The central question reporters need to ask Trump today is why he lies so much

Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.
Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.

Reporters who may have a chance to ask a question at Trump’s solo news conference this afternoon – only the fourth of his presidency – need to keep one thing uppermost in their minds: Trump lies almost all the time.

So standing up, asking a traditional question, and then sitting down — and not addressing his credibility problem front and center — is enabling. It’s treating him like a normal president, and making him look like a normal president, when he is not.

Trump has largely refused to answer questions at any length from anyone other than prescreened sycophantic so-called journalists, allowing him to not just maintain but burnish the veneer of normalcy. But even on those extremely rare occasions when he sat down with, say, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, his interlocutors seemed too caught up in the ecstasy of access to do their jobs.

The public never has a chance to subject Trump to sustained questioning. So the White House press corps’ job is to expose Trump for what he is, not hunt for evanescent scooplets. It’s to give the public a glimpse of what they know about Trump but rarely say: That he doesn’t actually understand his job, he doesn’t have any real principles, he acts like a spoiled child, and he is a pathological liar.

The good news, such as it is, is that Trump’s first press conference, just a few weeks after his inauguration, was as good a demonstration of his manifest incompetence and troubling mental state as anything before or since. The New York Times delicately described it as “an extraordinarily raw and angry defense of both his administration and his character. At times abrupt, often rambling, characteristically boastful yet seemingly pained at the portrayals of him.” The New Yorker said it “demonstrated, again, that he long ago escaped the bounds of reality that restrict most mortals.” So it’s a real opportunity for the press corps, if they do their job right.

What specifically should reporters do? Ask simple questions, requiring factual response — then firmly and repeatedly follow up by pointing out how his answer was factually incorrect, unintelligible, nonresponsive, or all of those. And when it comes to the scandals, some variation of the Watergate question can be handy: What did you know and when did you know it?

For instance:

Q. When did you first learn there were questions about Brett Kavanaugh’s history of sexual assaults?

Q. During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign? (This actually a Robert Mueller question, see below.)

Don’t ask what he’s going to do, because he’ll do it soon enough. Don’t dare him to say stupid things, like asking him if he’ll demand a criminal investigation into who wrote the anonymous op-ed.

Topical questions are inevitable, although the answers are not necessarily going to be the most memorable. A few possibilities:

Q. Do you think Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you think that if and when Sessions and Rosenstein resign or get fired, that their successors should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you see any constitutional limitations on your authority here?

Q. Do you actually feel your administration has accomplished more than almost any other in history, despite the overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary? Do you realize that most people, including the leaders of the world, find that assertion literally laughable?

Q. Physicians for Human Rights yesterday said that by withdrawing your support for international human rights norms and from engagement with the international human rights machinery — on the grounds that they impinge on a nation’s freedom — you are giving dictators around the world a green light to violate human rights standards. How is that not the case? Are there any ongoing human rights violations that concern you, and what should be done about them?

I received several great questions in response to my Facebook post requesting ideas yesterday. Jim Naureckas suggested a variation on that one:

Q. Candidate Trump promised that if elected, he would make the world respect the US again. How does that square with Trump being laughed at by the United Nations?

I’d like to ask:

Q. What kind of personal behavior is disqualifying for a Supreme Court nominee, and is there a statute of limitations?

Kerry Gilpin proposed, similarly:

Q. If testimony or a proper investigation reveals Brett Kavanaugh to have committed sexual assault either as a teenager or an adult, will you withdraw his nomination? If not, what is the standard to which you hold the highest justices in the land?

The U.S. is currently involved in a number of military campaigns, and is providing support to the Saudi-backed coalition that has repeatedly bombed civilians in Yemen. This ought to be a matter of great public interest.

Q. Why are we supporting the Saudi-backed coalition by coordinating, refueling and targeting bombing runs using American bombs? Did you know the coalition recently targeted a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children with a laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin and sold as part of a State Department-sanctioned arms deal? How do you defend U.S. participation in that sort of horror?

Q. What is your thinking about a timeline for bringing U.S. troops out of Syria?

(Trump was actually asked that question in April, and was unable to answer intelligibly.)

I also think it’s remarkable how little we know about Trumps views on basic issues. This is, I suspect, mostly because he doesn’t really have many fixed views at all. But I’d like to ask him:

Q. How big a problem do you think police brutality is? Do you think it’s worse for African Americans than Whites?

Q. Do you consider yourself a white nationalist, and if not, where do you feel you differ?

Q. How do you interpret the take-care clause of the Constitution: Do you feel you are allowed to use presidential powers to enrich yourself, or to protect yourself from criminal investigation?

Q. How much independence should the Department of Justice have?

Q. When you said you would drain the swamp, what did you mean? Can you by any measure say you have succeeded, given how you and top aides have behaved?

Q. You have repeatedly praised autocrats and authoritarian regimes, including Jose Duterte of the Philippines, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Yesterday, you praised Poland, where you said “a great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty.” But Poland is now under one-party rule, and its judiciary is under political control. What do you admire about these leaders and these countries? In which ways do you emulate them or condemn them?

For Trump, the simplest questions are gotcha questions: Ollie Bass on Facebook proposed this one:

Q. Who pays the tariff taxes? China?

What about asking some of the questions that Trump’s lawyers won’t let him answer under oath because they know he’ll lie about them? As it happens, we have a copy of the questions Mueller wants to ask Trump about obstruction. Here are some of them:

Q. What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

Q. What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Q. What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

And here are a few more from Facebook:

Q. Why is it that in every case concerning sexual assault you side with the accused immediately? Is it because you feel a common bond with them? (Barry Medlin)

Q. If OPEC is so bad, why are you selling $100 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis? (Michael Airhart )

Q. With reference to your suggestion of “a con game being played by the Democrats,” are you familiar with the term “projection” and would it please you to know that “people say” that you have provided the greatest examples of it in the world? (Eric Brody)

Will any of these work? They sure might. The first time Trump faced the press corps as president by himself, he asserted in his opening statement about his election victory, “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.”

When it was NBC reporter Peter Alexander‘s turn to ask a question, it went like this:

Q. Very simply, you said today that you had the biggest electoral margins since Ronald Reagan with 304 or 306 electoral votes. In fact, President Obama got 365 in 2008.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m talking about Republican. Yes.

Q President Obama, 332. George H.W. Bush, 426 when he won as President. So why should Americans trust —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, I was told — I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given. We had a very, very big margin.

Q I guess my question is, why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake when you’re providing information that’s fake?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

Q You’re the President.

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you. That’s a good answer. Yes.

Kudos to Alexander. But either he or someone else should have followed up further.

Q. You say you were “given that information”. It was wildly, facially inaccurate. It has repeatedly been shown to be inaccurate. Yet you repeat it over and over again. Who “gave it to you”? Why did you believe them? Why do you continue to say it? And why should we believe you about anything else if you lie about things like this?

Correction: This will be Trump’s fourth solo press conference as president. An earlier version of this post said it would be his second. He also gave solo press conferences in New York, on August 15, 2017, and in Singapore, on June 12.

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