The Last Word: Jake Tapper on Trump, 'SNL' and Old-School Rap

CNN anchor explains how he's angered both sides of the political debate and why his wife thought a controversial 'Saturday Night Live' skit was sexist

Jake Tapper wasn't on the phone with Rolling Stone for more than 30 seconds when another line rang and he had to go to take a call from a Republican senator who agreed to talk to him on background. "Sorry about that," he says when he calls back a few minutes later. "Donald Trump just gave an interview with the New York Times where he attacked the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the former FBI Director, the acting FBI Director and the Special Counsel. I'm kinda at their whims when they call back."

It's just another crazy afternoon in the life of the CNN anchor at a time when the chaos of the Trump administration means that big news breaks seemingly every hour. As the host of The Lead with Jake Tapper, he has the difficult task of interviewing slippery Trump administration figures live on the air, sometimes sparring with them for over 25 minutes without a commercial break. It's turned him into a hero on the left, and probably a big part of the reason why Trump attacks the network on such a regular basis. "He goes after us because we matter," says Tapper. "He goes after people who try to hold him to account, whether it's the FBI Director or the federal judiciary or oversight committees in the House and Senate or CNN. He goes after them because he does not want oversight."

Who are your heroes and why?
My journalistic heroes are Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel and Tim Russert and Edward R. Murrow, among others, because they were tough. My dad’s a hero in a lot of ways. He was a 1960s and 1970s hippie and a member of the protest crowd. He's a pediatrician, and he spent his life providing medical care in low-income sections of Philadelphia, so he lives his values. My mom is a hero in a lot of ways because she’s the most empathetic and kind person I've ever met.

What are the most important rules you live by?
I have a wife and a son and daughter. What do I need to do to make their lives better, happier? What can I do in terms of my time or my attention given that I am very busy at work? That's a personal rule of thumb I live by from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed.

What's the most indulgent purchase you ever made?
I'm a collector of presidential historical material, and I bought an autographed copy of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. My wife doesn't know about it. She might learn about it in this interview.

Why were you drawn to that book?
I've just been collecting historical presidential stuff for years. I have autographed letters from Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Ike. I am definitely a student of history and the Kennedy years are a period of intense fascination for me both in terms of what they actually represented in terms of the mythology around it. It's just a fascinating period in our history.

Describe your fitness regime.
I do 40 minutes of cardio five times a week, if not more, and then in addition three or four times a week I do core and weights and stuff like that. I go hard. I'm old. I'm 48 and my back has been giving out now for a while. How old are you? You sound young.

I'm 36.
Young-ish. So in about four years the warranty on your body runs out and things start to go, whether it is your knees or your back, things start to happen. In order to deal with it, a doctor recommended that I lose weight, so I've been very intensely working out and trying to stave off the inevitable destruction of my body as long as possible.

What music moves you the most?
I listen to a lot of old-school rap. The albums I downloaded most recently:­ N.W.A's Greatest Hits, Jay-Z's Volume 2 ... Hard Knock Life, Gold by Erik B. and Rakim, The Chronic by Dr. Dre. I grew up in a kind of working-class section of Philadelphia, with public-housing projects half a block away, and I heard rap blasted a lot. It connects me to my youth, and I think it's a social expression that people in discriminated communities connect to. In terms of emotional music, probably Johnny Cash. The song I've found most moving recently was the Avett Brothers' "True Sadness." It's one of the most beautiful and moving songs I've heard in a long time.

What have you learned about leadership from overseeing the staff of a big TV show?
Appreciating people, the importance of setting a tone. I’m a big believer in transparency, both as a journalist and as a boss, in explaining as much as possible so people understand why decisions are made.

How do you relax? 
I exercise about five or six times a week, and I write. ... I guess neither of those things are relaxing, are they? This is probably typical of a Type A interview, where you ask someone how they relax and they list five things that aren't relaxing. I play with my children. That is honestly what I do to relax. I swim with them. I run around with them. I tickle them. I do whatever they want me to do.

