How Trump changed everything for The Onion

A lot has changed since 2013, when the editors of The Onion got an angry email from Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen.

Back then, Cohen was an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, and his client was just a TV mogul, still years away from announcing his first serious presidential bid.

Cohen was fuming over a satirical article published under Trump’s name with the headline, “When You’re Feeling Low, Just Remember I’ll Be Dead In About 15 Or 20 Years.” On Trump’s behalf, Cohen demanded that The Onion immediately remove the article and apologize.

“This commentary goes way beyond defamation and, if not immediately removed, I will take all actions necessary to ensure your actions do not go without consequence,” Cohen wrote, according to a copy of the email provided to POLITICO. “Guide yourself accordingly.”

Five years later, Trump is in the White House, Cohen is under federal investigation and the article is still on The Onion’s website, which many West Wing staffers begrudgingly admit to occasionally reading.

But lampooning Trump, whose behavior often defies satire, hasn’t always been easy, according to editor-in-chief Chad Nackers, who in his two decades at The Onion has covered Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Trump.

As The Onion tries to find its footing in the Trump era, its writers have increasingly focused on the people around the president. Vice President Mike Pence is often depicted as a repressed religious fanatic who, in one memorable article, refused to be alone with a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth maple syrup until his wife arrived. Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., known as the “Trump boys” in The Onion’s lexicon, are cast as bumbling simpletons whose misadventures — from setting up their own makeshift law firm in the White House’s electrical room to interrupting an intelligence briefing with sofa cushions duct-taped to their bodies — are the closest thing to the site’s wildly successful mockery of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Nackers said he and his staff haven’t heard from anybody in the Trump administration about their coverage, though former press secretary Sean Spicer once retweeted an Onion video claiming that his role in the Trump administration “will be to provide the American public with robust and clearly articulated misinformation.”

In an interview with POLITICO, Nackers explained The Onion’s approach to satirizing the Trump administration. Here’s a lightly edited transcript:

POLITICO: I’m interested in getting a sense of your process, particularly on the politics-related articles that you do, and how that’s changed since Trump took over.

Nackers: This is my fourth different administration that I’ve covered, starting with Clinton. I started in 1997. Each one has been a little different. Clinton felt like things were good in the country. The economy was really robust. There was more of a playful making fun of Clinton for various things.

And then Bush ushered in this scarier era with 9/11 and the Iraq War. That’s when The Onion started getting a little bit harder satirically, I think. Obama presented a whole different thing. When Obama started, we did a lot of articles about Time publishing the definitive puff piece about Obama. So while we may have been excited about the first black president, it also seemed like it was all kid gloves for the first six months. It’s interesting because that just completely disappeared, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s not happening anymore.”

Trump poses definitely an interesting challenge, and it goes pretty deep. We’re so divided in this country politically right now that I feel like people can be very dismissive if they think you’re doing a joke that’s critical of Trump. They’ll be like, “That’s not funny. That’s no good.” On the other hand, I think overly left-leaning people can be too on board with anything someone says, not even an Onion thing. They’ll believe anything as long as it’s hammering Trump.

Obama was more of a traditional president as far as his decorum and even his preparation and policy. He seemed like a pretty organized guy. You leap off of that and so things can be more surreal and absurd when you’re making fun of him. Whereas Trump is kind of starting from this point of already being kind of absurd.

POLITICO: Do you feel like it’s harder to be funny now?

Nackers: When I started, there weren’t really too many humor sites. There definitely weren’t any humor news sites. A lot of times, nobody else was going to get their comment out as fast as we were going to get it out, by virtue of us having a website. Now it almost seems like on Twitter there are people who are professional comedians who are online all day. A story breaks and they’re making jokes about it. So I think that definitely makes things a little more challenging. In the environment that we’re in when everything is so fiercely divided, that is also a little bit problematic. Sometimes for us it’s nice to cover things that aren’t just completely political so that we can have some fun and it might not matter what your ideology is.

POLITICO: How much of what you do now is also a critique of the way the mainstream traditional press does its job?

Nackers: That’s been pretty good for us. I did an article about white supremacists being exhausted from doing all these interviews all day with The New York Times. I feel like that stuff has worked out pretty well and it’s good to critique that traditional style. Or we’ll do Project Veritas in a roundabout way in saying that we had also interviewed the same person that The Washington Post had pointed out was just an actor — and we had definitive proof. That was fun because we played up The Onion’s character of being the greatest journalism in the world with the most integrity, while clearly being wrong — which is a fun message to be saying there.

POLITICO: In your own words, what is your criticism of the way the mainstream press is covering this White House now?

