The most jarring thing about Donald Trump is that he is president. Nearly every press conference, public event, and interview is awash with contradictions. On the one hand, there is the man in the office: grotesque, incoherent, malicious, dumb. On the other, there are the rituals and aesthetic trappings that have grown around the office of the presidency itself, which all communicate its awesome power and solemnity. A lot of media coverage gets lost in these contradictions, as if reporters and camera operators can’t quite believe what they’re seeing: How do you capture—let alone hold to account—someone so ridiculous?
One of the many virtues of Axios’s Jonathan Swan’s interview with Trump is that it does away with much of that unearned solemnity. The interview, in which Trump claims, among very many other things, that John Lewis will be remembered for skipping his inauguration and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has failed, is not shot like a typical interview with a sitting president. Instead, it has the look of a sitcom. As many have pointed out, the rhythms of its edits, which cut between Trump’s relentless maundering and bullshitting, Swan’s increasingly incredulous reactions, and long, awkward shots of the two of them, most closely resembles HBO’s Veep.
“So much of Veep is often just sitting around thinking: ‘What’s the dumbest thing that could happen?’” wrote showrunner David Mandel in The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. The Trump administration “is doing stuff that we couldn’t invent if we tried.” Swan’s interview captures Trump as he is, which is to say at his dumbest. Nowhere is that clearer than in Swan’s line of questioning on the administration’s handling of Covid-19.
Swan is understandably baffled when Trump starts handing him print-outs, but it’s worth examining what he’s trying to do. The line of questioning is meant to get Trump to acknowledge one, simple point: that the United States is in the midst of a horrible pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 people and that all this has occurred under Trump’s watch as president of the United States.
With a different president, this would likely result in a response typically deemed as “presidential”: A homily about the gravity of the situation we are enduring collectively. “The unspoken question hovering over much of this was Swan pleading with Trump to share in our collective horror about the consequences that have unfolded since, and to take some measure of responsibility for those consequences,” wrote The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent about the interview. “This taking of responsibility would itself speak to the gravity of what the country is enduring, and show basic respect for the sick, the dead and the bereaved.”