- Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay, White House reporters for The Daily Beast, wrote their new book “Sinking in the Swamp” with a focus on mid and low-level Trump associates.
- The authors modelled their profile of President Donald Trump‘s administration on “Wiseguy” – the true crime book upon which the classic mobster film “Goodfellas” is based.
- Insider spoke with them about their peculiar White House beat, including Rudy Giuliani prank-texting Suebsaeng because he was bored, and White House aides using a fake email account to troll reporters.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Of the umpteen books written about President Donald Trump‘s administration, “Sinking in the Swamp: How Trump’s Minions and Misfits Poisoned Washington” is the first to focus on the mid and low-level associates that give Trumplandia it’s darkly absurd flavour.
Written by Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay, White House reporters for The Daily Beast, “Sinking in the Swamp” seeks to fill a void left by other books on the Trump administration that the authors believe lack the “necessary combination of horror, tar-black humour and gleeful disregard for ‘respecting the office’ for which we believe the occasion has called.”
They are unsparing in their descriptions of the president, at one point describing his half-hearted attempt to dictate a statement renouncing his past support for Obama birther conspiracy theories as a “seven-minute, meandering spat of word-mouth vomit.”
The authors don’t let themselves off the hook for their participation in the madness either. The book’s first chapter recounts the night a highly-buzzed Suebsaeng tried to coax the famously straight-laced former FBI Director James Comey into doing some “fireball shots” at the Trump International Hotel.
Insider spoke with Suebsaeng and Markay prior to the release of “Sinking in the Swamp.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Insider: How did you guys start working as a team?
Markay: I think we started writing together when we collaborated on a story about [former Deputy Assistant to President Trump] Seb Gorka.
Suebsaeng: Seb Gorka brought us together.
Markay: In May 2017, we ended up writing a few different stories about Gorka. And through that, I dragged Swin fully into the realm of White House reporting. We still look back on May 2017 as the absolute f—ing month from hell in White House coverage.
Suebsaeng: That month lasted two years.
Markay: Comey getting fired. Trump giving Sergei Lavrov classified information in an Oval Office meeting. All these crazy things kept happening. So by default, our editors told us, “You are now on the beat of White House insanity.”
Suebsaeng: I don’t think I ever had any ambition to be a White House reporter for any administration. Up until early January 2017, like right before he was inaugurated, I don’t think I was presenting myself as someone who would even want to go to the White House for anything, really.
I started covering Trump for Mother Jones magazine, which was my previous job where I was a politics and culture reporter. I basically was covering how Hollywood and politics intersected. So The Daily Beast saw this and they hired me to do exactly that. [Then] Donald J. Trump comes along and launches his campaign, which in my mind and the minds of a lot of other people, was the logical conclusion, if not logical extreme, of where politics and pop culture in America radically intersected.
So months turn into a year and a half, and what do you know, Hillary Clinton manages to s— the f—— bed and Donald J. Trump beats her to become leader of the free world. So I was accidentally slotted into this role as a Trump White House reporter.
Markay: The funny thing about this administration is media reporters and Hollywood reporters are just as qualified to cover it as politics reporters, both because Trump is such a ridiculous figure, but also because those worlds have never had a larger impact on how policy gets made than they have right now.
‘We would have sucked at covering any other White House’
Insider: Something that popped out at me was that the model for this book was “Wiseguy” [the book upon which the classic mobster film “Goodfellas” is based]. But to me it almost reads like if Hunter S. Thompson wrote a true crime book about politics.
Markay: Didn’t he do that?
Insider: Kind of, yeah. What I mean is in a lot of ways Thompson became the story itself. Was there a conscious choice to make yourselves characters in the book?
Markay: Yeah, I think there was. I don’t want to toot our own horn too much. I mean, we’re not calling ourselves world-class journalists when I say that the manner in which we stumbled into this was kind of a microcosm of how Trump himself has changed some of the dynamics in Washington.
I remember reading a piece back in 2013 about how the White House beat was sort of this cushy, boring, mostly staid place for veteran reporters to go and not really do a lot of work and go to press briefings and mingle with powerful people. But it wasn’t considered a particularly exciting beat. Not much news came out if it. And then that changes very dramatically right at the outset [of the Trump administration].
We felt there was a lot of coverage and even some books coming out about the administration that tried to approach it the way you would approach previous White Houses. Clearly that’s not the direction we went in. And the way The Daily Beast approached it in assigning both of us to the White House sort of tacitly understood that.
