How a Politico reporter helped bring down Trump's Labor Secretary pick

The email went out Tuesday afternoon to Politico's newsroom.

"I know it is a rather unusual request, but does anyone have a working VHS player that video team can borrow today?"

The message, from video producer Beatrice Peterson, probably seemed innocuous at the time. But things cleared up that night when Politico published an exclusive: The ex-wife of President Trump's Labor Secretary nominee went on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and accused her ex-husband of spousal abuse.

"During the episode, titled 'High-Class Battered Women,' Lisa Fierstein, Puzder’s ex-wife, said he told her, 'I will see you in the gutter,'" read the story. "This will never be over. You will pay for this."

The story, which broke close to midnight on Tuesday, was the last blow to the rocky confirmation process for Andrew Puzder, President Trump's Labor Secretary nominee. And it was the culmination of months of work for Marianne LeVine, the reporter who broke the story.

LeVine wrote 57 stories about Puzder since his nomination in early December, including an enterprise story about his controversial background. The latest story wasn't served up "on a silver platter by opposition researchers or Washington whisperers with clear partisan agendas," Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown wrote in a memo to staffers last night.

Instead, she went old-school. She dug into court documents, talked to Puzder’s old friends, senators and looked at old newspaper clippings.

She spent a week poring over Lexis-Nexis archives of TV guide listings of Oprah Winfrey shows from the 1980s and 1990s to pinpoint which episode featured Puzder’s ex-wife. Then, she tracked down someone who had information about the episode:

Eventually, one source who recalled the episode said that it had also featured Charlotte Fedders, a victim of domestic violence whose former husband was forced to resign as the head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission after The Wall Street Journal wrote about her charges in the 1980s.

Fedders, whose sister lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, and still has a copy of the tape, agreed to provide it.

“I totally believe that it happened,” Fedders said. “I believe that she was abused.”

That just left us looking for a VCR.

Although Puzder is no longer President Trump's Labor Secretary nominee (he withdrew his name on Wednesday when it emerged he lacked the votes to be confirmed), LeVine is still on the story. On Thursday, she was gearing up to cover the saga of Puzder's replacement, Alexander Acosta.

"This was the most challenging story I’ve ever done," LeVine told Poynter. "But it taught me that with dedication and persistence, and trying every avenue no matter how unlikely, stories that seem impossible can be found in the strangest of ways."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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