Nackers: I think sometimes it’s just so self-serious. It has been in different stages. The first few months of the Trump administration, it just felt like people took every single thing he said so seriously. And it’s like, really? Even if they’re not funny, they’re tongue-in-cheek arguments where he’s deliberately trying to troll people. I think the press goes running off in the wrong direction: “Look what he’s doing! Look what he’s doing!” And you make a huge deal out of what he says and it’s missing the point of everything. In a way, they’re doing exactly what he wants: freaking out about nothing. And that’s what’s been happening a lot in this country. They’re freaking out about small things and they’re not listening to each other and realizing that a lot of things that people tend to disagree about aren’t that far apart and it gets caught up in being really emotional. For instance, he said this thing a couple months ago about having a president for life when China had done that. And it’s like, obviously he’s not being serious. There were a lot of articles written about that and you’re just wasting people’s time with that.

POLITICO: And there’s a drive for traffic that comes with it. You guys have touched on that a little bit as well. Some of this is a business model, to take everything he says and write a headline about Trump saying some zany thing and then get all the clicks that come along with it.

Nackers: Exactly. Take a place like CNN. I feel like they were doing it even before Trump was elected, before he was running. They would put out articles and it would feel like this is the most click-bait article I’ve ever seen. They’ve been shouting about how Mueller is going to be fired for months upon months. Everybody seems to use fear to drive people to donate money or read articles or watch videos. And that part, it’s definitely kind of sickening. I completely understand how it’s harder and harder to get a pair of eyes on content these days because there’s so much stuff and people are bombarded with different things. But it does seem like people just freak out a lot.

POLITICO: On both sides of the aisle?

Nackers: Absolutely.

POLITICO: ResistanceHole, the new site you’ve put together, it seems like that’s what it’s about.

Nackers: Yeah, ClickHole had already been covering the other side of it, so it seemed only natural. In a way, it almost feels like the resistance stuff is even more fun to make fun of.

POLITICO: Why is that?

Nackers: They are just so self-serious. There’s a lot of times when you disagree, and people say, “You’re a Russian. You’re bought off by the Russians.” And it’s like, come on. For people who feel like this is a serious thing and there may be huge repercussions for all this Russia stuff, you’re doing a disservice to what you’re supposedly fighting for by just blindly attacking.

And it kind of lends credence to saying it’s a witch hunt. I’ve seen people literally do a witch hunt on powerless people and attack them. It’s kind of crazy that people are doing that or that they want to immediately take away someone’s First Amendment rights and say you can’t speak, like conservatives who want to speak on college campuses. It makes no sense to me. Let people speak. Don’t make them into martyrs who aren’t allowed to speak and then their message is amplified. They’re going to draw more people if they become proponents of the First Amendment, versus whatever message you disagreed with. It’s a very dangerous situation.

“It almost seems like on Twitter there are people who are professional comedians who are online all day,” Chad Nackers said.

The First Amendment is very important to all journalists, and that’s something I’ve always been appreciative of with The Onion, that in America you feel very protected and you can comment on things. So, it scares me when, regardless of the political group, when people start saying, “Well, that person shouldn’t be allowed to say anything.” Because that’s a pretty slippery slope.

POLITICO: It does seem like you focus on the people around Trump — the sons and the staff. Is it easier to satirize those people than to satirize Trump himself, who is already such a surreal character?

Nackers: Yeah, I think that strategy is something we’ve used a lot. We did it when talking about his supporters during the election. It was easier to make jokes about things in that realm than to directly make a joke about Trump. It is pretty useful.

The other challenge about this administration is that so many of their policies and things, like for the EPA, they almost feel like satire. You’re just cutting everything that would protect the environment or making it easier for people to pollute. That’s the kind of thing that you would in the past make jokes about. I think we had an article years ago that said something like: “EPA: Rivers Aren’t Supposed to Smell like Shit.” And you can’t really do that kind of joke now because that’s not really where their focus is.

It goes throughout the Department of Interior. We used to do lots of jokes about various things — laying off animals and stuff like that. It’s not quite as relevant now because they’re not functioning at a normal level.

But I think Trump’s surrogates are a little bit easier. We had an article that they were just going to have ongoing going-away parties. There was another one about how the nation didn’t think it could re-assimilate all the former Trump employees. That one we ran originally and then four or five months later we updated it and added all the other pictures of the people who have left. And we’re probably ready to do another one soon I think. It’s weird how the repetition of things becomes increasingly relevant as these cycles keep happening over and over in the administration.

POLITICO: It feels that way covering the White House day-to-day sometimes — that we’re writing the same story over and over again.

Nackers: Definitely. It’s a weird thing when stories become about press conferences, and that becomes the news cycle.

