BOB GARFIELD: You just heard him [Paul Waldman] cite CNN's Jake Tapper's interview with Trump last week as part of this changing tide in Trump coverage.
Tapper followed up an astonishing 23 times with the candidate over Trump's assertion that Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel is incapable of treating him fairly in a lawsuit about so-called “Trump University.”
JAKE TAPPER: But he's an American.
DONALD TRUMP: …from my parents.
TAPPER: You keep talking about…
TAPPER: - it's a conflict of interest, ‘cause of Mexico.
TRUMP: Jake, Jake – are you ready?
TAPPER: But I don't care if you criticize him. That's fine. You can criticize every decision. What I'm saying is 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.
TRUMP: Okay, I’m building a wall. I am gonna do very well with the Hispanics, the Mexicans…
TAPPER: So no Mexican judge could ever be involved in a case -
TRUMP: Well -
TAPPER: - that involved you?
TRUMP: No, he's a member of a society where, you know, very pro-Mexico, and that's fine. It's all fine.
TRUMP: And he said, no, I won't dismiss the case and she doesn't have to be the plaintiff.
TAPPER: But what does that have to do with his heritage?
TRUMP: Let me tell you. I'll tell you what it has to do.
TAPPER: …if you are saying he can't do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?
BOB GARFIELD: It’s not the first time Tapper has put Trump on the defensive. Among the stable of cable news and network interviewers, Tapper has distinguished himself by reliably asking tough, pointed questions. Getting straight answers, well, he’s in the same boat as everyone else because the conventions of journalism, especially broadcast journalism, give politicians ample opportunity to duck and cover. So do these conventions need to change? Jake, welcome back to On the Media.
JAKE TAPPER: Thanks, it’s great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, he’s hard to interview, obviously. He makes unverifiable claims. He changes the subject a lot, interrupts. How do you prepare for a Trump interview?
JAKE TAPPER: A lot of these people are tough to interview. [LAUGHS] There’s kind of a world of, all right, I will ask Senator X this question, he will dodge it. I will ask it again. He will pivot to topic Y, and then maybe, if I have the fortitude to ask it a third time, I will finally get something resembling an answer. That is a general format that I'm used to.
I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask Mr. Trump, about trade, immigration, counterterrorism. By the time I sat down with him, there were two big stories. One was Hillary Clinton’s speech attacking him and his reaction to it and his comments about Judge Curiel. I felt like the most important question I had was whether that was not the definition of racism.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you certainly hammered him with the question, and –
JAKE TAPPER: I hate to be Trump-esque but can I interrupt for one second?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah.
JAKE TAPPER: I would take issue with the word “hammer” because I think one of the things that works with Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton too, is the tone. The persistence has to come with a certain low-key respect. It has to come in a controlled way. So it's not a hammering. It’s a sweet hammering, a respectful hammering?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And this is why we have you here, because I have some questions about the journalistic convention of sweet hammering. You did say to Trump, about Judge Curiel, but he's an American, he’s from Indiana. You presented him with facts that undercut his entire argument, such that it was. But elsewhere, in this interview, and, by the way, I'm talking about not just you but all other TV interviewers, I found you tying yourself into knots by cleaving to the certain conventions that supposedly demonstrate objectivity with a capital “O,” for instance - and I’m gonna play you some tape here - the reflex to put criticisms in other people's mouths.
JAKE TAPPER: Hillary Clinton said that that is a racist attack on a federal judge.
JAKE TAPPER: Paul Ryan today said he, he didn't care for the way that you were attacking this judge.
JAKE TAPPER: I guess the question from the, from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don't know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals…
JAKE TAPPER: …Netanyahu put out a statement distancing himself from you. David Cameron did.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, when you say – no, not distancing themselves.
JAKE TAPPER: He condemned your remarks is all I’m saying.
DONALD TRUMP: He did. He modestly condemned them.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake, facts are facts. I mean, you did this fantastic takedown on your show on Trump's repulsive rumormongering about the Clintons and the Vince Foster suicide. You called it shameful.
JAKE TAPPER: To be clear, the notion that this is a murder is a fiction born of delusion and untethered to reality and contradicted [SNAPS FINGERS] by evidence reviewed in at least six investigations, one of them by Ken Starr.
BOB GARFIELD: But you sit across from him and you go into the “sweet hammering” mode. Why is that?
JAKE TAPPER: Well, they’re different situations. Let me also say, as a general notion, my opinions about political events of the day are not as important as the opinions of some of the people you just played me referring to, Benjamin Netanyahu, Hillary Clinton. Those are world actors and what they say is much more important than what I say.
In an interview, one of the things that is important, I have learned, is to make the questions and the responses the stars of the interview. If I were to, you know, be like Joseph Welch taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy, at long last, sir, then I'm making myself the center of attention, and that undercuts the journalism. What's important in the exchange is a reporter sitting in front of him and, so as not to distract from what we’re talking about, which is much more important than the personal inter-dynamics between me and Donald Trump, respectfully saying, but is this not the definition of racism?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I understand you don’t want to be caught grandstanding, although I would argue that at this moment in history a little Joseph Welch grandstanding is just what the doctor ordered. But hyper respect allows Trump and other political interviewees to be nonresponsive, to go off on tangents. When you are asking about the very constitutionality of a wholesale ban on Muslims coming to the United States, he launches into a Second Amendment rant.
