“Fox & Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt proved weeks ago that journalistic acumen isn’t necessary to pry news out of President Trump. With minimal prodding from his interviewer, Trump famously said this about his longtime attorney, Michael Cohen: “Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they — they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go. It — it almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair,” he said.
So it felt like overkill when a real journalist — Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” — took a seat on Thursday with the president for an hour-long interview that the newsmagazine cut to a package of less than 30 minutes. The extended format gave Stahl breathing room to extract the best of both Trump worlds: Let him talk a bit here; punish him with follow-ups there.
The result wasn’t shocking in any sense. The Trump that came through in the “60 Minutes” interview was the same Trump we’ve seen denying climate change, whining about “fake news” and dissembling in many other settings, whether it’s a TV interview or one of his arena rallies. But the interview laid down a marker — another one, that is — indicating that Trump isn’t any better prepared to be president in October 2018 than he was in June 2015. His immunity to learning unfolded right there on the screen.
“It’s pretty entertaining television,” Bill Owens, the executive editor/acting executive producer of “60 Minutes,” told the Erik Wemple Blog on Monday afternoon.
With both insistence and patience, Stahl waded through the day’s issues. As he’s wont to do, Trump occasionally offered up mini-scoops free of charge:
Stahl: What about [Defense Secretary] General [Jim] Mattis? Is he going to leave?
Trump: Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t told me that. I have—
Stahl: Do you want him to—
Trump: —a very good relationship with him. It could be that he is. I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you wanna know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.
And he occasionally scoffed at Stahl’s treatment:
Trump: I’m just telling you that you treated me much differently on the subject.
Stahl: I disagree, but I don’t wanna have that fight with you.
Trump: Hey, it’s okay—
Stahl: All right, I’ll get in another fight with you—
Trump: Lesley, it’s okay. In the meantime, I’m president — and you’re not.
That’s one thing you won’t hear Trump saying on “Fox & Friends.”
The you’re-not-president slight is about as close as you can get to a TKO against Trump in an interview format. That’s because he’ll never admit to erring; he’ll never confess that he has lied and deceived his way through nearly half a presidency; he’ll always find a way to deflect the issue and weasel his way to the next one. The “60 Minutes” transcript provides abundant evidence of this behavior, including a blustering response when he was cornered on climate change:
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.
Stahl: I wish you could go to Greenland, watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.
Trump: And you don’t know whether or not that would have happened with or without man. You don’t know.
Stahl: Well, your scientists, your scientists—
Trump: No, we have—
Stahl: At NOAA and NASA—
Trump: We have scientists that disagree with that.
Stahl: You know, I— I was thinking what if he said, “No, I’ve seen the hurricane situations, I’ve changed my mind. There really is climate change.” And I thought, “Wow, what an impact.”
Trump: Well— I’m not denying.
Stahl: What an impact that would make.
Trump: I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talkin’ about over a millions—
Stahl: But that’s denying it.
Trump: —of years. 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 that in the—
Said Owens: “A freewheeling conversation with President Trump is likely to produce some news, but, on the other hand, we have a responsibility — and we’re aware of it — he can take [the conversation] in a different direction and … you have to stand your ground and dig in.” Correct.
Owens himself traveled to the White House from New York about a month ago to meet with Bill Shine, the White House deputy chief of staff for communications, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “The president is a fan of ’60 Minutes,’ ” Owens said, summing up Trump’s very clear delight at being Sunday night entertainment for a good chunk of the country. “I think the president, and he’s been very public about this lately, wants to take over his own press and rely less on the apparatus of the comms people, so the timing worked out.”
After returning to New York with optimism that the interview would materialize, Owens put together a team that would ultimately include three producers, four associate producers and three broadcast associates digging through archival footage. “I’ll bet you they spent 12 hours, easily, talking about subjects and gaming out where we start, where we end up,” Owens said. The interview took place on Thursday, giving the team a tight window to finish the package for Sunday night’s “60 Minutes.” Whereas the show may deliver an investigative feature to the network on a Friday night, it didn’t fork this one over to the network until 5:30 on Sunday night, just a couple of hours before the broadcast.
The “60 Minutes” presentation included the sine qua non of any journalistic presentation of Trump comments. “Edits were made for time, for facts” and other considerations, Owens said (emphasis 100 percent the work of the Erik Wemple Blog). Just how many mangled facts were excised from the story? Owens wouldn’t bite on that one, averring only that “any time there was a fact that we couldn’t support in research, it was taken out of the piece,” Owens said, noting that the crew was careful to preserve the gist of Trump’s arguments in all cases.
As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted in his Sunday night newsletter, there was disagreement over just how well “60 Minutes” had done in pressing the president. Nitpicking a prominent TV interview is becoming one of the country’s great social media pursuits. Think back to when “60 Minutes” ended up on the wrong side of Twitter over correspondent Steve Kroft’s interviews with President Barack Obama. “President Obama got plenty ticked off at Kroft a number of times,” Owens said.