Tell me the advice about the business you're in you wish you'd gotten back when you started out.
It doesn't only apply to journalism, but one is that persistence actually does pay off. One of the reasons why people 20 or 30 years later are not doing what would make them them happy is that they gave up before they needed to. Journalism is tough. You get rejected 10 times for every acceptance you get, especially if you're a freelancer. The second piece of advice I give to younger people is to figure out what the people, if you're applying for a job or law school or whatever, if you're trying to get something, don't count on them doing something for you as a favor for you. Figure out what they want and how you can make yourself the most attractive to them so they think, "I'd really like to have that person working for me to do stuff for me to make me look better and smarter." It took me decades to figure that out, to figure out what can I offer this person, not how do I get this person to offer something to me.

SNL did a sketch featuring fake versions of you and Kellyanne Conway in a spoof of Fatal Attraction. How did your family react to that? 
My wife is a fan of SNL and a fan of Beck Bennett's portrayal of me, but she did not care for that skit. She felt it was sexist. When you look at SNL's history of satirizing politicians and reporters, I feel very lucky. Beck Bennett is younger and handsomer than me. I feel like I got off scot-free, especially in comparison to Sean Spicer. I'm not going to criticize anything since I don't want to tempt fate, but my wife didn't care for it.

What was going through your head at the end of your famous 25-minute live interview with the real Conway?
The president was saying things at that time that were demonstrably false. I wanted to make those points, but also let her explain and have a conversation and a real give-and-take. I never have any idea how something is going to land. After the show, I don't go back and watch myself on TV. All I see is flaws. People think that those of us on TV are incredibly vain, that they go back and watch their own clips for hours. The vibe is more, "Good, I'm glad I didn't mess that up."

What has covering President Trump taught you about yourself? 
It's forced me to come up with an ethos of covering politicians that I think I had been using before but had never voiced – which is that journalists have to take stands on behalf of facts, truth and basic human decency. I'm happy to cover him on policy debates as I would any other politician, but when he crosses the line and says things that aren't true, it's incumbent on journalists to point that out. We can't normalize behavior that is unacceptable, like making fun of disabled people.

Do you worry we've reached a point in history where most people aren't interested in facts? They'd rather just hear something that confirms their own worldview?
I think that's a trend in journalism that is bothersome. I don't think it's most. But I do think there is a sort of confirmation bias that some media outlets feed and it does trouble me because I try not to do that. Look, there's always going to be a place for idealogical and even partisan journalism. That's been true as long as this nation has been around and I think that's great, but I think it is great as a supplement to more straight news. Look, I was the kid that would go into the library and read The Nation and The American Prospect and more left-leaning magazines, Rolling Stone a lot of time, and then I would go read The National Review and more conservative publications since I wanted to know what everyone was thinking.

Do you worry that fewer and fewer people are doing that?
I don't know. It's hard to assess since there's so many media outlets and it's tough to say that Rachel Maddow's ratings one night or Sean Hannity's ratings reflect nothing more than certainly a very sizable audience, but certainly not a majority of the American people. So I don't know. I think the smartest opinions are the ones that are formed after hearing facts and after hearing a good fact-based debate and that will make the nation better, not just people living in their own bubble and being on their self self-feeding feedback loop.

There's a perception you've become more radical given your decision to call out Trump's falsehoods, but maybe it's just that people are simply more aware of it now.
A lot of people on the left didn't like it before, and now they like it. I don't want to compare President Obama and President Trump on these issues because they're different and the scale isn't even remotely the same. But President Obama said things that weren't true and got away with it more for a variety of reasons, and one is the media was much more supportive of him. The Obama White House thought I was self-righteous and a huge pain in the ass.

Do you feel more cynical about politics after covering an administration that lies so blatantly? 
I actually don’t think I do. I think it's possible that this all ends up with a commonality of spirit and purpose among Americans of all political stripes. The other day a conservative television host [Sean Hannity] told his viewers to send me mean tweets. People from left, right and center came on Twitter and rallied to my defense in ways I never thought possible. I think that the indecency and the falsehoods are outraging enough Americans that maybe there's something good to come out of this era.

Are there ever days where you take a step back and just feel stunned all of this is real?
Only days that end in y.