The Art of Follow-Up Questioning

Being that Donald Trump has been president for more than three and a half years, and a politician for more than five, it’s rather remarkable that two of his most constructive (and talked about) interviews have occurred just within the past month. The first, with Chris Wallace, was aired on Fox News Sunday on July 19th. The second, conducted by Axios’s Jonathan Swan, ran just a couple days ago.

Typically, an interview with Trump falls into one of two categories:

If it’s done by a pro-Trump partisan, like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs, you might as well be watching a game of doubles sand volleyball, but with only one team on the court. The “interviewer” repeatedly sets up Trump for easy spikes over the net (at the names of his critics and opponents written in the sand) without Trump having to worry about the ball ever being returned.

Then there are his more challenging (but less frequent) ones, usually with mainstream journalists, who do push back against certain statements by the president, but are also inclined to let him go in any direction he wants to with his answers. They recognize that Trump’s particular brand of bluster makes for good television, and they’re often more interested in outrageous soundbites, and getting in as many questions as possible in their limited time with the president, than they are securing definitive, qualitative answers.

Both approaches are typically good for ratings, but they often fail to serve one of the key purposes of news journalism, which is to hold people in power accountable. It’s not always the interviewer’s fault. While Trump is rarely at a loss of words, he’s a tough interview in the sense that he’s overbearing, difficult to keep focused, and has no qualms with saying lots of dishonest and contradictory things (to the point that they’re hard to keep up with).

Wallace and Swan, however, seem to have figured out the right way to question this president. In fact, I’d say their interviews were more productive, and effective at holding him accountable to the American people, than probably any since Trump took office. The formula they used wasn’t even all that complex: they came extremely well prepared with the data surrounding the topics they would be raising, they studied up on Trump’s recent rhetoric on those topics, and then they fact-checked and drilled down into dubious assertions made by the president at the precise moment he made them.

In the Wallace interview, the most notable instance of this came when Trump claimed that his general election opponent, Joe Biden, wants to defund and abolish the police, and that he had said so in a “charter” he’d written with Bernie Sanders. This was a talking point that Trump and his team had already been using in press conferences and campaign ads. Wallace immediately pushed back on the claim, pointing out that Biden has, in fact, stated opposition to defunding the police. This led to Trump asking for a copy of the document in question, and after thumbing through it for a while, Wallace was proven right.

It was also in the Wallace interview that viewers were finally given a better understanding of the “very hard” (Trump’s words) cognitive test that our president had been bragging for weeks about “acing.” Trump had apparently asked to take the test (at Walter Reed) to shoot down concerns from his critics that he was mentally ill-equipped for the presidency. Some may even remember Trump saying that the doctors who administered the test were blown away by how well he’d done.

While most in the media had just kind of dismissed the crowing (perhaps believing the test didn’t even exist), Wallace actually did some research and found the type that Trump had taken. When Trump bragged again in the interview about passing it, and challenged Biden to do the same, Wallace revealed the test to be a handful of easy exercises that assess very basic human reasoning. In fact, the point of the test is to identify whether or not someone has dementia. In other words, it should have been “aced” by anyone not suffering from the disease.

The Swan interview was a more aggressive, with the Axios reporter not giving Trump an inch on just about any answer or assertion that didn’t pass the smell test.

When Trump, who strangely said back in June that he told his administration to slow down coronavirus testing, stated that “there are those who say you can test too much,” Swan called him out on it:

Swan: “Who says that?”

Trump: “Just read the manuals, read the books.”

Swan: “What manuals?”

Trump: “Read the books.”

Swan: “What books?”

Trump had no answers.

When Trump insisted that the U.S. government’s handling of the health crisis, when compared to other countries, should be judged by COVID-19 deaths as a proportion of cases, instead of as a proportion of population, Swan immediately challenged the narrative. As well he should have, being that Trump’s figure is reflective of the work of the doctors and nurses treating the infected… not the government’s mitigation efforts.

