The Most Transparent Presidency in History: Q&A With Mike Allen, Co-founder of Axios

Mike Allan

Mike Allen, “The Man the White House Wakes Up To” and co-founder of Axios, says we’re living through history. Find out why Sept. 9 during a discussion featuring Allen and visiting Vann Professor of Ethics in Society Bill Kristol.

Fourteen months before Election Day 2020, Mike Allen, co-founder of Axios, will join Bill Kristol, former White House advisor and visiting Vann Professor of Ethics in Society, as they scope out the campaign ahead and let you decide whether to avert your eyes. 

Allen doubles as plugged-in Washington reporter and media innovator. He, first, co-founded Politico and turned his daily Politico Playbook newsletter into such an essential diet during the Obama administration that the New York Times Magazine put him on the cover as “The Man the White House Wakes Up To.” 

He helped change the pace and tone of Washington coverage and, then, disrupted the landscape again as a co-founder of Axios—a news site built on punchy, highly readable stories and bombshell scoops. Allen still edits the daily Axios AM newsletter and regularly appears on TV news shows.

Davidson will host the event, “It Only Gets Worse From Here;” tickets are free but required. They can be picked up from the Davidson College Ticket Office or they can be reserved online.

Our description for the event is quite down-hearted. Is covering this administration frustrating or dispiriting?

I see it as the opportunity of a lifetime. Usually when you're living through history, you only know it in retrospect, but this is that rare time when everyone knows, in real time, that people will be talking about Trump a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now. So, the opportunity and the challenge for us is how do we capture that for historians? How do we make it real for people now? How do we illuminate, explain it, help people understand what they're living through?

In the current algorithm-driven media environment—where people are more likely to encounter ideas they already agree with—does it seem impossible to get through?

No, because I think the opportunity is to help people understand what's happening. So many people who are against Trump cannot believe still that he was elected, can't believe he stayed, can't believe that he keeps his base, can't believe he escapes jam after jam, as if he were a cartoon hero. So, it's a great challenge and a great opportunity to try to explain that and help people understand how he thinks about the office.

A big way that he thinks about it is as a showman, as a TV show. He thinks of the White House as the greatest set on Earth. He thinks of the base as the audience, and that's why his crowd sizes are his ratings, why he's so obsessed with them. All of that is part of him getting a lock on his base, as if he were a wrestler or a star or anyone that's going to get people coming back to hear the hits.

President Trump took a direct slap at Axios, tweeting: “Whatever that is.” How does that affect what you do?

It was great for us because it was a story that was very solidly nailed down. Trump, apparently, has been talking for some time about the idea of nuking hurricanes. It was coming up in more than one meeting. Our reporter, Jonathan Swan, talks to somebody who was in the room and there was an actual National Security Council memo and the White House didn't dispute it. We're lucky it was a very solid story, so we can enjoy the attention. He is building our brand. It's a story that he well knows is true.

What do you see changing in the year between now and the election, or does it just get more bizarre?

Oh, sure, things will change, like when he has an opponent. That will really change both the conversation and his behavior. He loves having a foil. He loves having a victim. It may not turn out the way that he thinks it's going to, but when there's one person running against him, that'll make a difference in the polling. It'll make a difference in the coverage. It'll make a difference in how he's governing the country.

Is this administration uniquely challenging to cover due to its anti-media posturing? Or is that offset by the leaks?

Oh, everybody leaks. The thing about Trump is, he doesn't even mind it. As long as he remains the star of the show, he's totally fine with it. He's a bit of a leak himself. He either leaks directly or he leaks by talking to people on the outside who then yap to us. So, this is a great White House to cover, not only because there are so many people who are off of the reservation, but also because of Twitter, we know what he's thinking in real time. We know more about this administration right now than past administrations even after the biographies and the history books came out.

Has he changed the presidency forever?

He's just made it a much more theatrical enterprise where people are just used to hearing from the person in real time. You're never going to be able to run a Rose Garden campaign again. People are going to demand authentic, real-time communication from their leaders. I think that we're going to see the effects of that in statewide campaigns and city campaigns and global campaigns. It's a basic change in what people expect from their leaders.

Watch the Event


  • September 4, 2019