Critic's Notebook: More Trump Is Less in the Premiere Episode of HBO's 'Axios'

Axios Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of HBO

The president offers insight into his (lack of) thought process in his umpteenth interview prior to the midterm elections.

Does anyone remember the time, not so long ago, when President Trump was criticized for only granting interviews to friendly media outlets like Fox News? Well, it turns out those were the good old days.

In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, Trump has made himself so available to the press that it makes you question his sincerity in calling it "fake news." Case in point: his appearance on Axios, the new four-part limited HBO documentary series based on the website that offers new items in easily digestible bits. The series lived up to that model with its premiere episode, featuring various short segments including an exclusive interview with the commander in chief — except that nothing about Trump is easily digestible.

As has become normal lately with a news media so insecure that it endlessly feels the need to provide insight into its process to demonstrate a lack of bias, the segment opened with Axios journalists discussing strategy. Co-founder Jim VandeHei suggests not directly confronting Trump but rather attempting to surprise him, because then the audience will get to see him think. "That's what people have not seen," he points out. "They've never seen Trump think." (The comment made you wish the show had a laugh track.) Journalist Jonathan Swan points out, rather unnecessarily, that asking Trump introspective questions would be a "total waste of time." The group also discusses what questions would get Trump's "juices flowing," although for that they should have consulted Stormy Daniels.

The interview features Trump in a relatively relaxed mood, because it's not like he lets the presidency stress him out or anything. A wide array of topics is discussed, although the biggest news-making item is his statement that he is preparing an executive order ending birthright citizenship in the United States despite the 14th Amendment. (Apparently, not all constitutional amendments are created equal.) "They're saying I can do it with an executive order," Trump explains. He uses the expression "they're saying" so much it makes you wonder if he hears voices at night. Trump seems mainly surprised that the journalists had somehow gotten wind of his plans. "I didn't think anybody knew that but me," he comments. "I thought I was the only one." Because as everyone knows, his White House is leak-proof.  

Asked about whether there should be more regulation of companies like Amazon and Facebook, Trump expresses frustration.  "You get into the whole thing with freedom of speech," he says in an aggrieved tone, as if the First Amendment is an annoyance.  He adds that previous administrations had considered such actions but that nothing had been done. "But you're in charge now," Swan points out, adhering to the journalistic playbook of making Trump feel important. "I'm in charge now," Trump agrees, taking the bait. "I'm definitely in charge." That's at least one issue cleared up.

On the subject of the atrocities being perpetrated in Yemen, Trump outlines his plans in precise detail. (Just kidding.) "We are actually studying Yemen very carefully," he comments, sounding like final exams were coming up. "I'm not happy with Yemen," he adds. It's probably safe to say that Yemen isn't happy with him either.

Regarding his administration's future plans for health care, Trump declares, "Anything we do, we will put in pre-existing conditions." It is reassuring, especially since his presidency officially counts as one.

On the issue of climate change, Trump takes a scholarly, scientific approach. He says that the climate will probably "change back," providing a visual aid by making a waving motion with his hands. But he does establish his feminist bona fides by making the point that we now have to add "women" to the phrase "man-made climate change." You can't say he hasn't been affected by the #MeToo movement.

As usual, Trump is at his most thoughtful when speaking about his abusive relationship with the press. When the journalists gently probe about his "enemy of the people" rhetoric and whether it contributed to the recent spate of violence, Trump makes it clear that the issue holds little concern for him.

"I'm here. It got me here," he explains, demonstrating his profound empathy. He expresses consternation at negative stories about him in the press, explaining that he's the best judge of his actions. "I know when I do good and when I do bad," he declares. "I get it better than anyone in the world." (Trump clearly grew up without ever hearing about Santa Claus.) He does express sorrow at one thing, however. It is that his party's political momentum has been stalled by such distractions as attempted bombings and a mass shooting.

"If they would write accurately about me, I would be the nicest president you've ever seen," Trump says about the press. "It's much easier for me to be nice because I'm basically a nice person." It is at that point that a White House media handler, worried that Trump's nose was about to grow out of frame, suddenly calls for things to be wrapped up.

After the interview, Trump brings the journalists into the Oval Office for a quick tour. At one point, the phone rings, with Trump ignoring it. "Must be the head of France, he calls a lot," the president says, probably enjoying the thought of Emmanuel Macron's dejected reaction when seeing the footage. He also shows off his collection of Sharpie pens featuring his signature, which he says were made for him by the company at his personal request. He explains in detail that Sharpies write so much better than the expensive pens he previously used to sign important documents. He looks proud to be the first president to deliver a commercial endorsement from the White House.