CNN's Manu Raju on covering Congress, conflict and creepy crawlies

The US gives journalists broad access to the corridors of American democracy

CNN's chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju outside the US Capitol. Vanessa Jaklitsch for The National
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CNN's chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju has seen plenty of political action – and inaction – during nearly two decades covering Capitol Hill.

One thing the son of Indian immigrants never imagined he would be reporting on was an insurrection at the heart of American democracy.

“I never expected that I could be a war correspondent in the United States Capitol, and it turned out to be that day that I was,” Raju says, referring to the events of January 6, 2021.

In an attack that shocked the world and which still bitterly divides America, a mob of Donald Trump supporters smashed their way into the US Congress in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election and force their Republican leader back into office for a second term, even though he had lost to Democrat Joe Biden by more than seven million votes.

“You have to be ready for any situation that presents itself. I kind of just want a report as a matter of fact, as I get it … That was my goal in that situation.”

Raju, 43, whose parents came to the US in the 1970s, has become a familiar figure in many American households thanks to his years of high-profile reporting on Congress.

In a recent interview with The National, Raju recalled how he did not appreciate the danger he and fellow journalists were in on January 6. Mr Trump had for years attacked non-conservative news outlets as the “Fake News Media”, and in 2019 branded the press as “truly the enemy of the people”.

The rhetoric led to Trump supporters issuing threats against news crews and journalists, and on January 6, more than a dozen journalists were assaulted while covering the riot.

“When the National Guard finally came, several hours later, and evacuated us into a secure location, at that point, when we walked outside, I realised how dangerous the situation was for us,” Raju recalls. He adds how he told fellow CNN journalist Jake Tapper that the Capitol resembled a war zone.

“You assume that you are in the safest building and that you will be fine. And suddenly it happens. I never thought I was in as much danger as I really was.”

More than 1,000 people have been charged in the attack, including members of the extreme-right Proud Boys, several of whom were convicted of seditious conspiracy.

Corridors of power

The US Capitol is unusual for a seat of national power in that it grants journalists broad access to much of the building.

Scores of congressional reporters swarm its corridors daily, hoping to conduct ad hoc interviews with some of the nation's most powerful political players.

Covering Congress is “one of the best beats in Washington because you can walk anywhere in the halls of the Capitol and, if you see someone, you can interview them”, Raju says.

“If I see the Speaker of the House, I can talk to him every time he walks out of his office. In fact, I do it often, and he makes a lot of news.

“That's the beauty of it, you can interview all the most powerful people, anytime you see them – something you can't do at the White House when you see President Joe Biden.

“Here, you have almost free access.”

Despite the relatively unfettered access to politicians on Capitol Hill, Raju counsels young reporters not to try to get too close to anyone they are covering.

“You want [politicians] to respect you, but you don't want to be friends with them,” he says.

“If you get too close, you can damage your objectivity. At the same time, you want to maintain a good relationship that develops through trust and respect. That is very important and necessary here to become a good reporter, someone who can talk to people on both sides of the aisle.”

Raju was born and raised in Chicago in a predominantly white Catholic culture where there were few other people of his parents' national origin.

“There weren't many Indians, at least not specifically where I grew up,” he says.

“I had what is called a typical American childhood, a big fan of sports and got involved in athletics growing up.”

Before joining CNN in 2015, Raju worked as a reporter at Politico, delivering scoop after scoop on the inner workings of Congress, told from an insider's perspective that left readers marvelling at his access to sources.

He began to appear a little more on television including CNN Sunday Morning and other slots on the network such as Inside Politics.

Raju isn't known purely for his coverage of the Capitol. In 2021, billions of cicadas emerged from the ground in Washington, part of a lengthy life cycle that sees the region blanketed in the noisy bugs every 17 years.

One of these winged creatures landed on Raju as he was getting ready to go on air, leading to a viral moment as he tried to figure out what was crawling up his neck.

“I just kind of felt that it was a crawling all over my body. It was just very, very gross,” he says.

“My seven-year-old twins loved the cicada thing. They still laugh about it. I think it will be in my obituary one day”.

Updated: July 06, 2023, 4:46 AM