and actually slog through the remaining 200 words.”
He writes most of his articles on his iPhone and then cuts and pastes them into an email he sends to his editor — a practice that has served him particularly well during the coronavirus pandemic. “I have a very low overhead for my office here. I don’t actually even need a desk. My process has not in any way been disrupted by COVID-19,” said Borowitz, a longtime New Yorker who now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he moved in June with his family.
“We’re now going to actually be participating in the electoral college,” Borowitz quipped, “unlike all those years when we were in New York adding our meaningless vote to the tally.”
Borowitz, who averages around 100 stories a year, mostly uses Google News to gauge the national mood. “I think because I write about current events, people sometimes presume that I am much more knowledgeable than I am, which I’m not,” he said. “What I tend to do is get a sense of what the main topic that most people are thinking about is.”
Though he maintains a Twitter account, Borowitz quit looking at the site years ago after his wife alleged that it had become a “third party” in their relationship. “It can just be an incredible time suck,” he said, adding, “A lot of what’s on Twitter, people are sort of diluted into thinking that it passes for news, and it’s not really news, it’s just some drunk person coming out of a club and typing something, and then it’s amplified by genuine or semi-genuine media outlets who, in an act of supreme laziness, just cut and paste tweets and turn that into an article.”
“I think an impressive headline would be ‘Trump says something and Twitter very deliberately crafts a reasoned response,’” he continued. “That would be an unusual headline, and you’ll never never see that happen.”
Borowitz said he is crossing his fingers for a Biden presidency, both as a “citizen of the planet” and as a humorist.
“Biden is like a golden retriever puppy who’s just sort of out of control and shits all over your rug, but you kind of like him anyway,” he said, chuckling at the image. “But we haven’t seen that Biden this time around, partially because of the coronavirus, because he’s been under wraps and also, I think, because he’s got really smart people working with him, and it’s like, if he can just not talk, we’ll be golden. And by the way, I’m saying this as a Biden supporter. I think that he will be a good president. But I think that as a target for comedy, he’ll be fantastic.”
Borowitz is hopeful that current tensions will subside. “I think we’ll get to a point where somebody or some group of people will be able to create some kind of movement that brings people together at least to the extent that we’re not in open warfare with each other the way we are now,” he said. “I don’t know who that will be. It certainly won’t be me because I’m part of the problem. I’m a divider, not a uniter.”
Not that he’s too attached to that role. “If everybody stopped fighting with each other and I had nothing to write about, that would be an amazingly great development, as far as I’m concerned,” Borowitz said. “I could do something else with my time.”
Rachel Levin ponders an eternal question: Can Jews hunt?
When freelance writer Rachel Levin told her parents that she was going hunting for a magazine piece, they were surprised their Jewish daughter would take on what seemed like such a uniquely un-Jewish assignment. “My mom was nervous,” Levin said in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco.
So was Levin. “The only time I shot anything resembling a gun was in rifle class at Jewish summer camp,” she recalled to Jewish Insider.
Jews and hunting have always had something of a vexed relationship. The Jewish tradition does not generally look kindly on hunting, one reason being that kosher meat has to be slaughtered and not shot. The Jewish sage Kinky Friedman has “long believed that the most non-Jewish avocation an individual can pursue in this life is hunting,” he mused in a 2018 Tablet essay. “Why is this?” Friedman wondered. “Well, for one thing, after 40 years in the desert Jews feel uncomfortable in the great out-of-doors. For another, Jews have always been the people of the book, while guns have always been a John Wayne kind of thing.”
Levin agrees. “Maybe I know one Jewish guy who hunted once,” she said. “There’s certain things Jews don’t do, stereotypically, and this one, I think, just proves true.”
So, Levin was breaking the mold when, not too long ago, she embarked on a reporting trip for Outside magazine to hunt mule deer in the desert of central Arizona.
Not that she was doing the shooting. Levin accompanied a pair of rugged, crossbow-toting female hunters — Rihana Cary and Amanda Caldwell — who have carved out niches in a growing social media subculture. In her feature, published last week, Levin calls them “huntstagrammers, social-media influencers who are quite literally changing the face of hunting.”
Levin has never had such aspirations, but she did admit to a lingering interest in hunting that she imagines would not have been satisfied, at least in part, without the assignment.
“I had always kind of had this curiosity about hunting and never had gone,” said Levin, who added that she was once invited to go squirrel hunting in Mendocino by a “rare San Francisco hunter” she wrote about a while ago. “I was intrigued, but that never came together.”
Still, Levin looked at the prospect of a five-day hunting trip with some concern. “I was intimidated by the idea of hunting,” she said, “the idea of just sort of wandering the desert, which I guess, to a Jewish person, should seem familiar and comfortable.”
“I was, of course, neurotic and worried that a mountain lion would eat us or something like that,” said Levin, the author of a book of tips on surviving animal encounters, which came about in large part due to a chance run-in with a moose in Colorado. “I was worried about having to help dismember an animal.”
Trepidation notwithstanding, Levin noticed that she was, initially, underwhelmed by the experience once she got in the field. “It was a whole different way of looking at wildlife and looking at the deer, so I found that, at first, sedentary and boring,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, are we just going to sit here?’ But then, I got into it and found it, ultimately, incredibly exhilarating in a weird way that I hadn’t expected.”
“I liked the uncertainty,” said Levin, whose subjects failed to bag a deer in the end but came close more than once. “I did want to know what that would feel like and that was one of my reasons for wanting to do it,” Levin told JI. “What does it feel like to kill your own supper and harvest your own meat?”
Such questions hint at the possibility that Jews and hunting are more compatible than it may seem. “Jews don’t hunt,” Levin ventured, “but the overlap is just the attention and focus around meat and sort of looking ethically at how you’re eating meat, at how you’re killing your meat.”
“I’m not kosher at all, and don’t necessarily even understand it,” Levin continued. “But I can see the odd kind of overlap, in the same way that vegetarianism and hunting seem to have an overlap, a little bit, because you’re sort of wanting to know where your meat comes from.”
Levin has been a freelance writer for about a decade and before that was a travel editor at Sunset magazine. Until recently, she worked as the San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater.
Along with Look Big, her book on animal encounters, Levin co-authored Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews, released in March. She recently completed another book, to be published next spring, on the therapeutic aspects of cooking.
Levin didn’t characterize her hunting experience as therapeutic. But she did express a desire to do it armed rather than observing others in action.
“I feel kind of incomplete and would like to try it again,” she said. “Whether I myself might become a hunter?” she added. “That seems still kind of a big leap to make.”