Critic's Notebook: Trump's '60 Minutes' Interview Proves a Boon for Fact-Checkers

Lesley Stahl and Donald Trump on '60 Minutes' - H Publicity 2018
Courtesy of CBS News/'60 Minutes'

Talking with veteran journalist Lesley Stahl, the president reminded us all how great he is.

During his interview with Lesley Stahl on Sunday's 60 Minutes, President Donald Trump finally took blame for something. It happened quickly and you had to listen very carefully. But for the first and probably last time, he actually took responsibility for a terrible situation.

It was when the discussion turned to illegal immigration, which, despite the administration's most draconian efforts, has hardly abated. And Trump admitted that it was largely his fault.

"I have to blame myself," he said, as the world braced in anticipation of history being made. And then he continued. "The economy is so strong that everybody wants to come into the United States."

The interview lasted less than 30 minutes, but Trump managed to deliver such a testimonial to his magnificence that women around the country, who are quite used to men exaggerating their prowess, collectively rolled their eyes.

With the midterms looming, Trump has been on quite the media tour lately. And he's even talking to journalists who are not part of his state-run media. He's also feeling cocky because of such recent successes as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Because he somehow feels it's an achievement to get a conservative judge approved to the Supreme Court by an all-Republican Congress. And yet he managed to almost screw that one up. Still, he was right about one thing he said back in the days he was running for president: Many of us are certainly tired of him winning.

It was fascinating to watch Stahl spar with Trump, who, as always, was in full aggression mode. Attempting to get him to actually answer the questions rather than deliver a campaign rally speech, the veteran journalist had the exhausted demeanor of a child psychologist dealing with a particularly troubled adolescent. She probably should have brought along some toys for him to play with.

Two news items about the interview were released before it aired. The first involved Trump declaring there would be "severe punishment" if Saudi Arabia actually murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Of course, he was reluctant to actually blame the Saudis.

"They deny it," Trump pointed out. "They deny it vehemently. They deny it every way you can imagine." It was an echo of his notorious defense of Vladimir Putin, who "strongly denied" interfering in the election. It's a good thing Trump didn't go into law enforcement, although it would have certainly eased prison overpopulation.  

The other story concerned the possible departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after the midterms. Trump didn't exactly say that Mattis would be exiting the administration (leaving the number of adults in the room at approximately zero), but he did hint at it.

"I think he's sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth," Trump offered. Because everyone knows that a general nicknamed "Mad Dog" is clearly a tofu-eating, tree-hugging liberal.

The interview touched on a dizzying array of topics because, let's face it, this may be the last time that a journalist who doesn't work for Fox News gets to ask Trump any questions. And as with his recent USA Today op-ed, Trump managed to say something false or misleading with nearly every answer.

Climate change? "They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael," Trump declared. When Stahl asked him who "they" were, Trump clarified. "People say. People say that," he explained helpfully. He also said he doubted the nearly unanimous consensus among scientists that climate change is not a hoax because "they have a very big political agenda." Which, if you define political agenda as a desire for the world not to end, is certainly true.

North Korea? No problem, although thank God he came along. "The day before I came in, we were going to war with North Korea," he informed Stahl, who was probably wondering how she missed that story. Fortunately for those of us who wish to avoid nuclear annihilation, Trump and Kim Jong-un have a bromance going. "I have a good energy with him. I have a good chemistry with him," Trump gushed, sounding like he just got back from a Tinder date. Although there is the danger of Kim getting jealous, because Trump admitted that he also has "great chemistry with President Xi of China." This is a president who conducts international diplomacy like an episode of The Dating Game.

Stahl inquired about Trump's strategy of applying tariffs on Chinese products. "Are you trying to push them into a depression?" she asked. He denied it, but if it were true it would be only fair, since he's already put a majority of our population into one.

She followed up with a question about similar tariffs on our allies. "What's an ally?" Trump asked, and for a horrible moment you feared that the question wasn't rhetorical.

Naturally, the issue of Russian meddling came up. And while Trump was happy to agree that Putin is probably involved in assassinating and poisoning people, the idea of him interfering in the 2016 election is simply preposterous. He conceded that Russia "meddled," but added that China meddled, too. I guess we can finally exonerate that unknown person "sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

To his credit, Trump did admit to having at least one regret since becoming president. You could feel the tension in the room as Stahl braced for the big scoop.

"I regret the press treats me so badly," he said, in a mournful tone.

The interview proved contentious at times, with Stahl beginning to show signs of weariness at Trump's endless obfuscations. Trump tried to soothe her with a line he probably uses in every social interaction. "Lesley, it's OK," he counseled. "In the meantime, I'm the president, and you're not."

Trump had a strangely rosy view of our current political divide, which has resulted in a massive spike in Google searches of "Civil War."

"I can see the country uniting," he announced, making an exception for those Democrats who "behaved horribly" during the Kavanaugh hearings. "I don't think they want to heal yet, I'll be honest," he added, somehow managing to lie about telling the truth. Trump also defended his speech mocking Christine Blasey Ford. "Had I not made that speech, we would not have won," he said proudly, essentially summing up his amoral ethos in one line. When Stahl attempted to challenge him, Trump pushed back. "I'm not going to get into it because we won," he huffed. "It doesn't matter. We won." Republicans, you must be very proud.

Trump admitted that he still doesn't trust everyone in the White House, and it was hard not to think he wasn't excluding Melania. "Washington, D.C., is a vicious, vicious place," he said in a wounded tone. "The attacks, the bad-mouthing, the speaking behind your back."

He certainly has a point, and for a moment you could almost sympathize. And then President Trump added, "But, you know, in my way, I feel very comfortable here."

It was very clear that the irony was lost on him.