So the fact that the two of us – who didn’t have a minute of White House experience between us – were given this beat and told to just kind of run wild with it, is a microcosm of how things have changed in the Trump era, how media has changed in the Trump era.
We are sort of inescapably part of the story a bit in that we would have sucked at covering any other White House and we wouldn’t have enjoyed it like we do this. So I don’t want to call it a memoir or anything like that, but I think there needed to be a first-person element because the absurdity of this era is illustrated partly in the fact that we are covering it.
‘A lot of bush league, cartoonish, Adult Swim-style ratf——‘
Insider: It’s no secret that this White House leaks like a sieve. Can you talk about the leakers that have been most useful to you and the ones that have been the least useful to you?
Markay: The challenge was everyone was leaking for sometimes selfish and sometimes duplicitous reasons. We recap in the book getting fed these absolute 100% bulls— anonymous tips by someone who claimed to be a high-level administration insider, who we subsequently discovered was multiple people inside the White House who were just trying to ratf— us by giving us bulls— tips and seeing if we’d run with them.
Insider: And that was the fake “swampydcinsider” email account.
Markay: “Swampydcinsider,” exactly.
Suebsaeng: Among the White House press corps in the Trump era, “swampydcinsider” is something that you just say to them and they will start giggling. I think it’s something that multiple people had eye-rolly interactions with back in 2017.
Markay: And they would feed you just enough to make it seem like it was real. Or they would read something you wrote to figure out a tip that you had, and then give you some bulls— tip that sounded like it could be plausibly aligned with that, and then hoped you would run with it.
So it was actually kind of clever, but it was pretty clear it was bulls— and a less scrupulous reporter might have just printed it in full. But that was the kind of stuff you’d have to deal with, especially in the first year of the Trump administration.
Suebsaeng: There’s a lot of ratf—— in every single administration. (“Ratf——” became a common euphemism for political dirty tricks following the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s seminal Watergate book “All the President’s Men”).
But there was a lot of bush league, cartoonish, Adult Swim-style ratf—— in the first year of the Trump era. As we recount in the book, it was one of those professional inconveniences that also became the professional laugh line.
Markay: That’s another reason we decided to add a first person element to this, [because] this happening to us was just so comical that recounting it in the first person really gives you a sense of just how ridiculous the experience of covering this White House was.
Suebsaeng: There’s several anecdotes in the book that fall under that category. Such as Rudy Giuliani prank-texting me right around the time of Christmas 2018, pretending that he was trying to liberate hostages on an aeroplane. He was doing that because he was bored, like bored out of his mind on a plane stuck on the tarmac.
And one of my favourite parts in the book was during the tail end of the 2016 campaign when the actor Jon Voight called me thinking I was Steve Mnuchin, who at the time was Trump’s finance chair for his presidential campaign. Some weird s— like that. So we thought, we can’t really put that in the book without making it first person.
‘It’s hard to overstate the stupidity of this political era’
Insider: What are some new names to watch on the Trump 2020 campaign that may have not been household names we knew from 2016 or from their work in the White House?
Suebsaeng: A good example of that is a woman named Jenna Ellis. Maybe she’ll be in the paperback version. She’s a senior legal adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, so she doesn’t work in the White House, but she advises Trump and the campaign.
Markay: She’s very much of the Christian right, she’s very opposed to gay rights and just a total culture warrior. She got involved in the legal strategising around impeachment and has become a go-to surrogate and pundit to hit up all the Fox shows to defend the president whenever he needs defending.
Suebsaeng: We asked several senior Trump people both on and off the campaign, do you personally know Jenna Ellis? Because she was starting to become a pretty prominent figure among Trump folk. None of them, across the board, knew her. She really did just kind of rocket out of nowhere.
But suddenly she’d become a player in Trumplandia in large part because the president saw her on TV, this Washington Examiner blogger, and liked her style and liked how much she was defending Donald J. Trump against all these nasty libs.
It goes back to Lachlan’s earlier point about how if you are a media reporter covering political media and the Trump era and engines such as Fox News, you were almost as qualified as anybody else to cover the Trump administration properly.
Because as stupid as it sounds and as numb to it as we are because it’s so commonplace, the president really does get so much policy advice, and now apparently legal advice, from his favourite TV shows. And he will not just call up these people for private counsel or take their counsel directly through the TV, but tap them for very senior positions on his campaign or in his administration.
The fact that “Fox and Friends” has a gigantic sway over the direction of [Trump administration policy] – again, we’ve become numb to it – but it’s relentlessly true and relentlessly stupid same time.
It’s hard to overstate the stupidity of this political era, at least in my opinion.