When asked about the intelligence on Russia paying (or offering to pay) the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and whether Trump has brought up the matter with Vladimir Putin, Trump said he hadn’t because “many people” believed it to be fake news. When Swan asked him who, specifically, Trump had no names. When Trump said the intelligence had never even made it to his desk, Swan quickly pointed out that it was indeed included in one of the president’s daily intelligence briefings.

Swan used the same drill-drown approach on many more issues, including health-crisis messaging, the Tulsa rally, the possible contesting of November’s election results, conflicting views on mail-in ballots, the controversial comment about Ghislaine Maxwell, the violence in Portland (and the federal response), Black Lives Matter, the legacy of John Lewis, and more. The result was a sharper focus on the context and topics at hand (rather than a swirling stream of the president’s consciousness), and a proper accounting of Trump’s spin and falsehoods.

As far as I’m concerned, it was a public service.

That said, a journalist friend of mine did express a problem he had with Swan’s style. While he has no objection to tough interviews, he felt there was a lack of respect (which he sees from other young journalists) in the way Swan spoke to the president. Swan, many times throughout the interview, treated Trump more like a peer than our nation’s commander-in-chief, repeatedly talking over the president and reacting to his words with animated facial expressions. It’s a fair criticism, though I wasn’t particularly bothered by what Swan did, especially considering that Trump himself doesn’t place a lot of value in political decorum. Regardless, it’s definitely an element that distinguished Swan’s approach from Wallace’s.

The consensus among those who watched both interviews is that they were pretty brutal for Trump, not in the sense that they’ll necessarily change anyone’s mind when it comes time to vote, but in the sense that the president was made to answer for — in a way he rarely is — his efforts to mislead Americans on some rather significant issues. That’s a win not just for journalism, but also for the public.

I also think Trump should be given credit for talking to both men, who he knew to be much tougher questioners than the cheerleaders on Fox News prime-time, whose company he much prefers. When Trump and his supporters point out how Joe Biden hasn’t been talking to tough interrogators like Wallace and Swan, they’re making a valid point.

Ideally, with just a few months left until the election, both presidential candidates would be fielding hard, uncomfortable questions for the benefit of the American people. Let’s hope it happens, and happens soon.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

Off the Cuff: Is Trump Trying to Lose?

Is President Trump trying to lose this election? Sometimes I wonder.

That’s the topic of my Off the Cuff audio commentary this week. You can listen to it by clicking on the play (arrow) button below.


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A Madhouse We Might Consider Ignoring

Attention readers: Dennis Prager is off this week. Please enjoy the following column by William Murchison.

The craziness of the craziest times many of us have ever lived through has a bit to do with the lack of an off-ramp. We don’t know how to make it stop. We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what to do.

Well, sort of. A contemporary of mine, half a century ago, faced with inscrutable circumstances in the cultural/political world, was fond of declaring, “I’m just going to ignore it.” This was a person of great intelligence, given to thinking much as I thought. However, I found puzzling this person’s proclivity for merely willing a problem into nonexistence.

I am starting to see the point. The problems strewn perplexingly all around our woke environment — a new one every day, it seems, hurled in our faces — invite the same sort of dismissal my friend of half a century ago concocted.

What are we supposed to do? Besides worry and fret? Besides wring our hands? The age of social media makes it hard to ignore anything. But one can try. And a great many already are doing so, it seems to me.

Wokeness is the subjective discovery that the reformation of historic attitudes over race and sex is the Need of the Day. We are obliged, say, to “check our white privilege” at the door. How do you do it? That’s the question with which many wrestle. Does society have a desk where you hand something to the attendant, who gives you a check for it, and then you pick it up later and tip the attendant? Or do you leave it there for someone else? And if so, what does it mean to lack the privilege you checked? It means you’re now nonprivileged? Well, where from there? Who figures it out?

Again, in woke terms, thinking about little else but the sins of your ancestors can get a little tedious, I would think. What did those old dead folks do to support or oppose slavery? A lot? Nothing at all? What does it mean in 2020? And who decides?

