When Punchbowl News, a startup from veterans of Politico, launched earlier this month, it promised politics from a different D.C. vantage point: The Capitol, often overshadowed by national media coverage of chaos in the White House.
Their focal point has proved a bit fortuitous in the past month, with the Capitol siege, a second impeachment and an inauguration — and much more to come in February.
“Anna and I have a very deep, abiding belief that Congress and legislating is the center of the political universe,” says Jake Sherman, who founded the site along with Anna Palmer and co-founder John Bresnahan.
On Monday, Sherman and Palmer will launch an early-morning podcast, The Daily Punch, for Entercom’s Cadence 13, in which they will set up what they see as the events of the day in D.C. The nonpartisan focus is “insiders in Washington and how people exercise power, but in a really accessible way,” Palmer says.
“We don’t chase shiny objects,” she says. “We write about things that kind of move political markets, so to speak, and that is our North Star — power, people and politics and the consequences of those things.”
What distinguishes their content is the focus on the congressional beat (Punchbowl is the Secret Service nickname for the Capitol), which they covered for more than a decade, the past four years as authors of the “Politico Playbook” newsletter and in 2019 as the authors of the best seller The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America.
Palmer and Sherman shared their insights on what has been one of the momentous months at the Capitol in recent memory, as well as on what is ahead.
DEADLINE: We’re more than three weeks out from the Capitol siege. What’s the memory now that still stands out for you of that day?
JAKE SHERMAN [who was at the Capitol along with Bresnahan, while Palmer was at her home nearby]: From a 30,000-foot point of view, [we] have been working in this building for more than a decade together, and so it would be like people coming into your house and terrorizing your home. This is the place we are most familiar with, and people were banging on our door and banging on the door outside. They smashed the glass to one of the front doors 150 feet from us. So those images will stick with me for a long time, and frankly, a lot of people in the press corps are having a tough time with it. It was a quite traumatic experience.
ANNA PALMER: It’s a place where there are rules and decorum, almost out of another era, that are followed, and typically with a heavy police force. I have always said, whenever there were protests … that is the safest place in all of Washington. I think that bubble has really been burst this month.
DEADLINE: There is now an intense security situation at the Capitol, with National Guard troops and fencing around the complex. Do you think a lot of that becomes permanent?
SHERMAN: Yes, I do. I don’t think it will be permanent in the way that it is right now, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back exactly to where it was.
PALMER: I was in the Capitol in 1998 when the two police officers were shot. Anytime there is a some kind of attack or something that happens in a security breach, things move further away. It’s harder to get in the building. I mean, it’s really like a war zone right now with National Guardsmen. I hope, frankly that that’s not the case [permanently], but I do see it for the foreseeable future until they have a clearer understanding of what exactly happened.
DEADLINE: How do you think that will change for journalists?
SHERMAN: We hope that they don’t come after and curb our access, and we don’t anticipate that they will. But it has gotten tougher, between this and Covid. Our jobs will change. This sounds corny, but the mission hasn’t. We still have to get information from members of Congress.
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DEADLINE: You had this week the news about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy visiting Mar-a-Lago. Since the siege there seems to be a swing among Republican lawmakers back toward supporting Trump or muting their criticism. What happened?
SHERMAN: The base and the rank and file are still in line with Trump, period. I think that McCarthy represents a House Republican conference that is still marching lock-step with Trump and still comes from districts where Trump is extremely popular. It’s a political imperative for him to be with Trump. To be honest, it’s not going to change. The people who want McCarthy to be some sort of Never Trumper after Trump lost — that is just not gonna happen. You’re seeing what’s happened to Liz Cheney [who voted for Trump’s impeachment]. Many people are turning against her, and she might lose her leadership position for being against Trump. So I think the idea that somehow people are going to turn against Trump is a fantasy. Some will when it’s in their interest, but most people will not.
DEADLINE: What do people misunderstand about Mitch McConnell?
