On Sunday, President Donald Trump sat for an interview with CBS’s Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes. He looked like he hasn’t slept since Cohen flipped, and proceeded to say completely insane things, such as climate change might reverse itself and that “love” is a figure of speech and that he knows more about NATO than Secretary of Defense General James Mattis.
Stahl, though much of her interview was revealing, made the same mistakes nearly everyone makes when interviewing Trump, and which mainstream press has been making for years now. They treat him seriously—not because he’s earned it, but because the office commands respect.
It doesn’t, as long as he’s in it.
Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted this:
A great interview will get Trump if not to this place, at least near it. I know this isn’t about anything of substance, but this is how to nail the dude on camera. It doesn’t matter if you catch him in a lie or dodging questions about policy. Those things are par for the course.
First, I get it: Trump isn’t an easy interview. He says anything he wants and most of it is designed to be nonsense — or it’s nonsense by instinct — in order to throw so much chaff that the interviewer doesn’t know where parts to follow up. He also annoys or badgers interviewers until they give up and move on. It’s unimaginably difficult to in the moment process all that random stuff, some of which you’ve probably never heard before, and then try in real time to isolate and pursue the most significant lies while you’re getting verbally abused. So yeah, Stahl did okay considering.
But even if an interviewer traps Trump in a lie, it doesn’t matter. Trump has told thousands of lies and other falsehoods since taking office, and many thousands more during the campaign, so like it or not we accept it. Probably the only lie that has ever mattered in an interview was the one he told regarding his interview with Lester Holt, where he admitted he fired James Comey because of Russia, and that’s only because it’s evidence of criminality. Plus those lies weren’t even in the interview: The coverup came afterwards.
So what will affect viewers, and especially moderates? Two things:
1. Trump is dangerously stupid and willfully uninformed.
2. Trump is a terminally insecure egomaniac.
A good interview will bring these things together if it doesn’t deviate from one simple theme, which a friend of mine put well: “Donald Trump is a huge, huge weirdo.” Like it or not, this matters very much to people, though they might not be keenly aware of it. It also matters to get him acting like a maniac on camera. Hell, it should be a campaign tag line. But how do we get there? Get him talking and don’t get in the way.
Let him hang himself
The best interviews of Trump have been in print, because he doesn’t care about what he says, but how he looks. He doesn’t want to appear as if he’s losing an interview on camera, so he gets aggressive in a way he won’t in print. That’s why in print he says such bizarre things, and why he veers off-subject: He feels free to talk. Enough rope, and he hangs himself.
If you watch his Fox & Friends interviews, he does the same thing. They don’t mean to make him look crazy. They want him to look good. But in creating a friendly arena they pull the insanity out of him, and have even had to cut him off because he was in danger of incriminating himself.
Common theme between print and Fox: Trump feels confident. Common result: He says insane shit.
A good TV interview will intentionally get him to do the same thing. To do that you have to persuade him to talk, and to do that an interviewer can’t worry about their own speak-truth-to-power on-camera image and be combative. You have to make Trump feel confident, unthreatened, and you have to do that the whole time. You also need to be tuned into the specific weirdo frequency, so when he does say something completely stupid or insane you can identify and pursue it.
For instance, here’s Lesley Stahl asking Trump about climate change.
Lesley Stahl: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?
President Donald Trump: I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t wanna be put at a disadvantage.
Okay, here Trump puts forth his own theory of climate change: Everything will change back. That’s fairly insane, I’d say. In response, Stahl follows what’s certainly her prepared line of questions and confronts Trump with facts that contradict him. Trump unsurprisingly gets away with dodging this, because it’s aggressive on Stahl’s part. But come on: Why does he believe this? Imagine Stahl went this way instead:
Lesley Stahl: Wow that’s really interesting, and if you’re right that it would be comforting. Can you comfort Americans that the climate will change back on its own?
President Donald Trump: Well Leslie it’s very simple, okay? Nature does one thing then it does another.
Lesley Stahl: That’s a very interesting theory. Why would it go back?
President Donald Trump: Well, you see I came up with it myself long before anyone else did. [Rambles.]
Etc etc. Just get him to articulate his beliefs. We don’t want to know why he disagrees with something: That gives him a prefabricated structure with parts he can attack. But if you ask him to explain a belief or position, he has to create that out of thin air, and to do that he will say idiotic and insane things. For instance, another missed opportunity by Stahl:
Lesley Stahl: What about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?
President Donald Trump: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.
Lesley Stahl: I can’t bring them in.
President Donald Trump: Look, scientists also have a political agenda.
What??? Follow-up: “Wow. Tell me about that political agenda, Mr. President. What do environmental scientists want?”
Stahl, though, trying to keep the question on track, didn’t pursue it. Just let him go to town. Talk about the science conspiracy all night if he wants to.
Trump also has a sociopathic ego, and many people who voted for him find him slimy and untrustworthy. So get him to demonstrate it. For instance, in the 60 Minutes interview Trump claimed to know more about NATO than his Secretary of Defense. Why does he believe this is true? What does Mattis not understand about NATO that Trump does? Trump also called Mattis “kind of a Democrat,” which implies he believes Mattis is out to sabotage him. Instead of asking whether Mattis will be around much longer, a question Trump predictably answered as he’s answered it a hundred times before, follow the road Trump brought you down.
Stahl also fell into a common trap when she confronted him about “falling in love” with Kim Jong Un. She, like many people taken aback by Trump’s language, focused on the wrong thing: The words themselves, and not what they represent, which is MUCH WEIRDER.
So then: Why is Kim Jong Un so great? Tell us what you see in him that other people (Democrats!) can’t. Stahl asked why but didn’t follow up, instead trying to define the word “love” and getting Trump to moderate his statement or take it back. But of course he didn’t. He never takes anything back. Don’t push back on Trump. Just let him go. If Trump said “I fell in love with Hitler,” Stahl probably wouldn’t make a big deal about the word choice there. She’d ask why Trump likes Hitler for like ten minutes if she needed to. Better yet, just get him to talk about why Hitler’s so great.
This tactic has an added benefit: It leads to policy conversations, maybe new declarations. A wound-up Trump will either bring policy into it on his own or contradict his own policy. If he doesn’t have a policy or can’t remember it he’ll probably make one up on the spot, and it will be very weird and alarming.
The criticism here, of course, is that an interview that doesn’t focus on serious policy matters is a dereliction of journalistic duty. But the Trump interviewer’s duty isn’t to ask super serious and direct adult questions about policy or other issues of the day. The only duty is to get Trump to discuss those things. It seems to me, then, the journalist’s foremost obligation is to make a concerted effort to show Americans just how crazy, stupid, and selfish the President is, because that’s the core truth about the man in power: He is criminally unfit. In the course of questions designed to reveal his character, he’ll talk about/create policy on his own. This is the main concern of the “steady state” according to the senior administration official who penned the New York Times anonymous op-ed. It’s important America understands that, because Trump is much, much crazier than he even appears. A focused and deliberate interview can expose the public to this threat in high concentrations for 30 straight minutes, which a press conference or Twitter can’t.
And look, Trump looks entirely fake. He’s a pig-eyed maniac. His eyes are puffy, pink, and frightened. His hair is absurd. And the President of the United States regularly takes his clothes off, puts little white ping-pong ball goggles over his eyes and lies down while his body is bathed in ultraviolet light for probably a half hour every week, so he’s orange and as he becomes more deranged he gets more orange.
In other words Trump’s telling us quite plainly the role he wants to play. The role he is playing. The clown. The fool. The rageaholic. The stupid swindler. The liar. Let him play it.