For foreign reporters, hints of 'House of Cards' in 'Trump Show'

The story isn’t just about a flamboyant businessman who improbably winds up in the White House. It’s also about the small towns and cultural diversity of a vast nation.

Courtesy of Ching-Yi Chang
Ching-Yi Chang, White House correspondent for Shanghai Media Group, first came to the US for graduate school 11 years ago and landed an internship at NBC Nightly News. He has been a TV correspondent at the White House since 2010.

Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller – all are players in the palace intrigue known as the Trump White House. And they’re all household names ... in China.

Chinese TV viewers can’t get enough of the “Trump Show,” and coverage of America in general, says Ching-Yi Chang, White House correspondent for Shanghai Media Group.

“They’re interested in everything – your entertainment, your politics, how your system functions,” Mr. Chang says. Chinese people “very much enjoy ‘House of Cards,’ ” he adds, by way of explanation.

But if any parallels between the Netflix drama and real life are a bit overdrawn – even in a week of stark revelations in the Trump-Russia saga – there’s no doubt that the Trump presidency has gripped the imagination of a global audience.

And as with their American counterparts, foreign correspondents who cover the White House call it the story of a lifetime – profound in its implications for their home countries, and a fascinating window into the experiment called American democracy.

In the footsteps of de Tocqueville

The story isn’t just about a flamboyant businessman who improbably winds up in the White House, and sends a legion of investigative reporters into high gear, however. It’s also about the small towns and cultural diversity of a vast nation.

Like France’s Alexis de Tocqueville and Ilf and Petrov of the old Soviet Union, international observers have long found America an endlessly fascinating subject for study and exploration. When Akiyoshi Mitsuzawa, a reporter for the Japanese newspaper Seikyo Shimbun, came to the US recently on a two-week reporting trip, he spent only a day in Washington and more time in the middle of the country.

Probe more deeply, and members of the foreign press corps in Washington marvel at Americans’ abiding sense of patriotism as they salute the flag, sing the national anthem at ballgames, and thank military veterans for their service.

Branka Slavica, US correspondent for Croatian TV, says her countrymen are impressed that, after 241 years, America “still celebrates its birthday in such a beautiful way.” She went to the National Mall on July 4 to interview Americans who had come from all over the country to watch the parade and the fireworks.

“People were really, honestly excited about the Fourth of July,” says Ms. Slavica, who has been based in the US for 12 years. “They are every year. It doesn’t matter who is the president.”

Among the foreign correspondents based in Washington, many escape the capital when they can – out of their own curiosity and their bosses’ desire for coverage that captures the richness of America.

“We try to look at the world and America from a bit more of a helicopter perspective” than the beat reporters in Washington, says Jorgen Ullerup, US correspondent for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. “We go to a lot of places where people are crazy about Trump.”

Mr. Ullerup and his wife just spent a week in Kentucky looking into the opioid epidemic. Ullerup has also spent time with a fundamentalist snake handler in Tennessee, and visited the Nevada ranch of the rebellious Cliven Bundy (who, Ullerup discovered, has Danish ancestry).

'It always comes back to Trump'

But Trump is like a magnet, says Ullerup. “I travel the country to do other stories, but somehow it always comes back to Trump.”

“Today I did a correspondent’s letter about staying at the Trump hotel in Las Vegas,” he explains. “I’ve done a whole lot of Russia stories. Yesterday I wrote about the GOP and health care... The other day I wrote about Spicer.”

Not that he much minds. President Obama had gotten kind of boring. When Ullerup first arrived seven years ago – long before a President Trump was on anyone’s radar – he was struck by how divided America was. In Europe, Mr. Obama was seen as a superstar, but here, Ullerup found “everybody was blocking him.”

“In Europe, people are a little bit surprised that there’s so much negativity about Obama, because it looked like he had gotten America out of the economic crisis much faster than Europe,” Ullerup says.

