Jake Tapper Says President Trump Doesn't Get Enough Credit For His Charm and Political Skills

JAKE TAPPER author photo credit CNN
CNN's Jake Tapper, whose novel 'The Hellfire Club' hits shelves today. CNN

The news is dominated by a demagogic blowhard, Capitol Hill is riven by partisan conflict, and noxious fumes waft from the Washington swamp. This is the suspiciously familiar setting for CNN host Jake Tapper's just-released novel, The Hellfire Club, in which Republican newcomer Charlie Marder discovers there are things about how a bill becomes a law that aren't taught in civics class.

The story is set in 1954, a year that saw both the end of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade and the handing down of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, which ended segregation in the Jim Crow states of the South. It is Tapper's first novel (in a rarity for fiction, there are 10 pages of endnotes) and fourth book. The Outpost : An Untold Story of American Valor , published in 2009, is about an American military base in Afghanistan and has been optioned by Millennium Films, with Rod Lurie set to direct.

Newsweek spoke with the host of CNN's The Lead and The State of the Union as another week of the Trump presidency opened with what has become a predictable maelstrom of news. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Chris Buck/AUGUST

Have you sent a copy of The Hellfire Club to President Trump?

I have not. I probably should. I don't know that he's got time to read a novel, given all the other important documents he has to read.

But your novel is full of conspiracy theories and a swamp even swampier than ours.

I do think it was swampier back then. Although it's plenty swampy today.

When did you find time to research, never mind actually write, this book?

I'd been trying to write it for the better part of a decade; I started and stopped so many times. The first time, it took place in the modern era. I wrote a few chapters and didn't like it. Then I tried one that took place in Colonial days, and that didn't work. And then I settled on 1954, and things started falling into place.

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive club for high society in 18th-century England. When do you first learn about it?

Maybe a decade ago. That was always the hook. When I found out that Benjamin Franklin had visited it, that was the part of the story I wanted to write around.

Are there any secret societies in D.C. today? And if so, do they have better lanyards than the rest of us?

I don't know of any, but I assume there are. And I assume that they're well beyond lanyards.

Joe McCarthy is a recurring character. At one point, you call him a blowhard who takes up an inordinate amount of public attention. Were you thinking of anyone today?

I don't think I'm the first to observe that the phenomenon of McCarthyism—in terms of the smears and the indecency and the lies—is not unique to the 1950s. What President Trump is doing is a whole other set of circumstances, and it's very different from McCarthyism. But politicians being forced to confront how [they are] going to deal with a challenge like this? That's very similar.

The biggest way Trump influenced my book was that nobody talks about how charismatic and compelling a person Joe McCarthy was. A lot of these people, when they're vilified, they don't get credit for their charm or political skills. People only talk about the negative. I think the same is true for President Trump. In person—and, for a lot of people, on TV—he has a real charisma.

TAPPER Book Mockup
The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

The Outpost was about what war does to young men, and, in a different way, so is The Hellfire Club. Why the continuing concern with the military?

Too often we send our men and women into battle, and we do not take care of them. That was a theme of The Outpost , and that is a theme of The Hellfire Club . The whole plot of the book gets started because of these junky gas masks that Charlie [Marder] had. That's a fiction, that didn't happen. But Truman did have a commission, when he was a senator, to look into companies that either were accused of profiteering during the war or sending men into battle with shoddy products, whether it's planes or grenades.

President Trump has routinely promised to take care of our veterans. Has he made good on that promise?

I think he's had a lot of successes in that arena, and for all the criticism of him, [recently fired Veterans Affairs Secretary] David Shulkin did a lot. That this was a priority for the president has had an effect, and he should get some praise for that.

Hellfire Club's Washington is also rife with racism. The Southern Democrats, or Dixiecrats, who opposed civil rights, were generally in control of the party. Do you see any remnant of that on today's Hill?

I do. Obviously it's much, much improved. In the '50s there was only one black member of Congress, although in my book there are two. Now there are dozens. That said, the concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus too often are siloed off as concerns just for this one group of people, as opposed to concerns for all Americans. And how many black senators are there? Two?

I know from your Twitter account that you're a reader. What's the last really great book you read?

David Orr's The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong He presents an argument at the beginning, that there are two different audiences for Robert Frost. One is the vast public that misunderstands his poems, and then there's the elite that reads them differently. That separation, between the elites and the public, reminded me of what we see today in politics in general.

Not to get too philosophical, but what's the difference between fake news and fiction?

Actual fake news or the way the president uses the term?

Actual fake news.

I will use the actual term the right way: stories that are purposefully wrong and written to smear someone for some sort of reason, political or otherwise. Fiction is meant to entertain people, to make them think. There's a vast difference.

Any thoughts on Hellfire Club. Should it get made into a film or TV series?

[Conservative writer] John Podhoretz said Jessica Chastain should play [Charlie's wife] Margaret. I like that idea. I don't know about Charlie. Somebody who's able to convey a quality of naiveté and also ambition, but he would have to be 35. The people that I think of—Paul Rudd or Chris O'Donnell, James Marsden—they're all too old. Because I'm too old.

I think Brendan Fraser. I will leave you with that.

Yeah, again, too old.