The promise—and peril—of Trump’s interview with Stephanopoulos

President Trump hadn’t granted a network news interview in more than four months. Per Mark Knoller, of CBS, Trump had done just two Sunday-show hits in his entire presidency; per Media Matters for America, nearly three-quarters of Trump’s national TV interviews as president have been with Fox channels. It was thus a surprise when the president gave 30 hours of access to George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor of ABC News, last week. Under another president, shots of Stephanopoulos leaning over the desk in the Oval Office and chatting in Air Force One and the presidential limo would not have been especially remarkable. Under Trump, they felt like lost footage from a forgotten era.

To read the headlines that came out of it, Trump’s unusual interview backfired spectacularly. In the middle of last week, ABC released footage of Trump saying that he would accept intel from a foreign government without telling the FBI about it; from that moment on, the remarks drove a furious, multi-day news cycle. Many reporters and commentators pointed out that such conduct would be illegal; several senior Republicans distanced themselves from the president’s words. As the week progressed, ABC threw further clips on the fire. Trump accused Don McGahn, the White House counsel turned key Robert Mueller witness, of lying under oath; when Stephanopoulos asked the president why he himself hadn’t testified to Mueller under oath, Trump replied, “Because they were looking to get us for lies or slight misstatements.” As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy put it, the ABC interview looked like “another fine mess” for Trump. By Friday morning, the president was on the phone to Fox & Friends for some damage control.

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The fallout from the Stephanopoulos interview, pundits surmised, is precisely why Trump doesn’t tend to do interviews with journalists who aren’t his friends. “When seated with anyone other than Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump seems to fall apart,” Nicolle Wallace said on MSNBC. “He seems to lack the mental acuity and the truth-telling capacity to field real questions from real journalists.” Real journalists, of course, have tripped Trump up before: most notably in 2017, when NBC’s Lester Holt pressed Trump on his decision to fire James Comey. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote of the Stephanopoulos sit-down, “Sometimes it takes a protracted session with one journalist to get to the heart of things.”

Given that it embarrassed the president and won plaudits for his mainstream-media interviewer (who, for good measure, used to work in the Clinton administration), you’d think that Trump would have reacted furiously to the release of the interview. But you’d (mostly) be wrong. On Saturday, the president tweeted that the “Fake News Media” had distorted his words, but also said he “enjoyed” the interview and pledged to do more like it to “get the word out” about his presidency: “It is called Earned Media,” he wrote. Trump’s tweets seemed to vindicate Politico’s Michael Calderone and Nancy Cook, who wrote last week that Trump—who will formally launch his 2020 campaign tomorrow—sees network interviews as an opportunity to reach out beyond his base, and to dominate a news cycle that’s increasingly driven by his Democratic opponents.

Granting more traditional media access is the president’s prerogative, of course. If tough questions are asked, it isn’t a bad thing. And yet the networks should be careful that they don’t allow Trump to play them. Since Trump last (formally) ran for office, many media-watchers have argued that his campaign rallies and set-piece speeches should not be broadcast live because they contain so many falsehoods. Network interviews are different: they aren’t normally live, and an interlocutor is present to provide scrutiny. But Trump often lies at such a fast pace that even the best interviewer can’t push back on every falsehood in real time. Stephanopoulos certainly did not.

Stephanopoulos did grill Trump on many important topics, and ABC, by and large, did a decent job contextualizing and dripping out the interview’s most newsworthy portions. And yet viewers watching the whole thing (which aired last night) still heard the president say things that aren’t true—and ABC’s transcript of the interview, for instance, is not annotated to point out all the falsehoods. In 2016, Trump exploited “earned media” prolifically: he drove home false talking points, often without challenge, on mainstream networks. This time, we should ensure that the challenge is as sharp as possible. With Trump, an interviewer alone isn’t always enough.