POLITICO: Politicians criticize reporters all the time for writing stories about process, rather than substance. But so much of what this White House does day-to-day is a process story. That could be a criticism of the way we cover things, that there isn’t enough focus on actual policies.

Nackers: Right. That’s the story of the 2016 election too. It didn’t come down to policy. It came down to personality quirks and small things — insignificant things that could potentially be a distraction from the real issues and what we should actually be concerned about.

POLITICO: You did most of the Biden stuff, right? Did you actually come up with that storyline?

Nackers: Like many things at The Onion, it kind of developed over time. The first headline was that Biden showed up to the inauguration with a ponytail. I wrote that one. We were doing the first 100 days, and there were a lot of Biden things in there, and I think that’s where the first seed was planted that he was running around the White House with his porn stache. And then the Trans Am article was kind of the birth of it, the first blossoming, and from there it developed.

POLITICO: Did you feel pressure to find some version of that for Trump world?

Nackers: I don’t think it was a pressure necessarily. I think things happen a little bit naturally. The closest thing we have now is the Trump boys. It’s a little bit more fun. It lets us stretch out and hit issues in different ways instead of it being just hard political satire. Issues like immigration and even North Korea, they’re just such challenging topics. They’re sort of fatiguing after awhile, you’re like, “Oh God, this is just a never-ending avalanche of awfulness.”

There’s that one story where they said the White House had all these cockroachesand insects in it. And we did one where Trump said that the only ones who understood him were the cockroaches. That one is edging closer to the classic style of Onion article. But it’s still grounded in one real-life event that happened. It’s a little big of a different strategy.

There have been different categories of characters that we’ve played around with. I think Pence has also been pretty good for us as far as him being more like a super-uptight religious person. We’ve been able to play off of that well. Like, Mrs. Butterworth was on the table and he didn’t feel comfortable being alone. Or where he was disappointed that all these husbands and fathers let these women go to the women’s march. It’s a weird reverse-Biden role.

POLITICO: When you do write about Trump directly, it often feels like the character you’re putting forward is a really lonely guy.

Nackers: Yeah. We’ve played with that, where’s he’s feeding his pigeons or his brain is at war with himself.

POLITICO: Is that how you see the president?

Nackers: There are times that I imagine that he’s kind of a sad, lonely person. Like when it all quiets down and the cameras are gone for the day, I can kind of imagine that that could very well be a part of his life.

POLITICO: Have you heard from anybody in the administration since you guys have been writing about them?

Nackers: The only thing that I heard about is that people enjoyed the Kushner stuff, that that was getting passed around the White House at one point.

POLITICO: How did you hear about that?

Nackers: There were articles about it, that people were supposedly sharing around the article about all the stuff he was going to take care of. I think that’s really the only thing I’ve really heard.

POLITICO: So you guys don’t get calls from Kellyanne Conway or anything like that?

Nackers: No.

POLITICO: Can you walk me through your editorial process for political coverage?

Nackers: Half of our staff works on evergreen content, and the other half is focused on timely stuff that’s going on in the news. It really depends on what’s in the media cycle. On Monday, we have a 10 a.m. meeting where people will bring in headlines about whatever is going on that day. Then we meet, and I usually read the headlines off of a list. It’s our old-school way of doing it. I go through and highlight the ones that people are voting for. Then we print off the list and everybody discusses which ones they think we should publish. A lot of times things will get killed because it’s kind of a similar joke to something we’ve done before. Then we’ll brainstorm, assign things, they’ll get written, and 45 minutes later I’m editing and trying to get them out by 1 or 1:30 p.m. or something like that.

POLITICO: Do you have a staff that does the political coverage, or does everybody pitch in?

Nackers: No. Some people are better than others at really knowing the issues and having solid takes. And some people are really good at the evergreen headlines. We have our staff divided so there’s enough people who know politics stuff on rotation each week. But it won’t be the same person that pitches every political headline. And some stuff gets workshopped. Some of the most incredible headlines — like the RNC warning that gay marriage is a slippery slope to pedophilia, with the Roy Moore thing — those really strong headlines where we’re using the rhetoric that people use, but reversing it on themselves, those don’t always just happen immediately. Sometimes there’s a couple tweaks.

The other challenge about the Trump administration is that everybody else seems to do stuff at 8 o’clock in the morning and then there’s the big news story for the day. They tend to come out with stuff at 4 or 5. People resign in the middle of the day or on a Friday and then we’re scrambling around.

POLITICO: It’s just never-ending.

Nackers: I’m sure it’s like, “Oh, this used to be more of a 9-to-5 job.” It’s definitely frustrating when you’re like, “Oh my God, is this going down on a Friday?”

