Opinion | The Awesome Futility of Interviewing Donald Trump

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If you agree to an interview with Bob Woodward — as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and nearly every Washington notable has — you enter the session knowing he will command the court like a champion pickleball player.

He will be prepared. He will be patient. He will let you have your say: “Show up and shut up,” he calls the technique. He’ll also extend the match long enough to provide the illusion that you might be winning it, only to lull you into candor. You can always avoid him if you think the interview will damage you, but even so, there will be a good chance that he’ll cold call you on your doorstop at 8:17 in the morning. And you should know that he will interview you and interview you and re-interview you until he’s collected all 11 points it takes to beat you.

The most recent object of the Woodward method is former President Donald Trump, who participated in 20 interviews with the reporter in 2020. Those chats, supplemented with analysis and context by Woodward, will be published as an audio book this week, and have been excerpted in the Monday edition of the Washington Post. What the Woodward sessions with Trump prove — as if it needed proving — is that interviewing Trump is and has always been a futile gesture. It’s not that no news comes out of a Trump interview. He can always be relied on to say something that will set the chyrons at all three cable news networks pulsing. But in most cases, this one included, the interview is a hot diaper mess that mainly illustrates Trump’s narcissism and willful ignorance. He doesn’t really know anything, which is forgivable. But he also doesn’t want to know anything, which isn’t.

Woodward’s frustration becomes palpable in the excerpt. “He is staggeringly incautious and repetitive,” Woodward writes, “as if saying something often and loud enough will make it true.” Trump made himself amply available, Woodward writes, so much so that the interviewer kept tape recorders in multiple locations inside his house because he could expect the president to call at any time. Trump vowed to answer questions on any topic, Woodward notes. But giving Woodward a first-class ticket on the access journalism express doesn’t really reveal much new about Trump because we’ve heard so much of it before.

He avoids giving straight answers to straight questions: Woodward asks if the president of the United States should be asking foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents. Trump: “No. No. No. I want them to investigate corruption,” a complete nonresponse to Woodward’s attempt to get him to justify his impeachment-inducing phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

He appears detached from his government’s Covid response: Woodward interviews officials who tell him Trump is not listening to his top medical advisers such as Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield. Although he provides no Trump quotation that supports this assessment, Woodward writes, “It was clear that Trump never communicated the magnitude of the [Covid] threat to the American people. It amounted to a large-scale deception and coverup.”

He ignores questions and freestyles some brazen lies: When Woodward asks what his Covid plan is in late July 2020, Trump claims that the virus is “flaring up all over the world” but “we have it under control,” which wasn’t the case. Woodward presses Trump for details on the Covid plan only to be told, “Bob, you’ll see the plan over the next four weeks.” Writes Woodward of Trump’s ineptitude, “I wondered how you execute a plan that doesn’t exist.”

He turns questions into platforms for bragging and personalization: “I think we’re doing a very good job,” Trump says of his Covid response. “We’ve done better than any — other than with the press. Other than with the press, I’ve done a great job.” On his relationship with Kim Jong Un, “I get a sense he likes me. I think he likes me.”

He feels, as ever, put upon: “I have opposition like nobody has. … I was unlucky with the virus. …”

He wallows in non sequiturs: Woodward asks if buddying up to Kim Jong Un was strategically designed and Trump answers, “No. No. It was designed for whatever reason, it was designed. Who knows? Instinctively. Let’s talk instinct.”

The crowning lesson of the Trump era, one that Woodward appears to have gleaned from his reporting, is that only one subject fully engages Trump’s interest, and that is Trump. Having Woodward approach him to serve as his Boswell apparently caused Trump’s ego to go def con 3. Elsewhere on the tapes, Trump refers to Woodward as “a great historian” and “the great Bob Woodward.” Trump appears to have understood from the beginning that the service of his ego might backfire, yet he would still take the risk. In the 14th interview session, Trump says to Woodward, “You’re probably going to screw me. Because, you know, that’s the way it goes. Look, [George W.] Bush sat with you for hours and you screwed him. But the difference was, I ain’t no Bush.”

Trump’s reaction to the audiobook news has been to threaten Woodward with a lawsuit, his go-to move whenever the news cycle displeases him. “We’ve already hired the lawyers,” Trump told a radio show host last week. The grounds for Trump’s suit reflect his feeling that the tapes are “his,” because they were granted for print journalism purposes (Woodward’s Trump book, Rage), not audio ones. The legal logic here parallels his belief that the government documents he allegedly pilfered and stored in Mar-a-Lago are his because he says they are.

Trump interviews have been and will always be futile exercises in attempting to nail a blob of mercury because that’s the way he flows. He’s a double-talk artist who uses words as protective coloration because, as a flighty and fidgety guy, he resists the compunction to be consistent. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get him on the record. It also doesn’t mean we should let him say whatever he wants without challenging him. But if Doorstop Bob Woodward can’t wring a coherent interrogation out of somebody after 20 interviews of 600 questions, nobody can. Interview him all you want, just don’t expect anything but puzzlement and frustration in return.


“Hot diaper” is not my coinage. I got it from Evan Smith. Send cold diapers to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed wears Huggies. My RSS feed goes naked.

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