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Lesley Stahl Blew Her Chance to Eviscerate Trump

The “60 Minutes” interview may have outraged the president, but in truth he got off easy.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

For days we’ve been hearing President Donald Trump fulminate about his “FAKE and BIASED interview” with Lesley Stahl of CBS News’s 60 Minutes. It was a “vicious attempted ‘takeout” full of “bias, hatred, and rudeness” that made Trump so mad he cut the interview short.

Holy smoke! When the president posted the raw video this morning, three days before the 60 Minutes segment was set to air, I could scarcely contain my excitement.

But the interview did not live up to its putative victim’s billing. Stahl announced at the outset, “I’m not gonna fact-check you,” and she kept her word. She showed little evidence of adequate preparation. Though she occasionally challenged certain things Trump said, she demonstrated insufficient command of the facts, and of Trump’s past statements, to hold Trump properly accountable.

I take no pleasure in writing this. We all have bad days. And Stahl has always been a hero of mine, going back to her beginnings, during CBS News’s glory days, as a bulldog reporter on the Watergate scandal.

It’s doubtful she got taken by surprise. We all know Trump is a firehose of misinformation, and Stahl in particular has always been savvy about the ways presidents manipulate the press.

In 1984, when Stahl aired a story on the CBS Evening News contrasting the deceptive TV images Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign deployed with the cruel realities they disguised, she worried her White House sources would freeze her out. Instead, she related in her 1999 book, Reporting Live, White House aide Richard Darman phoned her immediately to praise the story. “You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you?” Darman said. “When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you.”

In a 2017 meeting with Trump prior to an earlier 60 Minutes interview, Stahl asked the new president why he attacked the press all the time. As she related in a public appearance the following year, Trump answered: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”

A reporter who could tell such stories on herself ought to know that the only way to handle a mendacious president—and we’ve never seen one as mendacious as Trumpis to arrive prepared to confront him coolly with facts that contradict his false statements. It’s very hard to do, but lately we’ve seen a few journalists—Chris Wallace, Jonathan Swan, and Savannah Guthrie—perform this task pretty well.

But all Stahl succeeded in doing in her new 60 Minutes interview was to demonstrate how absurdly peevish Trump has become. To an entirely standard opening bid, “Are you ready for some tough questions?” Trump replied with a sulky “No, I’m not.… You don’t ask Biden tough questions.” No doubt much of Trump’s resentment arose from the prospect of being asked difficult questions by a woman. (We know from experience that he hates that.)

The interview got a lot less interesting after that.

“We created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump said. “You know that’s not true,” Stahl replied, and it isn’t. But she didn’t elaborate.

She might have explained that Trump inherited a strong economy from President Barack Obama; even Greg Mankiw, conservative chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, has said so. She might have noted that average monthly job growth was actually higher under Obama than under Trump before the Covid-19 crash. She might have conceded that gross domestic product growth was a whisker higher under Trump, but that GDP grew much faster under Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, which isn’t terribly far back in “the history of our country.”

Forgive me if you’ve heard these chestnuts before; they’re common knowledge. But that’s the point. Stahl didn’t back up her “that’s not true” riposte with undisputed facts.

“You know why [Covid] cases are up?” Trump told Stahl. “Because we do more testing.” We’ve all heard Trump say this before. It’s absolute, total bullshit.

Growth in testing, which remains insufficient, has not kept pace with growth in the virus’s spread. We know this from various metrics, including rising hospitalization rates (up in 42 states). People don’t go to the hospital because they flunked a Covid-19 test. They go because they’re sick. Again, Stahl didn’t say so.

Trump told a rally in June that he actually asked staff to slow Covid-19 testing. Aides said he was kidding; then Trump said he was not. Then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended less testing. This is insanely irresponsible. Stahl didn’t confront him with this, either. All Stahl said in reply was, “Will you at least say, ‘Cases are up’?” Which was sort of beside the point because Trump had conceded that already.

Trump brought up the New York Post stories about Hunter Biden’s lobbying activities, purportedly taken from a laptop belonging to him. Stahl said the story was given to the Post by Steve Bannon and Rudolph Giuliani. (She didn’t mention the widespread suspicion, shared by Democratic and Republican experts alike, that it’s a Russian plant.) “I don’t know anything about that,” Trump replied. This was an opening for Stahl to ask why the hell he would spread smears if he didn’t know where they came from. She missed it.

Nor did Stahl say, “It’s not plausible, Mr. President, that you wouldn’t know about campaign activities conducted by your personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.” That’s particularly the case, she could have added, in light of well-documented conversations Trump conducted with Giuliani about previous attempts to smear Hunter and his father, which prompted Trump’s impeachment. And it’s even more credulity-defying, Stahl could have observed, when you consider that the Giuliani and Bannon connections have been reported extensively on TV news, where Trump gets the bulk of his information.

I could go on. Presumably when the 60 Minutes segment airs, many of Trump’s whoppers will be identified as such. But it would have been much more effective to confront Trump on air with evidence that proved he was lying, as Wallace, Swan, and Guthrie did.

One reason to watch on Sunday is to glimpse the fat book that Trump gave Stahl to show he really did have a health care plan; from photographs on social media, it appeared to be nothing but empty pages. Though even that will likely disappoint; according to the conservative Washington Examiner, it’s a bunch of executive orders (printed presumably in 36-point type).

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to puzzle why this interview, of all interviews, put our commander in chief’s knickers in a twist. Maybe he was just having a pretty bad day himself. He probably won’t have many good ones between now and November 3.