CNN’s morning show “New Day” fills a considerable part of its news hole with political interviews — GOP hopefuls, Cabinet secretaries, famous “formers” and on and on. As a rule, says “New Day” co-host Chris Cuomo, such folks prefer to appear on set or via remote camera. “They want to be seen,” says Cuomo.
Not so Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. He’s the phone guy, the candidate who apparently prefers to give news audiences just his voice.
That’s all that “New Day” viewers heard this morning, as Cuomo went back and forth with Trump in a chat that covered the Iran deal, Trump’s stickiness atop the Republican crowd in the polls and, of course, the comments that Trump made to Rolling Stone magazine about fellow candidate Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard. “Look at that face!” Trump said to a Rolling Stone reporter as he watched Fiorina on TV. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president. I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Barbaric, right? Cuomo pressed the candidate: “You had another there-he-goes again moment. First it was Rosie and Megyn, now you’ve got Carly Fiorina. They’ve got you in Rolling Stone magazine making fun of the way she looks. Why do you talk about how women look so much? You know it’s not presidential.”
Then the singularity of the telephone-interview-on-TV kicked in. Since Trump couldn’t possibly defend making fun of his competitor’s facial appeal and most certainly couldn’t muster an apology, he dissembled. Oh, he said, Fiorina has had a “terrible past,” having been “fired viciously from Hewlett-Packard.” And oh, he said, her track record at Lucent was even worse! Amid all this deflection and dissembling, the camera focused not on Trump (because he wasn’t on camera) nor on the phone, but rather on Cuomo, who made various small-scale grimaces and contortions betraying his frustration that his question wasn’t getting answered. “I hear everything you’re saying about the record,” said Cuomo. “They are all legitimate bases for criticism that you can level against one of your opponents, but I’m just reading the quote for what it is, ‘Look at that face.'”
No real answer from Trump to that one, either. “Sometimes letting someone go on is a failure of yours as an interviewer. Sometimes it is a device of yours as an interviewer,” says Cuomo, noting that when everyone knows exactly what the question is and the candidate doesn’t answer it, “that in itself is a disclosure.”
Exposing a guy like Trump as a craven, accountability-dodging chump takes time. First you have to put the question to him; then you have to sit through his off-topic response; then you have to re-put the question to him; and repeat. There’s no wonder that this Cuomo-Trump outing gobbled up a good 20 minutes of CNN air time. The decision to blow through programming blocks and commercial breaks, says Cuomo, often takes place with the involvement of CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, as it did this morning. “I’ve never worked with anybody who is more on their game more often throughout the day than he is,” says Cuomo.
It’s easy to chalk up Trump’s insistence on phone interviews to low-energy considerations, though Cuomo isn’t buying the notion. “I would suggest it’s a tactic, a strategy more than it is convenience,” he says. Here are the various advantages that Trump derives, in the view of the host:
*He doesn’t have to pick up on any visual cues, he doesn’t have to worry about the body language that is coming from somewhere else.”
*”It’s easy for him to over-talk the questioner.”
*It’s tricky for interviewers, because they’re not looking at their interviewee; they’re looking into a camera.
Perhaps for some of those reasons, certain programs — notably, Chris Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday” — don’t allow phoners, as Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out last month after a series of Trump call-ins.
Trump dials in quite frequently to “New Day’s” morning competitors — MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik last month hammered “Morning Joe’s” Joe Scarborough for the “lollipops” he presents to Trump; and “Fox & Friends” bows to no fake journalists when it comes to Trump-oriented deference. “He wouldn’t come on with me for a long time,” says Cuomo in reference to Trump. “He wouldn’t go on with me, but he went on with ‘Fox & Friends’ and ‘Morning Joe.’ I beat his friend Joe even with him going on all the time. I still beat that show. He makes decisions to go based on whatever he wants. I think that over time … when he sits down with me and does an interview, he gets a big response from the media and the audience.”
“I don’t think we’re doing him any favors by giving him a pass,” notes Cuomo.
Yesterday Trump called upon Zucker to donate proceeds from the Sept. 16 debate to veterans causes in a letter in which he credited himself for the debate-ratings bonanza. Cuomo won’t dispute that last part: “Say what you want about Donald Trump, but he ain’t wrong when he says people want to watch him on TV. He changes the ratings on cable television…. There is no coincidence that the people who have him on more than I do, do it because they know it’s good for the audience.”
Updated with detail about “Fox News Sunday” prohibiting phone interviews.