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Opinion Interviewing in the age of Trump

President-elect Donald Trump may never face the media in a standard news conference. He may not even sit for interviews with legitimate journalists, preferring the sycophancy of “Fox & Friends” and the Fox non-News evening lineup. (Fox News should acknowledge that by giving a safe space to Trump, the Fox evening hosts undermine pressure on Trump to be accessible to real news people.) Trump still resorts to juvenile prevarication. (He knows something about hacking no one else does? Puleez.) So how does the media deal with a president who won’t deal with them?

For starters, the media should remind Americans that Trump is hiding from scrutiny. Surrogates and aides should be pressed as to what Trump’s problem is. Does he know so little he would be revealed as a fraud? Is he afraid his excuses for withholding his tax returns and liquidating his business won’t hold up to scrutiny? The press should remind Americans of the questions he won’t answer, his repeated falsehoods and his ongoing conflicts of interest.

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Despite Trump’s news conference phobia, presumably Cabinet officials and White House staff will still take questions. Here, however, the media needs to get tougher: Press advisers on their boss’s unfounded assertions (e.g. we don’t know who hacked the Democrats) and challenge them in every interview to justify concealing his finances until he does what predecessors have done. How do we know he is not literally indebted to the Russians? (FOIA requests can force the administration to cough up emails, correspondence and calendars.)

Other Republicans should also be asked why they won’t challenge him on statements they would never tolerate from a Democrat. The following comes from a “Fox News Sunday” interview with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asking about Trump’s response to Russian interference with our election — with my suggested follow-ups in brackets and bold type:

SHANNON BREAM:  Do you think he needs to take a harder line when presented with the hard evidence that was outlined in this report?
COTTON:  Well, again, the hack of the DNC last year, which the intelligence community said publicly was the result of Russian intelligence services or their affiliates is just one small example of Russia’s nefarious activities over the last eight years.
Now, many Democrats and some of the media are trying to confuse that question, the action of the hacking, which Russian intelligence services or their affiliates undertook, with the impact on the election.  And unless Vladimir Putin hacked into Hillary Clinton’s calendar and cancelled all of her rallies in Michigan and Wisconsin, or cancelled her speeches in which she was going to lay out an effective agenda for the working class, that didn’t have an impact on this election.  . . .
[BREAM: You didn’t answer my question. Do you think Trump needs to take a harder line? Aren’t you concerned he won’t even admit Russia was behind the hacking?]
BREAM:  And to be clear, we always want to make the distinction.  No one is alleging that Russia broke into voter systems, changed votes, changed vote tallies — not those kinds of things — that would have a direct impact on votes as they were counted and tallied in deciding the presidency.
[BREAM: Why does Trump keep denying underlying facts, insisting they never occurred? Is he putting his own desire to get credit for the election victory above national security?]
I want to ask you about Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CO who has been nominated to be secretary of state.  You’ve met with him. He has been criticized by those who feel he has too friendly a relationship with Russia.
Are you convinced he can take a hard line?  How do you think he’s going to, or not make it through the Senate?
COTTON:  Well, I had a good conversation with Rex Tillerson not just about Russia and Putin, but about many of the issues that we face around the world, as well as the challenges of managing the State Department.  I think it’s a good thing when a secretary of state understands foreign leaders and understands the cultures and history of foreign peoples.  I think it will help him take a firm line in defense of U.S. interests as secretary of state, in the same way that he took a firm line in defense of the shareholders of ExxonMobil’s interests with Vladimir Putin when he was the CEO of ExxonMobil.
That’s what we need: hardnosed, clear eyed, unsentimental statesmanship that we haven’t had the last eight years as President Obama and his administration have continued to look the other way and continued to conciliate and appease adversaries like Vladimir Putin.
[BREAM: So does Tillerson agree with you or with Trump on Russia? Does he support sanctions? Will you confirm nominees who deny reality? How can you give unqualified support before he responds under oath? Are you concerned he has zero national security experience?]

Many Republicans hypocritically have reversed themselves (or avoid open disagreement with Trump) on issues on which they claim to be resolute. If Republicans find it embarrassing and/or impossible to defend these stances, then perhaps Trump will feel the heat to start explaining himself to the country. (Incidentally, all Republicans must be pressed on the emoluments clause. What if Trump defies the plain language of the Constitution? How do we know Trump doesn’t have financial reasons for siding with Putin?  Why do they tolerate conduct ethically suspect when they vilified Hillary Clinton?)

Later in the interview, Bream asked about immigration:

BREAM:  Very quickly, we’re just about out of time.  You wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about immigration, saying, President-elect Trump has a “clear mandate to stop illegal immigration, but also to finally cut the influx of low skilled immigrants that undermines American workers.”
So, you know there are going to be those who say he didn’t win the popular vote, there’s not a clear mandate.  But also, question whether you’re saying, we also need to slow legal immigration?
COTTON:  Yes, absolutely.  Illegal immigration is a real problem.  That was a big issue in the campaign as well, to build a wall and to crack down on criminals and drug dealers who are here illegally.
But our immigration system for too long has brought in too many unskilled and low skilled workers which has undercut wages for working Americans.  We need an immigration system that focuses on the well-being and the needs of American citizens.
Whether they can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower or whether they are brand new immigrants that just took the oath of citizenship, and our economy simply doesn’t need the levels of unskilled and low skill immigration that we have today when we’re giving out a million green cards a year, a million more temporary visas every year, that undercuts American wages.  We need to focus on ultra high-skilled immigration that fits demonstrated economic need.

This is chock-full of misinformation and evasion. There is virtually no evidence wages have been undercut. Moreover, Bream neglected to mention that Trump said he favors legal immigration. (Is Cotton out of step with the administration?) Allowing Cotton to state blatantly incorrect information with no follow-up does a disservice to viewers. Cotton should have been asked:

What study or data is he relying upon to claim a negative impact on wages?
What is his basis for asserting we have brought in “too many”? (Our birthrate has dropped precipitously.)
If he is opposed to hiking the minimum wage, why does he want to artificially hike wages by other means?
Isn’t it true that the net flow of immigrants along the southern border is to Mexico, not to the United States?
Are you in favor of expelling 11 million to 12 million people?
If so, what economic consequences would result? If his concern is about unskilled workers, would he support increasing high-skill immigration?

In many instances, Republicans are mouthing Trump’s nonsensical assertions. If the press cannot get to Trump, the very least they should do is put his Republican helpmates’ feet to the fire.

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