Free advice for the next journalist who gets an interview with President Trump
The transcripts of Donald Trump's last two sit-down interviews — one with The New York Times and one with The Wall Street Journal — provided some excellent lessons in what not to do when interviewing the president.
The New York Times team was successful in getting Trump to go on and on about the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election, which resulted in a few news nuggets. Chief among them was Trump's on-the-record confirmation of numerous previous reports that he was furious with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation — rather than stopping it, presumably.
That could end up being a key bit of evidence that Trump obstructed justice, so it certainly wasn't a total bust.
But the Times reporters — Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman — didn't dislodge Trump from his zombie talking points, didn't challenge him when he descended into incoherence, didn't press him on any details at all and whiffed time and time again when he repeatedly made things up and flat-out lied.
The leaked transcript of The Wall Street Journal interview — so much worse than the Times's, and so awful a Journal editor warned the newsroom not to leak it — shows Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker responding to Trump's compulsive, obvious fabrications with obsequious bonhomie and not the slightest pushback.
The biggest problem with both interviews, however, was that the journalists sitting down with Trump fundamentally treated him like a normal president. He is not.
They had a rare chance to confront Trump with some of the realities he chooses to disregard, and they did not. Trump exists in a bubble of adoration, and they didn't disturb it.
But most importantly, they failed to address the core characteristics of Trump as president: He doesn't seem to have any clear policy views, doesn't seem to understand what he's doing, acts like a spoiled toddler — and lies all the time about almost everything.
Sitting down for an interview with someone who lies all the time — and not addressing those credibility problems, front and center — is enabling, no more and no less.
So what to do?
The next journalist who has a chance to sit down with Trump needs to ask him why and when anyone should believe him — except not so rudely, and not so vaguely.
What follows is a partial list of questions reporters should ask Trump. There are of course plenty more. Please suggest any you have (the less inflammatory and rhetorical the better) in comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Credibility — starting with Russia
The most egregious and significant of Trump's lies now center on special counsel Bob Mueller's investigation into Russian interference with the election and possibly collusion with members of the Trump campaign.
Trump has dismissed the whole matter as a "witch hunt" — starting with the nearly uncontested conclusion that the Russian government interfered on his behalf, with or without his team's approval.
But does he really want to stick to that position, given how little credibility it has? Either way, it would be worth reporting.
Here's what I'd like someone to ask him:
At what point in the series of allegations about Russian intervention on your behalf in the presidential election do you think the story becomes "fake news" and a "witch hunt?"
Quick yes or no: Do you believe that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election in your favor? Do you believe members of your campaign colluded with the Russians during the campaign? Did you yourself reach some sort of arrangement with the Russian government, potentially under duress?
That first statement is the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community — as well as a truly overwhelming number of other experts and observers. The second two, we don't really know yet. So (if) (when) you say all three are fake news, do you understand why it's hard for some people to believe you?
It's also worth confronting him, face to face, with some previous statements he has made that defied reality and asking him if he's sticking with them.
Do you, today, think there were more people on the Mall for your inauguration than for President Obama's first inauguration?
Do you still believe that 3 to 5 million illegal votes cost you the popular vote? Have you seen a single bit of hard evidence that would support this otherwise apparently baseless conclusion?
Do you still maintain that yours was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan, despite the fact that George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all had larger margins?
You have repeatedly — dozens of times — claimed credit for saving the government more than $700 billion on an order of F-35 planes. (It started out as $600 million.) But the Pentagon and Lockheed had already announced that the planes were going to be that much cheaper this time around. Why do you repeat that so often?
Do you still insist that the feedback to your speech to the Boy Scouts was universally positive and that you got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them?
Do you still feel you have done more in your first six months than most if not all presidents in all of U.S. history?
Getting beyond the election
It's truly astonishing how much Trump still talks about the election, to the detriment of talking about policy. That's a regular feature of interviews, and one that should be questioned, rather than simply accepted.
You talk constantly about the election and lash out at Hillary Clinton. Why do you think this is still worth talking about?
And since we really know so little about his views on policy, asking some questions about his core values will either show he doesn't have any, or be news.
If a 24-year-old woman has cancer, should she pay more for health insurance than a 24-year-old woman who is healthy?
Do the top 1 percent pay too much tax or too little?
Should companies that release vast amounts of carbon be assessed some sort of cost?
When you said you would drain the swamp, what did you mean?
There are of course so many more. (List your suggestions in comments.)
The Watergate question
Whether it's Donald Trump Jr.'s secret meeting with a Russian lawyer, Jared Kushner's failures to declare meetings and assets on his security clearance form, Michael Flynn's status as a lobbyist for Turkey, the firing of Jim Comey, or Paul Manafort's business dealings, the best question is always what I call the Watergate question:
What did you know? And when did you know it?
Simple factual questions
There are a nearly infinite number of simple factual questions it would be worth asking Trump, to see how much he understands about the country, its actual problems and his job. Here are just a few.
What is the average family income in the United States, more or less?
Do we have a trade deficit or surplus with Canada?
Whom does the FBI director report to?
In light of the recent lawsuit suggesting a White House role in encouraging a conspiracy theory, it's worth asking if there's anything so wildly untrue that Trump is actually willing to say so.
The lawsuit suggested that some White House officials — and potentially Trump himself — colluded with Fox News to falsely report that leaks attributed to the Russians in fact came from within the Democratic National Committee, and that Democrats might be connected to the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich.
Do you believe that Seth Rich was the source of the emails leaked to WikiLeaks and that Democrats had him killed as a result?
Do you believe that Clinton aides ran a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor?
Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii?
Do you believe that Islamists have secretly infiltrated the U.S. government?
Do you believe that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered?
Do you believe that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the connection between vaccines and autism?
Allies and friends
Getting Trump to explain policy may be useless. But he's more likely to say who he agrees and disagrees with.
Are there any ways in which you and the Koch Brothers don't see eye-to-eye?
How much do you trust the Republican leaders who so viciously maligned you during the primary to back you up going forward, and why?
How much do you share the agenda of the Republican congressional leaders?
Perceptions of race and crime
How big a problem do you think police brutality is? Do you think it's worse for African-Americans than Whites?
When you told a group of police officers that they should not be “too nice” while transporting suspects, were you joking?
Do you think that citizens video-recording police officers is a positive or negative thing overall?
What do you think of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's method of fighting the drug war, which includes extrajudicial killings? Is that a model for the U.S. in any way?
Foreign policy and national security
When's the last time anyone asked Trump about the military actions we are taking or supporting?
What, if anything, do you hope to accomplish in Afghanistan at this point? Why should it cost the U.S. even one more life or one more dollar?
Why is the U.S. providing bombs and fuel to the Saudis bombing Yemen? What's the goal there?
Should U.S. intelligence agencies be allowed to sift through all communications in and out of the country without a warrant?
How much time did you spend learning about the issue of transgender people serving in the military before your tweet? What are the arguments for and against the ban?
Do you think Congress should have any say regarding who gets security clearances?
No, not off the record
And here's one last piece of advice: Don't let Trump go off the record. Explain that in many of his past interviews, he has said "off the record" when he didn't really mean that. (Remember how after his "off the record" conversation with the press corps on Air Force One on the way to Paris, Trump complained it hadn't been written up?)
So make it clear to him that he can say "off the record" if he wants to, but that doesn't change the fact that it's all on the record. And make it worth it.