On Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes featured interviews with each of the presidential candidates and their running mates. Norah O’Donnell interviewed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Lesley Stahl interviewed Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Three days before the segment aired, Trump tweeted his displeasure with Stahl, calling the interview “FAKE and BIASED,” and published unedited footage of it. “Look at the bias, hatred, and rudeness,” Trump wrote in his caption on Facebook. It’s a contentious interview. First, Stahl asks Trump, “Are you ready for some tough questions?” Trump replies, “You don’t ask Biden tough questions.”
They go on to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, health care reform, Biden, and Hillary Clinton. Trump spends several minutes outlining his theories about Joe Biden’s son Hunter doing business in Ukraine and China when his father was vice president. Exasperated, Stahl asks Trump to explain his aggression. “It’s just attack, attack, attack, attack,” Stahl says. “It’s defense,” Trump responds. Trump and Stahl go back and forth for 38 minutes before Trump, exhausted by Stahl’s “inappropriate” questions, cuts the interview short and declines to return for the walk-and-talk segment with Pence. Afterward, Trump seemed to relish the opportunity to undermine Stahl and 60 Minutes by releasing the interview on his social media feeds, even as the footage showcases the sort of petulance that disgraced Trump in his first presidential debate with Biden. Writing for Vox, Aaron Rupar asked, “Why did Trump think publishing his 60 Minutes interview footage was a good idea?”
Stahl—a veteran reporter who has worked at CBS for 50 years—understands Trump’s motivations and the underlying dynamic between himself and whoever is interviewing him as well as anyone else in the news business. She knows Trump depends on the news media to play its dismal role in the perpetual contest between spin and facts. A couple of years ago, Stahl recounted her meeting with Trump at Trump Tower in New York after he won the Republican presidential nomination. She recalled asking him why he antagonizes reporters with such gusto on the campaign trail. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all,” Trump said, “so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Currently, Trump’s approval rating sits at 42.6 percent. It’s never exceeded 45.5 percent during his presidency. It’s no surprise to see him struggling to win reelection. Four years ago, Trump overcame Clinton, one of the most divisive figures ever to run for president on a major party ticket, just short of Trump himself. But now Biden beats Trump by wider margins in crucial polls. He’s turned Iowa and Arizona into swing states, and has put Georgia and Texas in play for the Democrats. Despite his shakiness on the campaign trail, Biden has achieved a profound stability in his dominance over Trump in the polls, where he’s led the president for the past two years. He’s sent Trump scrambling for tangential opponents to spar with—Hunter Biden, Clinton, Anthony Fauci, Stahl—since Biden, Trump’s true opponent, could potentially bury him in a landslide in next week’s election.
In search of a more divisive opponent in the final two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Trump thought releasing his 60 Minutes interview footage was a good idea. It’s hard to imagine the average viewer sharing in the self-pity that Trump voices throughout his interview with Stahl. But it’s not so hard to imagine the average voter succumbing, every now and again, to Trump’s media critique that, frankly, it’s hard to imagine Stahl manhandling Joe Biden. The news media has struggled to make sense of the many scandals and conspiracies that have come to define Trump’s political career. “I’m not going to fact check you,” Stahl told Trump in the opening minutes of the interview. Here she’s cutting to the chase in an interview with a rambunctious subject, but she’s also ceding a reporter’s core duty (“to fact check you”) as if the duty were extracurricular. This is how he wins.
It’s hard to trust Donald Trump. It’s easier for him to inflame one’s skepticism about the news outlets that discredit and demean him. As he does this, he also benefits by casting aspersions on a reporter’s core duties. Trump is eager to remind his audience that the news media, so loosely defined in national surveys, isn’t much more popular than himself. In recent surveys, Gallup finds a historical low point in public confidence in the news media. Among respondents, “trust ranged between 68 percent and 72 percent in the 1970s, and though it had declined by the late 1990s, it remained at the majority level until 2004, when it dipped to 44 percent. After hitting 50 percent in 2005, it has not risen above 47 percent.” Since Trump’s election, Republicans have grown more distrustful than ever before; 89 percent of Republicans surveyed by Gallup now express little to no trust in the news media.
Four years ago, Clinton and Trump both struggled with distrustful voters, but Trump repurposed this broad distrust to his peculiar advantage. “What the hell do you have to lose?” Trump asked in his stump speech four years ago. It’s this self-preserving cynicism that encourages so many observers to mistake Trump, a global mogul, for a populist: He roots for corrosion in political institutions, if only because such corrosion gives him a shot at being the second-least-popular figure in the voter’s imagination. He can’t win an argument with a reporter. But he can win an election.