In July of 2016, David Brown, the police chief of Dallas, came to Tapper’s weekend program, “State of the Union” for an exchange about five police officers killed during an act of domestic terrorism. Their interview took place over three segments and nearly 40 minutes.
“One of the gifts of the Sunday show is that you can really talk for an extensive period of time with somebody and do a very long interview,” says Tapper, who engaged in his own sizable discussion with Variety earlier this week. “You don’t have to do 30 guests for three minutes each. You can do one, and I think that the best shows we’ve done are when we really give somebody the time.”
Tapper has been at the helm of “State of the Union” for five years, helping CNN fight a long-running battle for Sunday viewers against other public-affairs programs including CBS’ “Face The Nation,” NBC’s “Meet The Press,” ABC’s “This Week” and Fox News Channel’s “Fox News Sunday.” CNN’s entry is the youngest of the bunch, having launched in 2009 under John King and then Candy Crowley.
He’s proud the show has been able to land newsmaking interviews its counterparts – some of them with larger staffs – have not. During “Union’s” last broadcast, Tapper interviewed former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who revealed his plans to vote for Joe Biden in the next presidential election even though Powell is a former Republican official. Tapper was the one who, during a 2016 “Union” broadcast, asked then-candidate Donald Trump whether his comments at the time regarding the background of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel were racist. To get the answer, Tapper had to ask the question 24 different times.
“We not a big broadcast network. We don’t have the staff that they do, but we think that because of our questions and our guests and our format, we are able to make news and evoke answers that make a difference,” Tapper says,
There have been moments of frustration as well. A “State of the Union” appearance by White House advisor Stephen Miller in 2018 went viral because the official refused to answer question over the course of 12 minutes, despite the host’s multiple attempts to bring the exchange back to TV norms. Tapper ended the interview abruptly.
“That was just exasperating,” says Tapper. Viewers who want to pull up the clip will see Miller pivoting from the questions asked by the host to effusive, even obsequious praise of Trump and to diatribes about CNN. “It just became a waste of time,” says the host.
For a good portion of his time on the show, Tapper indulged one of his passions – cartooning. One of the final “Union” segments each week featured a political cartoon drawn by the host, who used to draw a strip for his college paper at Dartmouth (and who once filled in for cartoonist Scott Adams on his popular comic “Dilbert”).
The best political cartoonists “have a very sharp point of view,” notes Tapper, but expressing such a thing as an anchor for a major news outlet can lead to trouble. “The best ones, you take your quill and go forth, and I can’t do that. It was fun, but it just began to feel discordant with the times we are living in.”
CNN viewers also see Tapper during his weekday afternoon program “The Lead,” and on Sunday, June 21, he will anchor a documentary called “The Law According to Trump,” in which he will examine the President and his views on the rule of law. “It’s been such a topical through-line from the very beginning of his career,” says Tapper, who notes the program will explore everything from the Russia investigation to the way Trump has handled inspectors general to his relationship with the FBI.
Tapper hopes “State of the Union” becomes even better known as a place for longer conversations about the issues of the day. “I’m really proud of how we punch above our weight each week,” he says. He will no doubt hope to make impact this Sunday.