ABC’s George Stephanopoulos confronted a two-legged steamroller and inadvertently raised this question: How does one interview Donald Trump?
During an 18-minute interview, ABC’s “This Week” host employed a traditional journalism modus operandi last week. Well prepared, he firmly but diplomatically asked questions on disputed Trump statements, seeming hypocrisies and even apparent fabrications.
For sure, the session made legitimate news, too: Trump’s unseemly dueling with the family of a Muslim U.S. Army soldier who was killed in Iraq and his denial of an oft-claimed “relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And there were the regurgitating of facile claims, such as Hillary Clinton having “created” ISIS.
And, yet, as with so many of Trump’s interviews, it was somehow unsatisfying. There was a sense of falling short in pressing him on various matters. Of letting an adroit TV professional commandeer the stage. Of letting him essentially have both the first and last words and, too, getting in his perhaps premeditated shots at the interviewer.
“You know you’re not reinventing the wheel with these questions, I get asked these questions all the time,” Trump said in grammatically incorrect attempt to chide Stephanopoulos. It’s the snide Trump, be it subtle or not, with his constant shots at the media, in the process exhibiting his own obsession with an institution he disdains, is addicted to and profited from immensely.
“Not even Tony Provenzano directly lied,” says journalist-media entrepreneur Steve Brill, recalling an interview with a late New Jersey mobster and Teamsters Union official for his 1978 book, “The Teamsters.”
His point is that Trump does directly lie at times, and that penchant throws off most journalists. Absent sticking a video monitor next to him and quickly replaying proof of a lie, they’re left perhaps reading aloud a quote and having him dissemble.
So how does one handle him?
One way might be to fight fire with fire, a la Chris Matthews. The “Hardball” host interviewed Trump at a Green Bay, Wisconsin MSNBC “town hall” in late March and the same prickly Matthews rhetorical reflexes that can be exhausting and even infuriating seemed to perfectly fit the encounter.
“How about the Middle East?…You don’t think we need NATO?…We don’t need Jordan, or the Saudis or the Emirates?…But you’re the only one who can cut a deal? And you’re willing to walk on these deals? How do you walk from NATO, the Middle East, North Asia, China, all these relations, just drop them all?!!”
Trump was clearly nonplussed. A bully seemingly couldn’t take his own medicine. “This is your strategy in every case: we can walk,” declared Matthews, with a rhetorical question-assertion premised on his own belief that so many of Trump’s responses are terribly naïve in how they analogize to business negotiations.
And while it generated a huge amount of news at the time — mostly about Trump’s position on penalizing women who get abortions — it did indirectly raise, too, the notion that maybe one should ditch assumptions of feigning fair-mindedness in dealing with Trump.
But, of course, if every reporter or TV anchor did their best Matthews imitation, how long would it be before the first case of national burnout was diagnosed by the Centers for Disease Control — and before even Trump said, “Screw this!?”
“My sense is that most politicians understand that there are basic rules to an interview: pretend to engage the question and demonstrate respect for the other person (even if you don’t actually answer the question). It’s a performance,” says Harvey Young, a dramatist and a theater and African-American studies scholar at Northwestern University. “Trump knows the rules but willfully breaks them, in part because he understands that viewers find him to be more interesting than the interviewer.”
“Trump doesn’t have to engage the question,” Young said. “He doesn’t have to respect the questioner. This rule-breaking [has] also burnished his ‘I’m not a politician’ persona. Journalists can be aggressive and challenge him, but when they come across as rude or disrespectful, then they come across as unprofessional even when they act in the same manner as Trump.”
I’ve only interviewed him twice and both times, they were benign, non-news sessions that involved his promoting business interests. In that context, he was quite the flatterer and associated me not with my mostly print work but with TV appearances.
So I haven’t ever needed to press him on very serious matters or confront him with inconsistencies in as high-stakes an endeavor as a presidential campaign, unlike John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times.
“The biggest challenge of interviewing Trump is his impulsivity,” says Harwood. “We are used to interviewing politicians who attach some considerable weight to their words and the policies they describe. Trump doesn’t seem to attach much weight to them, but rather reacts in the moment to questions. That makes it difficult to discern what has meaning and what doesn’t with respect to information voters might use to make a decision between candidates.”
“Very few journalists are effective interviewing Donald Trump,” says Jim Glassman, a Washington consultant and writer who is a former editor-in-chief and publisher for big-time organizations including The Atlantic and Roll Call.
He cites three reasons: Many journalists may be unwilling to offend him and risk not getting another interview; they are intimidated, or; they just don’t know how to handle someone who is so wildly off-base. As Brill suggested, they’re not accustomed to somebody who tell such obvious falsehoods.
There are obvious exceptions. Recently, NBC’s Katy Tur was unrelenting at a recent press conference about his calling on the Russians to somehow disclose the contents of Hillary Clinton emails via cyber espionage.
Yes, Glassman agrees, Matthews handled Trump well. And so did CNN’s Jake Tapper when it came to the candidate’s outrageous comments about the Indiana judge of Mexican heritage.
“The best way to handle Trump is to slow him down,” says Glassman. “Say something like, ‘Let me understand what I am hearing here. You, Mr. Trump, think that Mrs. Khan was cowed into silence by her religion.’ The point is to hem Trump in so that he cannot say later that was being sarcastic or kidding. Don’t allow him to use ambiguity as a defense.”
In his mind, Stephanopoulos did both a good job and also let Trump somewhat off the hook on Ukraine. He showed Trump’s weak hold of the facts but also allowed him to spout some inaccuracies and ramble on.
“I think Trump is a hard if not impossible, interview, yes,” says Carol Marin, a director of the DePaul University Center on Journalism Integrity & Excellence.
Marin, who remains a tough-minded mainstay of both Chicago’s NBC-owned WMAQ and WTTW-TV, the PBS outlet, gives credit to Fox’s Megyn Kelly for “cracking the code” during their now-famous Republican debate exchange and thus “not letting him off the hook.”
“With Chris Matthews, it was less what he asked but the tone assumed to challenge Trump. We all struggle to be true with who we are as journalists, but not become the person we are interviewing.”
“Trump is masterful at changing the subject and assuming you will switch it with him. When he does that, the interviewer has to try to rebut him but not in a shrieking way. The risk is you become a member of the circus.”
For Marin, who once also reported for “60 Minutes” and the defunct “60 Minutes II,” that’s a central dilemma.
“The more you become like Trump in these conversations, the more you feed into what he is yearning to have people see, namely that he is being attacked by mainstream media. I do think he is masterful at this.”
But she also notes that Trump is far from alone in his quest to control and not be responsive. Hillary Clinton and President Obama seek to control the press, albeit in different ways. Each presents a different set of frustrations.
She covered Obama during his Illinois days. When he ran for president in 2008, there were legitimate questions about this relationship to a notorious businessman, Tony Rezko, who was a top Obama donor in the past and was later convicted in the corruption investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Obama shut her out as she tried to get answers. It took many months before he would show up at a local newspaper editorial board to discuss the relationship.
“It was a different dance,” Marin says, “but it was a dance.”