With the end of the Trump presidency, so comes the end of a vibrant cottage industry over the past half-decade: Trump-themed podcasts.
Well, for the most part. It’s my understanding there are a few Trump-inspired podcasts that are still going to try to make a go at it well into the new administration (examples include the Washington Post’s Can He Do That? and KCRW’s All The Presidents’ Lawyers). And who knows — maybe that approach will work. That’ll probably depend on whether the guy actually fades away in the first place, which feels like a coin flip at this point.
But the majority of the subgenre is winding down, including what is perhaps its most accomplished entry: Trump, Inc. The product of a collaboration between WNYC and ProPublica, the podcast, launched in February 2018, originally started out as a New Yorker feature and billed itself as an “open investigation” into the many, many conflicts of interests surrounding President Trump while he sat in the White House. Hosted by longtime WNYC staffers Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, and supported by a sizable team spanning across both WNYC and ProPublica, Trump, Inc. went through several iterations over its three-year run, shifting in emphasis as the country hurtled past the Mueller impeachment, the pandemic, the 2020 elections, and out the other end. All throughout, though, the show maintained its hardened commitment to reporting, winning a duPont-Columbia award in 2018 for its efforts.
Trump, Inc. published its final episode the day before President Biden’s inauguration. The entry featured the crew gathering in person (with appropriate precautions) to assemble a time capsule filled with various artifacts from their yearslong investigation. It’s a pretty affecting narrative device, marking what was probably one of the last times that crew would’ve gathered together ever again.
Vulture recently checked in with Marritz and producer Matt Collette about the decision to wind down the show, the time capsule, and how they feel about moving on.
So why wind Trump, Inc. down now? I feel like, if anything, this is probably the moment where we’ll start to see accountability proceedings pick up in earnest.
Ilya Marritz: Oh yeah, I agree. I think the end of the Trump presidency marks a great opportunity to investigate Trump stuff more generally. I’m hopeful that federal agencies will fulfill FOIA requests more regularly and that more people who felt scared beforehand will now start talking.
But we wound the podcast down because our investigation was constructed as a probe of an active conflict of interest, and that conflict of interest evaporated when Trump left the White House as president. Now, we could continue to look at that conflict retrospectively, and it’s possible Andrea [Bernstein] and I will revisit some things. But in terms of the vital public interest of understanding whether the sitting president has other undeclared interests … that’s pretty much disappeared.
Matt Collette: Winding down also allowed us to draw some conclusions. We’d been in the middle of this story for so long, and as we started moving toward the elections — and then toward the moment that we could see the Trump presidency being over — we felt it was an opportunity to look back at the swirl of what Trump had done on a day-to-day basis and sketch out the big picture. It was an opportunity to really look at all the events that came and went and really figure out what exactly were the impacts of those things.
Think of the final episode, where we put together a [literal] time capsule of different Trump-related things. It was kind of a gimmick, but it was a chance to look at all these moments and try to imagine how they could matter to people a little later on — and also how they could matter a lot later on.
Tell me more about that time capsule. I thought it was a pretty striking conceit.
I.M.: That idea came from our colleague on the show, Meg Cramer, who’s just a really great ideas person. As the end approached, we realized more and more that we didn’t want to end with a typical episode, whether it was one more story, one more thing, one more unexplored conflict of interest. We wanted to create a bit of a universal theory, and we felt a good way to do it was through objects. It was a nice narrative tool that allowed us to surface some obscure things and some not-so-obscure things.
One of my favorite parts of that episode came at the very end, when Jared Paul, our sound designer — who you’d never otherwise hear as a voice on the show — talked about Trump and helicopter noise. I get chills every time I listen to it because that is a sound-design decision the president often made that maybe not a lot of people have thought about, but it set the tenor for the whole presidency.
