Somehow, it took a pandemic to get interviewers to actually interview Donald Trump.
Ever since Lester Holt dislodged an admission from Trump that “this Russia thing” played into the president’s rationale for firing James Comey in 2017, interviews with Trump seemed to consist mostly of glad-handing with Fox News personalities. A few weeks ago, however, Fox’s Chris Wallace conducted what appeared to be the first truly adversarial interview with Trump, repeatedly fact-checking his falsehoods in real time. Now, hot on Wallace’s heels, comes Jonathan Swan’s Axios interview, which is shockingly chockablock with tough questions and determined pushback.
Axios isn’t exactly known for this kind of thing. Swan’s previous kid-gloves interviews with the president suggested the outlet was hellbent on maintaining its enviable White House access.
That no longer seems to be the case.
Rather, this is the type of White House interview a reporter conducts when they’re not terribly concerned about being invited back. Although it’s fairly typical of what one might expect for a president in crisis—and Barbara Walters was serving Trump this kind of confrontation 30 years ago—in terms of what we’ve come to expect from Trump, this is full-on scorched earth.
While oftentimes trailers are known to give away too much of a movie, if anything the trailer for this Axios interview undersells its blockbuster status. At only 1:45 into the proceedings, viewers can see Trump realize that this will not be the walk in the park he’d hoped, when Swan asks to what extent Trump’s positive thinking mindset is “unsuitable to handling the worst pandemic we’ve seen in a century.” What follows is a gladiatorial bout of offense and evasion that produces a number of hilarious and meme-worthy reaction faces, and too many must-see moments to accurately compile.
Here’s my attempt to do so anyway.
1. Blaming China
After Swan tells Trump that his “wishful thinking and salesmanship” are “just not suitable in a time when a pandemic has killed 145,000 people,” Trump gets defensive. He claims that other countries are doing worse than the United States, as though that makes the preventable deaths in America any less tragic. What’s amazing, though, is that Trump appears to blame China in a way that suggests the country created COVID-19 on purpose, just to get back at Trump personally for making the U.S. economy too awesome.
2. An incredible job
Swan looks flabbergasted and battered early on when Trump refuses to let him jump in to push back on his claim that banning travel from China early on saved millions of lives. He doesn’t forcefully interject until Trump says that “those people who really understand it say it’s incredible, the job we’ve done.”
“Who says that?” Swan asks.
Trump refuses to respond and instead keeps going on about the genius of banning travel from China. That is, until Swan asks the question backseat interviewers have wanted to ask Trump every time he’s touted this initiative as key to America’s defense against COVID.
“It was already here by the time you banned China,” he says.
“But nobody knew the extent,” Trump replies, as if that means anything.
3. A popular superspreader
When Swan brings up Trump’s Tulsa rally from June, the president ignores his implication that the event put thousands in danger and instead takes the opportunity to defend himself . . . against charges that the crowd size was underreported.
He would rather be seen as a superspreader of COVID than unpopular.
“Why would you have wanted a huge crowd?” Swan asks.
“Because it was a very good area at the time,” Trump responds, perhaps not understanding that Tulsa no longer being “a very good area” might have something to do with his rally.
A moment later, he does seem to understand the implications of what he’s just said, though, because he adds, “It spiked a month later, month and a half, two months later.”
It should be noted that on August 20, roughly two weeks from today, it will have been two months since Trump’s Tulsa rally. The spike came much earlier.
4. “It is what it is”
Trump is not exactly known for his compassion. Even grading on a Trump curve, though, his response to Swan questioning his claims that the pandemic is “under control” feels particularly cold-hearted.
“They are dying, it’s true,” he says of the rising death toll, which has topped 147,000. “But it is what it is. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”
“You think this is as much as we can control it?” Swan asks. “A thousand deaths a day?”
Trump responds by emphasizing how great a job he’s done and throwing state governors under the bus.
5. “Read the manuals. Read the books.”
Trump refuses to commit to a date when all Americans will have access to similar same-day testing as is custom for the White House. Instead, he whips out a typical boast of how much testing the U.S. has done. He then goes a step further, adding that some shady “they” suggests there can be such a thing as too much testing, prompting this incredible exchange:
Swan: “Who says that?”
Trump: “Read the manuals. Read the books.”
Swan: “Manuals? What manuals?”
These are the kinds of simple follow-up questions that have somehow eluded most presidential interviewers over the past three and a half years.
TRUMP: “Read the manuals. Read the books.”
SWAN: “Manuals? What Manuals? What Books? No, I’m sorry, wait a minute."
