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Opinion Why we should take unserious presidential contenders seriously

On Sunday, Jonathan Karl interviewed Stormy Daniels’s lawyer Michael Avenatti on ABC’s “This Week” about the latter’s professed desire to run for president. Avenatti has never held office, has no foreign policy expertise and has had his share of financial controversies, but hey, he says only he can beat President Trump. (Compared with the third-tier Democratic candidates, he can give a good speech, apparently.)

We’ve seen this horror film before. In 2016, TV media treated Donald Trump like a celebrity, never really putting him through the policy paces like other candidates, and, moreover, turning over hours of free TV time to him. He called in to shows from the comfy environs of home rather than appear in person. He got live coverage of his rallies. That was a mistake that should not be repeated. Not only Avenatti but also a slew of other non-politicians and TV personalities may very well enter the presidential primary races. What coverage do they deserve, and how should they be treated?

When a celebrity says “I’m thinking of running,” that shouldn’t be a ticket to receive free media time. If the news standard is that cable and broadcast outlets will give airtime to any famous person merely mulling a run, then we’ll have a lot of unserious people mulling a run to get on TV. In short, perhaps there should be some minimal level of seriousness, commitment and organization before putting a celebrity candidate on TV or devoting serious resources to cover them.

If one nevertheless does decide to interview or focus on a long-shot celebrity candidate, then the press cannot give him a free ride. To his credit, Karl avoided that pitfall. Rattling off a list of policy questions, Karl showed that Avenatti had limited or no response to some of the big issues of the day. (Asked what top policy issue he has talked about over the years, Avenatti gave a cringe-worthy TV answer: “The truth.” Blech. ) Moreover, Karl asked the key question that must be asked of any self-described candidate:

KARL: OK, there have been no shortage of controversies surrounding your business dealings. Let’s look at some of the headlines we’ve seen over the last several months. The L.A. Times: “Law firm of Stormy Daniels’s attorney hit with a $10 million judgment.”
Politico: “Feds target Avenatti over firm’s unpaid taxes.” CNN: “Avenatti firm settles case with the IRS for $800,000.” Don’t the attack ads here essentially write themselves?
AVENATTI: No, I don’t think so. And look, I’ll put up my background and my record of fighting on behalf of working people over the last 20 years against Donald Trump’s any day of the week. I say, bring it.
KARL: Hillary Clinton released eight years of her tax returns just after she started running. Will you do the same?
AVENATTI: I don’t know yet. I haven’t decided. I’ll look at the issue. But here’s what I do know. …
KARL: You don’t know if you’ll release your tax returns? This was a major issue with Trump.
AVENATTI: No, I don’t know if I’ll release eight years of my tax returns. But here’s what I …
KARL But will you commit to releasing some?
KARL: You will?
KARL: How will you make that judgment of how many?
AVENATTI: I don’t know. I’m going to consult with people. We’re going to see what the standard has been over the years. But where are Donald Trump’s tax returns?

(Yikes — whataboutism and it’s only August 2018?!)

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Neither party, in my book, should award its nomination without disclosure of 10 years of tax returns. Nevertheless,  the media, regardless of what rules the parties set up, must be insistent that every candidate release their tax returns and show transparency in their business dealings. Candidates must know they’ll be asked about it again and again. If a candidate gives a deadline and misses it, the coverage must be exacting.

The same process should go for allegations of sexual harassment or assault and for contacts with foreign entities and individuals. The novice candidates must know that they’ll be pressed over and over again to answer specific factual questions about anything that may later prove compromising.

If celebrities want to be treated seriously as presidential candidates, they have to open their lives up for inspection and be prepared to field tough questions. Now is no time for free passes to dilettantes. We’re talking about an election in which, unless Trump is chased out before then, the American people get one last chance to hold him accountable for his actions. Trump’s potential opponents must undertake a trial by fire before they get through the nomination process. The country cannot afford another 2016, which popularized the catchphrase “nothing matters.” In 2020, it should all matter.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Journalists are playing into Trump’s hand

Paul Waldman: The media machine supporting Trump is even worse than we thought

Anne Applebaum: Are you still sure there’s no need to worry?

Paul Waldman: How on earth have we let Trump get away with hiding his tax returns?

Jennifer Rubin: This is why every president must disclose his tax returns