POLITICO: What is the goal of your political coverage? What’s the underlying thing that you want to get across when you write about Trump world?

Nackers: I think it all comes down to “tu stultus es,” which means, “you are dumb.” It’s our take on everything, that all of it is kind of stupid. I think humanity goes through these cycles of just being kind of awful. It’s part of the reason why problems exist for generations — because people are kind of abusive and it lives on. On a small scale, if someone is emotionally or physically abusive to someone, that next generation is going to be emotionally or physically abusive. And I think in the larger scale, humanity has just been so abusive that we’re locked into these awful cycles and it’s just impossible to get out of. Because no matter what, there’s no fix for this stuff until we can get far enough along to escape it somehow.

POLITICO: That’s a very uplifting message.

Nackers: I assume things in the past were far worse, if you think about how children were treated, with child labor. We’re not living in the age of Dickens anymore. We’ve had good progress, but it seems like it’s going to take a lot longer for these things to clear up, and that’s why these issues remain.

POLITICO: Just to be clear: Do you think it is harder to cover this administration than Obama’s or Bush’s? Or is it just different?

Nackers: I think it’s a little bit harder just because hyperbole is such a powerful satirical tool and you have to throw that at the bottom of the toolbox sometimes because that’s not going to be the best way to get it across. With Obama, we did a lot of drone stuff. I think Obama was more challenging than George W. Bush, and then there were times when George W. Bush became super challenging because you couldn’t just do “Bush is dumb” jokes. That became a very tired concept. You had to find other ways to do it. I feel like when things run their course and everybody is commenting on them, that makes its own problems because we’re not going to do anything in that realm and it eliminates the stuff you can do.

It kind of naturally happens with every president, where you’re like, “OK, we’re not going to be covering this stuff.” With Clinton and Lewinsky, that was late-night fodder for nine months or something, and I think we only did like two jokes about it at that time.

At the end we had that Lewinsky was going to re-blow Clinton on the Senate floor. That was the other realm that The Onion lived in at that point too. No one else was making jokes like that. You couldn’t even come close to saying a joke like that on television; maybe in a stand-up set you could.

That’s another area where The Onion has had a ton of influence, in kind of being this groundbreaking organization where we’re no holds barred and shining a light on the dark corners of the world. That’s just become a more common thing, and people are more comfortable doing that despite the fact that we now live in an outrage culture that gets incredibly mad and threatens to call sponsors and stuff. Which I don’t think we’ve really had to deal with, but you see it all the time. People are weaponizing that too.

POLITICO: Have you ever pondered the alternative universe in which Hillary Clinton did win the presidency?

Nackers: I think we maybe did one article that was maybe slightly positive and the rest we were just ripping her apart. It would have been kind of fun. I’m pretty sure we would have just gone after her very hard. In some ways, there were enough things where people were just like, she’s really wrong on some of these issues and she’s very hawklike. And I think with groups of satirists, that’s just the kind of stuff they want to tee off on.

POLITICO: I watched a C-SPAN interview you did during the campaign in which you said that she would have been easier to satirize as president.

Nackers: Oh, definitely. She’s super easy. She’s just so much more traditional, and it’s easier to take the thing that’s normal and make fun of it than this weird thing that doesn’t fit and is going about things in a totally different way than you’re used to. I think that makes it so much more challenging. But, you know, despite all that, there is plenty of room for hitting the absurdity of all of this.

But you never really want to have somebody say, “Oh, he’s writing the joke for you.” Because that’s technically not helping you. Because you’re like, “Oh, how do I write a joke about a joke?”

POLITICO: Is there something you haven’t touched on in Trump’s world that you want to?

Nackers: I’m hoping we don’t have to do more war stuff. That’s probably the area I’d like to avoid. In some areas, like Iran, those tensions have been making people a little bit uneasy. But it’s sort of hard to say. I think there are plenty of things for us to go after. Some of the Mueller investigation stuff has been pretty fun. That’s where we played a little bit on both sides. After Flynn took his plea deal we did a joke about Mueller saying, “Probe’s over.” There is a part of us where we enjoy messing with people who dive in too deep with that stuff.

A lot of people will say, “Well, The Onion leans this way.” Well, we were from Madison. It’s a very left-wing school and community. So I think those roots are there. But a lot of people grew up in Wisconsin at that time and you have a lot of connection to blue-collar people in the working class. I feel like we always try to make fun of everything. And these are people I know who could be Trump supporters. It’s not just absolute strangers. It’s not that they live five states away from me. I think that’s always what made The Onion pretty unique, you try to make fun of everybody because we knew everybody.