It is widely agreed (even by Conservative publications) that President Trump's Axios interview with Jonathan Swan was, to borrow a phrase from the President, a total disaster, folks. Even under normal circumstances, putting Trump in an interview setting is like adding two-scoops of soft-serve diarrhea to your milkshake, taking the top off the blender, and pressing "liquify." But something was especially stinky about Trump's performance here, and I think that's because he was finally pressed with follow-up questions. Here's the full interview below:
It's required viewing if only to check in on the poor state of Donald Trump's haircut (he looks like an Animorph mid-transformation into a bald-eagle), but it's also a demonstration of what an interview with a powerful politician needs to look like going forward. Just about every other ounce of bullshit is scrutinized. (You could one day hope to examine every ounce of bullshit, but we're not quite there yet.) In one example, Trump is bragging about how much testing the United States has done compared to other countries and says, "You know, there are those that say you can test too much, you do know that." Most interviewers would let this go, possibly because they've become accustomed to filtering out Trump's random asides and lies as white noise, or possibly because they're afraid to follow up lest they fall into Trump's pit of confusion. But Swan does follow up, and he does so by quite simply asking, "Who says that?"
It seems so obvious, but it feels like a revelation. Yeah, Mr. President, who does say that you can test too much? The rest of the exchange is as follows, and it is beautiful:
Trump: "You know, there are those that say you can test too much; you do know that."
Swan: "Who says that?"
Trump: "Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books."
Swan: "Manuals? What manuals?"
Trump: "Read the books. Read the books."
Swan: "What books?"
Trump then drops the book thing, which is for the best, because if there's one thing harder to believe than "you can test too much," it's that Trump would ever read multiple books. Swan exposes Trump without having to resort to charts or a fact-checker or expert analysis. He just asks Trump to explain his crazy ramblings, and Trump can't handle it. Here's one more example of Trump being held accountable for his own words, this time directly regarding the data:
Trump tries to assert that the United States is doing fine with COVID because the death rate by case is lower than that of other countries. He then passes the pretty pictures over to the interviewer, like a child trying to convince a parent that "C+" actually means above-average. Of course, death rate by case is a meaningless statistic when talking about the overall death in regards to the country, and maybe in another interview, that would have been the last word. But Jonathan Swan presses on, explaining to Trump that what he is concerned about is the death by population. He even points out how South Korea has only had 300 people die in a population of over 50 million.
Trump's defense is to claim South Korea is lying, which tends to be Trump's go-to move. Whenever the facts aren't in his favor, the President puts the very concept of "facts" into question and then calls the whole thing a wash. But it doesn't matter because Swan has already pressed the President further than most interviewers have ever dared. Take this clip from an interview between Trump and the man he pays to lick between his toes, Sean Hannity:
Hannity asks Trump to name a priority for his second term, and Trump whiffs hard, which, in and of itself, is nuts. If Hannity lobbed that softball any softer, it would have been placed on a tee, and Trump still managed to answer with the baseball equivalent of passing out in the dugout, having sniffed too much pine tar. But what I take issue with is what happens next -- namely nothing. Well, sort of nothing. Hannity just follows Trump's thread rather than stopping to ask, "Wait, what the hell does John Bolton have to do with your priorities for next term?"
But it's not just Fox News that gives Trump license to say whatever without questioning it. Here's an interview between ABC's David Muir and Trump that's about as tepid as an old dog taking a leak:
At the end of the interview (at about 13:20), Muir asks Trump if he's comfortable if the election becomes a referendum on his handling of the pandemic. Trump then spends the next two minutes, without interruption, making unsubstantiated claims about his time in office like, "You wouldn't have a second amendment now if it wasn't for me." In a way, Trump actually is answering this question with subtext. He's essentially saying, "Americans might judge me on the pandemic, but they shouldn't because I've done all this other stuff. Also, if they do judge me by the pandemic, then I think they should view my performance positively. Also, my dad never loved me." (That's always part of it.) But Muir's failure to interject ignores his own subtext from the original question, which was, "Are you holding yourself accountable for the people who die from COVID?" The answer appears to be no, but it's not clear to the public without a follow-up.
I don't want to imply that every interview has to be like the Axios interview, but I do think interviews like these need to become more standard and for all politicians. Joe Biden should be asked in detail what the hell he's talking about the next time he says something like "dog-faced-pony-soldier" ("so, does the soldier ride the pony or is he the pony?"). And, if Biden wins, then I would hope for him to be grilled on the regular for his statements and policies. Maybe there's still time in this country for Jimmy Fallon to tousle Donald Trump's stitched on toupee, but maybe that time isn't before an election or while an elected leader is in office. Maybe softball interview questions are for the beginning of press releases and not the basis of an entire news segment. And maybe, most of all, if a politician starts saying something crazy, we look them dead and the eye and say, "What?"
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Top Image: HBO/ Axios