One keeps hearing about “reckonings” now taking place for the sins of the past. I would be obliged to know who is in charge of a reckoning and how he or she got the job in the first place. And what happens in a reckoning: Who sets the terms? Reckons the tab? Decides when it’s over?

Nor have I space to suggest the number of hazy questions surrounding the issues our woke friends have raised concerning sex — without suggesting answers apart from making sure only jurists who favor abortion rights ever again get confirmed to the Supreme Court. Here, at least, we have a policy proposal. The meaning of a protected right to abortion remains up there in the sky with all those other vaporous questions no one can answer.

The past is the great obsession of modern times, evoking mostly emotion, and in terms of emotion, mostly rage. Rage, bitterness, the thirst for revenge — all cheered on by morally disconnected media — dominate life in the age of wokeness. It’s no wonder we hear all around us so many calls to feel guilty and generally terrible.

Well, you know what? The past is over. It’s not 1865 anymore. It’s not 1776. It’s not 1619 — the new touchstone date for woke folk, the introduction of slavery to the American colonies. Yell! Holler! Kick the cat! Slam the kitchen door! You can’t change what happened. All you end up doing is talking about reckonings and revenge, contrasted with resolutions to build on present foundations something new and good and clean.

Calumniating the dead — who can’t hear a word you say — rather than grasping in alliance and fellowship the hand of the living: That’s just crazy, my friends.

But wokeness is crazy, as the sane — still a majority in these times, I sense — very well know. Amid the frothing and mouth-foaming, my now-deceased friend of so many years ago may yet prove a trendsetter: “I’m just going to ignore it.”

William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century. His latest book is “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.” To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


Last Updated: Monday, Aug 03, 2020 17:10:02 -0700

America — After the Progressives Take Over

If you want to know what the United States would look like if progressives someday take over the federal government, just turn on your television set and watch the chaos play out before your eyes in cities run by progressives.

Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, is an interesting example of left wing delusion.  For about two months, protestors (and rioters) have taken to the streets and run roughshod in the city.

When Donald Trump sent in law enforcement agents to protect federal buildings, the mayor was incensed. Why?  Because, he says federal presence “is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism.”

Let’s see if we have this right:  Federal law enforcement officers – not the vandals — are the problem.  Federal agents are the ones figuratively pouring gasoline on fires that the rioters literally started — with their own gasoline.

“Nuts” doesn’t do justice to what passes for the mayor’s reasoning.

In New York not long ago police on the Brooklyn Bridge came under attack and were beaten bloody with sticks and clubs.  In Chicago, protestors who wanted to topple a Christopher Columbus statue threw rocks, frozen water bottles, fireworks and other objects at police, leaving nearly 50 officers injured including one with a broken eye socket.  In Seattle, where the mob had taken over a downtown section of the city, rioters recently went on a rampage and smashed storefront windows and damaged the Municipal Courthouse.

And this from one recent weekend, as reported in the Wall Street Journal: “In Louisville, Ky., a black militia that calls itself the “Not F— Around Coalition” lived up to its name Saturday when a member discharged a gun and accidentally struck three compatriots, causing non-life-threatening injuries. In Oakland, Calif., rioters set fires downtown Saturday night, including at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse. In New York City, demonstrators defaced police vans with spray paint and tried to smash their windows, while others lit trash cans on fire. Demonstrators carried out more vandalism at a federal building in Atlanta and a Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Baltimore.”

In San Francisco, the progressive district attorney, says he won’t prosecute cases involving so-called quality-of-life crimes. “Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted,” the D.A. said.

The coronavirus pandemic is bad enough.  Throw in the destruction at the hands of the mobs, and one of the things that made America great – lively, vital, dynamic U.S. cities – is suffering a serious blow.  Let’s hope it’s not fatal.

Progressives, as I say, are running these cities. They’re the ones reciting the mantra that “most of the demonstrations are peaceful.”

