NEW YORK, N.Y. – Among Chris Cuomo, Joe Scarborough and George Stephanopoulos, it was tough to tell which television host became more exasperated talking to Donald Trump about his proposal to block Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump made himself as available to the news media as he always does, despite espousing a plan more polarizing than any in a campaign that has thrived on confrontation. The stakes had perceptibly changed, though, and that made for electric if not always informative television moments Tuesday.
“He gives access,” said Scarborough, hours after the MSNBC host’s red-faced anger with Trump led him to abruptly cut the candidate off. “It’s ironic that the very candidates who call and complain that he’s on the show aren’t willing to do the same thing,” Scarborough said.
The call-in telephone interview with Trump has become a staple of TV news programs the past few months. News producers hate such interviews — nothing’s more boring than a disembodied voice speaking over a still photograph on the screen — but can’t resist Trump’s ratings catnip. He’s a favourite of “Morning Joe,” and on Tuesday was also interviewed by Cuomo on CNN and Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Ten minutes into the “Morning Joe” interview, Scarborough essentially threw Trump off the air for talking over interviewers. “Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald,” he said. “You’re not going to keep talking. We will cut to a break if you keep talking.”
And he did. After the commercial, Trump stayed on the air for nearly a half-hour more.
Not that it was easy. Mark Halperin asked four times during the MSNBC interview whether Trump agreed with the World War II policy of keeping Japanese-Americans in internment camps before the candidate stated the obvious: He wasn’t going to answer.
More than one GOP presidential candidate texted Scarborough or co-host Mika Brzezinski while Trump was on to complain about the airtime he was getting, Scarborough said. He wouldn’t reveal the identity of those who sent the text messages, but said they didn’t include Lindsey Graham, who did appear later on the show.
Trump’s interview with Cuomo was more heated, with the CNN anchor saying that experts were calling his plan stupid and accusing Trump of spreading lies. “You can’t just throw out notions without anybody checking on them,” Cuomo said. He said Trump’s proposal was counter to the nation’s ideals.
“It seems to me that you’re acting out of fear, not making us look strong, rejecting what America is all about,” Cuomo said.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who’s now a professor at George Washington University, said he delayed his commute to work to see Cuomo and Trump go at it. “You both want to watch and avert your eyes,” he said. “That’s what makes it so compelling.”
For many television journalists, the Muslim proposal marked a turning point, making them more intent on holding Trump accountable, he said.
“Unlike most candidates who … become defensive or retract it, he’s a moth drawn to the camera’s flame,” Sesno said. “The more you offer in terms of TV time or microphone time, the more he takes it.”
The live format suits Trump better, because he can blow past journalists and ignore questions. Stephanopoulos seemed most hamstrung by the lack of time he had available, repeatedly trying to interrupt Trump for specifics.
While Trump was on MSNBC, Scarborough said Republican analyst Nicolle Wallace passed him a note, suggesting Trump would not only survive this episode but thrive on it.
“Most of these interviews help him because they set him up as the truth-teller that takes on the mainstream media,” Scarborough said. “We’ve seen that play out time and time again.”
Trump did not appear Tuesday on what would seem as a friendlier outlet. Fox News Channel can claim the largest number of potential Trump voters as viewers.
Scarborough gave Trump credit for showing up after “Morning Joe” spent its first 90 minutes mostly filled by the show’s commentators criticizing him. He hasn’t seen a presidential candidate offer so much access since John McCain’s 2000 campaign.
“Trump shows up and he’s not afraid to take tough questions,” he said.
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