Donald Trump is unfit for office. He’s ignoring science, making all of this up, and it’s costing American lives. pic.twitter.com/8QfHKMIdRj
— American Bridge 21st Century (@American_Bridge) August 4, 2020
6. Death through rose-colored glasses
Swan tries to poke some much-needed holes in Trump’s frequent claim that if America didn’t test for COVID in such numbers we wouldn’t have so many cases. Trump’s response is to dust off some rudimentary-looking charts that reveal, astoundingly, “If you look at death, the United States is lowest in numerous categories; we’re lower than the world.”
After attempting to parse what Trump could possibly mean by “lower than the world,” Swan concludes that Trump is looking at American deaths as a proportion of cases, and that he should instead look at death as a proportion of the population.
“You can’t do that,” Trump says.
“Why can’t I do that?” Swan replies.
In this exchange, the reporter sounds like he clearly knows way more about what he’s talking about, and sees it through a way more realistic lens, than the president. That is not a state of affairs anyone should be comfortable with.
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
7. Accepting the election results
One of the many telling moments in Chris Wallace’s interview with the president last month found Trump refusing to commit to accepting the election results if they’re not in his favor. When Swan pivots the conversation to this topic, Trump explains his rationale thusly: “We have a new phenomenon—it’s called mail-in voting.”
Swan points out that mail-in voting has been part of the American electoral system since the Civil War, and Trump counters by griping about the scale of this year’s election, claiming he heard that someone received a ballot for their dog. This portion of the interview ends with Swan pointing out the extent to which Republicans are currently pushing mail-in voting within their ranks.
8. Well-wishing alleged sex-traffickers
Amazingly enough, the same people who parsed tea leaves to determine that Hillary Clinton was involved in a complicated pedophile ring didn’t seem to kick up much fuss about Donald Trump recently wishing Ghislaine Maxwell well.
“Ghislaine Maxwell has been arrested for child sex trafficking,” Swan points out in the Axios interview.
“Well, first of all, I don’t know that,” Donald Trump responds.
“She has,” Swan continues. “She’s been arrested for that.”
This is the kind of perseverance and handholding it takes sometimes for the president to acknowledge simple facts.
Trump explains that he wishes Maxwell well because her “friend,” Jeffrey Epstein, killed himself and now Maxwell herself is in jail, and he is offering this compassion because it’s what he’d do for anyone going through a bit of a rough patch.
Trump tells #AxiosOnHBO that he stands by his comments wishing alleged child sex trafficker and Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell well.
“I wish her well. I'd wish you well. I'd wish a lot of people well.” pic.twitter.com/1MRxyqzCLk
— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
9. “It’s not fake news, it’s on video”
Words cannot express how gratifying it is for the gaslit masses to see Trump downplay the excessive force authorities have used against protesters as “fake news,” only for Swan to insist, to his face, that “It’s not fake news, it’s on video.”
This moment kicks off a compelling section in which Trump clumsily defends troops in unmarked vans and unmarked uniforms snatching up protestors off the street.
“These terrorists, these Antifa people, these people that are anarchists and agitators,” Trump says in a huff. “When they see the name of a policeman or law enforcement, they find out where that person lives and they go and scare the hell out of the person’s family, so they do it for that reason. It’s just common sense.”
Swan frustratingly doesn’t push back on the premise that Antifa is a widespread element of the current social unrest, but it’s commendable that he got on record Trump’s nonsense explanation for the lack of identifying badges.
10. Unable to not brag
Trump’s answer to the question “What does systemic racism mean to you?” is about as bumbling as can be expected. All he can do is both-sides the idea that police tend to use excessive force more often than white men . . . until Swan quotes the statistic that Black men are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Trump quietly accepts this reality, which is somehow remarkable—this president accepting reality. However, when Swan uses this concession as a springboard to asking what Trump is willing to do to change this dynamic, he has to literally beg the president to stop bragging about having done more for Black Americans than any president other than Lincoln, including Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act.
11. Both-sidesing John Lewis
The recently deceased John Lewis is a civil rights icon. His eminence mostly transcends partisanship. Most politicians across both sides of the aisle seem to be fans of Lewis, or at least they understand it looks better if they publicly proclaim as much. The great grudge-holding Trump, however, has never met a personal slight he can put aside. When Swan asks how history will remember Lewis, Trump can only gripe about how Lewis avoided attending Trump’s inauguration and subsequent State of the Union addresses.
“Taking your relationship out of the equation, do you find his story impressive?” Swan later asks.
“He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights,” Trump admits, “but there were many others also.”
And there we have it. The Axios interview ends with Trump both-sidesing John Lewis.
Trump tells #AxiosOnHBO that he “can’t say one way or the other” whether John Lewis was impressive.
“He didn’t come to my inauguration.” pic.twitter.com/L0uevhjrG4
— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
In the end, Swan’s interview was such a disaster for Trump that the president’s team has only posted clips of it to YouTube in 30-second increments.
That’s about as long as Trump is capable of talking before saying something damning as hell.