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Opinion Chris Wallace checkmates Trump in real time

In an interview that aired July 19, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked President Trump about the coronavirus, upcoming elections and civil unrest. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump was a sputtering, sweating mess as he read through a document in the Washington heat. “What this says here: Prosecutions, sanctuary cities, incentivize illegal aliens, expand asylum, abolish immigration detention,” said Trump. “End prosecution of illegal border crossers. Support deathly — and these are the worse things, sanctuary cities — "

Please excuse the Erik Wemple Blog: Those quotes are nonsensical because they come from Trump in the midst of a prolonged interview with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. They represent Trump’s effort to back up something he’d said moments earlier: that his Democratic opponent Joe Biden “wants to defund the police.”

Wallace countered right away: “No he, sir, he does not.”

The allegation that Biden wanted to defund cops comes straight out of the Trump/GOP playbook: Take an extreme policy position of the American left, and allege that Biden espouses it, no matter what the facts say. In his exchange with Wallace, Trump pointed to a set of proposals that resulted from a joint Biden-Bernie Sanders task force. Right there on the White House patio, Trump promised to get the document, as Wallace protested, “It says nothing about defunding the police.” A bit of jousting ensued:

TRUMP: Oh really? It says abolish, it says -- let’s go. Get me the charter, please.
WALLACE: All right.
TRUMP: Chris, you’ve got to start studying for these.
WALLACE: He says defund the police?
TRUMP: He says defund the police. They talk about abolishing the police. They talk about illegal aliens pouring …
WALLACE: I look, I look forward — I look forward to seeing that.

After more discussion about policing, Trump had the document in his hand. That’s when the president’s stammering began, though he claimed “we’ll find it.” We didn’t, in fact, find it. In its presentation of the interview, Fox News further alerted viewers: “The White House never sent us evidence the Bernie-Biden platform calls for defunding or abolishing police — because there is none. It calls for increased funding for police departments — that meet certain standards. Biden has called for redirecting some police funding for related programs — like mental health counseling.”

Trump critics have long fretted that interviewers allowed him to escape their clutches via lies, obfuscation, distraction, insult or whatever. Those worries, for the most part, have been justified. Trump stepped into a journalistic world in which politicians lied from time to time but not all the time. The sudden change in frequency, cadence and shamelessness left journalists a bit unprepared for Trump’s style of dishonesty.

The frustration frothed into something of a media storm in December 2017, after Michael Schmidt of the New York Times interviewed Trump in Florida. It was an impromptu affair, and Schmidt settled on a strategy of largely eschewing follow-up questions in favor of letting Trump free-associate — an interviewing style that capitalizes on Trump’s tendency to say newsworthy and often outrageous things with minimal prompting. Twitter and Times readers pounded Schmidt for it.

“The president can be a very difficult person to interview. He moves very quickly from one issue to the next, jumping from tangent to tangent. And he’s difficult to interrupt. And the approach that I took to the interview was to ask him questions and sort of get out of the way and try and let him talk and tell me what he was thinking about these important issues,” said Schmidt in an MSNBC interview responding to the criticism.

Daniel Dale, who has fact-checked Trump for the Toronto Star and now for CNN, says there have been few instances in which journalists have forced the president to back down on the spot. One of them was a Forbes interview from October 2017 that included a back-and-forth about gross domestic product. Trump knocked President Barack Obama’s economic record, prompting an insta-correction from interviewer Randall Lane. Trump retreated, though slightly.

And who can forget the time last year when ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos so cornered Trump on the Mueller investigation that Mr. President was forced to go very, very low: “You’re being a little wise guy, okay, which is typical for you,” said Trump to Stephanopoulos.

Yet Wallace’s feat in last week’s sweatfest was perhaps a bit more delicious, for the way he caught Trump. We already knew the president was a liar; we already knew that he would do anything to squirrel his way out of a bind with established journalists like Wallace; we already knew that he doesn’t read. Yet Trump barked to his staff, “Get me the charter, please." That command suggested that the president, at least in this instance, thought he had the weight of fact behind him. Trump thought he was going to pull off a fact-checking pancake block.

That’s how ill-informed the president of the United States is.

Watch a related video:

"Fox News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace says even though President Trump treats the free press like his enemy, journalists shouldn't treat him like he's theirs. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

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