June 1, 2017

Donald Trump had just called him “a nasty guy.” But when he hung up the phone on a Tuesday last May, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold wasn’t upset.

He was…thrilled.

“I was pretty happy, actually,” Fahrenthold said. “I felt like we had drilled down into this place and proved that the facade was fake.”

Fahrenthold, who recalled the insult-filled phone call with then-candidate Trump at a question-and-answer session hosted by Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride Thursday, was onto a big story, one that would ultimately catapult him onto the national stage and help win him the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

During the course of his career as a real estate developer and TV celebrity, Trump said he’d given “tens of millions” of dollars to charity.

So, Fahrenthold wanted to know: Where was it?

That simple question ultimately became the driving force for a months-long investigation that saw The Washington Post reporter inadvertently become an assignment editor for a legion of online sleuths who helped him untangle a complicated web of charitable giving. Along the way, he shot himself in the face (with a party popper), landed a completely unrelated scoop and picked up hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers.

But before all that, it started, as many stories do, with being in the right place at the right time.

In February 2016, Fahrenthold had a pretty conventional assignment — if any assignment covering Trump can be said to be conventional. Follow the dark horse Republican candidate around Iowa and see how the buttoned-up voters of the Hawkeye State respond to his unorthodox political approach.

Then, at a campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa, the check came out.

“He brought out a check,” Fahrenthold recalled for the audience at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida. “A golf tournament-sized check, and brought it out into the audience.”

The check, which was for $100,000, was one of several such donations made by the Trump campaign during primary season. Trump pledged to give $6 million to veterans causes, all told, supposedly gleaned from a televised fundraiser aimed at counter-programming a GOP debate held by Fox News. Trump said $1 million of that came from his own pocket. So why, Fahrenthold wondered, had Trump only given away $1.1 million in total? And where was the $1 million he donated directly?

After doing some digging, Fahrenthold got an answer from the campaign. Although he initially claimed to have raised $6 million, the real total was actually $4.5 million. The campaign was fuzzy about where Trump donated his personal $1 million. The reason, according to the campaign: Trump’s wealthy donor friends hadn’t ponied up for the balance.

Finally, after determined digging from Fahrenthold, Trump finally gave a $1 million personal donation to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, a group that helps the families of fallen Marines. Trump called up Fahrenthold and berated him.

Then, overjoyed at having landed a scoop, Fahrenthold went home and accidentally shot himself in the eye.

After appearing on TV shows — “Morning Joe,” CNN, Lawrence O’Donnell — to promote his story, Fahrenthold got home and decided to clean up the house. His children were sleeping, and his wife was getting ready for bed, so there was no one to intervene when he inquisitively glanced down the barrel of a confetti gun — “like Wile E. Coyote” — and pulled the trigger.

Next followed a cloud of glitter, a bright light and the acrid odor of gunpowder. Luckily, he was still wearing his glasses.

“It looked like Elton John had beaten me up,” Fahrenthold said. The audience howled.

The next day, Fahrenthold began digging deeper into Trump’s lifetime history of charitable giving, the story that would ultimately occupy months of his time during the runup to the election.

Prompted by McBride, Fahrenthold acknowledged that the power of social media enabled him to learn things that would have taken enormous time and resources to uncover otherwise. For instance, two friendly Twitter followers helped him trace a portrait purchased by Trump’s charity back to a decidedly non-charitable location — the “Champions Bar and Grill” at Trump National Doral.

Fahrenthold recruited his volunteer sleuths with a novelty in the digital journalism world: pictures of his reporter’s notebook, replete with instances of supposed charitable giving, posted to Twitter. Although a Post colleague told him that sharing his notebook with the social media world was “the stupidest thing ever,” he did it anyway. The images of handwritten paper would stand out in the digital environs of Twitter, Fahrenthold reasoned, and it would add a layer of transparency to his investigative reporting — generally a very hush-hush enterprise.

The downside to opening his notebook to the world, of course, was the chance that a competitor might swoop in and steal his scoop. But, Fahrenthold told the audience, he wasn’t worried about that. Quite the contrary. He wanted more people to dig into what he viewed as an important story.

“I was not worried,” Fahrenthold said. “I was hoping someone would use this as a leg-up. But nobody did.”

By the end of the campaign, Fahrenthold had dutifully tallied Trump’s mostly absentee donation record, compiling an exhaustive narrative that ran counter to Trump’s claims about his philanthropy. But the biggest scoop of the campaign didn’t come from careful, patient curation of minutiae. It came in the form of a phone call from a source with a video.

Before The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape in October, Fahrenthold had three phone calls to make. The tape, which featured Trump making lewd comments about “Days of Our Lives” actress Arianne Zucker, was sure to be a bombshell.

But first, he dialed up TV personality Billy Bush to get his response. He called Trump’s people. And he called NBC Universal to ask about the tape.

It was that last call that was the most nerve wracking. Calling up NBC could mean tipping off NBC News, which is a rival of The Washington Post’s. But it had to be done, Fahrenthold said, to try to confirm the veracity of the footage.

“You know you’re setting off a race against the clock there,” Fahrenthold said. “Even if you catch them completely flat-footed.”

The Trump camp didn’t respond to Fahrenthold’s request for comment until seconds before The Post was going to press publish. They got Trump’s statement in and published the story at 4:02 p.m., he said. NBC News launched its story at 4:06 p.m.

The most difficult thing about the “Access Hollywood” story, Fahrenthold said, was deciding which curse words The Post could use. Normally, even stories that use one curse word have to be approved by a senior editor. This story contained significantly more profanity.

“One of the hardest parts was sorting out which curse words we could use versus which to asterisk,” he said, as the audience laughed.

These days, Fahrenthold is still reporting on Donald Trump, only from a different angle. Like NPR, The Washington Post has created a team devoted to covering conflicts of interest spurred by the sprawling global business founded by Trump. As part of that team, Fahrenthold covers Mar-a-Lago, the gilded Palm Beach resort where state business is sometimes transacted on the weekends.

These days, his biggest competition isn’t NBC New or The New York Times — it’s local publications like the Palm Beach Daily News and The Palm Beach Post, which have staffers well wired into the latest society gossip.

But just because The New York Times isn’t battling Fahrenthold for scoops on a daily basis, doesn’t mean newspaper of record isn’t in a pitched battle with The Washington Post. With successive back-and-forth scoops from both outlets, an old-fashioned newspaper war is underway, Fahrenthold said. It’s a friendly rivalry, and journalists at both publications know the increased competition will ultimately benefit them, he said.

“We haven’t seen a newspaper war like this since the 1970s,” Fahrenthold said. “It has been incredible to see our national security reporters and our political reporters break these stories.”

The energy and sense of purpose within The Washington Post’s newsroom — Which is remarkably collegial — has been infectious, Fahrenthold said. Along the way, he’s become a kind of mascot for the beleaguered profession of journalism, brought low by economic forces but still vital.

“I love this job,” Fahrenthold said. “I couldn’t do any other job. I think it’s a wonderful thing, and I’m glad to have a soapbox to talk about it.”

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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…
Benjamin Mullin

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