Below, more on Trump:

  • A further escalation: On Saturday, Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” after the paper reported that his administration has been stepping up its digital attacks on Russia’s electric power grid. Trump’s claim was dangerous, and also nonsensical: the Times made clear that “Officials at the National Security Council declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting.”
  • Holding the cards: Friday was Trump’s 73rd birthday. According to The Daily Beast’s  Lachlan Markay, some of ABC’s biggest affiliate stations posted content on their websites linking to a “birthday card” for the president—but the “card” was actually “a petition website created by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to harvest email addresses that can be used during the 2020 campaign.” The ABC affiliate sites took their story down.
  • The escalator ride: Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of Trump riding down the escalator in Trump Tower and declaring his run for the White House. Politico’s Michael Kruse has an oral history of “the escalator ride that changed America.” And on CNN, McKay Coppins, of The Atlantic, reflected on what he got wrong—and right—in his 2014 profile of Trump.


Other notable stories:

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Kim Goldman is Ron Goldman’s sister.

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After two inglorious years, Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave the White House

Last June, CBS News reported that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and Raj Shah, her deputy, were planning to quit the Trump administration. They stuck it out longer than expected. Shah left in January. Yesterday—exactly a year after the original CBS report—we learned that Sanders will depart at the end of this month. President Trump tweeted the news and Sanders did the same: a mode of communication that has characterized Sanders’s time as White House spokesperson.

Sanders took over as press secretary in July 2017, following the ouster of Sean Spicer. Sanders showed more endurance, but her performance has been no better than Spicer’s was. In her two inglorious years on the job, Sanders barred reporters who asked tough questions; promoted Trump’s bogus “fake news awards”; fell in line with the president’s anti-press, “enemy of the people” rhetoric; and routinely disparaged the intelligence and integrity of the journalists in the White House briefing room. She also lied a lot. Sanders said that Trump never encouraged violence (he did) and that he won an “overwhelming majority” of votes in 2016 (he did not). In April, the Mueller report confirmed that in May 2017, Sanders (who was then the deputy press secretary) knowingly misled reporters when she claimed—twice—that “countless” FBI staffers supported Trump’s firing of James Comey. Sanders told Mueller’s office that the claim was “not founded on anything”; it was a “slip of the tongue” that she then repeated “in the heat of the moment,” she said. How did Sanders respond to her confession becoming public? She reiterated the false claim.

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Still, Sanders may not be remembered for her lies as much as her absence. “Last month, reporters noticed that there was literally a coating of dust on the press briefing room podium,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote last night. “That is Sanders’s legacy.” On her watch, the televised White House briefing, a fixture under previous administrations, has all but gone extinct. Earlier this year, Sanders set a record for the longest time without a formal briefing since the practice began. Then she beat her own record—twice. If she doesn’t brief soon, next Wednesday will mark 100 days since Sanders last faced reporters at the podium. (She did stand there in late April, but it was only for a “bring your kids to work day” stunt that she declared off the record.) In the absence of briefings, White House reporters have had to chase Sanders down on the White House driveway to ask questions, usually following her interviews with Fox News.

Fox could be a logical next step for Sanders: ex-administration figures often take contributor gigs on cable news, and Sanders has already said that she plans to remain “one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of the president and his agenda” outside the White House. (CNN reportedly has no interest in Sanders; it’s hard to imagine MSNBC would want her, either.) Trump, in his tweet, encouraged Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas, a post previously occupied by her father, Mike Huckabee; according to CNN, Sanders is thinking seriously about a bid, though there won’t be a vacancy until 2022.

As far as the White House press secretary job is concerned, CNN’s Stelter writes that who replaces Sanders is anyone’s guess. Trump could promote her deputy, Hogan Gidley, or he could look to an outside booster such as Laura Ingraham. (Stranger things have happened: remember Anthony Scaramucci?) The president, who has gone without a communications chief since March, may decline to fill the post. Why would he need a press secretary, when he believes himself to be his own best messenger?

