“We're there to ask questions. I think it's important that we are there to do that for a Canadian outlet”: Simpson

By now you’ve probably seen the video: Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a part of the NAFTA negotiation team, approaches the steps of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and finds the doors locked, leaving him at the mercy of several Canadian reporters for two excruciating minutes — including CBC’s Katie Simpson.

Simpson has some experience reporting on silent and unpredictable politicians. Before joining the CBC, she covered local and provincial issues in Ontario for CP2, including Rob Ford’s 2015 crack scandal, and was a reporter with CTV National in Ottawa during the Harper government. 

In the last few months, Canadians have gotten to know Simpson best as the CBC’s go-to reporter for coverage of the NAFTA (now USMCA) trade deal talks. Under usual circumstances, the talks would be a big-enough story to cover but under President Donald Trump’s administration, distractions abound.

J-Source spoke with Simpson about what it has been like covering the trade talks and how she makes a complicated subject accessible for viewers. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

J-Source: One of the first things I was really curious about the actual experience of covering these talks. Just from watching all the Canadian reporters covering this, it seemed like you guys were doing this from dawn to way after dusk.

Katie Simpson: The days were long when the actual round of negotiations were happening. You start from a panic position, because if you’re not there, what if you miss something? Is someone else going to get something that you’re not going to get? All the reporters are friendly, all of the reporters certainly respect each other, but everyone wants to break news, right?

Usually, you’d have to send your camera over for about 8:00 a.m. to make sure you can get a good spot so you’re not getting a bad shot. And then the reporters would come over for about 9:00 a.m. and just start doing live hits, and then it would just depend on the day. Some days ended at 5:00 p.m., some days ended at 10:00 p.m., so you just you had to wait and watch. That’s what no one teaches you in j-school — to learn to wait.

J-Source: During that time you did get some scoops and you had some really detailed stuff about what was going on in the room and details that were clearly very well sourced. So how are you working those angles?

K.S.: A reporter never discusses their sources. However, it’s just building up trust with people and keeping your ears open. Working the phones and talking to as many people as you can, whether they’re from Canada, the U.S. or Mexico and just just talking. It’s all about talking and listening.

J-Source: So much happened during these talks. There were just so many other news stories — you had the anonymous op-ed, you had Bob Woodward’s book, any number of things Donald Trump has done in the past few months. How do you cut through all that noise and all these other news stories that are swirling around this?

K.S.: NAFTA at the end of the day, it’s a story about a trade deal and it’s a story about Canada’s largest trading relationship. But at the other end of things, this is a bigger picture story about the development of the Canada-U.S. relationship at an unprecedented time in American history. Certainly Canadians are paying more attention to the American presidency than ever before. And because Donald Trump has made this so personal by personally insulting the prime minister, as we saw in the end of negotiations

It sort of became a country versus country — not dispute, but it became a country versus country kind of battle. A point of pride there. It certainly became more interesting. When there are so many other items happening in and around the White House, you sort of have to ask, are there distractions on the outside that are keeping negotiators away from their core focus? For example, Kushner, who is President Trump’s son-in-law, he was part of the NAFTA negotiations. He was working with the U.S. trade representatives. So when you see him in and out of the building the same on days after the oped drops, you take that opportunity — you ask him about NAFTA, but you also ask him, did you write the op-ed? Do you know who wrote the op-ed? Does someone needs to be fired? That kind of stuff. It’s a lot of different balls up in the air, but it all sort of relates to each other.

J-Source: I did want to ask you about that because that was such an incredible video. You weren’t supposed to go up the steps U.S. Trade Representative’s office and then Kushner comes up and you just went up and asked him. Take me to that moment. What were you thinking and what did you want to do right then?

K.S.: It was later one evening and it was just actually the Canadian reporters that were all there at that time. Chrystia Freeland had a late meeting with the Americans, and so we’re all camped out. We’re all waiting and we’re kind of tired and it’s really hot in Washington.

We see Kushner and we walk up the steps to try and talk to him. We all have our iPhones out — our camera people were there as well. It was around 8:00 p.m., so that’s not normal business hours. So when he tried to open the door, obviously it was locked and it took a good two minutes for security to actually let them into the building. So that created this moment where it was certainly awkward.

You have to make a conscious decision. It was clear he wasn’t going to answer our questions — we tried, we tried. One of my colleagues tried in a lighthearted manner. We threw some serious questions at him, but he wasn’t going to answer. And the Americans are in a very strange position right now with trying to deal with the Trump administration and the lack of transparency at the White House. And so we’ve seen in some cases there’s been interactions that you wouldn’t necessarily see from reporters where — I don’t want to say grandstanding — but fear that reporters are grandstanding. I made a very conscious effort to not stand there and look like I was lecturing him. You asked the questions, you try and get the information, and the other time you kind of just have to let the moment breathe.

It’s your job to document, not to interfere, but you’re there to get answers and try and get the most accurate picture of what’s happening inside the room.

J-Source: Do you think that there’s value for people to see that you are asking these questions and he’s just responding with silence?

K.S.: Well, here’s the thing. The New Yorker wrote a piece on how Jared Kushner’s silence was a bigger, more symbolic of challenges within the White House and challenges with Jared Kushner and what his role is. For an American outlet that is a completely appropriate, completely — they wrote a piece based on insight and observation.

We’re there to ask questions. I think it’s important that we are there to do that for a Canadian outlet.

J-Source: One of the things I think you’re particularly skilled at is taking some of these big complicated issues and distilling them in a way that average Canadians can understand, which I think with this particular issue is so important — because it’s a trade deal and is complicated, but it affects people’s livelihood. I’m just curious how you approach doing that?

K.S.: It’s like any other story. Whenever I do broadcast, I always try to think about who am I talking to and will the person I’m talking to understand this. I want to make sure I’m not reporting to impress my colleagues. I’m reporting to make sure that the Canadian public is informed about the decisions that our government is making so that when it is time to vote, they can vote based on facts and having an understanding of what’s going on. If you complicate it, if you try and talk over people’s heads, you completely defeat the purpose of being a broadcaster. So it’s all about sort of finding an easy way to explain it.

I often think, am I sitting down and having a conversation with members of my family — with my mum or my dad — and making sure that you’re not using the word tariff every five seconds.

J-Source: Now that we do have a deal, what do you think is the next story that Canadians need to be watching to come out of this?

K.S.: So they’ve got this agreement right now. Trying to get it through Congress is going to be a complicated thing. It’s not a for sure anything at this point. I don’t foresee any sort of challenges necessarily in Canada getting it passed. Mexico seems to be very supportive and ready to do this. But the big question is what’s going to happen with Congress? So everyone needs to watch the midterm elections to see if pro-trade representatives get sent to Washington.