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.

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