Going into his NBC town hall, President Trump decided, for some reason, that his thematic message would be his unfair treatment at the hands of the forum in which he was voluntarily participating. Supporters dutifully complained that Trump had to overcome hostile interrogation while Joe Biden was handed easy softballs.
It is true that Trump found many of the questions posed to him difficult to answer and that Biden answered his queries more easily. It is also true that mainstream news coverage, in general, has depicted Trump in a brutally harsh light. (This, of course, omits conservative media, which functions as a state-controlled message machine.)
But it’s not the media’s fault that Trump continues to incriminate himself and is unable to answer simple questions. The problem is not that the media holds him to a difficult standard. He is held, by necessity, to a more forgiving standard than any modern president. But however low the bar is set, Trump continues to trip over it.
Here is the question by Guthrie that gave Trump the most difficulty:
Let me ask you about QAnon. It is this theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior, of that. Now can you just, once and for all, state that that is completely not true?
Answering this query should have been extremely simple. Trump couldn’t do it.
Imagine if Biden had been asked the same question. He would have had little difficulty saying, ‘No, the Democratic party is not the cover for a satanic sex ring.’ The reason reporters don’t pose this question to Biden is not because it would be too difficult for him to answer, but because it would be too easy.
Now, you might say the parallel isn’t fair, because QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, which places the president in a more difficult spot. You’d have to imagine an equivalent pro-Biden conspiracy theory to ask him about, and they don’t exist. One response to this objection is that the lack of conspiracy theories that depict Joe Biden as the savior against demonic sex plots isn’t really Biden’s fault. If Biden’s political coalition was so detached from objective reality that a nontrivial number of his supporters believed theories that could be described as “clinically paranoid,” lots of things would be different.
Guthrie also asked Trump why he won’t release his tax returns. Trump struggled to explain, bluffing that he couldn’t do it because he is under audit (even though there is no reason why public disclosure would impact his audit). Nobody asks Biden why he hasn’t released his tax returns, because — like every other presidential nominee since Watergate — he has.
Guthrie asked Trump why he tweeted “a conspiracy theory that Joe Biden orchestrated to have SEAL Team Six, the Navy SEAL Team Six, killed to cover up the fake death of bin Laden.” If Biden had tweeted out a claim that Trump had killed somebody, and that person was in fact alive, he would probably be asked about it — a lot. Indeed, if Biden had tweeted a ludicrous murder accusation, it would represent a crisis for his campaign so dire that the press would likely talk about little else. His allies would be pressed to denounce him, and Democrats would be discussing ways to force him off the ticket. For Trump, it was just another item on the list of questions.
This of course is the problem with covering Trump. The scale and frequency of his offenses is so far outside the historic norm that it is impossible to measure him by normal standards. The only way to cover his lies and misconduct is to create a different, lower standard. Attempting to cover Trump’s violations the same way you’d cover them if they had been committed by Barack Obama or George W. Bush would create a press storm so large that it would exceed the limits of time and space that news coverage can consume. Holding him accountable to a normal standard is physically impossible.
Joe Biden’s town hall featured several detailed policy questions pressing him on ambiguities or contradictions in his public platform. The first, a “softball,” asked Biden to specify what policies he would have enacted differently than Trump — both retrospectively and going forward. You could ask Trump a question like that, but he would never come close to answering it with the level of detail Biden provided.
Indeed, at Trump’s forum, a voter did ask the president a similar question: “Why did you only put in place a travel ban from China and not put in place other measures mitigating the spread of COVID-19, potentially saving tens of thousands of American lives?” After specifically being asked what other measures he should have employed besides the travel ban, Trump’s response was to tout the travel ban:
Well, I did put it in very early. As you know, Joe Biden was two months behind me, and he called me xenophobic and racist and everything else because I put it in. And it turned out that I was 100 percent right. I also put it on Europe very early, because I saw there was a lot of infection in Europe. And it’s sort of an amazing question. And I appreciate the question and respect the question, but the news doesn’t get out the right answer.
Because I put on a travel ban far earlier than Dr. Fauci thought it was necessary. Who I like. Far earlier than the scientists … I was actually the only one that wanted to put it on. And I did it, actually against the advice of a lot of people, including Nancy Pelosi who had no clue what she was doing. And Biden.
When I put on the travel ban … You know, I put it on in January. The end of January. When I put on the travel ban, Joe Biden and others said, “This is ridiculous. You don’t do that.” Well, Dr. Fauci said I saved thousands and thousands of lives.
Guthrie could have jumped in to point out that the questioner had conceded that he imposed a travel ban — a generous concession to Trump, given that his “ban” actually exempted 40,000 travelers — and asked specifically for other policies. But she didn’t, because Trump almost never answers difficult questions, and there are too many lies to get into. Had Biden dodged his “softball” question like Trump did, there probably would have been a follow-up.
When conservatives complain about Trump’s coverage, they are decrying not the standards being set but the outcomes. If their president is unable to clear even the lower bar set before him, it must be lowered further still, so that he can hop over it at least occasionally.
His inability to grasp basic facts about public policy, avoid obvious lies, or conform to minimal standards of ethical behavior guarantees he will fail even the forgiving standards the media has been forced to adopt. The conservative view is that this failure reflects badly not on Trump but on the media.