NBC’s Thursday-night town hall with President Trump might have been the best television he has ever been involved with — and, for once, it was good for voters rather than just for Trump.

At long last, reality struck back against the reality-show president.

Years ago, NBC reignited Trump’s fading reputation for business success and revitalized his finances when “The Apprentice,” his reality competition pitting job seekers against one another for a position at his company, became a hit. In recent days, the network took substantial heat for offering to air a town hall with the president after he pulled out of a planned debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — and for scheduling the event at the same time as a Biden appearance on ABC. But charges that NBC was “enabling the president’s bad behavior” and doing its old star a solid in his time of need proved unfounded.

No single hour of television can undo the damage “Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett ultimately did by selling an ersatz image of Trump to the American viewing public. But Savannah Guthrie’s sharp, focused questioning of the president was a reasonable down payment on that debt.

Her interrogation and fact-checking of Trump were tougher than anything that happened in the first presidential debate.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (The Washington Post)

In the first few minutes, the questions from NBC’s morning “Today” show co-anchor were blunt. On covid-19 alone: “When did you last remember having a negative test?” “Do you take a test every single day?” “Do you believe a grieving military family gave you covid?” And then: “Who do you owe $421 million to?”

These are not detailed policy inquiries, but in the context of this highly unusual campaign, direct was the better approach. Trump and Vice President Pence — like any modestly gifted, reasonably well-coached politician — respond to long questions by monologuing about whatever they want. And if they talk long enough, the substance of the question fades in viewers’ memories.

But Guthrie’s short, direct queries were unforgettable, and they elicited genuinely revealing answers instead of the usual hot air.

"I don’t know. I don’t even remember,” Trump said of whether he was tested for the novel coronavirus the day of his debate with Biden. “No,” he isn’t tested every day. On his debt, Trump asserted that $421 million is not a lot of money; in fact, compared with Trump’s overall wealth, it counts as being “under-levered.” And despite insisting that Gold Star families he met with “would hug me and they would touch me, and I’m not going to not let them do it,” Trump backed away from his own attempts to spin the narrative of his infection and illness.

Guthrie’s questioning became a showcase for Trump’s profound self-pity and self-absorption. “You always do it. You always start off with the question,” he complained when Guthrie pressed him to denounce white supremacy. He pouted again when Guthrie asked about QAnon, a bizarre, pro-Trump conspiracy movement. He called Guthrie’s questioning “so cute” and condescendingly asked if she read and watched the news. And he complained that his own FBI director, Christopher Wray, was “not doing a very good job" if he wasn’t concerned about the allegations of voter fraud Trump’s beloved Fox News has been touting.

Although Trump’s exchanges with the town hall attendees were much less explosive, they, too, were revealing. It’s one thing for a candidate to ignore a moderator or to push back against the premise of a question asked by a journalist. Professionals are supposed to be prepared for such evasions, as Guthrie was. But seeing Trump give non-answers to ordinary citizens showed the limits of his shtick.

Citizens are ostensibly the president’s employers, the people who vote a candidate into the job and consider whether to fire him (or, one day, her) at the four-year performance review. But questioning the commander in chief isn’t necessarily easy: Jacqueline Lugo, the first questioner, was visibly shaking when the camera turned to her.

A normal, or compassionate, president would try to ease people’s nerves and provide them with a reason to vote for him. Trump barely engaged with attendees’ concerns, instead giving answers that were minimally responsive to even relatively simple questions about his policies. When Trump was on topic, he was often negative, talking about victories he should have had or brushing off suggestions that he could have been more effective. The interactions suggested that Trump has learned only half of an essential lesson of politics: Campaigning is about you only insofar as it’s about what you can do for others.

Reality television’s norms intruded only once, when town hall attendee Paulette Dale told Trump, “You’re so handsome when you smile.” The president might still have the power to charm Dale. But without the protection from reality that “reality” television offered him, Trump’s power to entrance anyone else is waning.

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