One of the most surprising detentes of the presidential campaign was on display again Monday night, when Donald Trump not only resisted an invitation to bash George Stephanopoulos but actually defended him instead. It happened on Sean Hannity's Fox News show. Hannity brought up Trump's weekend interview with Stephanopoulos, which has led to widespread criticism of the Republican presidential nominee — much of it prompted by Trump's assertion that Vladimir Putin is "not gonna go into Ukraine." "He's already there, isn't he?" Stephanopoulos replied.
Hannity reminded viewers that Stephanopoulos is a former top aide to President Bill Clinton and has donated to the Clinton Foundation, opening the door for Trump to complain about how the biased media is out to make him look bad. But he didn't go through the door. "I thought that George Stephanopoulos gave a fair interview," Trump said. "I didn't see anything wrong with the interview. I think it was misinterpreted. For instance, we talked about the Ukraine and I said, 'Look, essentially, if I'm president, they're not going in.' Russia is not going into the Ukraine."
Why is Trump so nice to Stephanopoulos, who is theoretically one of his easiest targets? I tried to answer this question in May. The original post follows:
George Stephanopoulos had faced some tough challenges as an aide to President Bill Clinton and as a journalist for ABC News but never anything quite like this. It was February 2011, and he had agreed to race Olympic speed skating gold medalist Apolo Ohno up 86 flights of stairs in the Empire State Building as part of a wacky and eclectic series of challenges on “Good Morning America.”
Stephanopoulos needed a pep talk.
“For moral support,” he told viewers, “I turned to some Manhattan wise men.”
Whom did Stephanopoulos pick to comprise his motivational magi? Regis Philbin, Michael Bloomberg … and Donald Trump.
“George, I know you well,” Trump said in a taped message. “I know you’ll have no trouble with this race. Don’t disappoint me.”
Five years later, Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. His Democratic opponent is virtually certain to be Hillary Clinton, who was first lady when Stephanopoulos was her husband’s senior adviser for policy and strategy. And Stephanopoulos is charged with covering both of them as a host of “GMA” and a moderator of ABC’s Sunday political talk show “This Week.”
Stephanopoulos’s Clinton connection would seem to be an irresistible target for Trump, who complains about “unfair” media coverage as frequently and forcefully as any politician in memory. Yet the real estate mogul has resisted.
The same candidate whose tirades against Megyn Kelly provided the hook for a Fox broadcasting special on Tuesday night — the guy who has whined about “negative” Bill O’Reilly and feuded with Joe Scarborough — has been almost unfailingly civil with Stephanopoulos, a journalist Trump could much more easily accuse of bias.
Why? Neither the Trump campaign nor ABC News, which I first asked in February about the respect Stephanopoulos seems to command, responded to inquiries.
But the Empire State Building episode might offer a clue. Despite Stephanopoulos's ties to Trump's likely opponent — not to mention some tough interview questions over the years — the two seem to enjoy a surprisingly friendly rapport that the GOP standard-bearer appears reluctant to break.
There have been no nasty tweets and no interview boycotts. Trump has barely even hinted at a potential conflict of interest. And when he finally did, during an interview on Friday, it was pretty gentle.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, we've talked about this several times over the last several years. I first asked you about it in 2011. And you said you would release your tax returns then — you were thinking of running for president — when President Obama releases his birth certificate. He did. Then you said you would release your tax returns when Secretary Clinton released her emails. She has turned over all the emails in her possession.
TRUMP: She didn't turn over all. There's plenty missing. I read yesterday where there are a lot of emails missing. I know she's a good friend of yours. And I know you worked for them, and you didn't reveal it. But, you know, she did not turn over her emails. There are a lot of emails missing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: There were emails from her staffers missing; she turned over emails she has.
TRUMP: There are emails missing all over the place. The whole thing is a scam. There are emails missing all over the place.
As The Post's Erik Wemple wrote that day, Trump didn't hit Stephanopoulos nearly as hard as he could have. He failed to mention, for instance, that the anchor donated a total of $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation between 2012 and 2014. All of that was just sitting out there, waiting for him to pounce.
Stephanopoulos certainly hasn't persuaded Trump to go easy by doing the same, it should be noted. His persistent fact-checking during a November interview about Trump's claim that "thousands" of New Jersey Muslims celebrated on 9/11 was typical of their exchanges.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, the police say that didn’t happen, and all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday?
TRUMP: It did happen. I saw it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You saw that …
TRUMP: It was on television. I saw it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: … with your own eyes?
TRUMP: George, it did happen.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Police say it didn’t happen.
TRUMP: There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As I said, the police have said it didn’t happen.
Just a couple of months after the Empire State Building run, as Trump flirted with a White House bid in 2012, Stephanopoulos pushed back hard against the billionaire's suggestion that President Obama might not have been born in the United States.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You said you sent investigators to Hawaii. And you said, quote, "They cannot believe what they're finding." What have they found?
TRUMP: Well, let's see what happens, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What have they found?
TRUMP: Well, that's none of your business right now. We're gonna see what happens.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Have they found anything?
TRUMP: We're gonna see what happens.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What have they done?
TRUMP: We are gonna see what happens.
TRUMP: George, next question, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You refuse to accept that the president was born in the United States.
TRUMP: I hope he was. I'm not looking — if I should run, and if I decide to go and I end up getting the nomination, I don't wanna use this as an issue. I hope that by that time it's totally solved.
Going all the way back to 2000, another time when Trump floated the idea of a presidential campaign, Stephanopoulos dismissed the effort as a "publicity stunt" and an "ego trip."
In other words, Stephanopoulos never seems to hold back, yet Trump does.
It could be that Trump wouldn't expect anything other than sharp, direct questions from a former Democratic operative, so he isn't surprised or wounded when he gets them. His frustrations with Kelly, O'Reilly and Scarborough might be attributed, in part, to some expectation of soft treatment. Along these lines, he has complained more about Fox News than any other news outlet during the Republican primary, perhaps because he didn't anticipate real scrutiny from a network favored by many conservatives.
It also could be that the self-styled negotiator in chief admires someone who isn't intimidated by him. But both explanations are incomplete. Left-leaning journalists certainly don't get a free pass from Trump, and he often lashes out at reporters who stand up to him.
Maybe Trump is nice to Stephanopoulos for a simpler reason. Maybe he just likes him. As the general election intensifies, we'll see if the feeling lasts.
And in case you're wondering, Trump's words of encouragement helped Stephanopoulos beat Ohno to the top of the Empire State Building — with a 22-story head start.