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HBO’s ‘Axios’ Falls Into the Trump Trap (Column)

Nov. 4 saw the debut of HBO’s four-part series of specials “Axios,” which takes its name from the access-driven website that thrives on scoops delivered with limited adornment. Indeed, the website prides itself on drilling down stories to, effectively, headlines.

This all makes for unfortunate timing, as Nov. 6 marks the midterms, a story encompassing 435 House elections and many contested Senate and statehouse races, all occurring against the backdrop of ongoing anger and roiling contempt against the president from the left. But the website on a mission to boil the world down into its grabbiest iteration is obliged to tell the story with the biggest names possible; the “Axios” episode before an election that has made various candidates into national names focused relentlessly on the president.

As became widely known even before the episode aired, the episode concluded with an interview of Donald Trump. A clip of Axios reporter Jonathan Swan tapping his head and jovially saying “Good guess!” after Trump congratulated him on surmising that the administration was to move against previously constitutionally-guaranteed birthright citizenship had gone viral among quarters that deride Axios generally and newly-minted breakout star Swan specifically for being giddily interested in the circus of newsmakers without concerning themselves with its repercussions. The Swan joke was cut out of the HBO broadcast, but the show left in Trump complimenting the reporter.

The birthright citizenship moment was, even without Swan’s self-congratulation, a low point for the interview, which mixed well-crafted questioning with soothing sensitivity for the particularities of the president as a subject, so much so as to alienate any viewer not on the Trump train. The interview, which also featured questions from Swan’s colleague Jim VandeHei, had been preceded by a lengthy, staged-feeling conversation between Axios employees as to the best way to interview this president. “If you go at him hard, he shuts down,” Swan says. “Okay, so you won a point, you’re a bit of a hero to the resistance, but the interview’s over.” Swan suggests the best move is “approaching him on the ground at which he’s comfortable.” Presumably relentless backpatting of the “Good guess!” variety fits into that; based on what we saw in the interview that made HBO’s air, so does avoiding any question about the ramifications of revoking birthright citizenship other than to suggest that some think it would be impossible.

To the show’s credit, they got a better answer out of Trump on climate change than had Lesley Stahl in a “60 Minutes” reverie about taking the president to Greenland to see melting ice; the Axios team also asked about Yemen and Trump’s own relationship with the media. And yet Swan’s glee over his scoop hung over all, making it hard to take seriously a question over whether Trump thought team Axios were “enemies of the people”: How could he, when they’re trying so hard to be his friends? There has to be a middle ground between adopting the self-congratulatorily clubby argot of Mar-a-Lago entirely and alienating this interview subject. To find it would be to shed light on more than just a bit of news, moving the ball forward for a moment, but on the administration’s longer-term goals for all Americans, scary as those may be. And to neglect to even seek it, with all the access Swan had already been given, is a painful wasted opportunity.

The rest of the episode was as relentless in presenting Trump as not just the most potent political star in American life — which he obviously is — but effectively the only politician right now. Sure, one fluffy segment dealt with polling him against Democrats for 2020, but given that it seemed obsessed with ginning up a celebrity-on-celebrity fight (heavily featuring poll results for Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton as candidates), it was empty calories. Viewers also were treated to a lengthy segment on what it’s like to negotiate with Donald Trump that surfaced fairly old news (he stiffs his contractors) and also made plenty of room for reputation-burnishing interviews with former Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy praising his results. Even without those logrolls, the message seemed clear: President Trump is the story even when there’s no new story.

But that had already been made clear. This episode two days before the midterms began with a segment on Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle campaigning for Ted Cruz in Texas — alighting never on the national ramifications of the upcoming polls or on any Democratic campaigns. (The insurgent opposition party is generally the story of the year in any midterm election, and has been a particularly hot one this year everywhere but “Axios.”) The show didn’t even make room to show what Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle like about Cruz, excerpting only nibbles of their stump speech. (“Texas is Cruz country! Texas is not Beto O’Rourke country!” Guilfoyle tells the assembled crowd; we watch her and Trump Jr. sign merchandise at punishing length.) Seemingly defending the show’s focus on President Trump’s son, Swan told his colleagues, “You have to talk to people in that ecosystem.” This seems obvious — but you have to actually ask them something, at least before you bring it to air.

“Axios” styles itself the bleeding edge of news — and maybe, frighteningly, it is that, for a world in which the President decides where his next interview will transpire based on what he sees on TV. You’d never know, from “Axios,” that a national referendum on Trump’s rule so far, one he can’t control and one that features candidates whose vision spans beyond him, is days away. Instead, the show flatters Trump’s understanding of his place in the universe and of the proper deference afforded a president: Not merely a person with unparalleled power to define the contours of American life, but a phenomenon that demands to be discussed even when there is simply nothing to say.

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