The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s latest media appearance? A 30-minute chat/pillow ad.

Still from a video published at Frank Speech. (Frank Speech) (FrankSpeech)

So there’s Donald Trump, sitting on an uncomfortable-looking chair in an ornate but empty ballroom, decked out in a tuxedo as a rainstorm battered Mar-a-Lago. And across from him in another uncomfortable-looking chair, the pillow guy, Mike Lindell. For more than half an hour, the two discussed their shared, wildly incorrect understanding of American politics in a video that Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, later posted to his sort-of social media site Frank Speech. Every so often, a snippet of text would pop up as the men chatted: Use this special promotional code to save on a new MyPillow!

The encounter was not notable because it revealed some new truths. In introducing the discussion, Lindell promised that he would ask a lot of questions that the former president had not previously faced. So, right out of the gates, he dealt Trump a high fastball: “I want to ask you a question that you probably haven’t been asked, and that was: Was running the country what you expected it to be, or was it like when you were running your business?”

Hard as it may be to believe, Trump wriggled out of Lindell’s cunning trap. His response was pretty much what you would have expected it to be: The media was mean, the Democrats were mean, President Biden is terrible. Lindell, sitting giddily on the edge of his chair, interjected to offer agreement and praise.

Lindell was correct when he began the conversation by pointing out that he’s used to being the subject of interviews and not the conductor of them. But that’s changing. Over the past year, Lindell’s breathless effort to prove his unprovable argument that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump has generated a second career: media magnate. The fortune he accrued from his pillow sales has been deployed to create not only Frank Speech — a platform dedicated to free speech that hasn’t yet launched and that bans swearing — but a streaming platform called Lindell TV. He’s made various films detailing what he claims to be evidence of rampant fraud in the 2020 election, evidence that was quickly debunked. He has become a one-man conglomerate focused on a single goal: defending the indefensible election claims made by Trump, whom he described in introducing the conversation as “our real president.”

By now, you’re likely familiar with the Trump-Lindell universe of conspiracy theorizing, but it’s worth stepping back and considering what this discussion represents. This is the former president of the United States, a position of enormous historic gravitas, appearing in a video that serves as a lengthy commercial for a pillow company. And in that commercial, the former president continues to make false claims about the election results and the integrity of the country. For Lindell, his star turn as a Trump defender has unquestionably helped offset the losses MyPillow has faced after being rejected by major retailers and even, for a bit, taking his ads out of their heavy rotation on Fox News. During Lindell’s “cybersymposium” this summer at which he tried and failed to prove fraud, there were similarly numerous plugs for MyPillow. Nearly every media outlet is a conduit from advertisers to audience, but there’s an important line between interview and infomercial.

Fringe politics as sales mechanism — both the context for the Trump-Lindell chat and some of its content. Trump at one point complained about the media having suggested there was something untoward about “somebody from Saudi Arabia stay[ing] at a suite one night” at a Trump hotel. The reality, as The Washington Post reported in 2018, was that lobbyists for Saudi Arabia spent more than $270,000 to reserve about 500 nights at Trump’s D.C. hotel. A subtle distinction.

But, then, we’re the hated media, the recurring target of the Trump-Lindell chat. This is the other remarkable aspect of Trump and Lindell talking: Trump has given no live interviews to serious journalists since he left office. He’s spoken with a number of book authors who’ve challenged him on his ongoing dishonesty about the election, but otherwise he’s given a little more than a dozen interviews since Jan. 20 in which the subject is either ignored or treated as legitimate. He’s had at least eight interviews with the far-right networks One America News and Newsmax and at least half a dozen with Fox News — but generally with the network’s more combustible hosts such as Dan Bongino and Jeanine Pirro. Trump has intentionally avoided serious, real-time scrutiny of his views, almost certainly because he understands how quickly they might be exposed as flimsy. (It brings to mind his interaction with Bill O’Reilly in 2017, shortly after taking office. O’Reilly pressed him on his nonsensical claims about fraud in California, and an annoyed Trump told him to “forget” it.) Few former presidents demand as much scrutiny as Trump, and few have been so pointed about avoiding it.

Instead, Trump uses fake media outlets to attack real ones. He told Lindell, for example, that the media was involved in “collusion” because it rejected his obviously false claims about fraud.

“They don’t let you get an honest word out,” Trump said. “They’ll take what you say, and they’ll make it, like, totally different. You wouldn’t even recognize.”

He lamented that even the outlets “that are supposedly on our side” weren’t elevating his false claims. (After his interview with Bongino, Fox News stripped his dishonest fraud claims out in a video posted on YouTube, sparking a brouhaha on the right.) Lindell, of course, agreed.

“People have to realize out there,” Lindell said at one point. “I’ve told journalists out there, don’t you care about your country? But their bosses’ bosses, whatever, they can’t even print something good if they wanted to. And that’s so hard getting around.”

“You almost got to use the bad media to even get the word out,” Lindell continued, speaking as he sat across from the former president recording a conversation for the media site he created to spread false information about voter fraud.

Trump then transitioned into another riff about how the election was stolen, which it wasn’t.