Donald Trump gets ready to be interviewed by Lester Holt, September 28, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Every week or so, there’s a rare moment during a presidential campaign when it seems almost entirely divorced from reality, and seemingly designed to make it feel — just barely — like a genuine horse race.
Here is what happened last week.
Late on a Saturday morning, CNN aired a new edition of its “New Day” program, followed by an extended interview with Lester Holt, who had spent the previous 24 hours awaiting the future of this strange 2016 campaign. He was the host of a Democratic debate the night before — in which most of the candidates had previously refused to take reporters’ questions — and had time on his hands, so he spent Saturday shooting the breeze with this fabled intellectual couple that are known for their expansive panels of guests.
The interview featured possibly the single most elaborate setup of a political conversation that I have ever seen. For context, here’s Holt’s introduction:
We had a great conversation. And I’m excited about our show, “New Day.” And I had no idea that CNN was even going to be on the air today, or that it was going to be my interview. So thanks for having me, and a good morning.
The anchor, Chris Cuomo, introduced a series of six questions that were apparently all so meticulously choreographed.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I was curious about how you were going to manage the level of support and enthusiasm that you need among African-American voters, especially in very historically Democratic states.
A key question about Hillary Clinton’s dominance over Sanders among minority voters was all done pre-planned. No question selected in advance by the network. But, make no mistake, the questions were carefully calibrated. The way the host makes all his or her questions pre-announced, obviously, was meant to be the audience’s visual surrogate. Watch carefully how he sets up a question, what his notes say, and exactly when the photographer on the bus un-boobs and leaves his handheld to capture the whole assembly.
This sort of “stagecraft” so befits a legal proceeding or a job interview? No. This is electioneering. This is a presidential debate, which usually goes on without any previews whatsoever. This is clearly the work of a savvy performer. And this is the solution to a question that may never have been asked to someone else.
Even the Republican strategist and commentator Ana Navarro, whose stinging aside to the hosts and panelists was subtitled “Where’s the rude and unprofessional behavior?” seemed to know that she was entirely putting them on the spot, as if they were auditioning for a Broadway play.
All told, it seemed mostly a run-through for the coming presidential debate. Each network questions from a moderator was pre-selected, pre-scripted, pre-approved.
A producer could interview candidates, he or she could pre-program questions for the questions of debate moderators. A pre-cooked, pre-approved narrative. Maybe reporters should cheer when Ms. Clinton struggles because we’re watching preparation for the next presidential debate.
There were times in the interview when Trump said things that immediately proved to be bull—-. “What is the terrorist attack you’re talking about?” he asked about Mrs. Clinton’s father, Bernie Sanders’s, foreign policy career. “What was the terrorist attack — somebody that’s related to Bernie — did you say? There was no terrorist attack that took place in Sweden. There was no terrorist attack. If there was a terrorist attack it would have been the largest one in Sweden since World War II.”
Or about the French idea of “differentiation of the cultures.” He mocked the idea, saying, “You mean do the minorities start killing each other? Do the minorities start fighting each other? In Paris it was at midnight. In Nice in the middle of the day. All of a sudden we have the greatest killings in Paris ever on the streets of Paris.”
Not so, according to Reuters. And the New York Times of course has it on good authority. Donald Trump Jr. is a former reporter for The Palm Beach Post, and his sons are good guys.