When it comes to media relations, Donald Trump has never been Mr. Congeniality — but he has been Mr. Accessibility. Throughout the primary season, he was omnipresent on cable news and granted interviews to journalists one might have expected him to avoid, such as former Bill Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.
But lately the Republican presidential nominee has "mostly retreated to the relatively cozy confines of Fox News," as the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone put it this week.
Trump finally ventured out again Thursday night, appearing on CNN for the first time in more than two months. It didn't go very well. It went so not well, in fact, that you have to wonder whether his campaign will decide it's best to dodge the likes of Anderson Cooper and Chuck Todd — or, for that matter, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier — and stick to softball sessions with Sean Hannity and the "Fox & Friends" crew.
It didn't take long for Trump to get himself in a bind while speaking with Cooper. After wavering on his deportation plan in a sit-down with Hannity earlier in the week, the real estate mogul shifted again on CNN. Besides the policy changes, there was another key difference: While Hannity, an ardent Trump supporter, went along with his favored candidate, Cooper confronted him.
COOPER: You said on "Hannity," you used the word "softening." Even last night on "Hannity" you talked about ...
TRUMP: Well, I don't think it's a softening. I think it's …
COOPER: But 11 million people are no longer going to be deported.
TRUMP: I've had people say it's a hardening, actually.
COOPER: But 11 million who have not committed a crime …
TRUMP: No, no. We're then going to see.
COOPER: There's going to be a path to legalization, is that right?
TRUMP: You know it's a process. You can't take 11 at one time and just say, boom, you're gone. We have to find where these people are. Most people don't even know where they are. Nobody even knows if it's 11. It could be 30 and it could be 5. Nobody knows what the number is.
COOPER: But if somebody hasn't committed a crime, will they be deported?
TRUMP: I'll tell you what we know. Let me explain. Let me tell you what — we know the bad ones. We know where they are, who they are. We know the drug cartel people. We know the gangs and the heads of the gangs and the gang members. Those people are gone. And that's a huge number.
COOPER: But isn't that …
TRUMP: No, it's not.
COOPER: But that's Jeb Bush's policy.
Later, a frustrated Trump lashed out at Cooper and CNN, which he has taken to calling the "Clinton News Network."
"I know you want to protect her as much as you possibly can," Trump said, referring to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. At the time, he and Cooper were debating the true poverty rate for African Americans. When Trump didn't want to engage on the merits anymore, his immediate tactic was to try to put Cooper on the defensive with an unrelated accusation.
It wouldn't be surprising if Trump's long-term strategy leading up to Election Day is to not put himself in a position to be challenged by an interviewer in the first place. How withdrawn from media interviews has Trump been of late? Calderone tracked his recent TV appearances:
Since that attack on the Khan family, Trump hasn't appeared on [ABC]. Nor has he appeared on any others except Fox News and Fox Business (save for a phone interview with CNBC on Aug. 11).
Indeed, the last appearance Trump made on CNN was June 13, according to an official with the cable network. The last time he was on NBC News was July 24, three days after officially becoming the party's nominee. He hasn't appeared on MSNBC since a May 20 episode of “Morning Joe,” a show he’s since repeatedly railed against. And he hasn't been on CBS since July 17, as part of the rollout for vice-presidential pick Mike Pence.
That was before Thursday, of course. One way to look at Trump's appearance with Cooper is as a trial balloon. His campaign was seeing how it would go to determine whether Trump should return to the openness of the primary season or keep up the stonewalling that has characterized his time as the official GOP nominee.
The test results were not good. Expect Trump to go back behind the wall. He likes walls.