Before key members of the Trump Administration were in the White House, many of them were leading workaday, if high-powered, lives, far from elected office, interacting with regular citizens in often startling ways. “Embedded: Trump Stories,” a five-episode series within the NPR podcast “Embedded,” explores some of those interactions and their results. The show was created by Kelly McEvers, a Peabody Award-winning NPR journalist who co-hosts “All Things Considered” and who was for many years a Middle East correspondent. Generally, “Embedded,” which began in March, 2016, takes an on-the-ground, bring-a-microphone-and-figure-it-out approach to its stories, which are mostly set in the U.S. “We thought, Let’s take stories that pass by in the news and that we still have questions about, like an H.I.V. outbreak in 2015,” McEvers told me. “How did that happen? What’s going on? We picked up the things that piqued our curiosity: the opioid crisis, the H.I.V. outbreak, biker gangs, policing and police shootings.” Then, after the election, she said, “I felt like there was a sense of ‘All hands on deck.’ I thought, I should be contributing to the enterprise reporting that we do on this Administration. It felt like my duty.” “Embedded,” for a time, has shifted toward investigating Trump.
The episodes are quite revealing; I wish there were more. The first focusses on “The Apprentice” and its role in remaking the Trump brand; the second, about a golf course that Trump buys in California, feels almost like a Steinbeck story or a parable, with themes that translate directly to the Presidency; the third is about the tactics of Steve Bannon in Hollywood; the fourth, out this week, is about Jared Kushner and the bedevilled 666 Fifth Avenue; the finale, next week, will be about the troubled Trump SoHo. When a group of skilled audio journalists investigates such stories and presents them artfully, they provide welcome insight and perspective instead of provoking exasperated fatigue.
The golf-course episode is a fine example. In 2002, in the seaside Los Angeles County town of Rancho Palos Verdes, Donald Trump bought a distressed property that had been in limbo for three years: a bluffside golf-course-in-progress whose eighteenth hole had collapsed into the ocean. Locals saw Trump as a savior—at first. “To know how Trump does business helps us understand how he runs our country,” McEvers says in the beginning of the episode. “And the way he did business in Rancho Palos Verdes, and with some of his other golf courses, was to fight.” Trump enters the scene at a community-leader breakfast, from which we hear audio. Giddy locals are excited to meet him; Trump says genially that he’ll speak “very, very quickly and shortly.” During a forty-minute set of remarks, he mentions his golf-course situation in Briarcliff Manor, New York, which was he says was unpleasant for the town at first (“We hadn’t gotten the approvals; we were fighting ’em real hard”) but is now wonderful (“Everybody loves us”). At the time of the speech, “Embedded” points out, Trump was actually fighting Briarcliff Manor in court over property taxes; even without knowing this, attendees might have sensed trouble ahead.
Trump’s first big fight with Rancho Palos Verdes was with the school district. It owned some land on the golf course; Trump was supposed to pay rent; he didn’t want to pay until the course was finished. In 2003, he sued the school district. They settled, but Trump wouldn’t let it go. In 2005, at a public groundbreaking event for houses that Trump was building on the course—onstage, in front of TV cameras and city-council members—he brought the lawsuit up, a reporter tells us, “basically out of nowhere.” Trump startled all present by complaining about Milan Smith, the widely respected local lawyer who had represented the school district, and calling him “an obnoxious asshole.” This was quoted in the local paper. “I was so stunned,” Tom Long, then a city-council member, says. “I was just trying to figure out, What do I do now?” He decided to “just keep eating” his salad and move on.
“ ‘Just keep eating my salad,’ ” McEvers tells us, was the way the town dealt with Trump’s provocations in the beginning. The next big fight was about an illegally erected seventy-foot flagpole and a massive American flag. Trump says he shouldn’t need permission to put up an American flag because it’s an American flag; he divides the townspeople in the name of patriotism; and the issue becomes a decade-long drama, covered nationally, by outlets including “The Colbert Report.” (That’s not in the podcast, but it’s worth a watch. “Four hundred square feet of freedom!” Colbert says. “Enough to park three Hummers, with room to spare for three hundred forty-five large orders of fries.”) A third big fight involves a celebrity golf tournament. Tiger Woods is coming to town, and Trump declares some golf-course-adjacent houses too ugly for Tiger to see, so he illegally plants ficus trees in front of them.
The episode is full of amazing details, as well as satisfying ones: for example, that Smith, the lawyer whom Trump called an asshole, became a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—the court that’s been hearing challenges to the Trump Administration’s travel ban.
I asked McEvers about what we can learn from the stories of “Embedded.” “With politicians, you’ve got a record to look back into,” she said. “These are not politicians. It’s on us to look back into the record. I think we thought it was going to be like regular business reporting, where you go talk to the ethics officer, and there’s a board of directors. That that’s not how the Trump Organization works. We’re looking into a different kind of record even there. But there’s a record. That’s really the idea of these stories—get into the record and see what’s there and what we can take away.” With “The Apprentice,” the golf courses, and Bannon, “there are patterns,” she said.
In the Bannon episode, we hear from his former screenwriting partner Julia Jones, and hear a list of his film ideas, which later took a hard right turn. Jones also describes falling down a steep flight of stairs at Bannon’s office in Beverly Hills, in front of him. “He looked down at me, he said absolutely nothing, he stepped over me, and he walked upstairs,” she says, still incredulous. “It was obvious to me Steve was saying, ‘I don’t like people who fall down stairs.’ ”
“There’s something about hearing all these personal stories all in one place,” McEvers said. “Hearing someone talking about falling down the stairs and having somebody step over her, and trying to make sense of that. I mean, this is what podcasts are, right? We’re sticking a person literally into your ear, right next to your brain. And I believe that yes, you might know that Steve Bannon might not be the nicest guy. But you know it in a different way now. And maybe it sticks because it’s a story.” Listening to podcasts with earbuds, as we often are, is “so different even from being in the car.” This intimacy makes another detail especially memorable: when Jones tells us that Bannon said he wanted to be “the Leni Riefenstahl of the G.O.P.” The rest is history.