The Media Today

The promise—and peril—of Trump’s interview with Stephanopoulos

June 17, 2019

President Trump hadn’t granted a network news interview in more than four months. Per Mark Knoller, of CBS, Trump had done just two Sunday-show hits in his entire presidency; per Media Matters for America, nearly three-quarters of Trump’s national TV interviews as president have been with Fox channels. It was thus a surprise when the president gave 30 hours of access to George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor of ABC News, last week. Under another president, shots of Stephanopoulos leaning over the desk in the Oval Office and chatting in Air Force One and the presidential limo would not have been especially remarkable. Under Trump, they felt like lost footage from a forgotten era.

To read the headlines that came out of it, Trump’s unusual interview backfired spectacularly. In the middle of last week, ABC released footage of Trump saying that he would accept intel from a foreign government without telling the FBI about it; from that moment on, the remarks drove a furious, multi-day news cycle. Many reporters and commentators pointed out that such conduct would be illegal; several senior Republicans distanced themselves from the president’s words. As the week progressed, ABC threw further clips on the fire. Trump accused Don McGahn, the White House counsel turned key Robert Mueller witness, of lying under oath; when Stephanopoulos asked the president why he himself hadn’t testified to Mueller under oath, Trump replied, “Because they were looking to get us for lies or slight misstatements.” As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy put it, the ABC interview looked like “another fine mess” for Trump. By Friday morning, the president was on the phone to Fox & Friends for some damage control.

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The fallout from the Stephanopoulos interview, pundits surmised, is precisely why Trump doesn’t tend to do interviews with journalists who aren’t his friends. “When seated with anyone other than Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump seems to fall apart,” Nicolle Wallace said on MSNBC. “He seems to lack the mental acuity and the truth-telling capacity to field real questions from real journalists.” Real journalists, of course, have tripped Trump up before: most notably in 2017, when NBC’s Lester Holt pressed Trump on his decision to fire James Comey. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote of the Stephanopoulos sit-down, “Sometimes it takes a protracted session with one journalist to get to the heart of things.”

Given that it embarrassed the president and won plaudits for his mainstream-media interviewer (who, for good measure, used to work in the Clinton administration), you’d think that Trump would have reacted furiously to the release of the interview. But you’d (mostly) be wrong. On Saturday, the president tweeted that the “Fake News Media” had distorted his words, but also said he “enjoyed” the interview and pledged to do more like it to “get the word out” about his presidency: “It is called Earned Media,” he wrote. Trump’s tweets seemed to vindicate Politico’s Michael Calderone and Nancy Cook, who wrote last week that Trump—who will formally launch his 2020 campaign tomorrow—sees network interviews as an opportunity to reach out beyond his base, and to dominate a news cycle that’s increasingly driven by his Democratic opponents.

Granting more traditional media access is the president’s prerogative, of course. If tough questions are asked, it isn’t a bad thing. And yet the networks should be careful that they don’t allow Trump to play them. Since Trump last (formally) ran for office, many media-watchers have argued that his campaign rallies and set-piece speeches should not be broadcast live because they contain so many falsehoods. Network interviews are different: they aren’t normally live, and an interlocutor is present to provide scrutiny. But Trump often lies at such a fast pace that even the best interviewer can’t push back on every falsehood in real time. Stephanopoulos certainly did not.

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Stephanopoulos did grill Trump on many important topics, and ABC, by and large, did a decent job contextualizing and dripping out the interview’s most newsworthy portions. And yet viewers watching the whole thing (which aired last night) still heard the president say things that aren’t true—and ABC’s transcript of the interview, for instance, is not annotated to point out all the falsehoods. In 2016, Trump exploited “earned media” prolifically: he drove home false talking points, often without challenge, on mainstream networks. This time, we should ensure that the challenge is as sharp as possible. With Trump, an interviewer alone isn’t always enough.

Below, more on Trump:

  • A further escalation: On Saturday, Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” after the paper reported that his administration has been stepping up its digital attacks on Russia’s electric power grid. Trump’s claim was dangerous, and also nonsensical: the Times made clear that “Officials at the National Security Council declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting.”
  • Holding the cards: Friday was Trump’s 73rd birthday. According to The Daily Beast’s  Lachlan Markay, some of ABC’s biggest affiliate stations posted content on their websites linking to a “birthday card” for the president—but the “card” was actually “a petition website created by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to harvest email addresses that can be used during the 2020 campaign.” The ABC affiliate sites took their story down.
  • The escalator ride: Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of Trump riding down the escalator in Trump Tower and declaring his run for the White House. Politico’s Michael Kruse has an oral history of “the escalator ride that changed America.” And on CNN, McKay Coppins, of The Atlantic, reflected on what he got wrong—and right—in his 2014 profile of Trump.

Other notable stories:

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Kim Goldman is Ron Goldman’s sister.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.