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‘60 Minutes’ Was Outmatched by Trump (Column)

The president talked over Lesley Stahl in a relentless blast of rhetoric that seemed more rally than interview.

On Oct. 14, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired an interview with President Donald Trump — rare for its status as having appeared outside of Fox News or conservative media. Appearing the same weekend as First Lady Melania Trump’s appearance on “20/20,” this would seem to represent a new level of media blitzing on the part of an administration that’s already seen its head get plenty of free promotion during rallies broadcast on cable news. And, like Melania Trump’s utterly-on-message, relentlessly forward-moving TV interview, the president’s interview had effectively the same impact as a rally; it allowed him to bulldoze his chief enemy, the media, while airing his own points at ceaseless length. The lesson the media has evidently not learned yet is not to be sitting right there when he does it.

Lesley Stahl’s interview with Trump was an undeniable get; he’d been scarce on mainstream media since around the time he appeared on tape with NBC’s Lester Holt and indicated he’d fired former FBI Director James Comey in part due to the Russia investigation. But the interview seemed governed by two motives, both of which played into the hands of a media-savvy president whose refusal to play by typical rules of engagement has been at the center of his rise.

First, Stahl seemed to want to conduct a definitive interview with Trump summarizing his presidency so far. In so doing, she skittered across the map of global and domestic issues, seeming to touch on every topic under the sun, from the ultra-current — the fate of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — to the more long-range. Questions about, say, North Korea, tariffs on China, climate change, and NATO were met with long bursts of Trumpian verbiage, spilling out so fast they seemed barely able to be edited. What fell away in editing, or what was barely allowed to happen in the time allotted, were many follow-ups.

And when follow-up questions did happen, they seemed to fall into the interview’s second trap: Trying to crack the code of Donald Trump, human being. “I wish you could go to Greenland,” Stahl mused in the brief portion of the interview dealing with climate change, “watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.” Trump shouted her down, predictably unmoved by Stahl’s evident passion about a story imbued with dread. He won every segment of the interview because he was utterly unable to brook doubt — and, at this point, a broadcast dealing with a president who cannot face facts must be armed with real facts of their own. Stahl asked Trump about “the scientists who say [the effects of climate change are] worse than ever,” but was unprepared to cite one; knowing, now, that the human factor will not work on Trump, a broadcaster should be prepared to cite hard facts in a face-off with the president.

Not, of course, that those facts will change his mind or even elicit an unexpected answer from the Commander-in-Chief. But it felt like a missed opportunity that both so many ardent Trump fans and so many in the hazy middle tuned into an interview with the president and found so much of what was put to him phrased in loose, conversational terms. If he won’t deal with the realities of climate change (presented in this interview only in anecdotal terms of ice and hurricanes and in data, never explained, from “NOAA and NASA,” and not the recent, catastrophic United Nations report) or of abandoning NATO, the broadcaster should rush in to fill the gap. Instead, facts like these ones seemed to be assumed on the part of the viewership at home, and the silences were filled by Trump, who explained away why orthodoxies were wrong while Stahl struggled to break into his monologues. The one moment Stahl meaningfully challenged Trump was on his alliance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un — presenting the president with a “resume” of his conversation partner’s misdeeds in his own country — but even then, the format demanded she move forward after Trump said the pair shared “a good energy.” Her next question was, verbatim, “China.” And Trump free-associated there, too.

So many of Stahl’s questions seemed premised on the notion that Trump could be brought to reason through earnest questioning that treaded somewhat lightly — but that signaled to viewers at home a certain set of values. This would have been a good playbook for a conservative-but-not-category-busting President Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, perhaps; all players could say their piece, and all could go home relatively unscathed. But even as Trump was unwilling to play along, the questions got no harder. Late in the interview, Stahl asked Trump what had been “the biggest surprise” and what he had learned as president, a question unworthy of the occasion and of time that might have been spent fleshing out answers elsewhere. (The surprise is that politicians are “vicious,” and the president went on.) Trump relentlessly talked over the follow-ups to a further question — why he didn’t bring the country together in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, seeking a moment of unity. That the president’s vanishingly rare appearance on a nonpartisan news program had resulted in a spectacle in which randomly assorted questions were bulldozed by a man eager to speak, and in which the interviewer generally left the viewers to decide what those answers meant without the benefit of meaningful follow-up, made the point clear.

By pushing through questions and by capitalizing on an interview approach seeking to synthesize his entire presidency into two segments of television, Trump effectively converted “60 Minutes” into a short rally. There are those who will see his rants as worthy, and those who will loathe them; whatever unity can be made to exist by the president exists only within those camps. That “60 Minutes” went looking for something greater is more proof than viewers needed that their approach to the president left them outmatched.

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