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Donald Trump’s Political Football

In a chummy conversation with Bill O’Reilly aired during the Super Bowl pregame show, the president made predictions about Mexico and the big game — and one curious comparison to Russia

(Fox)
(Fox)

If Joe Buck had done play-by-play of Bill O’Reilly’s Super Bowl interview with Donald Trump, it would have sounded something like this: O’Reilly back to pass. Finds the Donald in the open field! Boy, Troy, he really led him perfectly there.

To which Aikman would have responded: You’re absolutely right, Joe.

The 10-minute interview on the Super Bowl pregame show (a longer portion will air on The O’Reilly Factor) was an amiable chat between fellow travelers. Trump and O’Reilly had been attached at the hip long before Trump upstaged his own political convention to go on The Factor. Their Super Bowl interview was a kind of kaffeeklatsch that had only gentle prodding from the interrogator.

O’Reilly’s questions — delivered in his typical, regular-guy grumble — assumed Trump’s penchant for hazy generality. O’Reilly asked Trump if the U.S. was on a “collision course” with Iran. (Meaning what?) O’Reilly asked if Mexico was a “corrupt country.” (In what sense and versus what level of past corruption?) When Trump bragged about reversing the outward flow of jobs to Mexico by pressuring companies like Carrier, O’Reilly said fondly, “You intimidated them. They’re afraid of you.”

O’Reilly also conducted Super Bowl interviews with Barack Obama, in 2011 and 2014. Matched against a Democrat, he played the part of the smirking adversary. After Obama’s health care rollout had stumbled, O’Reilly asked him why he hadn’t fired his Health and Human Services secretary. Sunday, when referring to the chaos unleashed by Trump’s immigration ban, O’Reilly merely asked if Trump would do anything differently — the classic, deferential way to ask about a mistake.

The part of the interview that made news Saturday was O’Reilly asking Trump why he respected Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Here was a chance for Fox and its all-star host to cover new ground, to probe a fissure between Trumpism and what used to a Russia-antagonistic GOP.

Yet when O’Reilly ventured that Putin was a killer, he let Trump respond, “We’ve got a lot of killers. Well, you think our country’s so innocent?” Imagine if Obama had said that.

Or imagine if Obama had ventured Trump’s next line, which was to claim (falsely) that he was against the Iraq War — a gambit that seemed to compare the Iraq war’s architects with Putin’s regime. I can imagine a red light going on at Fox headquarters that would have still been flashing when pitchers and catchers reported.

O’Reilly and Trump have formed such a bond that they even have the same verbal tic. When Trump ventures a whopper, he has long couched it by claiming “many people are saying …”

Asking about Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about illegal aliens voting in the election, O’Reilly used the same device. “Some people are gonna say that’s irresponsible for the president to say that.”

Trump replied: “Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

The relationship between Fox Sports and Fox News has always been arm’s length. In fact, just before Trump came on, the network aired an admiring segment about the sideline protests started by Colin Kaepernick.

Trump made some news Sunday — though with the gap between what he says and what actually is, it’s hard to know if it’s true. He said Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would be receptive to some U.S. “help” in combatting the drug cartels. (Trump had seemed to imply something like invasion in an earlier phone call with Peña Nieto.) Trump said he thought Congress would produce a tax cut by year’s end, but might take until next year to disgorge a “wonderful” replacement for Obamacare.

During the O’Reilly-Obama interviews, Obama was at his most Spock-like when O’Reilly tried to get him to venture a Super Bowl prediction. Obama refused to pick a winner; he once said the score would be 24–21 but wouldn’t say which way it would go.

After some gentle prodding (“Fox Sports is demanding I ask you to make a prediction,” O’Reilly said), Trump picked the Pats to win the game by eight. As he put it, “You have to stick up for your friends, right?”