Watch the infomercials. More than half of those fast-talkers explaining the wonders of this or that sound like Crocodile Dundee, happily quite Australian, direct and open and casual and quite trustworthy. The marketing people did their research. Americans trust loud and insistent tanned and trim Australian he-men. And now Americans seem to trust the tall and manly but thoughtful Johnathan Swan – the former Australian journalist but now a star here.
It’s not his Aussie personality. Swan was the first to report that Trump would pull us out of the Paris climate deal, and the first to report that Steve Bannon was about to be fired, and then that Trump would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then that Trump would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He broke the news that the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was retiring from Congress. He worked his sources. He kept scooping everyone, but politely.
The other news people like the guy. He’s not an arrogant prick. He gets the job done and he shares. He married Politico reporter Betsy Woodruff and may even become an American citizen, not that that matters a whole lot. He finds out what’s really going on and reports that. Actually, people may instinctively trust his reporting because he’s not an American. He doesn’t carry water for Trump or, now, Biden. He just watches what’s happening and asks the logical questions, not the political questions.
That’s how he just trapped Donald Trump. Trump, or someone on Trump’s staff, decided that Trump should sit down for an interview with this rising young star at Axios. This wasn’t the enemy – MSNBC or CNN – and the interview would air on HBO of all places – and of course Trump could handle this young whippersnapper.
Trump was wrong. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump covered the damage:
President Trump came prepared, or so it seemed.
When he sat down for an interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan last week, Trump held a number of loose sheets of paper, each with a graph that, he clearly believed, showed how well the United States has done in combating the coronavirus pandemic. He had a graph showing the number of tests completed in the United States, for example, a soaring line rising above other countries tallying the tens of millions that have been conducted over time. Another had a simple bar chart, four colored rectangles demonstrating his administration’s success.
These were the emperor’s clothes, and he was proud of them. But Swan, given one of the few opportunities for a non-sycophant to interview the president, revealed them for what they were. Trump was left fumbling, unable to rationalize his repeated claims that all was well. Because, of course, it isn’t.
And because Swan was relentlessly logical:
“Right now, I think it’s under control,” Trump said at one point. “I’ll tell you what – “
“How? A thousand Americans are dying a day,” Swan interjected.
“They are dying, that’s true. And you ha… It is what it is,” Trump replied. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.”
“You really think this is as much as we can control it? A thousand deaths a day?” Swan said.
Everyone seemed to be outraged at Trump’s casual callousness – it is what it is – but Swan questioned the logic. Is this really all you can do? And that was the trap:
“I’ll tell you, I’d like to know if somebody -” Trump began, and then switched directions. “First of all, we have done a great job.”
So he talked about ventilators and protective equipment, as Bump and everyone else expected:
This has emerged as a standard defense mechanism for the president: What he’s done is the best that could have been done, and nothing he hasn’t done would have been useful to do until such time as he does it. The number of tests completed is an unalloyed success, although the slow ramp-up in testing allowed the virus to spread without detection for weeks this spring, spurring massive numbers of deaths. To Swan, Trump blamed this on his having taken office without there being a test for the virus – a virus that emerged in humans more than two years after Trump became president.
It wasn’t fair! Obama left him nothing! Obama hadn’t created a test for this virus! Swan let that pass because he was looking for the logic in what Trump had done:
Even within the confines of Trump’s bounded successes, though, it quickly became apparent that he didn’t have a grasp on what was happening with the pandemic. He was holding numbers in his hands, but didn’t understand what they showed and, importantly, what they didn’t.
“Right here,” he said at one point, showing Swan a chart, “the United States is lowest in – numerous categories, we’re lower than the world.”
“Lower than the world?” Swan asked. “What does that mean?”
“We’re lower than Europe,” Trump continued. “Take a look. Take a look. Right here.”
He handed Swan the sheet of paper, allowing the reporter, at least, to actually understand what Trump was claiming.
That was a mistake:
“Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” Swan said. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etcetera.”
“You can’t do that,” Trump replied.
“Why can’t I do that?” Swan asked.
Oh shit. This was not good. He couldn’t sneer and say “because I said so” and point out that he was president and Swan was not. The question was too innocent. The question was apolitical. He was simply being asked to explain his logic. And he couldn’t:
“You have go by -” Trump continued, fumbling with his papers. “You have to go by where – Look, here is the United States – You have to go by the cases of death.”
“It’s surely a relevant statistic,” Swan said a bit later, “to say if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population versus South Korea -“
“No, you have to go by cases,” Trump interjected.
“Well, look at South Korea, for example. Fifty-one million population, 300 deaths,” Swan said. “It’s like – it’s crazy.”
“You don’t know that,” Trump replied, suggesting that South Korea was perhaps hiding its true death toll.
Well, everyone everywhere could be lying, but Bump notes the obvious:
Swan’s point, of course, is that having 470 out of every million Americans die of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, reflects a far worse situation than South Korea seeing six out of every million residents die. You can’t make that comparison, Trump insists – for no other apparent reason than that it makes the situation in the United States look appropriately dire.