Below, more on Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the White House communications team:

  • What was the point?: Several commentators, including NYU’s Jay Rosen and Mike Allen, of Axios, have argued that briefings, when they happen, are a waste of journalists’ time anyway. Others have countered that, despite the lies from the podium, briefings give reporters an opportunity to confront the administration. Last year, CJR’s Pete Vernon wrote that a briefing “is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.”
  • What Sanders said about Trump: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber writes that Sanders “broke the news” during her time as press secretary. “Her tenure serves as a reminder of what happens when partisanship, aided by the power of the presidency, is allowed to subsume everything else: traditions, norms, truth, people’s lives,” Garber writes.
  • A change of strategy: The White House Correspondents’ Association will soon elect a new president. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the leading candidates—S.V. Date, of HuffPost, and Steven Portnoy, of CBS News—plan to take a bolder, more confrontational approach to misinformation. (A third candidate,  Toluse Olorunnipa, of the Post, has yet to outline his plans.)
  • Game, set, Hatch?: Kellyanne Conway’s name has been touted as a possible replacement for Sanders. Yesterday, the office of special counsel recommended that Conway should be removed as a White House aide for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their position to engage in partisan activities. Trump looks like he will ignore the recommendation: yesterday, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, called it “as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”


Other notable stories:

  • Trump’s admission, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, that he would accept a foreign government’s offer of dirt on a presidential rival and not tell the FBI about it, drove the news cycle yesterday. Trump’s remarks added distressing detail to what has been established in the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 election, and bodes poorly for 2020.
  • The Democratic National Committee confirmed yesterday that Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, and Mike Gravel have failed to qualify for the first presidential debate; today, the 20 candidates who did qualify will be divided into groups of 10 that will debate on June 26 and June 27, respectively. For CJR, Jason Plautz explores the DNC’s refusal to host a debate dedicated to climate change: “While sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans.” On Wednesday, activists delivered a petition for a climate debate, signed by 200,000 people, to the DNC.
  • When it comes to capturing public and press attention, Reid J. Epstein writes, for the Times, that Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have outmaneuvered the other Democratic candidates for president, “demonstrating an innate understanding of the value of viral moments and nonstop exposure that drive politics in the Trump era.” Buttigieg has done so by emphasizing his personal background; Warren has inundated reporters with policy ideas. Both have climbed in the polls.
  • Yesterday, Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, confirmed that he signed off on the US government’s request to extradite Julian Assange, who is currently in jail in London. Today, the signed order will go before a British court. Assange faces an 18-count indictment in the US, most of which falls under the Espionage Act; last month, press-freedom experts called the indictment a “terrifying” threat to journalism. Sweden had also hoped to extradite Assange, to face a rape investigation, but a Swedish court ruled last week that Assange does not need to be detained in the country after all.
  • In Turkey, prosecutors have charged Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalinkilic, two Bloomberg journalists, with attempting to undermine the country’s economic stability; the pair had reported last year on the official response to a severe currency shock in Turkey. The same indictment targets 36 other people “for social media comments on the story, or comments deemed critical of Turkey’s economy and banks,” Bloomberg reports.
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick looks at two Congressional bills intended to help out the news industry: one would allow publishers to team up to demand better financial terms from big tech platforms; the other would make it easier for news organizations to seek nonprofit status.
  • Last month, Corey Hutchins reported for CJR from La Plata County, Colorado—an“orphan county,” where residents get irrelevant political news from a TV market based outside their home state. This week, following pressure from Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, the Federal Communications Commission signaled that it will grant La Plata County residents access to Denver’s TV market instead.
  • And the Mirror Awards, given by Syracuse University to celebrate reporting on the media industry, were announced yesterday. CJR was among the winners: Sarah Jones won for her piece about class and journalism. Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, won for his work exposing sexual misconduct by Les Moonves, who subsequently stepped down from CBS. Farrow addressed those gathered at the ceremony: “I see some people [here] who have lied to protect power,” he said.

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