Between this and the Chris Wallace segment a few weeks ago, I’m going to guess that there’ll be only friendly interviews for the president from now until Election Day. He’ll have to take his chances with the moderators at the debates, of course, but apart from that he’d be best served by sticking to the “Hannity” circuit from now on.
In fact, I wonder if some of his advisors watched this Axios interview with Jonathan Swan and decided that maybe he’s better off skipping the debates after all. Normally the candidate who’s behind in the polls wants more debates, not fewer, since he’s hoping for a game-changing moment that’ll reverse his fortunes. But if Trump does the debates and sounds overmatched by the material, as he does at times here — and if Biden, the opponent derided as senile, does not — it’s a disaster in the making. Arguably he’s better off canceling on grounds that the moderators can’t be trusted to be fair to him or whatever than taking a risk like that.
I’ll give you the three most talked-about clips this morning in case you don’t want to watch the full interview. Here Trump and Swan argue over whether the U.S. is doing better or worse than most other major countries in terms of deaths from COVID. That’s a tough spot for Trump since we have more deaths than any other western country (maybe more than any other country, period, depending on how much you believe China’s data) and many more daily deaths right now than European countries, which have brought their numbers way down. He’d be better off just conceding that we’ve had a hard spring and summer and emphasizing that things will look better as therapeutics come online this fall, but he’s determined to engage:
.@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
He’s focused on the case fatality rate, which is essentially meaningless. All the CFR tells you is what percentage of people with confirmed cases of COVID end up dying. If we diagnose 100 people with the disease and 10 die, our CFR is 10 percent. If Country X diagnoses 10 people with the disease and two die, their CFR is 20 percent. Which country has a worse outbreak in those circumstances? It’s impossible to say, since we’d want to know how many tests each is conducting and compare the size of their populations. That’s what Swan’s focused on. The fact that we have a lower CFR than, say, Spain may simply mean that we’ve tested more extensively and thus turned up more cases than they have — although that’s an awkward point for Trump to make, given that he often complains that “we only have more cases because we’re doing so many tests!” If we followed his advice and tested fewer people, our CFR would be higher.
A higher CFR could conceivably mean that our doctors are doing a better job of saving people diagnosed with COVID than doctors in other countries are, but it’s hard to compare the U.S. to Europe on that point since most of their deaths came in the first two months of the pandemic, when doctors still didn’t know much about the disease. Who’s doing better treating their respective populations now, five months in, when Europe’s number of daily deaths is low and ours is still rocking along at 1,000+?
The irony is that the U.S. does have fewer deaths per capita than Spain and Italy, even now. Trump could have focused on that in responding to Swan. I get the sense from the clip, though, that his advisors are so eager to present him with good news about the feds’ response to the pandemic that they’ve pushed an unimportant metric like the CFR on him to mislead him into thinking that we’re doing better than we really are. Either he’s trying to sell Swan on it here too, unsuccessfully, or he just doesn’t see why it’s not that important.
The next clip’s more straightforward. This is Swan serving up the fattest softball of the interview, inviting Trump to be magnanimous and say something kind about John Lewis despite Lewis’s scorn for him. He can’t do it:
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
I do mean that he can’t do it, not that he won’t. It’s clearly in his political interest to say something admiring about Lewis and his place in American history. His fans won’t hold it against him and voters who are leery of him, particularly how he’s handled race relations, might feel some goodwill for him. But Trump just can’t separate Lewis’s legacy from the fact that Lewis refused to attend his inauguration. His narcissism is too overweening, even when it’s to his own benefit to lay the grievance aside. It reminds me of this passage from a Politico story today:
“What do you mean by strategy?” said a person close to the president when asked about Trump’s recent conduct. “I don’t think Donald Trump wakes up and says, ‘Here’s my strategy. Let me tweet out something.’ I don’t think there’s a political strategy there. He believes the way he interacts and communicates is what got him elected and he’s going to continue to do that.”
There’s no strategy. “Strategy” in this case would mean being the bigger man and saying something complimentary of Lewis, which would be statesmanlike. (Witness Bush 43’s recently eulogy for Lewis, despite the congressman snubbing his own presidential inauguration.) He just can’t muster it. It devolved to this point, after Trump insisted he’s done more for blacks than any American president:
Swan: “Lyndon Johnson! He passed the Civil Rights Act.”
Trump: “Ask, ask: how has it worked out? If you take a look at what Lyndon Johnson did. How has it worked out?”
Swan: “You think the Civil Rights Act was a mistake?”
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) August 4, 2020
The third clip speaks for itself:
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
A Twitter pal wondered this morning how the QAnon cultists, obsessed as they are with theories of a ring of powerful pedophiles preying on America’s children, would have reacted to a well-known Democrat wishing Ghislaine Maxwell well — repeatedly. And I frankly don’t know what to say about Trump speculating that maybe Epstein was murdered. Epstein died in a federal prison, under Trump’s ultimate supervision. If the president doesn’t have reason to believe that Epstein was murdered, why is he idly suggesting such a thing? And if he does have reason to believe it, why isn’t he sharing the evidence?
Exit question: Is he going to wish Ghislaine Maxwell well at the debates? He’s ensured now that he’s going to be asked about it. And that Biden will have something scripted to say about it.