These are strange times. You might have noticed. And let me tell you, friend, they are particularly strange in Washington, D.C., where a sudden paranoia has set in. This week, The Washington Post published an account of an episode that was strange even by this year’s standards, in which a woman named Jaime Phillips, acting at the behest of the James O’Keefe–helmed Project Veritas, approached the Post with a false accusation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, apparently in an attempt to discredit the Post.
This was jarring enough: a foiled attack on the media! A bad-faith ploy to discredit legitimate news! But in the days since the story broke, it’s affected D.C. in a way it couldn’t affect anywhere else. On Wednesday night, the Post published a second story describing the various venues at which Phillips met or attempted to meet journalists in efforts that extended beyond the attempted Moore story. She turned up at two different going-away parties for departing Post employees at downtown D.C. bars. She showed up at one networking event in Columbia Heights and another at — horror — postcoital brunch favorite Ted’s Bulletin. She asked questions. She shook hands. She networked. And she filmed what she saw, attempting again and again — and failing by anyone’s standard except, perhaps, that of Project Veritas — to get the journalists she met to say something compromising.
“I regret being so open with strangers, and that’s the big lesson I’ve learned here,” said the Post’s Dan Lamothe, one of the reporters who appeared in Phillips’s tape. “I got lucky this time,” wrote Emily Goodell of her experience, after saying she encountered Phillips at the Ted’s Bulletin event, “but it was a wake-up call for me.”
Washington, D.C., is not a one-industry town, but it often feels like it. The result is a pool of politicians, journalists, lobbyists, aides, consultants, academics, advisers, and vaguely-titled-but well-compensated gadabouts who mingle, drink, dine, and gossip freely. (You might know this as the dreaded, and very much undrained, swamp.) But with Project Veritas impinging on two of the capital’s most hallowed institutions — happy hour and networking events — a crack in the city’s old-fashioned veneer has emerged.
The weird thing about D.C. is that most of the stereotypes are true. The prevailing dress code is 1995 business casual; your high school class president probably lives here, unless that person was popular, in which case they do not. Before I lived here, a boss told me that when you met people at parties in D.C. they would hand you their business cards, which I didn’t really believe until I dug through my purse one groggy morning shortly after moving here and found the professional details of a liquor lobbyist. The city has the feel of a sprawling company town: In many parts of D.C., it often seems that everyone either works in politics or in an industry immediately adjacent to it, and that, as a result, everyone knows the same people. People speak about work incessantly, which is to say they talk about politics. In a city full of transplants, structured networking — and networking events — loom large. And then there’s the money: It’s a federal city with some of the highest incomes in the country. In 2016, the Census Bureau reported that Greater D.C. had the highest median income in the United States, $93,294. It also sports a per capita income some 25 percent above the national average. Add to this that every third person has an expense account, and, well, it’s a weird place to be. This is not to say that it’s a bad place, but it is a strange one.
Another weird thing: Outside of the halls of Congress and the occasional mid-scandal photographer crush, even the most prominent residents of D.C. are mostly left alone. At dinner, congressmen check their phones under tables while the aides beside them hold court with energy lobbyists. Senator John McCain jumps out of the back of an Uber. John Boehner was a regular for drinks at Capitol Hill’s Lavagna while he was speaker of the House, and at a diner where the cooks took to calling him John-John. Senator Rob Portman rides the shuttle from Washington National Airport’s loathed Gate 35X just like everyone else. H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, lurks in a corner booth at a local Italian joint; White House lawyer Ty Cobb groans about strategy over lunch on a patio.
Cobb, of course, was overheard by a reporter from The New York Times, and Boehner’s Lavagna was occasionally staked out by journalists hoping for comment. But in general, Washington, D.C., keeps its secrets. Much was made of Anthony Scaramucci’s insistence, after his bombastic and job-ending call with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in July, that he thought the call was off the record. It wasn’t; no such condition had ever been agreed on with Lizza. But Scaramucci had at least a little reason to think it might be: The prevailing understanding with many of the reporters Scaramucci might have encountered would have been that a spontaneous conversation outside office hours would have been at least some shade of unattributable. You can dispute the methods of access journalism — we are all better off with the Mooch out of our lives — but in D.C. it is a daily fact of life. Between the stuffy business of making, steering, and covering policy, people mix across party lines and organizational ones. It leads to moments of striking dissonance: The night before Sean Spicer resigned as press secretary, he was out drinking with White House correspondents and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Historically speaking, Politico’s long-running daily newsletter Playbook has been about as gossipy as D.C. gets: “SPOTTED: REINCE PRIEBUS and CHRIS CHRISTIE having dinner last night in a back booth at Capital Grille,” read Thursday’s edition. “Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) both separately stopped by the table to chat.” The Post’s “Hey isn’t that” column also leans heavily on cordiality: After reporting a sighting of then–F.B.I director James Comey enjoying a margarita in McLean, Virginia, the night before the 2016 election, a writer offered, “Hey, the guy’s gotta unwind somehow.” There are the occasional Acela cautionary tales, sure, but in general it’s all a lot more 1910s society pages than Page Six, a chummy sort of camaraderie and civility in a city where it often seems everyone knows everyone.
But there is a sense now that people ought to be looking over their shoulders. The Post is restricting public access to its newsroom and requiring staffers to clear some networking conversations with supervisors (a stipulation that was promptly leaked to Project Veritas); it’s hard not to think that more casual outings, like those to the self-explanatory Post Pub, where Phillips filmed some of her encounters with reporters, will be buttoned down. But it’s not just the Post, because it was never just journalists eager to talk shop in their off hours in D.C.: In a city where so many people are there to work on the same things and so few have ties to anything else, everyone talks sausage-making incessantly.
The definition of celebrity — of persons whose conversations might be of interest — has widened considerably under Donald Trump. It is no longer just lawmakers but their staffs and associates and the reporters who cover them, too: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is a veritable star now, as are the White House Press Corps’s April Ryan and Jim Acosta; Spicer is about as big a personality as D.C. has ever created. D.C.’s more notable residents — notable for their work or their employer or simply how well they might fill a certain content vacuum on a certain day — may long have been given a reprieve for the simple fact that a bureaucracy run by geriatrics doesn’t have quite the same intrigue as the blessed romance of Jenny Slate and Chris Evans. Fortunately for all of us, D.C. is unlikely ever to get the full TMZ treatment. But Project Veritas shows, if nothing else, that the days of the city’s hush-hush gentlemen’s agreement are numbered.