Expect to see more graphics in Donald Trump interviews from this point onward.
In Thursday night’s debate in Detroit hosted by Fox News, the moderator Chris Wallace thought it would be helpful to press the Republican candidate on the math problems in his economic plan. He started out with this inquiry: “Mr. Trump, your proposed tax cut would add $10 trillion to the nation’s debt over 10 years, even if the economy grows the way that you say it will. You insist that you could make up for a good deal of that, you say, by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Wallace, adding “like what?” The moderator wanted specifics.
Trump whipped out some talking points he’s been spewing for months. The Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, said Trump, would be kaput — or at least drastically reduced — in a Trump administration. “We have various other things,” he continued. “If you look at the IRS, if you look at every single agency, we can cut it down, and I mean really cut it down and save. The waste, fraud, and abuse is massive.”
The moderator wasn’t buying. “Please put up full screen number four,” Wallace instructed his producers. “The Education Department, you talk about cutting, the total budget for the education department is $78 billion. And that includes Pell grants for low-income students and aid to states for special education. I assume you wouldn’t cut those things. The entire budget for the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, $8 billion….The deficit this year is $544 billion. That’s more than a half trillion dollars. Your numbers don’t add up, sir.”
Busted, Trump limped into another talking point: “Let me explain something. Because of the fact that the pharmaceutical companies — because of the fact that the pharmaceutical companies are not mandated to bid properly, they have hundreds of billions of dollars in waste.” Then this exchange took place:
TRUMP: Take a look — excuse me. You are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars…
WALLACE: No, you are not.
TRUMP: … if we went out to the proper bid. Of course you are.
WALLACE: No, you’re not, sir. Let’s put up full screen number 2.
Let’s indeed put up full screen number 2! Full Screen number 2, it has to be noted, drew applause from the audience at the very moment that Wallace mentioned it. It broke down a couple of key facts, as Wallace narrated: “You say that Medicare could save $300 billion a year negotiating lower drug prices. But Medicare total only spends $78 billion a year on drugs. Sir, that’s the facts.”
Trump had trouble recovering. Here’s how his effort at damage control played out:
TRUMP: I’m saying saving through negotiation throughout the economy, you will save $300 billion a year.
WALLACE: But that doesn’t really cut the federal deficit.
TRUMP: And that’s a huge — of course it is. We are going to buy things for less money. Of course it is. That works out…
WALLACE: That’s the only money that we buy — the only drugs that we pay for is through Medicare.
TRUMP: I’m not only talking about drugs, I’m talking about other things. We will save $300 billion a year if we properly negotiate. We don’t do that. We don’t negotiate. We don’t negotiate anything.
Yet later in this tilt, moderator Megyn Kelly, who came into broadcasting after a stint as a lawyer, questioned Trump about the litigation against his venture Trump University. Again, a graphic arose, this one a quote from a ruling in the civil case. It was a devastating quote, too:
Trump again struggled to extricate himself. “You know what, let’s see what happens in court. This is a civil case. Very easy to have settled. Could settle it now. Very easy to have settled. Let’s see what happens at the end of a couple years when this case is over, okay?,” he said. Okay.
There was something new and even revolutionary about these graphics interventions. For months and months and months, interviewers have failed to lay a hand on Trump, even when they’ve been well armed with facts to counter his lies, bluster and ill-informedness. Somehow Trump has been able to deflect, to distract, to bamboozle — and come out of these clashes facing no consequences whatsoever.
But you know what graphics do? They shut him up, if even for a couple of miraculous seconds. Like everyone else, he has to look at the data. He has to read the quote or check out the numbers, because graphics equal authoritativeness. While he performs these basic tasks, he can’t spin. He can’t insult. He can’t say you’re not being nice. And in any face-to-face encounter with Donald Trump, that’s an achievement.