The thankless, fruitless art of the presidential interview

February 14, 2019
Donald J. Trump on Nov. 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Monday night, President Trump gave an interview to Fox News. It was his 42nd with the network since he took office. The interview, with Laura Ingraham, was unremarkable in the sense that it covered the usual Trumpian territory–walls, jobs, how much everyone loves him, racist comments about Elizabeth Warren. After the interview, Trump went out to speak at a rally in El Paso, where a BBC cameraman was attacked. Moments before, Trump was lamenting the “unfair” coverage of him in the media.

Covering this president is like trying to ride a bike in quicksand. More often than not, the man is lying. His moods are mercurial. His positions and policies constantly shift. What he says at the beginning of an interview may be completely contradicted by the end. His tweets are juggling acts of noun, adjective, and verb, poorly punctuated and badly spelled. And we, the media, scramble to make meaning of it all. To contextualize it. Rate it. Hold it up to the light.

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Do you simply write his words down and describe the context, like Olivia Nuzzi memorably did for New York magazine? Or do you cut up the segment into digestible sound bites, like  Bloomberg News from August of 2018? Do you show the president sparring with a reporter, like “60 Minutes” did with Lesley Stahl’s interview, or do you just show him saying some of the weird stuff he says, like NBC’s Lester Holt?

And what should we expect of journalists? Are they required to push back in real time? And how is that even possible? In interviews, Trump likes to claim that the trade deficit with China is $500 billion. It has never been $500 billion. So should a journalist, who has 20 minutes with the president, spend time quibbling over that number? And what even counts as a successful interview?

One answer is relatively simple: The successful interview shows the president for who and what he is. It doesn’t go easy on him and it asks him questions he’s never been asked before. It doesn’t seek to make sense of the nonsensical.

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So right away, we can rule out most Fox News interviews of the president. They are less of an interview and more of what happens when your mom takes the “Plumpy” card out of the stack in Candyland, so no one has to  draw it and go backwards on the board. It looks like a real game, but it’s stacked. On the surface, Fox News host Harris Faulkner, in her interview with the president, did push him on several issues. If you were watching while making dinner, say, you could convince yourself that he was being pressed. But each of her questions is framed in a way that allows him to spin his narrative unchecked. “What do you want America to know about this?” she asked in a question about the hush-money payment to a tabloid about Stormy Daniels.

“Why did you hire him?” she asks about Michael Cohen, allowing the president to distance himself.

That’s as tough as Fox gets. Tucker Carlson framed his interview with the president by topic, which makes Trump seem capable of a cohesive narrative. Rather than pressing the president on issues, Carlson merely asks him to expound on topics. “Why is there bipartisan consensus on the issue?” Carlson asks when referring to the supposed consensus in Congress that Russia is our chief adversary. On the surface, perhaps it’s about respect. Carlson talks a lot about respect on his show, but it’s not respect to defer to the ramblings of a president. He’s clearly capable of shouting down the president, of pushing him to answer the question, but he defers. Sidesteps. Holds back.

It’s not just Fox News. In 2017, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” John Dickerson threw Trump his own squishy questions. For example, “George W. Bush said this about being president. He said, ‘You think one thing going in, and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world are different than you thought.’ Do you agree?”

Now, if the point of the question is, “Are you even capable of doing this job?” then just ask it.  Perhaps a better way to frame this, if the core of the question is competency, is “look at all these examples of how your transition team was a mess. Why was this so hard?” I’m not saying the answer would be different, but it frames the question around the core issue.

There is an argument to be made that a journalist throwing the president easy questions assuages any calls of “fake news” and “liberal bias.” But with this president, those will come regardless. There is no winning. Plus, it’s not the job of a journalist to do emotional labor for subjects, especially one so well-versed in the media.  You can’t jockey to be dubbed the most fair journalist who does not work at Fox News.