All in all, this was a disaster:
It’s clear that Trump wasn’t prepared for this interview… The Swan interview certainly suggests that someone is keeping Trump from understanding what’s actually happening with the pandemic. The odds are that the person who is doing so is Trump.
And there was this too:
President Trump played down the accomplishments of Representative John Lewis, the recently deceased civil rights icon, and criticized him for not attending the Trump inauguration in an interview conducted while Mr. Lewis was lying in state at the Capitol.
The comments from Mr. Trump, which aired on “Axios on HBO” Monday night, were unsurprising, given his penchant for grievance. But they were nonetheless stunning for the degree to which Mr. Trump refused to view Mr. Lewis’s life and legacy in terms beyond how it related to Mr. Trump himself.
And that made this dead guy insignificant:
“I never met John Lewis, actually,” Mr. Trump said. “He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s okay. That’s his right.”
When asked to reflect on Mr. Lewis’s contributions to the civil rights movement, Mr. Trump instead talked up his own record.
“Again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have,” he said. “He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.”
Mr. Trump declined to say whether he found Mr. Lewis’s life story “impressive.” He seemed indifferent to renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., after the congressman. The bridge, named after a former Confederate general, Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan and senator, was the site of a turning point in the civil rights movement that became known as Bloody Sunday.
So what? In an earlier interview Trump said he had done more for black people than Abraham Lincoln ever did – so his dismissing John Lewis as an insignificant and stupid man was no surprise to anyone. Swan got Trump on record about Lewis and moved on. The issue was the pandemic, the currently dead and dying.
Swan just asked questions and that was enough. Greg Sargent saw that this way:
Axios’ Jonathan Swan conducted a stunning interview with Trump that is gaining praise for getting around this problem. But the full import of how Swan did this, I think, is still eluding attention, and properly accounting for it exposes core truths about this extraordinary moment that we still struggle to find the right language to express.
Again and again, Swan practically pleaded with Trump to demonstrate a shred of basic humanity about the mounting toll under his presidency, and to display a glimmer of recognition of responsibility for it. Again and again, Trump failed this most basic test.
The beseeching quality of those lines of inquiry contrasted jarringly with Trump’s serial inability to rise to this fundamental threshold, or even to perceive what was being asked of him.
The questions were, after all, quite basic. Do you see what’s happening? Do you understand what’s happening? Do you understand its significance? Do you understand, even if you don’t feel it, the dread and terror out there right now? Do you understand what people expect of you?
Sargent said everyone saw the answer:
This, I think, is the source of this interview’s unsettling revelatory power – and it captured a crucial aspect of Trump’s unfitness to serve as president that I suspect a majority of the country has figured out.
Swan noted that experts believe “the wishful thinking and the salesmanship is just not suitable at a time when a pandemic has killed 145,000 Americans,” and added: “For the past five months, it’s been, ‘the virus is totally under control,’ and the cases have been going up and the deaths have been going up.”
This is serious, isn’t it? It is what it is. And that was that, and that was deadly:
The unspoken question hovering over much of this was Swan pleading with Trump to share in our collective horror about the consequences that have unfolded since, and to take some measure of responsibility for those consequences. This taking of responsibility would itself speak to the gravity of what the country is enduring, and show basic respect for the sick, the dead and the bereaved.
Trump couldn’t do it. He made only the most perfunctory reference to the dead, even as he hailed his own great response again and again while blaming everyone else for the toll that Swan kept reminding him of, from the “fake news” to China.
Swan then tried to access Trump’s humanity through the portal of his narcissism. He did so by bringing up Trump’s great rally crowds.
“These people, they listen to you,” Swan pleaded, by way of suggesting that he should use his power over his followers for good, that is, to get them to take the virus seriously for their own well-being.
In the most perfect moment ever, Trump’s immediate response to this was to accuse the media of downplaying the size of the crowd at his Tulsa rally.
“Why would you have wanted a huge crowd?” Swan asked, again trying to focus Trump on the consequences his words have for his supporters.
“Because that area was a very good area at the time,” Trump replied.
It wasn’t, but that hardly matters now. Swan trapped Trump. Swan asked Trump what Trump was thinking. Trump told him. It wasn’t pretty. And now, how can Trump win in November?
Republicans worry about that. Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman tell that tale:
On a Saturday in late July, Rudy Giuliani was having lunch with Donald Trump at the president’s golf course in Virginia. Both men were in unusually good spirits. Giuliani, the president’s sometime lawyer who is representing Trump in negotiations over the presidential debates, was happy again to have regular face time with the president after months of coronavirus-related isolation.
