WASHINGTON — Axios debuts a four-week HBO series on Sunday, starting with an interview with President Trump in which he confirmed that he was considering an immigration executive order to end birthright citizenship and defended his attacks on the media.
On the latest “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei said that during the interview he “got into it” with Trump over his rhetoric, in the wake of mail bombs sent to CNN, top Democrats and other prominent critics, as well as the deadly shooting massacre at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Some of the clips of the interview have already been released in advance of the show’s debut on Sunday evening, but VandeHei says that Trump’s attacks on the press as the “enemy of the people” are not just a tactic to rouse his base in advance of the midterms.
“He does believe this. It is not WWF,” VandeHei said. “He believes in every bone in this body that he in some ways has less power than the media. He feels he is mistreated. He feels like he is dismissed. He feels like he is unfairly covered. So he really believes it is the enemy. He is not just doing this to stir up the base. That said, he knows that when he does that, it stirs up the base, and so both are true. He feels it. It’s real. But he also knows how to fan that flame.”
VandeHei, who interviewed Trump with Jonathan Swan, said that Trump doesn’t believe that he has an obligation to tone it down and that “you can’t say one specific shooter did something because of something I said.”
Popular on Variety
“That might be true, but this a thing he and got into it,” VandeHei said. “I go, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ This country is on fire right now. The kindling is so damn dry, and if you are saying ‘enemy, enemy, enemy, enemy, enemy,’ what do you think people are thinking? What do you think when they get on social media? All they are doing is getting riled up, and when you rile people up, and you got this much dry kindling, it is not going to take that much.”
He added, “I have always felt that someone is going to die. A reporter, I believe, in this environment, could easily get killed, because people see them as the enemy. They see this as not just politics. It is visceral in a way that should not be visceral. … I don’t understand any political leader. I don’t understand the president of the United States not wanting to figure out ways to tone it down, and not figure out ways to make sure things don’t spiral out of control.”
“Axios on HBO” will run for four weeks, and will feature segments on other Axios coverage areas, like technology and healthcare.
Trump’s revelation about ending birthright citizenship also came with plenty of suspicion that he was merely trying to mobilize his supporters in the waning days before the election, when in fact he may never sign such an order. Trump, VandeHei said, “was very surprised that we had done reporting and heard that he was contemplating this.” He doesn’t think that the president wanted the news disclosed.
“Now that it is out, it is probably going to be even harder for him to do it,” VandeHei said. “Though [during] the week, he ends up tweeting out that he is going to double down and still make sure he does it, despite the fact that there is obviously a lot of legal scholars that don’t think he has the authority to do this.”
During the interview, Trump also claimed, falsely, that the United States was the only country that guarantees birthright citizenship, which in fact more than 30 other countries recognize it. Axios noted this in the story about the interview, but VandeHei and Swan did not fact check him in the moment. That’s been a challenge for journalists in covering Trump, but Soledad O’Brien and other critics faulted Axios after it unveiled the clip on Twitter.
“Listen, I have been doing interviews, including with presidents, for years, and there is no interview that I have every done where you are not, ‘Goddamn it, I wish I had asked a follow-up, or I wish I had fact checked him in real time,'” VandeHei said. “Sure. I wish we would have fact checked him in real time. I wish that if there is anything that should be added to the story, that it is added in the moment. I am actually very pleased that we got the story, that we got it out there, that we thought it was important to be out there.”
Also on this episode: Rosamund Pike, Matt Heineman and Cat Colvin talk about the new movie “A Private War,” about the career of war correspondent Marie Colvin.
Listen below (starts at 24:00 mark).
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. ET, and Sundays at noon ET and Monday at 1 a.m. ET. It also is available on demand.