Chris Wallace’s interview with Donald Trump on this past Sunday’s edition of Fox News Sunday ended up being a bigger bombshell than it should have been. Sure, Wallace did his job—he asked tough questions about pressing issues, he offered resistance to the president’s lies, and he didn’t make much of a fuss about it. And yet, this particular tête-à-tête has generated a surge of coverage not just because it included news, but because of the way it underscored how few of the president’s interlocutors have pushed back as strenuously and successfully as Wallace. The Fox host’s method is simple, and yet so few have tried it, either out of fear of being accused of bias or out of deference to the office of the president.
Interviewing President Trump is not, in theory, a difficult thing to do. This is, after all, someone who regularly, with no provocation at all, broadcasts his narcissism, megalomania, profound lack of empathy, and near-total ignorance of basic facts. He lies with impunity and abandon, but the lies are often so absurd and apparent that they barely need to be scrutinized at all. There are so many scandals swirling at any one time that any would-be interlocutor always has more than enough material to generate several days’ worth of news.
But interviewing Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as president, has proven to be trickier than it would seem. Trump, after all, won the Republican primary in 2016 in part because he granted so many interviews, many of them uncritical, that the sheer volume of analysis and coverage he managed to generate swamped his GOP opponents, who often struggled mightily for some smaller portion of attention. The constant lying and the endless barrage of scandals can sometimes be an asset. Reporters are unable to fact-check in real time because of the overabundance of available material. Trump is a political Mr. Burns, who is nearly indestructible because he has so many ailments that no single one can gain the upper hand.
But reporters also often self-handicap when interviewing the president. Wary of allegations that they are politically biased—or the agents of Democrat-aligned networks—they have to pick and choose their barbs, fact-checks, and sharp questions. And while the president may have few qualms about debasing his office, the press tends to be hyperconscious of its significance and often accords Trump an unearned surfeit of gravitas and respect. Trump gets his share of pointed questions, but in terms of standards, Trump’s treatment in most interviews is not so different from that of his predecessors—some softballs, some tough questions, a handful of real-time fact-checks. The problem, however, is that unlike his presidential forebears, Trump lies constantly.
But Chris Wallace comes to the table free of the concerns and constraints that hamstring many of his colleagues. Despite being a true product of the media establishment—the son of Mike Wallace, he is one of history’s few good nepotism hires—Wallace does not try to cosplay as his father or Edward R. Murrow. As an interviewer, he has cultivated a mischievous, sometimes anarchic, sensibility. His best quality is his incredulity—he will interrupt a politician with “Hold on a minute” when they try to wriggle out of one of his traps; at other times, he’ll start laughing. Wallace will occasionally dial up a fawning exchange with a subject—there’s a particularly famous interview with Dick Cheney that comes to mind. Trump doesn’t seem to have earned the kid gloves treatment.
You see many of these qualities in Wallace’s Sunday exchange with the president. When Trump complained, “Now they want to make it the 1619 project. Where did that come from? What does it represent?” Wallace interrupted his train of thought by saying, “It’s slavery.” When Trump insisted that Joe Biden wants to defund the police, Wallace interjected: “He does not.” When Trump claimed that the U.S. has one of the lowest coronavirus mortality rates in the world—eventually forcing a staffer to bring out a doctored chart—Wallace pushed back, revealing the White House’s flawed methodology. But Wallace’s sharp exchange over Trump’s claim that he “aced” a cognitive test designed to show if someone is suffering from dementia was particularly noteworthy.
WALLACE: Incidentally, I took the test too when I heard that you passed it.
TRUMP: Yeah, how did you do?
WALLACE: It’s not—well, it’s not that hard a test. They have a picture, and it says, “What’s that?” and it’s an elephant.
TRUMP: No, no, no.… You see, that’s all misrepresentation.
WALLACE: Well, that’s what it was on the web.
TRUMP: It’s all misrepresentation. Because, yes, the first few questions are easy, but I’ll bet you couldn’t even answer the last five questions. I’ll bet you couldn’t, they get very hard, the last five questions.
WALLACE: Well, one of them was count back from 100 by seven.
TRUMP: Let me tell you …
TRUMP: … you couldn’t answer — you couldn’t answer many of the questions.
The president’s lies about the test are ridiculous and not worthy of deference or respect; Wallace gives Trump a thin sliver of each, favoring instead his barbed provocations about the picture of an elephant and the number 93.
This may be as close as someone has gotten to calling Trump “stupid” to his face since he entered the White House. It certainly demonstrates Wallace’s superior cunning. Ask the president a question about policy and he will try to rope-a-dope you, going on endless, discursive ramblings that inevitably return to his personal grievances. The president doesn’t actually know anything about policy, and he doesn’t care to learn. Wallace, who gets this, keeps things simple. He asks how Trump can claim to protect people with preexisting conditions when he doesn’t even have a health care plan. He asks why the president is boasting about doing well on a test that asks you to identify a drawing of an elephant. He aims low, in other words, and the results reveal the president for what he is: Vain, incompetent, dumb.
Wallace is considerably aided by the fact that he works at Fox News. No one could accuse Fox News of anti-Trump bias, after all: This gives Wallace substantial cover to ask tough questions. In this way, Wallace benefits from his network’s execrable opinion programs: the freedom to confront Trump; the privilege of having access to him in the first place. Wallace, it should be added, also gives back: The credibility of Fox News’s news division, though diminished, is still used to launder the grotesqueries of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
Leaving that aside, however, Wallace used his platform to do something that has rarely happened over the last three-and-a-half years: He pushed back and took a pound of flesh from the president. Wallace was respectful for the most part, but he showed that he was willing to get a little rude—and he seemed to savor those moments in particular. He treated a mendacious subject the way they should be treated, even if they just happen to be the president. It’s not remarkable because it’s a hard thing to do. It’s remarkable because, despite the relative ease, with Trump it almost never happens.