“What we didn’t focus on was that people had felt forgotten, that their wages didn’t rise,” he says. “People were talking about the unemployment rate going down, but paying less attention to the people who were leaving the labor market.”

Today, he says, America seems more divided than ever. Trump’s campaign talk of NATO as “obsolete” only added to Danish (and European) anxiety about US dedication to the alliance. Ullerup speaks of a recent trip to Virginia Beach for Warrior Week, in which 35 Danish veterans from the Afghan and Iraq wars participated.

“When they came into a restaurant, people would clap or say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” he says. “That never happens in Denmark.”

Drama of White House press briefings

Ullerup rarely makes it to the White House briefing room. But for other foreign correspondents, being on scene is where it’s at.

“In the first few months, it was a bit chaotic,” especially compared with the orderly and opaque Obama White House, says Philip Crowther, White House correspondent for France 24 TV since 2011.

Mr. Crowther says he’ll never forget the first full day of Trump’s presidency, when Mr. Spicer came out and “literally shouted at us” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“The podium was way too big for him,” Crowther says. “The next day, I saw them wheeling it out of the West Wing, and replacing it with one that would suit him better.”

During the campaign, foreign reporters were shut out of Trump campaign events, and they feared their White House press passes would be deactivated after Trump took office. That didn’t happen.

Crowther just finished a year as president of the White House Foreign Press Group, a group of about two dozen foreign correspondents from all over the world committed to maintaining a daily presence in the White House.

“You basically have to remind the White House that you’re there,” says Crowther, a native of Luxembourg with British and German citizenship.

Today, foreign reporters get called on at briefings, as they did under Obama. Though with only one seat in the briefing room reserved for foreign press, most are left standing cheek-by-jowl in the cramped space. But they’ll take what they can get.

‘A nation of survivors’

German radio correspondent Sabrina Fritz is packing up to leave after six years in Washington. And like her foreign colleagues, she is struck by the evolution she has witnessed.

When she first arrived in the US, Ms. Fritz says, the country seemed “very open to everything” – gay marriage, people of other religions, fighting climate change, more vegetables at schools.

“I liked this spirit – all those very, let’s say, European values,” she says. “You have to pay here for your plastic bags, and I thought, wow, a lot of things are changing.”

Over time, Fritz saw that nothing is as simple as it seems. She has traveled the country, talking to workers involved in fracking in North Dakota and cowboys in Wyoming. Like many reporters, she read “Hillbilly Elegy,” the J.D. Vance memoir that offers a window into the lives of the white underclass.

Fritz also made multiple trips to Detroit, and saw a once-great city begin to revive. For her, Detroit’s nascent comeback reflects a glass-half-full attitude that is quintessentially American. “You are a nation of survivors,” she says.

Still, she worries about the future of US-European trade, and about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. “There’s a danger that the US will fall behind, and become more isolated.”

Still a beacon of democracy?

Is America still a beacon of democracy, as it likes to see itself? TV reporter Chang smiles and quotes “House of Cards” character Frank Underwood: “Democracy is so overrated.”

Chang grew up in Taiwan, “a very vibrant democracy,” he says. “But there are always drawbacks to democracy.”

Sometimes “the people” make the wrong decision, he says, pointing to UK citizens’ decision to leave the European Union. In Washington, expansion of the metro system has been chugging along slowly for years. In China, a project like that would be finished in six months, he says.

Others point to the transparency of the American system as admirable. Slavica of Croatia marvels at the televised open hearing last month of James Comey, the fired FBI director.

“I also love confirmation hearings,” she says. “Whoever the president chooses has to go through a public hearing. That’s a nice test.”

Chang, too, has plenty of positive things to say about the country he has called home for 11 years. He came to the US for graduate school at New York University, and from there, landed an internship at NBC Nightly News.

Chang has been a reporter in the US ever since, and a TV correspondent at the White House since 2010. “I still believe in the American dream,” he says.

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