For better or worse, CBS News’s “60 Minutes” is the closest that American journalism comes to a court of law. The interviewers confront the subjects with the most damning evidence they’ve got, drill down to demand answers, and if the subjects come out without a major loss, it’s like a not-guilty verdict.
But in the “60 Minutes” interview broadcast last night, Donald Trump ran circles around Lesley Stahl because she didn’t even attempt to confront him with the evidence of his most critical failures as a president – chief among them his truly unprecedented, constant lying.
As I’ve written before, sitting down for an interview with someone who lies all the time, but not addressing those credibility problems, is enabling. It’s not good journalism.
Similarly, Trump exists in a fantasy bubble of adoration and a journalist who can get a one-on-one interview has an obligation to disturb it by presenting him with unassailable facts and pushing back when he denies them.
Instead, Stahl just did the normal thing, as if he were a normal president, hopping from one topic to another, getting mostly familiar talking points.
Her interview included just enough pushback to say she pushed back and just enough fact-checking to say she fact-checked. But the pushback was so quickly abandoned, and the fact-checking was confined to so few of his most outrageous statements, that it only gave more credence to all the lies Stahl didn’t rebut or didn’t rebut enough. Time and time again, she gave Trump the last word, even though it wasn’t true:
Consider some elements of Trump’s alternate history that Stahl left unrebutted:
- “The day before I came in, we were going to war with North Korea.” (Ridiculous.)
- That the United States had been “paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe. (Nonsense.)
- “The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that’s what they’ve done.” (Nutty.)
Perhaps even more agonizing than watching this colossal missed opportunity of an interview was listening to Stahl’s self-satisfied on-camera debriefing by Frank Devine.
Stahl evidently knew exactly what role Trump wanted her to play:
Devine: Why do you think President Trump decided on an interview with you now, at this particular time?
Stahl: I think he’s trying to win the midterm election for the Republicans. And I think he believes, and I know his people believe, the more he’s out there, publicly– the stronger the chances are for the Republicans. And the better for him. And– I think the White House has come to believe it’s a mistake to try to restrain him, to keep him off television, to keep him away from these rallies. And he loves doing it. He really– he– he gets a lot of energy from crowds. And– and I think he gets a lot of energy wrestling the way he did with me.
But rather than do a public service by confronting him with his deceit and his delusion, she had a “sparring” match – which Stahl herself recognized that he enjoyed: “He enjoyed the sparring. He said so. And I could tell he enjoyed it.”
There were a few moments when I cheered for Stahl. This was one:
Trump: They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.
Stahl: Who says that? “They say”?
Trump: People say. People say.
What a great question! What a perfectly Trumpian answer. In fact, “people say” — just like “believe me” — is one of Trump’s most common tells that the exact opposite is true. But Stahl didn’t drill down, she moved on:
Stahl: Yeah, but what about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?
Trump: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.
And Stahl didn’t point out the absurdity of suggesting that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists have a “political agenda” that trumps their commitment to science.
When Stahl asked Trump about the disappearance and presumed murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at their embassy in Turkey, Trump responded by saying the Saudi king had denied responsibility. Then he said, oddly. “Could it be them? Yes.”
Stahl let that one go, rather than pressing Trump on what the heck he meant by that. This morning, Trump volunteered that answer, saying maybe it was “rogue killers.” But he did it in an environment where no one could pose the obvious follow up question: some variation of “are you out of your mind?”
The one time Stahl did confront Trump with facts – about the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s history – was the highlight for me. You could see Trump squirming defensively under the onslaught of actual grown-up information – and this after a clip of Trump declaring his “love affair” with the man.
Lesley Stahl: I wanna read you his resume, okay? He presides over a cruel kingdom of repression, gulags, starvation– reports that he had his half-brother assassinated, slave labor, public executions. This is a guy you love?
President Donald Trump: Sure. I know all these things. I mean– I’m not a baby. I know these things.
Stahl: I know, but why do you love that guy?
President Donald Trump: Look, look. I– I– I like– I get along with him, okay?
Stahl: But you love him.
President Donald Trump: Okay. That’s just a figure of speech.
Another promising moment came when Stahl asked Trump if he believes the Russians interfered with the 2016 election. And she properly contextualized his inability to answer:
Trump: They– they meddled. But I think China meddled too.
Stahl: But why do you–
Trump: And I think other countries–
Stahl: –say China meddled too?
Trump: And you wanna know something?
Stahl: Why do you say Chi– why don’t you just say–
Trump: Well, let me ask you–
Stahl: –the Russians meddled?
Trump: Because I think China meddled also. And I think, frankly, China–
Stahl: This is amazing.
Trump: –is a bigger problem.
Stahl: You are diverting the whole Russia thing.
Trump: I’m not doing anything.
Stahl: You are, you are.
But she didn’t confront him with the facts about Russian interference, or the appropriate skepticism about his preposterous China dodge.
The voice-over fact-check was profoundly lame and insufficient:
But it’s the investigation of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election that hangs over his presidency and caused a rift with his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, because he recused himself from the inquiry.
When Trump insisted that Russia “wouldn’t be able to help me at all,” Stahl didn’t point to the evidence showing that they did help him, potentially enough to have tipped the election.
Stahl did get Trump on the record supporting the heinous policy of separating children from their families at the border. She asked if he had any regrets about the practice, which has been suspended, for now. Trump replied: “When you allow the parents to stay together [with their children], OK? When you allow that, then people are going to pour into our country.”
So what was going on? Stahl, far from being an aggressive representative for the public, instead represented the bizarre inside-the-beltway desire for bipartisanship, regardless of how crazy one side has gotten. You could hear in her plaintive call for “healing”. “But why not try to bring us together? But why not — why not try and– we need to be healed,” Stahl said.
Trump replied, “I don’t think they want to heal yet, I’ll be honest.”
And although he may have been talking about Senate Democrats, rather than the country as a whole, either way, he was right. “Healing” is not going to happen as long as Trump actively advocates divisive policies and conduct. And that’s his central strategy.
So it was Stahl who was being delusional that time.