What is remarkable about an interview with Donald Trump that went viral last week is how much it has been remarked upon, given that – on the face of it – it is so unremarkable. Interviewer sits down with politician and asks questions; politician is evasive and makes baseless assertions, so the reporter, Jonathan Swan from Axios, asks him questions like “What do you mean?”, “What’s your basis for saying that?”, “Why?”.
Isn’t that what we do in interviews?
But it was exceptional because that is not how Trump is normally interviewed.
The American president is highly selective about who he allows himself to be interviewed by (declaration of interest: despite repeated efforts, and coming very close once, he has not done an interview with me – although has answered a lot of my questions at news conferences). I would say that he gives 90%-95% of his interviews to the Murdoch-owned Fox News network – and he always knows his interviewer well.
He knows Swan, too. The charming Australian is fabulously well connected and, though an outsider, has cultivated the White House key players like an insider. Trump thought he knew what he was getting when the two men sat down together.
Swan will have watched closely the presidential interview a couple of weeks earlier in a sweltering Rose Garden with Chris Wallace from Fox. Wallace is old-school courteous – but as sharp as a Gurkha’s kukri. In these two interrogations, for the first time that I can recall, Trump was fact-checked in real time. And each had its jaw-dropping moment.
In the Wallace interview, the president asserted that Joe Biden would cut funding to the police. Wallace said that wasn’t true. So the president stops the interview to allow White House officials to go off and find the killer quote: but they can’t. A delicious moment for Wallace.
In the Axios interview, Trump produces a sheaf of papers with graphs and tables to prove how well the US (and he) was dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. But, as he declares that the US is “lower than the world”, it is clear that he has little idea what the tables show and isn’t across the detail.
What these two interviewers had in common is that they were white men. If you have sat in as many White House briefings as I have, you know the president does not react favourably to being challenged like this by women. He very quickly gets hot under the collar. He was so “triggered” by a twentysomething female CNN reporter, Kaitlan Collins, that just before one press conference, White House staff tried to move a male reporter into her allocated front-row seat so she would be pushed to the back of the room and not be in Trump’s eyeline. There are endless more examples.
I did wonder whether anyone from the White House said: ‘That was awful. You need to prep better for these encounters’
After the Wallace and Swan interviews, I briefly wondered if anyone from the White House had said to Trump: “That was awful. You need to prep better for these sorts of encounters.” I know the answer to that.
I recently had drinks with a senior adviser who said he had told the president to do fewer interviews and briefings. Only speak out when you have something specific to say, he had counselled. For a while, Trump stopped his coronavirus briefings – in late April after musing on injecting disinfectant into the human body to cure Covid-19. But the more significant White House faction believes there is no such thing as too much Donald Trump – and that grouping is led by Trump.
After these two difficult interviews it was no surprise to see the president turn up last week on Fox & Friends, the popular and Trump-friendly breakfast show. There, for the best part of an hour, he sounded off without interruption. It was a lovely warm bubble bath after the cold, needle-spray shower that he’d been given by Wallace and Swan.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump would just ring up programmes and be put directly on air, where he would be given the easiest of free rides, bullying and bulldozing his way through interviews. But the Swan/Wallace exchanges have shown America’s rather deferential and, dare I say, obsequious interviewers that there is a more rigorous way of doing things.
But at least he’s coming out and continuing to face the questions. That’s more than can be said of Joe Biden, who rarely ventures out of his Wilmington basement cocoon.
This may be the election of one candidate who can’t stop talking and another who never wants to start.
Jon Sopel is the BBC’s North America editor, and his book A Year at the Circus is now available in paperback