SHERMAN: I think that people misunderstand a lot. I think that Mitch McConnell’s entire maxim is “beat me if you can, and if you can’t, be quiet.” Mitch McConnell cares about one thing, and it is winning. He has an ideological view, obviously — he’s a conservative, he’s a Republican. His view of the world is very kind of black and white, which is, he’s going to use his power to its maximum effort and its maximum velocity, and the only way to stop him is to have the votes to stop him. We saw that with the Supreme Court. We saw that all the time. Right now we see his power wane a little bit, but that is his maxim. People overanalyze him, when it is really that black and white.
DEADLINE: Same question about Nancy Pelosi. What do people not understand about her?
PALMER: Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell’s politics could not be more different, but they execute power in a very similar way, where they have a goal in mind and then singlehandedly work toward it. They’re not moved by the political winds or by being popular, even within their own conference or caucus, and they are politicians of a generation, of a lifetime. And we will probably never see two as powerful of leaders in Congress as we have with them in our lifetimes.
SHERMAN: Also people try to characterize her as a “limousine liberal,” as a rich woman from San Francisco — and she is a rich woman from San Francisco. That’s a fact. But she grew up in Baltimore with a father who was a party boss, who was a member of Congress and the mayor of Baltimore. And that’s how she learned politics. She was brought up understanding the kind of inner workings of big-city politics.
DEADLINE: We’re a week into the Biden presidency. Is that spirit of bipartisanship already waning, or was it even never even there to begin with?
SHERMAN: I think that it was probably not there to begin with, but there are things that they can get done together, and there are areas of overlapping political interest, I think around Covid relief and perhaps infrastructure, and things of that nature. But this is not The West Wing. This is real politics and complicated people with complicated motives. They’re disingenuous, many of them. They’re not honest about why they do things. They might be honest personally, but it’s difficult to analyze the situation any differently than that. People will help Biden when it’s in their interest, but they’re not going to help him just for the sake of helping him.
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DEADLINE: How is the environment different now for an impeachment trial versus a year ago?
SHERMAN: It hasn’t changed a ton. Republicans are not going to vote to convict Donald Trump in big numbers. They’re going to vote to acquit him, and there’s nothing that’s going to change that, that we can see right now. I wonder when people are going to kind of realize that. You saw almost every Republican, a couple days ago, vote to call the impeachment trial unconstitutional. So the idea that there’s some movement to kick Trump overboard and ban him from future office, there’s no evidence of that at this moment. When I’m talking to people on Capitol Hill, they don’t understand how people are getting the story so wrong.
DEADLINE: Marjorie Taylor Greene is getting a lot of attention, in part for recent revelations of what she has written previously on Facebook. Have you met her, and what is she like?
SHERMAN: I have met her. We view her through the lens of the leadership and what the leadership is going to do about this, because she’s somebody who has expressed all sorts of unseemly views. I can’t tell you what she is right now, but she has been a devotee of QAnon — the goofy, kind of dangerous QAnon movement. Kevin McCarthy knew this when she was coming into Congress. He said that he was going to have conversations with her and pleaded with the press corps to give her a chance. We’ve kind of given her a chance now. And whether you see it as a chance or not, she’s proven that actually these are her beliefs.
PALMER: I think it’s going to be something that we’re going to cover closely in as much as I think it says a lot about the future of the Republican Party. … I think it’s going to be a real challenge for them going forward. So far Kevin McCarthy doesn’t like to put the hammer down on people; that is not his style. So this will be very instructive of how he deals with them now.
DEADLINE: Is that a challenge for you? How much attention do you give to a member who is an adherent of QAnon?
SHERMAN: It’s something that we wrestle with in real time. We try to focus on the people who are making decisions. Marjorie Taylor Greene is not dispositive to the governing process in any way, shape or form. But we need to cover her to to inform our readership of where the Republican Party is going. So that’s how we think of it.
PALMER: We really try to find the signal through the noise. You could be chasing shiny objects all day long, and I think we try to stay very focused on the leadership, the White House, the industries that are trying to influence them. Insomuch as we cover other folks, it is really through the lens of, “Why is it important? What kind of impact are they making on the overall governing and leadership and power structure?”
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