One of the greatest frustrations President Trump’s foes have is how infrequently he’s called out – in person – on his bizarre theories and his 20,000 falsehoods and misleading claims. While journalists fact-check Trump relentlessly, there are relatively few instances in which he has received pushback to his face, in part because it takes a certain deftness and, arguably in even larger part, because he submits to so few interviews outside the Fox News and conservative media bubble. (There have been a handful of examples, including NBC’s Peter Alexander on multiple occasions.)
On Sunday, though, Trump was exposed in a way he simply hasn’t been – and by a Fox News host to boot.
Trump’s interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace was a painful affair from start to finish. Wallace is always a good and tough interviewer, unlike the Fox opinion hosts Trump frequents, and he is always prepared, but this was on another level. The interview wasn’t overly adversarial; Wallace was perfectly willing to talk about the things Trump was interested in and to play ball when Trump responded in relatively good faith. It wasn’t slanted; instead it merely raised the very factual counterpoints dealt with frequently in coverage of Trump. And it wasn’t rushed, which meant that Wallace could dig into the points Trump was making without fear of neglecting other topics he wanted to touch on.
The interview began on an inauspicious note for Trump.
The president has for months lodged and repeated a series of false statistics and dodgy ideas about the coronavirus outbreak. And in a matter of minutes, Wallace cast a spotlight on almost all the big ones.
Trump pushed back on questions about the ballooning number of cases we face, as he often has, by wrongly suggesting that this was a matter of increased testing. Wallace noted that the rising test-positivity rate and the comparisons we see in most other countries – particularly Western Europe – show our situation is particularly bad.
Trump then reverted to his fallback – the number of deaths we’ve seen – and things quickly went off the rails for him.
When Trump claimed the United States had one of lowest mortality rates in the world – or even the lowest – Wallace made him prove it. Trump couldn’t, because it isn’t true.
The below is a lengthy exchange, but it’s worth reading in full:
Trump: But when you talk about mortality risks, I think it’s the opposite. I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.
Wallace:It’s not true, sir. We had — we had 900 deaths on a single day —
Trump: We will take a look —
Wallace:– just this week —
Trump: (To White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany:) Can you please get me the mortality rates?
Trump: Kayleigh’s right here. I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.
Trump: Number one low mortality fatality rates. I hope you show the scenario because it shows what fake news is all about —
Wallace: OK, OK. I don’t think I’m fake news but I will — we’ll put —
Trump: Yeah, you are —
Wallace:– put our staff on —
Trump: You said we had the worst mortality rate in the world —
Wallace: I said you had —
Trump: — and we have the best.
Or not. Not only didn’t Wallace claim the United States had the worst, but Trump didn’t prove the opposite either. Wallace cut to a voice-over.
“The White House went with this chart from the European CDC, which shows Italy and Spain doing worse, but countries like Brazil and South Korea doing better,” Wallace said. “Other countries doing better, like Russia, aren’t included in the White House chart.”
So not even the cherry-picked data that the White House furnished backed up Trump’s claim. (In fact, the U.S. mortality rate ranks on the high end of all countries, according to Johns Hopkins University.)
Apparently unchastened by this, Trump later decided to repeat another false claim – and was again exposed.
Trump again claimed, as his campaign ads have, that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. In fact, Biden has said explicitly that he disagrees with that idea.
“Look, he signed a charter with Bernie Sanders,” Trump said. “I will get that one just like I was right on the mortality rate.”
But just as with the mortality rates, Trump promised proof that didn’t exist. As Wallace said in yet another voice-over, “The White House has never sent us evidence that Bernie-Biden platform calls for defunding or abolishing police, because there is none. It calls for increased funding for police departments that meet certain standards. Biden has called for redirecting some police funding for related programs like mental health counseling.”
Republicans have indeed tried to substantiate Trump’s claim by noting that Joe Biden called for redirecting police funding – arguing that’s in line with the defunding movement. But even if you accept that strained argument, the proof Trump offered didn’t at all prove what he claimed.
The confidence Trump displayed in his false claims was truly something to behold. (“Ready?” “I will get that one just like I was right on the mortality rate.”) The question has often been whether he truly believes his own hype or is just committed to the lie. Either way, Wallace laid it bare.
In between these rare live fact checks was arguably an even worse moment for Trump.
Trump has downplayed the coronavirus threat from the very beginning, but rarely has his dismissiveness been revealed so plainly. Trump continued to press Wallace on the metric he argues is most important, and he challenged Wallace to show a chart on deaths. Wallace noted that we’re seeing around a thousand per day, at which point Trump reverted to another fallback: blaming China.
“They should’ve never let it escape; they should’ve never let it out,” Trump said. “But it is what it is.”
It is what it is. With nearly 140,000 deaths. Expect that to feature in some anti-Trump campaign ads.
Wallace’s ability to reinforce Trump’s constant lack of specificity stretched into a conversation about schools. Wallace asked Trump what would seem to be a pretty simple question: He noted that Trump said schools are teaching students to hate America, and he asked where Trump was seeing that.
“Now they want to change 1492, Columbus discovered America,” Trump said. “You know, we grew up, you grew up, we all did, that’s what we learned. Now they want to make it the 1619 Project. Where did that come from? What does it represent? I don’t even know.”
The reference was to The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which has been a lightning rod in conservative circles for its portrayal of slavery’s role in our country’s origins. Wallace quickly noted, “It’s slavery,” not redefining when our nation was founded.
“That’s what they’re saying, but they don’t even know,” Trump said. “They just want to make a change.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, Wallace later raised Trump’s attacks on Biden’s sharpness, and when Trump trotted out his claims to acing a cognitive test, Wallace was ready. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, the kind of test Trump has bragged about is remarkably simple because it aims to ferret out obvious mental impairments. Wallace noted that he can attest to this, because he took a similar exam.
“It’s not the hardest test,” Wallace said. He noted that one question asked him to identify an elephant by looking at a picture of one.
Trump then conceded that some questions are easy but then remarkably contended that some are difficult as the test goes on: “But I’ll bet you couldn’t even answer the last five questions. I’ll bet you couldn’t. They get very hard, the last five questions.”
Wallace shot back: “Well, one of them was count back from 100 by seven.” He began counting: “Ninety-three.”
In other circumstances, this could have come off as overly adversarial. But Wallace was putting his finger on the ridiculousness of the claim – just as he had so many times previously in the interview.
These were the kinds of things that have been pointed out ad nauseam outside the audience of the president; Wallace just had the venue and the wherewithal to actually press him on them. And the result was something unlike we’ve seen thus far in Trump’s presidency.