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There's Only One Way to Interview Donald Trump
And it's not whatever Kristen Welker did over the weekend.
Hello readers. Parker here.
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On June 3, 2016, CNN aired the last good interview with Donald Trump.
Days earlier, Trump made headlines for attacking Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing the Trump University case. Trump argued that Curiel was a “hater of Donald Trump” who “should be ashamed of himself.” Why? Well…
“The judge — who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine,” said Trump. “You know what? I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump when I give all these jobs, OK?”
Curiel was born and raised in Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University and worked as a lawyer in private practice before becoming an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of California in 1989. Before Democratic President Barack Obama nominated him to the federal bench in 2011, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to a position on the California Superior Court in 2006.
That’s about as American as it gets. Curiel hadn’t even been particularly hard on Trump, and he even agreed to schedule the Trump University trial to take place after the 2016 election. Even so, Trump attacked Curiel over his ethnic background in order to give the false impression that anyone who is holding him to any standard at all is out to get him.
June 3 rolls around, and CNN airs this interview between Trump and Jake Tapper. Give it a watch if you’ve got a chance:
Here’s a partial transcript, beginning at around the 1:15 mark in the video:
TAPPER: What does this have to do with his heritage?
TRUMP: I’ll tell you what it has to do. I’ve had ruling after ruling after ruling that’s been bad rulings, OK? I’ve been treated very unfairly. Before him, we had another judge. If that judge was still there, this case would have been over two years ago.
Let me just tell you, I’ve had horrible rulings, I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall. I am going to do very well with the Hispanics, the Mexicans –
TAPPER: So, no Mexican judge could ever be involved in a case that involves you?
TRUMP: Well, he’s a member of a society, where – you know, very pro-Mexico, and that’s fine. It’s all fine, but –
TAPPER: Except that you’re calling into question his heritage.
TRUMP: I think he should recuse himself.
TAPPER: Because he’s Latino?
TRUMP: Then, you also say, does he know the lawyer on the other side? I mean, does he know the lawyer? You know, a lot of people say –
TAPPER: But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about –
TRUMP: That’s another problem.
TAPPER: You’re invoking his race, talking about whether or not he can do his job.
TRUMP: Jake, I’m building a wall. OK? I’m building a wall. I’m trying to keep business out of Mexico. Mexico’s fine.
TAPPER: But he’s an American.
TRUMP: He’s of Mexican heritage and he’s very proud of it, as I am where I come from, my parents.
TAPPER: But he’s an American. You keep talking about it’s a conflict of interest because of Mexico.
TRUMP: Jake, are you ready? I have a case that should have already been dismissed. I have thousands of people saying Trump University is fantastic, OK? I have a case that should have been dismissed. A judge that never, ever gives – now, we lose the plaintiff. He lets the plaintiff of the case out.
So, why isn’t he calling the case? So, we thought we won the case.
TAPPER: So, you disagree with his rulings. I totally understand that.
TRUMP: I’ve had lawyers come up to me and say, you are being treated so unfairly. It’s unbelievable. You know the plaintiffs in the case have all said wonderful things about the school and they’re suing. You know why they’re suing? Because they want to get their money back.
TAPPER: I don’t want to really litigate the case of Trump University.
TRUMP: You have to, because if he was giving me fair rulings, I wouldn’t say that.
TAPPER: My question is –
TRUMP: Jake, if you were giving me fair rulings, I wouldn’t be talking to you this way. He’s given me horrible rulings.
TAPPER: I don’t care if you criticize him, that’s fine. You can criticize every decision. What I’m saying, if you invoke his race as a reason why he can’t do his job.
TRUMP: I think that’s why he’s doing it. I think that’s why he’s doing it.
TAPPER: When Hillary Clinton says it’s a racist attack –
TRUMP: Hillary Clinton is a stiff. If Hillary Clinton becomes president –
TAPPER: Paul Ryan today – Paul Ryan today said he didn’t care for the way that you are attacking this judge.
TRUMP: Look, I’m just telling you, Paul Ryan doesn’t know the case. Here’s the story –
TAPPER: Isn’t it the –
TRUMP: I should have won this case on summary judgment. This is not a – this is a case I should have won on summary judgment. You know, the law firm paid Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars to make speeches. You know the law firm –
TAPPER: I do. And we reported – we reported it on my show.
TRUMP: OK. I’m glad. You’re the only one.
TRUMP: Wait a minute. A law firm paid hundreds and thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton for speeches.
TAPPER: Before either of you –
TRUMP: She wasn’t working. Everyone fell asleep during a speech, OK?
TAPPER: Before either of you were running for president, they did.
But here’s the final fundamental question –
TRUMP: Do you know they’ve contributed tremendous amounts of money to her campaign?
TRUMP: Do you know they contributed a lot of money to Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general?
TAPPER: Here’s my question –
TRUMP: No, no, do you know that?
TAPPER: I did not know that.
