Philip Wegmann inter­viewed Pres­ident Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
Courtesy | Philip Wegmann

Philip Wegmann ’15 strides into the his­toric Willard Hotel clad in jeans, a yellow T‑shirt, and a worn leather motor­cycle jacket. It’s a Thursday afternoon in Wash­ington, D.C. and under dif­ferent cir­cum­stances, Wegmann would be dressed in a suit and tie, breezing in after a press briefing at the White House.

“Because of COVID, they’ve limited the number of reporters who can be in the room so, we’re on a rotation,” he explained. “If it was during normal times, we’d have a seat and I’d be there every day.”

Ten years ago, such a statement would have been unfath­omable to Wegmann. As a home­schooled high-school student from Woodburn, Indiana, he was fas­ci­nated by his college-level cal­culus, physics, anatomy, and phys­i­ology courses. He wanted to go to engi­neering school.

“But then all the schol­ar­ships that I’d receive were writing-based. To go to an engi­neering school, I would have had to take out sig­nif­icant loans,” he recalled. “So instead, I went to Hillsdale.”

As a student at Hillsdale College, Wegmann double majored in history and pol­itics, served as a res­ident assistant, helped to found the Young Amer­icans for Freedom chapter, and zipped around town on his 1981 Kawasaki motor­cycle. Iron­i­cally, however, he never wrote a news piece for the Col­legian. Instead, his interest in reporting was born out of a class he signed up for senior year: Political Jour­nalism with John J. Miller, director of the Dow Jour­nalism Program.

“I would say I was a pretty good writer sophomore and junior year,” Wegmann said. “But Mr. Miller was the one who was like, ‘Okay, now you can go from writing being some­thing that you probably don’t enjoy that much to some­thing that can actually be really enjoyable. You can be clever and have fun.’ And I loved that. To this day, the political jour­nalism class and Dr. Arnn’s Churchill class are my two favorite courses.”

Wegmann ended up taking Miller’s Advanced Writing and Sports­writing courses as well. Since then, the unlikely jour­nalist has worked at the Fed­er­alist and Wash­ington Examiner. He joined Real­Clear­Pol­itics in 2019 and is now its White House reporter. 

“When Phil was a student, I saw right away that he was smart and tal­ented,” Miller said. “I figured he would succeed, but I had no idea how well he would succeed. It’s great to see him flourish in jour­nalism now. He shows how much Hillsdale stu­dents can accom­plish in just a few years.”

Indeed, Wegmann credits Hillsdale with equipping him for a career in jour­nalism.

“It helps you learn how to learn and learn very quickly,” Wegmann observed. “If you can stay up all night and turn out a 20-page paper the next morning and you feel alive when the sun rises, there’s probably not much you can’t do.”

It also pre­pared him to be flexible and think on his feet, invaluable assets for a jour­nalist — espe­cially when unex­pected oppor­tu­nities present them­selves.  

“I had been lob­bying the White House for a sit-down interview with the pres­ident for a long time,” Wegmann recalled. “They called me at nine o’clock at night and said, ‘Would you like an interview?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. When can we schedule this?’ They said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock.’”

Within the hour, Wegmann found himself running around Wash­ington in search of an old-fash­ioned voice recorder because the White House doesn’t permit cell phones in the Oval Office. The next day, he con­ducted a one-on-one, 20-minute interview with the com­mander in chief.

“Donald Trump is going to talk about what Donald Trump wants to talk about,” Wegmann said of his July 7 meeting with the pres­ident. “You’re going to give him a question and he’s going to run in whatever direction he wants with that. In the Oval Office, he was gen­erous with his time, but he talked about what he wanted to talk about. And there’s never enough prep that you can do for that.”

A few weeks later, Wegmann landed an interview with Vice Pres­ident Mike Pence aboard Air Force Two on the way back from the Repub­lican National Con­vention. Wegmann describes Pence as “more con­ven­tional” in style as well as someone who pre­sented a chal­lenge because he stays “on-message.” Still, Wegmann said he’s been able to have pro­ductive inter­ac­tions with both figures. 

“You can ask any politician a hard question; you don’t have to scream or shout,” he explained. “And if you ask them a hard question and they think you’re being fair and honest, they’re not going to take it per­sonally. I’ve found that being polite has gotten me further than being a prick.”

If not for COVID-19, Wegmann might never have had the chance to sit down with the pres­ident and vice pres­ident. Until March, he was trav­eling the country cov­ering rallies and debates.

“I was on the cam­paign trail quite a bit earlier on in Iowa and South Car­olina with more trips planned until March when coro­n­avirus brought every­thing to a halt,” Wegmann said. “I was pretty dis­ap­pointed, but then all of a sudden we started having daily briefings with the pres­ident and the COVID Task Force.”

Wegmann counts himself “really for­tunate” to have his White House gig, espe­cially at RCP where he’s had the benefit of learning from older col­leagues. The feeling is mutual: Susan Crabtree, Wegmann’s partner on the White House beat and a 26-year veteran of Wash­ington jour­nalism, says he’s a “team player” whose writing has “always stood out” to her.

“It’s a cut above,” Crabtree said of Wegmann’s work, adding that she knew his byline even before he joined the RCP team. “It’s not just your basic reporting. He has more of a mag­azine flair and more of a voice than other writers — espe­cially younger writers — that I’ve seen. He has a talent that sets him apart.”

But despite the glamor of being a member of the White House press corps, Wegmann says the job comes with plenty of chal­lenges.

“The best part is that you get to see it yourself; you get to write the story,” he says. “The hardest part is also the best part: You have to write the story when it happens, not when it’s con­ve­nient. You’re not going to have a normal nine-to-five workday. And you’re going to have to cancel weekend plans and take calls during dinners when you would rather not. But you don’t have the luxury of deciding when something’s going to happen.”

He loves it anyway, and has words of encour­agement for Hillsdale stu­dents inter­ested in fol­lowing a similar path.

“If I can do it, pretty much anybody can,” Wegmann said. “There’s not a more fun job in the world. If you hustle and don’t get dis­couraged easily, you can make it. Espe­cially if you make use of every­thing this college has to offer you.”

In fact, Wegmann says he’s gained a new appre­ci­ation for his alma mater in the years since grad­u­ation.  

“There are people I have met out here who light up when they find out that you’re a graduate of Hillsdale because they feel like they were a partner in your edu­cation,” he said of sup­porters he’s encoun­tered. “I think that that’s a really selfless, beau­tiful act on their part. There have been times that I have been flippant and ungrateful, but the edu­cation that I got there, the friends that I made there, and the sac­ri­fices that other people made so that I could have this — I don’t think you’ll get that any­where else.”

Wegmann plans to stay in the jour­nalism field for the fore­seeable future. He has his eyes on one long-term objective, however.    

“My goal in life is to write some­thing good enough to be a reading in John Miller’s class,” he jokes.  

Until then, he’ll be running around the city, hot on the trail of his next scoop.