If progressive forces like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez have condemned the violence and destruction, if they’re as mad as hell about what’s going on, I guess I missed it.

As for Joe Biden, here’s what he has to say about the urban chaos:

“Our freedom to speak is the cherished knowledge that lives inside every American. We will not allow any president to quiet our voice.”

And what about all those cities where people are not protesting peacefully and respectfully?  Is it okay to send federal troops into those places to stop the destruction?  Maybe Joe will have to answer that at one of the debates – assuming (and this is a big assumption) one of the journalists asks him about it.

How this will play out in November is still unknown.  At the moment, voters seem to be more concerned about the coronavirus than the protesters. But that can change over the next three months.

By November there might be enough Americans frustrated and disgusted with the chaos in the streets, and that could get Donald Trump off the mat, which is where the polls now have him.  We’ll know soon enough.

But if not in November, at some point progressives likely will elect a president and a Congress and effectively take over the federal government. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.

Progressives already have taken over a large chunk of American culture — our major news outlets, Hollywood movies, TV sitcoms, some of our top colleges. They’re the ones cheering on the “cancel culture” where you can lose your job for having an “unacceptable” opinion.  And when they’re in charge of the federal government, the future will look a lot like the present – the one we’ve been watching on TV.

But don’t worry.  As the progressives keep telling us: People are demanding change – “peacefully and respectfully.”

Just one question:  Where?

By George, Let’s Cancel

For decades, billionaire George Soros has been donating big money to progressive groups seeking to change America into an “open society.”  In fact, that’s the name of some Soros non-profits; “the Open Society Foundations.”

In essence, the soon-to-be 90-year-old Soros sees the USA as an unjust country and believes the socialism of Europe should replace our capitalist system.  Soros wants to flood the American zone with foreign nationals in order to make that happen.  He supports lax border enforcement, amnesty for millions of undocumented people, and putting them on the fast track to vote.  That, of course, would cripple the Republican Party.

On the criminal justice front, Soros believes the US system is racist and most criminals should not be incarcerated.  He favors drug legalization and does not believe selling dangerous narcotics like heroin should even be a crime.

George Soros has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to people and organizations that approve of his vision, including a number of ultra-liberal state prosecutors in places that are currently seeing an explosive rise in violence.

Enter Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who has occupied page two of that publication for decades.  Kass is the Trib’s lead columnist, or was until a few days ago, when he wrote an opinion piece about Soros that highlighted his funding of far left politicians.

Almost immediately, Kass was accused of being “anti-Semitic” in a bizarre series of attacks.  If you read the Soros article, you will see no mention of the man’s Jewish heritage, no reference to Judaism at all.

But to those protecting Soros from scrutiny, any negative mention of his name is deemed “anti-Semitic.”  It’s truly the Twilight Zone of defense mechanisms.

The absurdity continued with the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Colin McMahon.  After receiving a letter from some “ woke” people demanding John Kass be punished for daring to criticize the radical Soros, McMahon folded almost immediately.  He very publicly demoted Kass, who refuses to apologize for writing accurately about George Soros.

And so the cancel culture takes another scalp courtesy of editor McMahon.

If you understand history, you might realize that the cancel hysteria we are seeing in America today, actually began in Germany.

In the early 1930s, the National Socialist Party could not get more than 37 percent of the vote across that country.  So, the Nazis decided to silence opposition to Hitler by “cancelling” opponents in local governments, the press, and in the schools. The Nazis used a paramilitary organization called the SA to do this, often violently.

The result was Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor in 1933.  Few dared speak out against it.  Two months later, the Dachau camp was opened south of Munich to “officially” deal with the cancelled opponents of Nazism.

That strategy will not happen in the USA, there are too many safeguards in place.  But the theory is the same – shut up voices that oppose, in America’s case, the radical left.

Today, the cancel culture is on a roll, becoming a powerful force of intimidation as corporations and media bow before it. Literally, no one who challenges or even annoys the radicals is safe.

As John Kass has found out.