Back in May, Lesley Stahl, a 27-year veteran of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” revealed that President Donald Trump once told her that he deliberately uses the phrase “fake news” to deflect from, and to “discredit,” negative media coverage of his presidency.
On Sunday night, Stahl had a unique chance to push back against the web of lies the president so regularly spins when she sat down with him at the White House. But her interview was a major disappointment.
The 13-time Emmy award-winning interviewer listened to Trump dismiss reports of chaos inside his administration as “fake news,” yet she did not challenge him on his cynical use of this pernicious phrase. She could have said, “Mr. President, didn’t you admit to me that you attack the media not because our stories are ‘fake,’ but because you don’t want people to believe anything we say about you?”
Remember: The president is very selective about the TV journalists he grants interviews to. Since coming to office, Trump has done 35 TV interviews with mainstream networks — 25 of them with Fox News!
So, Stahl had a responsibility to make her half-hour or so with the president count. Some on Twitter, perhaps overjoyed to see someone other than Sean Hannity or Pete Hegseth questioning the president, said the “60 Minutes” host was “on fire” and dubbed her interview a “tour de force.”
Are you kidding me? Yes, Stahl asked tougher questions on climate change and family separations than the folks from Fox do — but that’s a low, low bar. Yes, she managed to get under Trump’s skin — “I’m president and you’re not,” Trump told Stahl at one point — but, again, a very low bar. Maybe it’s the British interviewer in me, but I was amazed at the sheer number of Trump’s lies she allowed to go unchallenged and the sheer number of banal questions, statements, and observations that she posed.
“We found him confident and boastful,” she told viewers prior to the start of the interview, perched on a stool in a dark “60 Minutes” studio. Wow, really? Trump was both “confident” and “boastful”? I’m shocked — shocked, I tell you!
Stahl threw a fair few softballs at the president of the United States, too. Example: “What have you learned?” she asked him. Another example: “Tell everybody what’s at stake here.” Her final question: “And you feel comfortable?”
At one point, early on in the interview, Stahl seemed to morph into White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “You’ve had a string of wins lately. Let’s see, the economy, the trade deal … with Canada and Mexico … and [Brett] Kavanaugh, the confirmation,” the host said. To be clear: That wasn’t a question. It was a statement, delivered with a smile. And a weird statement, too, with no mention of the president’s historically low approval ratings; no mention of the fact that Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court with the narrowest margin of victory in the Senate since 1881; and no mention of the New York Times’s recent 14,000-word investigation into the Trump family’s history of “outright” tax fraud.
Her follow-up questions were few and far between. On North Korea, when Trump conceded that the North Korean government might be building new missiles — “Let’s say the answer is yes, okay?” — why didn’t Stahl follow up? Why didn’t she ask him about his ludicrous tweet in June, in which he declaimed that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”?
On Saudi Arabia, when Trump suggested he would be opposed to sanctioning Riyadh over the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi because he doesn’t “wanna hurt jobs” or jeopardize arms sales, Stahl didn’t ask the president about his own complex web of financial entanglements with the Saudi government. Is it appropriate for Saudi royals and their lobbyists to be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump-owned hotels in New York and Chicago? Isn’t this a clear violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution?
Then there was, as ever, the dizzying array of blatantly false and demonstrably dishonest statements from the president — most of which went utterly unchallenged by Stahl. For example:
“The day before I came in, we were going to war with North Korea.” False.
“The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade.” False.
“I like NATO.” False.
“[Obama] gave away a part of Ukraine.” False.
“Do you really think I’d call Russia to help me with an election? Give me a break.” False.
“The economy is so strong that everybody wants to come into the United States.” False.
“What I said [was] the person that we’re talking about [Christine Blasey Ford] didn’t know the year, the time, the place.” False.
Watching Trump speak (ramble?) on “60 Minutes,” it soon became clear that a single and simple follow-up question would have helped Stahl navigate her way through her conversation with the liar in chief: “What is your evidence for that?”
On the subject of climate change, for instance, when Trump suggested scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had “a very big political agenda,” she could have said, “What is your evidence for that?” On the subject of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, when Trump responded by claiming that “China meddled, too,” she could have said, “What is your evidence for that?”
Because Trump doesn’t do “evidence.” Trump does hyperbole. Trump does instinct. Trump does delusion. But evidence? Facts? Data?
Not so much.
But guess what? He gets away with it, time and again. As Stahl herself later admitted, “He enjoyed the sparring. He said so. And I could tell he enjoyed it.”
As a public service to “60 Minutes,” I’m offering five tougher, more challenging questions, plus follow-ups, that Stahl could have asked Trump — but didn’t.
1. Mr. President, you spend much of your time on Twitter, and in interviews like this, attacking the so-called fake news. Yet you yourself seem to be a major purveyor of fake news: According to the Washington Post fact-checkers, you’ve made more than 5,000 false or misleading statements since entering the Oval Office. That’s around eight lies a day, isn’t it?
Follow-up: You say the Washington Post is “fake news,” but let’s take a couple of specific examples. You have said at recent rallies that you passed the Veterans Choice Program after “40 years” of waiting,” but it was passed under President Barack Obama in 2014, wasn’t it? And you tweeted on June 30 that you “never pushed the Republicans in the House to vote for the Immigration Bill, either GOODLATTE 1 or 2,” yet just three days earlier, you had tweeted, “House Republicans should pass the strong but fair immigration bill, known as Goodlatte II, in their afternoon vote today.” So, you lied, didn’t you?
2. Your former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, whom you have described as “a fine person” who you “always liked and respected,” admitted in court in August that he made hush money payments at your “direction.” Isn’t that an impeachable offense?
Follow-up: But you did lie about these payments, though, didn’t you? On Air Force One, in April, you told reporters that you had no knowledge of a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, but then later admitted that you did. So, you weren’t telling the truth on Air Force One, were you?
3. Are you worried about reports from inside your administration that members of your own cabinet have considered removing you from office using the 25th Amendment?
Follow-up: Should we be worried about your mental health? You call yourself a “very stable genius,” but Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has compared the White House to an “adult day care center” and said your behavior should “concern anyone who cares about our nation.” Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who you recently called “incredible,” has said she’s “worried” about your state of mind.
4. The New York Times produced a blockbuster report — 14,000 words in length, several months in the making, based on upward of 100,000 documents — which outlines how you helped your parents dodge millions of dollars worth of taxes and were involved in “instances of outright fraud.” Why shouldn’t we believe the in-depth Times reporting, given that you have refused to offer a response or rebuttal to any of the allegations made in that piece, other than to call it “boring“?
Follow-up: Why have you still not released your tax returns, as every other president since Richard Nixon has done? And why do you continue to falsely claim that you can’t do so because you’re under audit, when Nixon released his returns while under audit in 1973?
Follow-up: Will you apologize to the family of Heather Heyer for referring to her killer and his comrades as “very fine people”?
It is one of the great ironies of the Trump era. The president rails against a media he claims is “fake,” “dishonest,” and biased against him. “The press treats me so badly,” Trump whined to Stahl.
Yet it is this very same “fake news” liberal media that has, wittingly and unwittingly, helped him at every step of the way: failing to hold him to account, to ask tough questions, to challenge his lies, or, often, to even call them lies.
Who knows when Trump will sit down for another televised interview with a non-Fox News interviewer. It might be a few weeks or, more likely, several months. Stahl had a rare opportunity to put this scandal-plagued president on the defensive, to make him own his untruths, to hold his feet to the fire.
She blew it.