Playing who is daddy’s favorite child with Trump is a dumb game, because he plays it right back. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, interviewing Axios’ Jonathan Swan, both noticed that Trump likes to screw with reporters. Noted Swan, “I also think that he does try to pit reporters against each other. There’s no doubt about that. One thing I like to do … is when there is a report that he says at the time is fake news and then turns out to be 100 percent accurate, I do like to point that out, to remind people.”

The first interview the president gave after winning the election was with Stahl, of “60 Minutes.” During their meeting, Stahl noted that Ivanka came into the office. The entrance and exit of a rotating cast of characters is a hallmark of Trump presidential interviews. It happened, comically, with Nuzzi. In a sitcom-like set up, Trump had Pence, John Kelly, and Mike Pompeo make appearances, in a ridiculous show of camaraderie in order to convince Nuzzi that everything was fine, just FINE, in his relationship with Kelly. Two months later, in October 2018, Kelly was out.

Stahl’s assessment of her interview with the president-elect was that he was in shock. And that certainly comes across in the clips. But reading the transcript, Trump just seems like Trump. He filibusters her. He sidesteps questions about stocking his cabinet full of lobbyists. Perhaps the subdued persona comes from subdued questions.

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The next time Stahl interviewed the president was in October of 2018, and this interview was notably more direct. She challenges him on his friendship with Kim Jong Un and climate change. But then afterward, she praised him, and called him “presidential.” He also said, “I am the president and you’re not.” Stahl laughs this moment off. She says he likes it. He probably does. The exchange feels good for ratings, but not for the national discourse.

Of course it’s a game. He’s a reality TV president. He loves a camera. Where he seems to falter is on the page. Nuzzi’s interview, which at the time was criticized for not being more critical, renders the ridiculousness of the enterprise well. It’s a time capsule of a moment, where the president, like the Wizard of Oz, is telling everyone not to look. Months later, the curtain comes down anyway.

Nuzzi said in an interview with CJR  that the White House was a fan of the interview, because it showed the president how he wanted to be shown.  Which then underscores the problem. Nuzzi didn’t criticize the president in questioning but rendered the scene on the page. Some analysts argue that the media shouldn’t repeat the president’s lies and that by doing so, even when debunking him, they reinforce his message. Others argue, no, let him hang himself with his babble.

In an era of national gaslighting, it’s hard to hold tight to your moral compass. Examining his words is akin to examining a child’s attempt at pointillism –it’s a dotted mess that only resolves into coherence out of the goodness of our hearts.

Which brings us back to the goal of these interviews. It’s implausible that Trump will finally crack to a journalist. That he’ll sit down and say, “Okay you got me, I am race baiting. The deficit with China is not that large. My approval ratings are low.”

Psychiatrist Charles Ford, in his 1996 book Lies Lies Lies, suggests that when it comes to confronting liars the best approach depends on the liar himself. Sometimes it’s best not to directly address the lie. Other times, confrontation is key. (Several psychiatrists CJR contacted declined to provide analysis on what to do, citing the Goldwater Rule, which prevents psychiatrists from discussing the mental health of someone they have not treated.)

The result of the indecision is a sort of journalistic nihilism, that goes in for the headlines, the inevitable ratings that come from the president being the president. In an article after their interview with the president, titled “What Can You Learn from an 85-Minute Interview,”  the Times’ Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker called the president an “unguided missile,” impossible to pin down. But as far as answering their own question? Well, there is none. Just a kind of journalistic shruggie emoji, that seems to say ‘we don’t know why we keep doing this but we do’.

So why do we? “It’s always a good idea to get this administration on record about everything,” said Nuzzi. “It will all come in handy in the future.”

Or maybe it won’t.You can’t win a game when the opponent decides the rules. The reality is, you learn very little of useful value from talking to the subject about themselves. Especially ones that are well-versed in media-baiting and charade. The real work of understanding a person comes from looking deep into their lives and asking questions about them, until they feel deeply uncomfortable. Only then do you know you’re finally getting somewhere.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.