DONALD TRUMP: In California, if a couple of people like me had guns taped to their ankle or their waist and these two horrible people came in, you wouldn't have all the death. You wouldn't have it. So look, I'm a big believer in the Constitution, okay?
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm sitting there going, no, no, no, Jake, that's not what you ask him. Interrupt him and say, Mr. Trump, I'm not asking you about political correctness or the Second Amendment. I’m asking you about legal discrimination, about racial profiling, about freedom of religion, the very thing that our country was founded on –
JAKE TAPPER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - and not because Benjamin Netanyahu asked it first. Is this not the moment to let yourself be the star?
JAKE TAPPER: You’re talking about an interview that I did back in December. It was about a 20-minute interview and I think I did about 15 minutes just on the Muslim ban, and I am proud of those 15 minutes. And I would point to the impact that the most recent interview had. I would point to the Speaker of the House saying, that's the definition of racism, five days later, the same exact construct that I used during the interview, and say, I think the way that I brought it and the way that I was respectful to him, while also making my points and trying to interject when he tried to change the subject, yeah, I think that worked. Also, I don't want this to be the last opportunity I have to interview them, because I did not grandstand.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s a key point. How much is that in the calculus of your interviewing approach, is that, that not only do I have to do this interview but we have to maintain access so that –
JAKE TAPPER: But it’s not about that. The fallacy is that it’s about access for access’s sake. It’s not. It's about access so I can continue to do the journalism I'm doing. I don't want to cut myself out of this process. I think what I'm doing has value.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there not an argument - I'm certainly making it - for a change in the rules of engagement? I feel, and I've said this before, like watching the UN peacekeepers try to deal with the Bosnian Serbs. All they can do is watch as bad things happen. And when you're facing a demagogue, shouldn't you be able to fire back?
JAKE TAPPER: I don't know what alternative you're proposing. It sounds to me like you're asking for somebody to interview Hillary Clinton or interview Donald Trump and berate them, have some moment where it's about the interviewer.
BOB GARFIELD: How about, you’re running to be president of the United States, you’ve said outrageous things and you're going to be held accountable for them. You mention the David Duke moment when you asked him if he would disavow the support of various white supremacists.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke, okay? I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don't know. I mean, I don't know. Did, did he endorse me or what's going on?
BOB GARFIELD: You said, well, it’s the Ku Klux Klan, which [LAUGHING] I think was the right thing to say. And, again me, armchair quarterback interviewer, going, Trump, you just told me that you've never heard of former presidential candidate David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. I don't believe that.
JAKE TAPPER: If you think that that was an ineffective interview, then all I can tell you is I disagree with you. I think it had an impact on the political dialogue because people at home filled in that sentence that you wish I had said. People at home did that for themselves. People at home figured out what they thought about the interview.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, and I certainly understand that concept of the viewer filling in the blanks. The, the fundamental question, it’s the one I began with, really, is that is this a moment in history where you sort of let a politician hang himself, or not, with his own words - is simply not enough?
JAKE TAPPER: I think there are a lot of tough questions that need to be asked of Clinton and Trump, and I think the question for this media cycle is not whether or not people are being too respectful in asking them. I think they’re not asking them. That, to me, is more troubling.
Look, Donald Trump went on “Fox & Friends” and said, Rafael Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father, according to what he read in the National Enquirer, may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. Now, the response on “Fox & Friends” was, oh yeah, wow, what an outage or something like that. And the way it was covered over the next few hours was, you know, Trump levels charge, Cruz denies charge. That, to me, was outrageous because that's not journalism; that’s stenography. And what I thought was important was that night to go on TV and say, this is false and it's shameful and it's wrong. That, to me, is important too.
BOB GARFIELD: This guy, by every definition, is a demagogue. He has been caught in a thousand lies. He has said all sorts of things that are fundamentally un-American. And is this a moment when it's proper to put the sweet hammer back in the toolbox and say, Mr. Trump, what is the matter with you?
JAKE TAPPER: You, you know, Bob, you, you can do that and you can say all the things you just said about Mr. Trump, things that I have not said on my show and, at the end of the election cycle, we can decide which one of us has had more of an impact on the election.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and what if he wins?
JAKE TAPPER: Then the majority of the American people have voted for him. My job is not to defeat a candidate. My job is to make sure voters have facts and have as much information as I can give them. At the end of the day, if the voters of this country pick Donald Trump to be their president, that's their decision. I’m not rooting for him or against him.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm, I’m rooting against him in a very big way. And I said that to my audience a few weeks ago. The voters will do what the voters will do, but it can't be because we in the press didn't do enough. Do you think that’s just histrionics?
JAKE TAPPER: I think that the press could be doing more to challenge Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, to fact check, to make it clear when outrageous things are said or lies are told and to ask follow-up questions. I could be doing a better job and the media could be doing a better job. But I don't think I'm not doing my job. I think I’ve done a pretty good work of it already.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Jake, thank you very, very much.
JAKE TAPPER: All right, thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is host of CNN's “The Lead with Jake Tapper” and “State of the Union.”
Coming up, the literati write an open letter condemning a demagogue. Is that too little, too late? This On the Media.