The Trump administration, in its wisdom, has issued a rule that reporters, called on at presidential news conferences, will be limited to one question apiece.
It’s a terrible idea, which was clearly illustrated in two recent Fox News interviews of President Trump.
The first one — the very definition of lame — was by Sean Hannity at the same infamous Missouri rally during which the Fox host joined the president onstage as a campaign prop.
The second was by Chris Wallace, one of the most skilled interviewers in the business. Respectful but relentless, Wallace managed to draw responses from Trump that made plenty of news.
Hannity, by contrast, offered only sycophancy — and the opportunity for Trump to ramble on.
Here’s one example (slightly condensed) as Wallace excavated news about Trump’s appointment of Matthew G. Whitaker as acting attorney general. First, he showed video of Whitaker disparaging the Mueller investigation.
WALLACE: Did you know, before you appointed him, that he had that record and was so critical of Robert Mueller?
TRUMP: I did not know that. I did not know he took views on the Mueller investigation as such.
WALLACE: And when you found that out?
TRUMP: I don’t think it had any effect.
WALLACE: He says there’s no collusion . . . and he says you can starve the investigation. . .
TRUMP: What do you do when a person’s right? There is no collusion. . . . So if he said there is collusion, I’m supposed to be taking somebody that says there is? Because then I wouldn’t take him for two reasons, but the number one reason is the fact that he would have been wrong. If he said that there’s no collusion, he’s right.
WALLACE: He is going to have to make or could potentially make a lot of big calls in the Mueller investigation. If Mueller decides that he wants to subpoena you, the Attorney General Whitaker can block that. If Mueller issues a final report, he can decide how much goes to Congress or doesn’t go to Congress.
You tweeted this week about, quote, Bob Mueller and his gang of Democrat thugs.
WALLACE: If Whitaker decides in any way to limit or curtail the Mueller investigation, are you okay with that?
TRUMP: Look, he — it’s going to be up to him. I think he’s astute politically. He’s a very smart person. A very respected person. He’s going to do what’s right. I really believe he’s going to do what’s right.
And there you have it: Trump, nailed down to say that he’s comfortable with his acting attorney general curtailing the special counsel investigation.
But to get there, it took not a single question but half a dozen interactions.
“The art of questioning almost always lies in the ability to follow up,” said Frank Sesno, director of the media school at George Washington University. A former Washington bureau chief of CNN, Sesno is the author of “Ask More,” a book about the power of effective questioning.
Sesno told me that follow-up questions are “where the questioner can refine, seek detail, challenge inconsistency and pursue further explanation of what has been said — or not said — in the initial response.”
While emphasizing that presidential news conferences clearly are a different creature than a one-on-one interview, he said they ought to strive for the same outcome: accountability.
The Wallace interview — testy at times — produced more than the Whitaker news. In it, Trump also slammed retired Adm. William H. McRaven, architect of the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death; questioned the CIA’s assessment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder; and insisted that the midterm elections were swell for him politically.
The only news that came out of Hannity’s presidential interview in Cape Girardeau, Mo., was that the Fox host was out of line for appearing to join the campaign onstage. His question-and-answer session consisted mainly of inviting Trump to expound on some of his favorite subjects; there was no effort to drill down into the realm of meaning.
It was, in other words, exactly the kind of challenge-free encounter that the president would like to see more often.
Coming in the wake of a court ruling that restored CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass, the new White House rules are designed to prohibit aggressive questioning and allow Trump to obfuscate at will. (They do allow a single follow-up question — but, uselessly, only if the president wishes to take it.)
The rules haven’t been accepted by the White House Correspondents’ Association, and it’s unclear how enforceable they’ll turn out to be.
What is clear is that — despite the talk about maintaining decorum — the rules are set up to help the president avoid meaningful challenges.
As Sesno put it (and as Wallace demonstrated): “The follow-up question is a pillar of accountability journalism.”
Despite the weight of presidential ego, that pillar shouldn’t be allowed to collapse.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan