The stuff of memes: Australian reporter’s hard-hitting Trump interview goes viral

It had all the withering satire of an ABC sketch featuring comedic duo John Clarke and Bryan Dawe.

The musings of an American president struggling with the facts. The baffled expressions of an Australian journalist refusing to accept the spin. And all the subject matter you’d expect to find in a game of 2020 Nightmare Bingo: Global Pandemic! Sex Trafficking! Civil Uprisings!

Except this wasn’t satire at all, but a serious political interview with Donald Trump merely 91 days from one of the most consequential elections in US history.

US President Donald Trump says coronavirus in the US is under control.Credit:AP

To the credit of Axios reporter Jonathan Swan – a former Sydney Morning Herald scribe and the son of our own coronavirus guru Dr Norman Swan – the 37 minute interview was eye-opener from the start.

It began with Swan asking about Trump’s adherence to “positive thinking”, and his tendency to believe something so much in the hope it will become true. In the absence of a clear strategy for COVID19, which has so far killed more than 156,000 Americans, positive thinking alone simply hasn’t cut it.

Trump, however, opted to assert his own version of the truth, insisting that the virus was being contained. At one point, he attempted to highlight his administration's success through a series of charts – only to be left exposed when he refused to account for the per-capita death rate, in favour of selected statistics that he couldn’t quite explain.

“Well what’s your definition of control?” Trump asked. “Under the circumstances, right now, I think it’s under control.”

“How?” asked Swan. “A thousand Americans are dying a day.”

“They are dying, that’s true. And it is what it is,” he replied. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

It wasn't the first time that Trump, who gets a relatively easy run in some sections of the American media, found himself against a journalist willing to push back.

Two weeks ago, in what many described at the time as his best interview yet, Trump sat down with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace for a one-on-one chat, in which Wallace called him out on issues such as coronavirus and criminal justice reform.

Swan, a respected White House journalist who has a good relationship with the president, managed to go one step further by letting his baffled face do much of the talking. Think Crocodile Dundee: “That’s not an interview. THIS is an interview!”

Another telling moment was when Trump doubled down over earlier comments in which he wished British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell well, after she was arrested for alleged child sex trafficking.

“Yeah, I wish her well. I'd wish you well. I'd wish a lot of people well. Good luck. Let them prove somebody was guilty,” he said.

He also cast doubt on death of Maxwell’s associate, convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Official autopsy reports found the cause of his death was suicide while hanging. Trump, however, appeared to repeat conspiracy theory that Epstein was somehow killed: "Her boyfriend died in jail and people are still trying to figure out how did it happen. Was it suicide? Was he killed?"

Donald Trump and his then-girlfriend Melania Knauss with Jeffrey Epstein, and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell.Credit:Getty Images

The president was also asked about Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon who had spent his life trying to bridge America’s political and racial divide. Lewis, a champion of non-violent protests, died last month of pancreatic cancer.

When asked about the Congressman legacy, Trump chose to reflect on himself.

“I never met John Lewis, actually. He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s OK. That’s his right. Again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”

The interview, which aired on HBO and was cleverly cut for social media, was met with humour, disdain, embarrassment, and praise.

Memes of Swan looking gobsmacked flooded Twitter. Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, described it as “one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen.”

Australians, not surprisingly, were also full of praise, with ABC presenter Leigh Sales Tweeting: “@jonathanvswan has nailed the tone, the questions, the calling out of BS. It’s great journalism but it’s also massively entertaining.”

While it would be easy to dismiss the interview as another own goal for an increasingly embattled president, it’s worth remembering that a large proportion of the US population still support Trump and hang on to his every word.

That said, tens of thousands of Americans are dying every week due to coronavirus, millions more are facing financial devastation, and thousands across the country are still protesting over racial injustice.

Trump’s latest performance would not have helped to boost his fortunes among the many voters yet to make up their minds about whether to give him a second term.

If anything, it may have reinforced what many of those voters might be increasingly thinking: that this is a president who lacks the empathy, insight, or capacity to steer the nation out of its current crisis.

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