TRUMP: Did you know they went to every attorney general practically in the country that they could and did you know this case was turned down by almost every attorney general from Texas to Florida and to many other states?
TAPPER: Is it not – when Hillary Clinton says this is a racist attack, and you reject that – if you’re saying he can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?
TRUMP: No. I don’t think so at all.
TRUMP: No. He’s proud of his heritage. I respect him for that.
TAPPER: But you’re saying you can’t do his job because of that.
TRUMP: Look, he’s proud of his heritage, OK? I’m building a wall.
Now, I think I’m going to do very well with Hispanics because they are going to get jobs right now. They are going to get jobs. I think I’m going to do very well with Hispanics.
We are building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.
The answer is, he is giving us very unfair rulings, rulings that people can’t even believe. This case should have ended years ago in summary judgment. The best lawyers, I have spoken to so many lawyers, they said, this is not a case. This is a case that should have ended.
TAPPER: I –
TRUMP: This judge is giving us unfair rulings. Now, I say why? Well, I’m building a wall, OK? And it’s a wall between Mexico. Not another country.
TAPPER: But he’s not from Mexico. He’s from Indiana.
TRUMP: He’s of Mexican heritage and he’s very proud of it.
Trump repeatedly tried to redirect the conversation to something unrelated (Hillary! Eric Schneiderman! He’s Mexican!), but Tapper would not move on. It’s an excruciatingly uncomfortable interview, but Tapper didn’t flinch. In doing so, Trump wasn’t able to roll Tapper the way he has rolled other interviewers. There was no, “Okay, let’s move on” moment. In total, Tapper recentered and restated the question 23 times.
That is the blueprint.
The interview won Tapper praise from other journalists, as well.
The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers had this to say about the interview:
Tapper presumably had other subjects he would have liked to get to. Trump likely figured as much and assumed he could stall long enough for his interviewer to move on. That’s usually how it goes. But Tapper refused to drop the subject until Trump offered a yes-or-no answer. It was clearly an exhausting effort. But it showed that even Donald J. Trump can be worn down by a journalist who never gives up
Let’s repeat that: Even Donald J. Trump can be worn down by a journalist who never gives up.
Now, it should also be noted that Trump’s attacks on the judge on the basis that Curiel is “a member of a society, where you know, very pro-Mexico and that’s fine,” is also a lie. Trump and his campaign were trying to spread a lie about Curiel being a member of the National Council of La Raza. Curiel was a member of an unrelated group called the San Diego La Raza Lawyers.
Good journalism sometimes comes at a high cost.
In the years since, you may have seen Tapper interview Trump surrogates, associates, and members of Trump’s administration. What you won’t find are any interviews with Trump himself. That’s not an accident.
When I was reporting a piece about this interview last year for Dame Magazine, a CNN source told me that Trump associate Boris Epshteyn let CNN know that Trump would never grant another interview to Tapper. Ever. Epshteyn denies saying this, but the fact is that it’s been more than seven years and Trump hasn’t faced off against Tapper again.
This tactic (i.e. asking follow-up questions and refusing to let Trump BS his way through you) is what made Jonathan Swan’s 2020 interview with Trump so mesmerizing to watch. It’s just not something we get to see much of these days, and it’s leaving the public less informed and worse off.
Compare that to so many of the other interviews we’ve all seen with Trump over the years and it really highlights the sad state of U.S. political media.
Take the much-hyped Meet the Press interview that ran over the weekend. To say it was bad is an understatement. For instance, at one point, Trump made a baseless claim to host Kristen Welker that Bank of America and Chase “discriminate against conservatives and Republicans.” Here’s how Welker responded:
WELKER: What’s the evidence for that, Mr. President?
TRUMP: Oh, we’ll give you plenty of evidence—
WELKER: Okay. All right, well, let’s stay on track with this question, though. So, just to be very clear, if you were reelected, would you direct your Fed chair to lower interest rates?
Setting aside the massively cringy “Mr. President” that’s thrown in there, you can’t just let him spew nonsense and then move on without getting to the bottom of it. Moving on for the sake of “stay[ing] on track” is a failure.
Others have torn apart the god-awful Welker interview, so I won’t get into that much more than I already have, though I will say that if you don’t bother to fact-check the false statements on air and instead tell people to visit a page on the NBC News website, you’ve failed.
I’m sure this won’t be Welker’s final interview with Trump. Make of that what you will.
That’s it for me today. I hope everyone had a good weekend.
Curiel would later even rule in favor of the Trump administration when it came to the creation of a border wall, the very thing Trump claimed would keep Curiel from being fair. This is all part of the same “work the refs” playbook, where Trump immediately accuses people of being “haters” and then forces them to “prove” that they’re not. Trump did this with Kristen Welker when it was announced that she was going to be the host of the final 2020 debate.
I still think Tapper’s interview with Trump is better, but Swan’s is worth watching, as well.