Washington Post Reporting
Reporting on the speaker Tom Hamburger from the Washington Post, who came to the University of Connecticut to give a speech
Unearthing the truth of President Donald J. Trump’s ties to Russia remains a difficult venture for the Washington Post, Post reporter Tom Hamburger said Monday at the University of Connecticut.
“We are constantly overwhelmed,” Hamburger said. “We’re grappling with [staying focused amid] this cascade of daily events, of tweets, that throw us off guard.”
There’s a consensus in the news room, Hamburger said, that the tweets are designed to distract reporters. Nevertheless, he said that they are still statements from the president of the United States.
“[We’re expanding] to try and cope with what’s going on,” Hamburger said. “We have six full-time reporters covering the White House and the president… We’ve more than doubled our team [since President Barack Obama’s presidency and] I can tell you that our White House correspondents are flat-out exhausted at this point.”
Hamburger said that Russia’s interference in the presidential election is a historic event, and that many people working in intelligence agencies view the Russia’s cyber campaign that uses bots, fake news sites and emails as a military invasion.
“There’s going to be a demand to understand what happened here,” Hamburger said. “Whether this leads to [something that] undermines presidential credibility—and the real test is whether it intrudes on Republican sensibilities—we don’t know yet.”
Previously, Hamburger had the difficult job of investigating the Clinton Foundation, which he said received more money than any political family in U.S. history.
As a money in politics reporter, Hamburger said Trump captured his attention early on.
“We have never had a presidential candidate like Donald Trump,” Hamburger said. “He had an [active, international business] that was engaged in very complicated transactions, ownerships and licensing agreements all across the world.”
Hamburger’s job was to dive into this empire and translate what he found for the public, as well as discover who Trump might be beholden to if he were elected.
What Hamburger and other reporters took note of was Trump’s strange, complimentary attitude toward Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia, during the campaign.
“[This is] a country we’ve been engaged with for decades in a cold war,” he said. “Here we have a nominee saying [about their leader], and this is an exact quote: ‘I like him. He’s a strong leader. He’s so much stronger than our president.’”
Hamburger also noted that Trump said he liked Putin because, “He says nice things about me.”
In early March of 2016, Trump named Paul Manafort, a prominent Republican consultant to his campaign.
The Post found an obscure suit filed by Surf Horizon, a limited partnership wholly owned by a Russian businessman named Oleg Deripaska who was an ally of Putin, Hamburger said.
The suit claimed that Manafort and his partner, Rick Gates, had made off with $19 million in investment funds, Hamburger said.
It was an “aha” moment for Hamburger, who said that he realized there may be a bigger plot to investigate.
The Washington Post has also helped discover the ties that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, had to the Russians, Hamburger said.
Hamburger said that finding a financial relationship between Trump and Putin has not been a simple process.
“[Trump] was [once] asked on one of the Sunday talk shows about Putin’s record of human rights,” Hamburger said. “[When told about Putin’s killing of journalists,] Trump said, ‘Well that happens in other countries as well.’”
Trump’s opinion on reporters is clear, Hamburger said.
“Post-campaign, Trump referred to reporters as “the lowest form of humanity. That was not sufficient,” Hamburger said. “Then he called us the lowest form of life. As you know, he famously referred to us as, ‘enemy of the people.’”
The Post has had to hire additional security, Hamburger said, not for individual reporters but for the number of threats they’ve received, which has been on the rise during the campaign.
“It’s really been extraordinary,” Hamburger said.
Hamburger said his colleagues occasionally felt physically threatened at Trump rallies.
A young reporter on his staff, Jose A. DelReal, was photographed at Trump rallies and had his picture posted on Instagram with the word “Lügenpresse” printed on his forehead, a phrase used by Nazi Germany to mean “lying press,” Hamburger said.
“This was a moment we felt, and we felt intimidated by it,” Hamburger said.
Trump also withdrew the credentials of the Post during the campaign, Hamburger said, which meant that the Post could not travel with the candidate and could not get guaranteed admission to events. They also had to wait in line to get in like any other members of the public.
Trump has always been aggressive with the press even before his presidency, and he wears that as a badge of honor, Hamburger said.
“He talked during the campaign about our need to reform our libel laws so that he could more aggressively and easily sue those who had defamed him,” Hamburger said.
A decade earlier, Trump filed a libel suit against a New York Times reporter who had written a column saying that Trump was not worth as much as many millions as he claimed, Hamburger said.
“This is a guy who threatens lawsuits and acts on those threats,” Hamburger said. “Almost every story [we write] is reviewed by lawyers as well as traditional editors.”
Tom’s colleague, David Fahrenthold, won the Pulitzer prize on Monday for investigative reporting on Trump’s charities.
“Trump was always advertising his generosity and his willingness to give to charitable causes,” Hamburger said.
Fahrenthold looked at what the Trump administration said it donated, and then where the money went, Hamburger said.
“[A veterans’ organization] was promised a million dollars, but it never arrived. [A 6-foot tall portrait of Trump was in fact not donated to charity but instead] donated to a board room on a Trump golf course,” Hamburger said. “The only charity it had gone to was a Donald Trump company.”
Hamburger said that the Trump presidency is unlike anything the Post has experienced in Washington or presidential politics, but that they will keep on working.
“We educate ourselves as reporters so we can educate the public,” Hamburger said. “It goes back to the doctrines of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘It’s an educated populace making decisions in the full light of information that keeps us free.’ We have that high-minded notion in mind.”
After the speech, two UConn students shared their takeaways from the speech.
“I found the talk interesting, if not particularly illuminating,” Camille Chill said. “I believe Hamburger knows significantly more than he’s sharing with us today. I obviously understand the need for his secrecy, but I was kind of hoping for a nod and a wink type thing.” Chill also said that Hamburger felt evasive on questions about Russia, but added that his reporting and speaking skills were sound.
“I thought [this] was a pertinent topic,” Kaitlyn Allen said. “I lived in Russia, so I’m wondering, ‘What are they reporting on there? What are their viewpoints of their president’s interactions with our president?’”
Allen said that reporters are being called “the scum of the earth,” or “the opposition,” and that the change in how we’re getting our information is why people support Trump.
“They’re saying, ‘Oh, the Washington Post isn’t credible’ [and then going] to Fox News and saying, ‘This is credible.’,” Allen said. “It was interesting listening to [Hamburger]. He juggled very well being a reporter and [also] trying to be credible.”