Chuck Todd’s Trump interview, and the backlash to it, explained

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The NBC anchor wasn’t prepared, and Trump took advantage.

President Donald Trump’s pretaped interview on Sunday’s Meet the Press is blowing up — but not for reasons host Chuck Todd or NBC would like.

At numerous points throughout the interview, Todd let Trump get away with blatant falsehoods and gaslighting. Todd also teed up a number of softball questions for the president, like “Do you think you’ve been more successful in business or the presidency?” and “Do you speak to any of the former presidents?”

Trump’s interview with Todd comes at the end of a week that began with George Stephanopoulos’s occasionally hard-hitting hour-long interview with Trump and also featured an episode of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that was devoted almost entirely to a fawning phone call. While there were a number of newsworthy moments during the Meet the Press interview, Todd was widely criticized for how he dealt with an NBC star turned president who has made a bit of a cottage industry out of bashing his former business partner. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said the interview “was not public discourse” and compared the proceedings to “feeding English sentences into a wood chipper,” while University College London political scientist Brian Klaas criticized Todd for appearing to be unprepared for Trump’s lies.

Todd’s approach to Trump was certainly more adversarial than Hannity’s, but that’s not saying much. In total, the interview served as a better illustration of what not to do when interviewing Trump than anything.

Todd let Trump get away with suggesting that a massive voter fraud conspiracy cost him the popular vote in 2016

Trump used his interview with Todd to push an idea he’s repeatedly alluded to since Hillary Clinton received roughly 3 million more votes than he did in 2016 — that he may not have actually lost the popular vote but was the victim of massive voter fraud.

“Well, I think it was a — I mean, I’ll say something that, again, is controversial,” Trump said. “There were a lot of votes cast that I don’t believe. I look at California. … Take a look at Judicial Watch, take a look at their settlement where California admitted to a million votes.”

But there’s no evidence that large-scale voter fraud occurred in California in 2016. As CNN explains, the “settlement” Trump referred to required Los Angeles County to remove a large number of inactive voters from its voter rolls, but there’s no indication any of them cast illegal ballots.

Trump first pushed this conspiracy theory around the time of his inauguration, meaning Todd had ample opportunity to come prepared. But instead of pushing back on Trump, the host quickly moved on to asking him about which Democrat he’d like to run against in 2020.

Todd let Trump blame Obama for his own inhumane policies

Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about voter fraud wasn’t the only time Todd let the president skate by with false claims he could’ve easily debunked. Trump also dodged questions about alarming new reports regarding the poor conditions migrant children are enduring in camps near the border by trying to pin all the blame on former President Barack Obama.

“President Obama built the cages. Remember when they said that I built them?” Trump said, deflecting Todd’s questions. “Separation, President Obama, I took over separation. I’m the one that put it together. What’s happened, though, are the cartels and all of these bad people, they’re using the kids. They’re, they’re, it’s almost like slavery.”

But as I detailed on Friday, Trump has nobody to blame for family separations and the poor treatment of migrant children but himself. Obama only separated families in extraordinary circumstances, such as when parents were deemed to pose a threat to children or had prior criminal convictions, whereas the Trump administration instituted a “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in families being separated just because they crossed the border. Furthermore, the implication that Obama is responsible for the fact that children in migrant detention centers don’t currently have soap and are forced to live in overcrowded conditions is absurd.

Todd, however, seemed to actually grant Trump’s premise and asked him, “Do two wrongs make a right?” Not only that, but the Meet the Press Twitter account later posted a tweet amplifying Trump’s lie.

(The account later posted a second tweet noting that Trump’s claim is false.)

Todd’s line of questioning about health care also left a lot to be desired. He let Trump get away with claiming Republicans “will always protect preexisting conditions,” even though legislation that Republicans came one Senate vote short of passing in 2017 would’ve stripped coverage from millions of people with preexisting conditions. Todd also mischaracterized a lawsuit the Trump administration is currently pursuing to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act.

Todd also let Trump get away with saying he was “against going into Iraq” before the 2003 invasion, despite the existence of a recording of Trump expressing support for the invasion on Howard Stern’s show in 2002. On the topic of the Iran crisis, Trump floated a solution to it that sure sounded a lot like the nuclear deal he unilaterally pulled out of in 2017. “I think they want to negotiate. And I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear. Look, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said — but Todd didn’t note the connection.

The big problem is that Todd treated Trump like a normal president

Todd’s failure to challenge Trump wasn’t the only area in which his interview with the president was lacking. So were some of his choices about which questions to ask.

Instead of asking Trump about the mass deportation raids he abruptly announced via a tweet early last week, his attacks on the press — including on Todd’s employer, NBC — or pressing him on any number of other serious issues, the last segment of Meet the Press showcased a series of questions Todd asked the president about his presidential library.

It’s certainly understandable that Todd and NBC would want to feature some lighter moments from their interview with Trump. But this is a president who has characterized the network’s work as “Our Country’s biggest enemy,” “NBC FAKE NEWS,” and “a total joke.” Trump has repeatedly demeaned Todd personally as “Sleepy Eyes” and gone as far as to suggest that NBC’s license to broadcast should be revoked.

Yet on Sunday, Todd not only treated him like a normal president but repeatedly gave him the benefit of the doubt. As a result, viewers may have come away from Meet the Press confused about voter fraud or about the differences between how Obama and Trump treated immigrants. And while that might be Trump’s goal, journalism is supposed to be about providing clarity.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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