Trump, who has been glum about the still-raging pandemic that has killed nearly 160,000 Americans, the subsequent economic collapse, polling that suggests he’s headed for defeat in the fall and his inability to arrest the slide, was buoyed by a good round on the links. “He did very well at golf,” Giuliani said in a lengthy interview with POLITICO over the weekend. “So that might have been why he was in a good mood.”
Naturally the conversation turned to the general election and how Trump might turn things around.
Giuliani suggested more law and order stuff, about scary black people, but Giuliani is outnumbered these days:
Republicans have been bombarding Trump with advice, arguing that his insistence on stoking the same divisive issues – white resentment of minorities, the culture wars and “LAW & ORDER” – which worked so well for him in 2016, now appeals to only the Trump die-hards and have turned off a broad majority of the country.
“It used to be that he would do five rallies a day and say whatever came off the top of his head and he thinks that won him the election,” said a senior GOP congressional aide, echoing the sentiments of a still-intact class of Republicans appalled by Trump and how he is turning vast swaths of Republican-leaning suburbs into Democratic territory. “It’s like when a 25-year old gets drunk and shows up at a family engagement. That can be cute. But if you’re a 50-year-old and you show up at the gathering drunk and embarrassing, that just hits a little differently. It’s not cute anymore.”
But Giuliani suggested that Trump doesn’t see things that way. “It’s worked before for him,” he said. “He believes it’s going to work again.”
And then there’s Newt Gingrich:
Gingrich, who lives in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See, said he has been rereading campaign books from the 1960s and ’70s and is convinced Trump can reverse his fortunes. Trump, in his view, is still using Richard Nixon’s strategy of 1968, when he was an outsider, but he needed to adopt Nixon’s strategy of 1972, when he was the incumbent president running for reelection. It’s not a great analogy because Nixon benefited from a good economy. But the gist is for Trump to stop emphasizing that the country is in chaos. (Why would voters reelect the person presiding over chaos?)
Gingrich recently fired off a memo – he writes a lot of memos – to Trump officials arguing that the Trump of February doesn’t work in July, given the catastrophically changed circumstances. “I think it took several months to realize that all the tools that worked brilliantly for four years were not in tune with where the country was,” Gingrich said.
Okay, don’t point to the chaos and scream LOOK WHAT HAPPENED! People will look. And don’t pretend that nothing much has happened in the last six months. It has. Deal with that, but Trump seems to understand he needs to adapt to the new world. He just doesn’t know how:
Trump, according to 15 Republicans interviewed over the past week, is troubled that his usual arsenal seems to be having no effect. A president who thrives on polarizing conflict and identifying unpopular enemies has been thwarted, and Trump’s untamed political instincts, once treated by so many fellow Republicans with an almost mystical reverence, appear increasingly unlikely to stave off defeat in November.
“The enemy here isn’t something that punches back via Twitter,” said a former senior White House official. “You need an enemy and Covid is not cooperating, Biden’s not cooperating.”
So he needs a new strategy, but that’s unlikely:
“What do you mean by strategy?” said a person close to the president when asked about Trump’s recent conduct. “I don’t think Donald Trump wakes up and says, ‘Here’s my strategy. Let me tweet out something.’ I don’t think there’s a political strategy there. He believes the way he interacts and communicates is what got him elected and he’s going to continue to do that.”
The senior congressional Republican argued that Trump is unable to mount a comeback because his favorite political weapon has little relevance in a health crisis.
“It’s a magic trick that doesn’t fit the moment,” he said.
But maybe this isn’t Trump’s fault:
The question of Trump’s descent raises the question of whose fault it is. Some political operations can be turned around by a change in staff. In March, former Rep. Mark Meadows became the president’s chief of staff and has slowly reconfigured the president’s White House team. The Meadows era has coincided with the president’s steep decline, a fact that some Trump aides are quick to note.
“I don’t think his newest team is serving him well,” said a White House official. “In fact it’s worse than ever. They came in thinking they know best, and they’ve not bothered to understand the president or West Wing.”
This person suggested the Meadows team is shielding Trump from how dire his situation is. “I don’t know if they’re giving him the whole picture,” the official said.
No, forget that:
One prominent conservative broadly in line with Trump’s views scoffed at the idea that Trump’s problem is about staff.
The core problem, according to this person, is that Trump “doesn’t have control.” He doesn’t have control over the pandemic. He doesn’t have control over the economy. He doesn’t have control over cities experiencing unrest. Trump’s supporters refuse to admit this, according to this view, because it exposes him as incompetent. And his fiercest critics don’t always acknowledge it because it suggests he’s not as scary and authoritarian as they insist he is.
“He’s weak, passive and ruled by his insecurities,” he said.
And he agreed to an interview with that young Australian fellow to prove that he was none of those things. But that Swan fellow kept asking him why he thought this or that, and what he considered proof of one thing or another, and why. Those were innocent pleasant questions. Swan was just asking, and Trump lost the election right there.
The eighteenth-century British cleric William Shenstone put it best – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.”
Donald Trump is not a judicious man. Jonathan Swan is.