M.C.: Part of the time-capsule idea had to do with our remoteness and the fact we had to engage with each other through a digital screen over the past ten or 11 months. We recently went back to the office for the first time in a while, and our cubicles had this museum/hoarder quality. Everybody had various different aspects of the story, and we would often be like, “Could you pull Wayne Barrett’s book to find a moment in the past?,” or pull up The Art of the Deal, because Trump would often very specifically say things from it. We had this Trump board game that we got for a live show where we actually played it.
We had all these objects. And, for us, these were mementos that took on new meaning as time went on.
How do you think people might feel when they open that time capsule back up in the future?
I.M.: A big part of the time capsule for me was where it was actually assembled. We didn’t actually bury it at all [Editor’s note: The capsule is stored safely in the WNYC archives], but we did assemble it in Donald J. Trump State Park, which is the only sizable piece of U.S. public land that’s named for Donald Trump. It has its own interesting backstory, but one thing I think will be interesting for people in, like, 2031 is whether or not the park will still be named after him. Will there be other public lands named for Donald Trump? Will he go the way of a typical president even though he’s so atypical? Will there be elementary schools or other public buildings with his name? I don’t know. But just thinking about that highlights what an extraordinary and divisive figure he was.
M.C.: Yeah, I’m curious if adding even just a few years to these objects will change their meaning at all. I kind of fear that there’s a version of the future where all this feels like the good old days.
I.M.: I revisited Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech recently, and it was a really uncanny experience because it’s still so good, so incredibly funny, and totally spot on. It also completely captured a vanished moment. It was a moment when Robert Mueller’s report hadn’t been released yet and when it felt like if the country were to slide into fascism, maybe nobody would have put up a fight. It just felt like a truly different but recognizable moment. I imagine the time capsule will have similar effects.
Was there anything you felt you could have done differently over the years?
I.M.: Well, the whole show arose from a sense of wishing to have done something differently, because Donald Trump’s election came as such a shock. All through 2016, I felt like it could happen, and yet when it happened, it still felt like a shock. Andrea and I looked at each other and were like, “Well, he’s a Queens guy. We’re local New York City reporters. We should be on this, so let’s make up for lost time and do some stuff now.”
But in general, you don’t know which way the news is going to go. You can’t plan a season where a character recurs at the right moment. If I could make characters recur with a satisfying rhythm that has nice narrative twists instead of just question marks … sure, that would have been fun.
How do you feel about all the other Trump podcasts that came out of the last five years?
M.C.: Sometimes people would ask me, “What is it like to just be thinking about Trump all the time?” And I would just be like, “Well, you’re thinking about Trump all the time too — I’m just able to work around it.” Working on the show felt like a way to be a part of this big conversation. We at least had the tools and resources to tell the story at the right moment. There was a lot of “Let’s talk about the latest tweet, the latest scandal.” That definitely happened on our show, but we were able to filter through it and hopefully added something to the conversation at times.
I will admit, though, that I didn’t listen to a lot of the other Trump shows. I would when somebody would be like, “Hey, did you hear this really killer interview?” or something. But I was trying to listen to fun, happy things during my personal time.
I.M.: Over time, I moved over to the law side of the Trump-podcast economy — you know, stuff like Lawfare and Preet Bharara’s shows. They became really, really useful to me as the Trump story increasingly became a story that played out in the courts. I’m not a lawyer, so I found those really useful, even if they weren’t exactly reporting.
What do you hope from coverage on the presidency moving forward?
M.C.: I’m hoping we’re able to zoom out a little bit and look at more than just the one person in the White House. The presidency is still a lens to look at a lot of things, but Trump really sucked a lot of oxygen out of the room. It’s the whole “horse in the hospital” John Mulaney bit — the only thing you could think about for a while. Maybe we’ll be able to think about a lot of things at once again. Once again, maybe we’ll be able to walk and chew gum.
I.M.: I think, when we’re old, I will likely have the deepest facepalm because we’re literally killing the planet right now. We spent four years thinking about this guy, while we’re actually destroying the planet we live on and may not leave much of a habitable world not long after we’re gone.