President Donald Trump met last week with Axios political correspondent Jonathan Swan, for an interview on the program Axios on HBO, which just aired on Monday and is now being met with excoriating reviews — though Fox News is mostly ignoring it — especially for Trump’s answer regarding the accelerating U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, which has again reached over 1,000 per day.
“They are dying, that's true. And it is what it is,” Trump said. “But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control, as much as you can control it.”
The interview is also casting a new light on overall media treatment of Trump, with the Australian journalist Swan finally providing the kind of tough treatment of Trump — that is, actually calling him out on his lies and evasions during the interview — in a manner that American reporters have simply failed to do so.
One media voice putting forward true praise of Trump’s comment, however, is Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh — though he did fault Trump for even doing the interview in the first place: “And I don’t know why he did it. I mean, Axios is not what you would call from the friendly side of the aisle.”
But as for what Trump said about coronavirus deaths, Limbaugh’s take is that, “It is what it is,” simply is the truth.
“And this is one of the areas that Trump got into trouble with the Axios people,” Limbaugh claimed. “Trump is a realist. He deals with things as they are. I am a realist. I’m Mr. Literal. I am the mayor of Realville. You know me. One of my all-time favorite, little, short, philosophical sayings: It is what it is.”
But this excuse is not enough for other conservative pundits. Instead, one right-wing media tactic going on to downplay Trump’s disastrous interview is to just dismiss the whole thing as a non-story:
RedState is also seeking to brush off the whole thing, claiming on Facebook: “Liberals are freaking out now, but they'll forget all about it when tomorrow's controversy comes along.”
The New York Post ran the headline “President Trump says COVID-19 in US is ‘lowest in numerous categories’” and depicted this interview as a two-sided argument: “The back-and-forth over US pandemic performance featured the journalist’s protestations that Trump was channeling ‘positive thinking’ instead of a more gloomy realism.”
But others are acknowledging that it was a bad showing for Trump — if only he would somehow improve himself.
Jim Geraghty at National Review tried to lay out the things Trump should have said — and remained frustrated that Trump was simply unprepared to even try to say any of them: “President Trump could have made a decent argument citing any of those points, but that would require him to pay attention to his briefings. Instead, he’s left flustered, waving his sheets of paper at Swan insisting that the U.S. numbers are good, because his staff tells him so.”
The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro described the interview as “a bleepshow” and “a bad look for the president, it was the worst of him on display.” And like Geraghty, Shapiro ran down some of the responses that he thought Trump should have given, again blaming the president’s lack of preparation for the interview rather than acknowledging his failures to respond appropriately to the public health crisis.
“There are a thousand things Trump could say here, but Trump doesn't have the fluency,” Shapiro said. “And some of that's the fault of his team that needs to inform him, and some of that is the fact that you don't take you don't take interviews where you don't bother to do the prep.”
Kaylee McGhee at the Washington Examiner called Trump “out of his depth” in the Axios interview: “Several months later and he’s still struggling to provide a clear, sober, and competent message that addresses people’s concerns while restoring their trust in the government’s ability to fight this virus.”
Fox News radio host Guy Benson hoped for Trump to improve in his column over at TownHall, “‘You Can't Do That:’ Trump's Terrible Interview Underscores Why He's Losing.”
People who cut off the "that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can" bit aren't giving a full picture of that answer, but even a sub-average politician should have the awareness to realize, "it is what it is" isn't the sort of tautological cliche that fits the moment. Those who want to see President Trump re-elected for a second term shouldn't be angry with Swan for asking tough questions with aggressive follow-ups (Joe Biden needs to undergo rigorous cross-examinations, too). They shouldn't be frustrated with those who offer negative analyses of Trump's performance. He is the president and the candidate. He's trailing. The moment looms large and the stakes are high. He needs to do better. Can he?
After five years of Donald Trump as an active politician — and nearly four years of actual presidential responsibility — conservative media are still waiting for him to get the hang of it and to start taking the job seriously.