The US president is not so much lame duck as clay pigeon, there to help journalists prove their marksmanship.
What question would you ask Donald Trump? A warning. Ask something too aggressive, and the US president will probably insult you, something he's indisputably good at. Ask respectfully about policy, and he'll be so contradictory his answer will be worthless.
That's why, despite Trump's obvious failings, interviewers have struggled to pin him down. Last week someone managed it. Axios journalist Jonathan Swan embarrassed Trump in an interview for HBO that went viral.
He interrupted him, corrected him and pulled bemused faces. When Trump claimed that "there are those that say you can test too much" for coronavirus, Swan knocked him back: "Who says that?" When the president boasted about travel restrictions, Swan interrupted: The disease "was already here".
It was contemporaneous fact-checking. The interviewer peppered the conversation with a reminder: "A thousand Americans are dying a day." It turns out that you may not be able to stop the president lying, but you can stop him looking authoritative.
Why has it taken four years to figure out how to hold Trump to account? Why haven't journalists done it all along?
The answer has less to do with journalists than the president's status. After Trump was elected, his words had to be taken seriously. He told one interviewer, British politician Michael Gove, that he would do a quick trade deal with the UK and suggested a nuclear arms deal with Russia was possible. He told the Sun newspaper that he could solve Brexit. He told the New York Times he would build the border wall without Congress. Swan himself did a slightly fawning interview in 2018 in which the takeaway was that Trump was thinking about using an executive order to end birthright citizenship (going against the US constitution).
But Trump's promises have not come to pass, so interviewers no longer have to elicit more of them. Who cares what this president says about Syria or Brexit, given that he has cried wolf so many times? Instead journalists can focus on his record, particularly in the pandemic. Fox News' Chris Wallace last month told the president that his coronavirus mortality rate claims were "not true, sir".
Even Trump accepts that, in a pandemic, facts matter. He brought bar charts to the Fox and Axios interviews (ridiculously, they showed US deaths as a proportion of coronavirus cases, rather than the population). Circa 2017 he focused on rhetoric. An interviewer who asked about facts was playing the wrong sport. It was like when Muhammad Ali fought Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976: neither side could harm the other. Now it's more like Ali versus a six-year-old. Some politicians don't answer the question. Trump can't answer the question.
Good interviewers don't have to be impartial (Swan expressed personal views; his gestures nudged the audience how to react). They press on facts without resorting to the "gotcha" tactic of asking politicians for specific statistics (leadership is not a memory test). They don't suck up to Trump; they use praise as a weapon — Swan noted the president's loyal, elderly following, then asked why he hadn't done more to protect them from Covid-19. They focus on issues that a wide audience understands, like death and taxes, not abstractions such as trade wars, or speculation such as polling data.
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They don't always get results. In cricket, you can bowl a great spell and not get a wicket. In interviews you can ask questions that are almost too good — the interviewee doesn't have to get anywhere near answering them.
Despite his flaws, Trump still has a remarkable way of throwing distracting keywords into interviews. Talking about Islamic State, for example, he told Swan: "When I took over, Obama, it was totally rampant." But precisely because his thoughts zigzag wildly, he is easier to interrupt than, say, his predecessor Barack Obama, whose sentences would build up to a logical conclusion.
David Frost, the British television host and tormentor of former president Richard Nixon, knew that the most important part of the interview was getting the interview. Interviewers who go really hard, al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan for example, don't get the big guests. But the incentive to go soft on Trump is shrinking. He probably won't be president in six months. He is not so much lame duck as clay pigeon, there to help journalists prove their marksmanship.
Interviewers are always aware that, if they push too hard, the guest may just storm out. But after Mr Trump's four years in the White House, we know that he rarely does that. He likes talking too much. Swan was contemptuous at times in his interview, but Trump seemed to take it as a challenge.
At the end of his Axios humiliation, he said it was a "great honour". It reminded me of Prince Andrew telling BBC Newsnight, after a similar disaster, that he was "truly grateful for the opportunity". Like the Duke of York, Trump has no sense of his own failings. My next question would be: why?
Written by: Henry Mance
© Financial Times