On March 5, President Donald Trump did a town hall with Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. The format, in which a member of an audience asked a question and then there were follow-ups from the moderators, was ripe for good, strong questioning. Instead, at various key points, the duo’s follow-up questions were tepid or essentially non-existent and it isn’t surprising that after the town hall, the audience didn't actually know more about Trump’s positions on many of the issues discussed.
Here are four key exchanges.
Coronavirus / COVID-19 questioning
When a participant said the administration’s response “seemed to some as being confusing or minimizing” and asked Trump what “plans are being considered” to actually deal with a sustained coronavirus disruption, Trump pivoted to talking about how great he thinks his administration is (not true).
Baier then asked Trump about him blaming former President Barack Obama for his administration’s missteps, but crucially, he let Trump pivot to vaguely talk about Obama-era regulations. “We inherited decisions that they made,” Trump said. “We undid some of the regulations.” Baier did not try to get Trump on the record about what those regulations were. He also did not mention that Trump fired the Obama-era pandemic response leadership teams.
Baier then pivoted to talking about the administration’s horrible response with the roll-out of the testing kits, and after a few questions, Trump seemed to think Baier was asking why the administration was not testing for the coronavirus in 2017, and responded, “The testing, we did it as soon as we found out that it was a problem, we did it. It's not the kind of a thing, you say, ‘Gee, I just got elected, let's do some testing on this.’”
As it became clear that the president had no idea what he was talking about, MacCallum intervened, changing the topic to the economy. Trump at first seemed to acknowledge that there might be an economic impact but again pivoted, essentially denying what he just said and contradicting demonstrable facts.
In the end, Baier returned to the original question of what the administration’s long-term plan was to deal with the coronavirus. Trump’s response: “Sure, we could have a very long-term plan. We hope that doesn’t happen.”
In short, all that came out of this extended back-and-forth was Trump claims that his administration is amazing and vague hints that the president of the United States has no idea what’s going on with this pandemic. Baier asked Trump about the massive problems with testing but did not address all of the other massive problems and confusing responses.
Obamacare and coverage for preexisting conditions
Asked about the Affordable Care Act and preexisting conditions, Trump’s response was basically to insult Obamacare without, again, giving any real insight to show that he knew what he was talking about. (He seemed to confuse junk health care plans that are cheap with quality plans that cost more.) MacCallum asked Trump “how do you promise people that you're going to protect” preexisting conditions given that the Trump administration is trying to kill Obamacare in the courts (and may do so shortly after the election).
Trump’s response -- which was essentially multiple versions of “we want to terminate Obamacare because it's bad [but] we're running it really well” -- clarified nothing. The anchors did not follow up. There was no actual clarity to anyone watching, be they experts or medical professionals or the public.
When talking about progressive plans to expand health care coverage, Fox News personalities have said that such proposals are a ploy to buy votes. Trump promised that if Republicans take over the Congress in November, they will provide “the best health care and health insurance anywhere on the planet.” That’s as specific as Trump got, and neither Baier nor MacCallum followed up to ask what the hell he was talking about.
One easy follow-up would have been about the health care bill that Republicans tried to pass the last time they held the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2017. That bill, the American Health Care Act, would have severely cut Medicaid, given a massive tax cut to the wealthy, dramatically increased the number of uninsured Americans, allowed insurers to jack up premiums for the elderly, and allowed states to opt out of the essential health benefits package and remove protections for individuals with preexisting conditions. That’s a lot of things that Baier or MacCallum could have mentioned. They didn’t bring up even one.
It is worth noting here that the AHCA was the brainchild of Fox Corp. board member Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House at the time, who has now promised that health care will be on the agenda if Trump wins a second term.
Cuts to Medicare and Social Security
Asked about the national debt (a Fox obsession in the Obama years but an afterthought now), Trump again made an over-the-top promise, this time of ridiculous, never-before-seen growth, saying, “You know the economy is the best economy we've ever had? It's nothing compared to what it's going to be when the trade deals kick in.” MacCallum, who has used her perch at Fox News to call for Social Security cuts and raising the retirement age, then pressed Trump on cutting entitlements.
It’s not clear if Trump, who has been president for three years, knew that entitlements meant Social Security and Medicare as he pivoted to economic growth in his response.
But Baier and MacCallum had the responsibility to figure that out. Cutting Social Security and Medicare is kind of a big deal -- they’re two of the most popular programs in American history. (The Bush administration tried to partially privatize Social Security and failed; the administration also tried to cut Medicare.)
Instead, Trump changed the topic to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and trade. And even there, neither MacCallum nor Baier asked about issues like record farm bankruptcies or other fallout from Trump’s trade war.
Taking the oil
Amid a discussion about American foreign policy in the Middle East, during which Baier and MacCallum were both repeatedly hypothesizing about a need to send more troops to Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region, Trump openly admitted to engaging in a possible war crime. But no one followed-up with him about it.
Trump plainly admitted that he’s using American soldiers to take oil in and near Syria: “We have an oil area in, near Syria, and in Syria, we kept it. So, the only soldiers I have over there, they're guarding the oil, we kept the oil. So, we kept the treasure. That's OK.”
MacCallum immediately changed the subject.
This is entirely the point. Fox News is not just a right-leaning network. It functions as part of the Trump administration. Democrats thinking of how to deal with it would be wise to take that into account.