It's the media's job to vet presidential candidates, so journalists often serve as critics, pointing out inconsistencies and potential weaknesses voters should know about.

But with Donald Trump, they also play another role, according to CNN's Chris Cuomo: counselors.

Discussing media coverage of Trump with former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on Friday, the "New Day" co-host observed what he called "the dynamic of kind of counseling [Trump] through interviews." Cuomo offered a generic example of the kinds questions he's talking about: "Like, when you say this, you know, so you mean like you would just kind of do it this way?"

Cuomo's observation is that his fellow interviewers do Trump's job for him — suggesting what he must have really meant, instead of asking wide-open questions that force the presumptive Republican nominee to clarify all on his own.


A review of Trump interviews on controversial subjects suggests Cuomo has a point. Whether they mean to or not, journalists often nudge the billionaire toward safer ground when he ventures down what looks like a politically dangerous path.

Trump, of course, doesn't always take the hint or doesn't care. And it's possible — or perhaps even likely — that reporters aren't so much trying to protect him as simply reacting with disbelief to the often-unprecedented and surprising things he's saying.

Whatever the cause, the result is that questions to Trump often come with the "right" answer built in. And this habit of throwing him a line could help explain why some voters believe the media have been too soft on the real estate magnate.


Take one of Trump's most memorable interviews: His Feb. 28 appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," in which he repeatedly declined to disavow the support of white supremacist David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This was part of his exchange with host Jake Tapper:

TAPPER: Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don't want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?
TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke, okay? I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don't know. I don't know, did he endorse me or what's going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you're asking me a question that I'm supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.
TAPPER: But I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don't know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don't want their support?

Tapper's follow-up question essentially doubles as an instruction: "Would you just say ... ." He's offering Trump the right answer here, in a way.

Trump, of course, didn't take the hint. And Tapper must have been so stunned by the thought that any politician wouldn't immediately and unequivocally reject the faintest whiff of a former Klan leader's endorsement that it's hard to blame him for phrasing the question the way he did. But this is the kind of prodding Cuomo is talking about.


Megyn Kelly did something similar in her interview with Trump that aired on Fox broadcasting last week.

KELLY: Have you made any mistakes in this campaign? You had said publicly you thought the retweet about Heidi Cruz was a mistake. Let me just …
TRUMP: Well, I said “I could have done without it,” to be exact. I mean, I could have done without it …
KELLY: Well, you said “a mistake,” or … ? Are you walking that back?
TRUMP: Well, I did … . No, no, I am not walking it back. But I, but I, I actually didn’t say it that way. I said, uh, “I could have done without it.” I mean …
KELLY: But it was a mistake, wasn’t it? I mean, that was … . That …
KELLY: You shouldn’t have done that, right?
TRUMP: I, I wish I didn’t do it.

One translation of Kelly's line of questioning: Please just say the right thing and acknowledge it was a mistake.

John McEnroe translation: You cannot be serious!

The latter might be closer to what was running through Kelly's mind, considering her own experience with Trump. But it's also easy to see her as trying to coax an appropriate response out of Trump, who has made a habit out of not allowing himself to be pinned down on specifics.


Another memorable Trump interview aired on MSNBC on Dec. 8. That was the day Joe Scarborough cut to commercial early because he felt Trump was talking over him and not answering questions.


But at another point in the interview, which focused largely on Trump's then-new proposal to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States, Scarborough put helpful words in the candidate's mouth.

TRUMP: If you look at Franklin Roosevelt, a respected president, highly respected president … what he was doing with Germans, Italians and Japanese because he had to do it. Because look, we are at war with radical Islam. We are at war, Joe, whether we like it or not.
SCARBOROUGH: I agree with that, Donald. I agree with that. You certainly aren’t proposing internment camps.
TRUMP: No, I’m not at all.

Trump sure sounded like he was heading down a path toward saying Roosevelt-era internment camps were something a president "had to do." Scarborough's response — more of a statement than a question — seemed to serve to warn Trump that he might be going too far. In this case, Trump agreed.

Once again, the visceral reaction here is easy to understand. Some of Scarborough's peers have accused him of coddling Trump but, as noted, this was the same interview he cut short in frustration. And the "Morning Joe" co-host has consistently criticized Trump for the Muslim ban proposal ever since. This doesn't feel like a case of deliberately going easy; it feels like a case of thinking, "He can't possibly mean what he just suggested, right?"

The challenge for journalists is to suppress their shock and let Trump speak for himself. Are you endorsing internment camps? Was the Heidi Cruz retweet a mistake? Do you want the KKK's support?

Who knows what Trump might say without any counseling?