The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the reporter who always seems to get a copy of the hottest tell-all Trump book first.

Customers lined up at Washington’s Kramerbooks until midnight for the release of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” one of the first of the highly anticipated Trump-era books, in January 2018. (Ben Terris/The Washington Post)

Mark Meadows’s new memoir about his time as Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff was still a week away from its official release date, but reporter Martin Pengelly already had the most eye-opening part.

Meadows’s book, Pengelly wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday, contained the bombshell revelation that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus three days before the first presidential debate last year and that Meadows and other White House aides had kept it secret when Trump faced off against Joe Biden.

The revelation, which ignited headlines and cable-news discussions for days, was just the latest in Pengelly’s series of scoops. Over the past four years, while a fleet of top journalists and government officials have raced to the marketplace with best-selling tell-alls about the Trump administration, Pengelly has carved out a unique specialty: He’s the guy who somehow manages to get a contraband copy of each book first — and beat the world in spilling the most consequential and interesting details.

Pengelly was the first to snag a pre-publication copy of Michael Wolff’s 2018 bestseller, “Fire and Fury,” the volume that kicked off the Trump book phenomenon with its portrait of chaotic mismanagement and internecine warfare in the White House.

Since then, he’s been first to unearth nuggets in books by former FBI director James B. Comey, Trump niece Mary L. Trump, porn actress and alleged Trump paramour Stormy Daniels, and former White House press secretaries Sarah Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany. He had the early word on former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s memoir, too, including Abedin’s startling allegation that an unnamed U.S. senator made an aggressive and unwanted pass at her.

The 43-year-old British-born journalist has also gotten the jump on Trump books written by journalists, sometimes beating their own employers to reporting the juiciest bits. Among others, he broke news about CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta’s 2019 Trump memoir, and a book about Melania Trump by Acosta’s CNN colleague, Kate Bennett. (The salacious headline on the latter: “Melania Trump suspects Roger Stone behind nude photo leak, book claims”).

All of which has generated a question about Pengelly among authors and publishers: How does he do it?

He’s hardly the only reporter to get the scoop on a newsy book — for decades, media organizations have set off in chase of hot new releases. But no others in recent memory have consistently scored so many pre-publication coups.

His work has caused consternation in publishing circles because it preempts the carefully managed publicity campaigns surrounding high-profile book releases. His stories tend “to blow up [publishers’] rollout plans,” said one frustrated but admiring Trump book author who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the author’s publisher.

Another author, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing his employer’s policy, said Pengelly’s article about his book was “disruptive.”

“It caught all involved by surprise,” he said. “Pengelly certainly has some good publishing connections.”

Publishers typically offer advance copies of books to journalists and critics but set embargo dates on when they can publish news stories, excerpts or reviews. The orchestration is intended to create a burst of publicity on the book’s “official” release date, similar to a movie or album release.

The media scramble at the heart of Trump Book Summer

Pengelly’s stories have appeared as much as two weeks before a book’s publication, though typically he’s a week or so ahead of the big day. His story on Meadows’s book, “The Chief’s Chief,” was published six days before the book’s embargoed sale date of Tuesday, for instance.

Pengelly, who is also the Guardian U.S.’s breaking news and weekend editor, won’t say how he comes by copies of the books he writes about. (His stories typically offer a vague non-explanation such as: “The Guardian obtained a copy.”) In fact, he won’t reveal much at all; he declined interview requests, deferring to his editors at Guardian US, the New York-based division of the British newspaper.

Guardian managers say Pengelly gets the books he writes about without breaching any embargo agreements. Doing so would be unethical and could subject a publication to being blacklisted by book publishers.

“We are rightly proud of our record of delivering scoops at Guardian US,” Brendan O’Grady, the newspaper’s spokesman, said in a statement. “We never discuss our sourcing, for obvious reasons. But in this instance we can confirm none of the stories you’re referring to came about by breaking embargoes on review copies of books.”

Authors sometimes share early copies of their work with friends and colleagues, which is one way a title can fall into the hands of a reporter before it goes on sale. Other journalists have merely gotten lucky, discovering a book that was placed on sale early by an indifferent clerk at an out-of-the-way store.

Pengelly, though, seems to have elevated the book chase to a science with his sheer volume of scoops. He pays attention to the official release dates of potentially newsworthy titles and works his source, or sources, in advance. His pipeline is probably a bookstore, or bookstores, in the New York area, and he once acknowledged as much in a 2018 story about Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty.” The book, he and a colleague wrote at the time, was “obtained by the Guardian from a bookseller in New York.”

The mechanics of the book-publishing trade and the timing of Pengelly’s scoops point in this direction, too.

Stores typically receive the first shipments of a new book a week before its official release date, which usually is a Tuesday, according to Bradley Graham, co-proprietor of the Politics and Prose bookstores in Washington. That’s early enough to ensure that hundreds of retailers get copies on time, he said, but not so early that stray copies leak or embargoes are violated. At least in theory.

Retailers also sign agreements with publishers not to offer an especially hot title for sale until the release date, Graham said. Penalties for violating the agreement can range from a stern rebuke to a refusal by the publisher to ship other titles to the store, he added.

The ship-and-release timing matches up with the timing of Pengelly’s articles. His stories tend to be published on the Wednesday or Thursday before release day — strongly suggesting he acquired them just after they arrived at the shipping dock of his local bookstore.

However Pengelly manages it, not all authors are dismayed about being blindsided by his scoops. Some even see it as helpful.

“I don’t know the guy, but obviously he’s carved out an important niche for himself,” said Peter Baker, whose “The Man Who Ran Washington” — a biography of former secretary of state James A. Baker that the New York Times reporter co-authored with his wife, Susan Glasser, of the New Yorker — got the Pengelly treatment last year.

“It’s fair to say that stories like these are important buzz-builders setting the table for a book launch, not just with readers but with the whole political-media-books ecosphere.”