Last night, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a long and at times contentious interview with Donald Trump. You can read a full transcript here and watch the segment below.
There's a lot to say about the interview. But even for Trump critics (count me in), a larger revelation overwhelms them, at least in terms of tone and comportment: Trump was appealing in the way he handled himself. He was not bullying or dismissive in his responses to veteran reporter Lesley Stahl, but he was firm, confident, and engaged. In short, he was shockingly presidential even as he was actively demythologizing the very office he occupies. (More on that in a moment.)
Yes, the interview is full of self-puffery and evasion, but he also often simply disagreed with Stahl, or the implications of her question, and told her so. He was talking not to the press but to an audience beyond the press. Oftentimes that meant refusing to engage in the sort of black-and-white morality journalists insist on under some circumstances. Here's a passage in which Stahl asks him what he'll do if it's confirmed that the Saudi regime did in fact kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which seems highly likely.
President Donald Trump: They deny it. They deny it every way you can imagine. In the not-too-distant future, I think we'll know an answer.
Lesley Stahl: What are you options? Let's say they did. What are your options? Would you consider imposing sanctions, as a bipartisan group of senators have proposed?
President Donald Trump: Well, it depends on what the sanction is. I'll give ya an example. They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it.
Lesley Stahl: So would you cut that off—
President Donald Trump: I tell you what I don't wanna do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these com— I don't wanna hurt jobs. I don't wanna lose an order like that. There are other ways of— punishing, to use a word that's a pretty harsh word, but it's true.
Lesley Stahl: Tell everybody what's at stake here. You know—
President Donald Trump: Well, there's a lot at stake. There's a lot at stake. And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There's something— you'll be surprised to hear me say that. There's something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case. So we're gonna have to see. We're going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.
The answer that Stahl wants—and, one presumes, that most Trump critics want—is an unequivocal statement that the president will pull out of virtually all contact with the Saudis. But not only is Trump unwilling to say he'd do that, he stresses the complications of the relationship, both as it affects U.S. business interests and, implicitly, military alliances. There are many reasons that the United States should not be involved with Saudi Arabia, and especially not with supporting its war in Yemen (or its export of global terrorism). But Trump here is suggesting that few issues are cut and dried, and I suspect that this type of answer will rightly satisfy many viewers.
He provides similar responses to other issues in which the press generally presumes there is only a right or wrong answer. For instance, here he is talking about global warming:
Lesley Stahl: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?
President Donald Trump: I think something's happening. Something's changing and it'll change back again. I don't think it's a hoax, I think there's probably a difference. But I don't know that it's manmade. I will say this. I don't wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don't wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don't wanna be put at a disadvantage.
This answer will not satisfy many people, including journalists, who are calling for immediate change to forestall or minimize climate change. But Trump has got his reasons for not prioritizing climate change, and he's sticking to them. Later, he also says that "scientists also have a political agenda," which is not necessarily wrong.
What comes through again and again in the interview is that even when Trump is wrong, he is working through some sort of personal logic. Everything he does is presented as his estimation of the national interest. Oftentimes that interest is only pecuniary: Will this or that hurt the economy? But he notes that his willingness to sit down with dictators and killers in Russia, China, and North Korea doesn't make him any different than his presidential predecessors. In fact, it makes him exactly like them (though he would add the claim that he is a better negotiator and therefore is getting more out of them than Bush or Obama did).
Over at The Week, Joel Mathis frets:
Donald Trump is not the end of America's innocence. But he might be the end of this country's self-mythologizing. In the long run, that may be good: The truth sets you free. On Sunday night, though, we got a clearer view at what power looks like when unleashed from moral standards and aspirations: It looks like a shrug when a journalist is murdered.
What should the U.S. response be when an "ally" murders a critic? It's easy to say it should be something, but what exactly should it be? And to what standards should the United States hold itself? The murder of Khashoggi is terrifying for all sorts of reasons, but exactly what the right response is at the state level is far from clear (other that a full libertarian refusal to subsidize or aid dictatorial regimes, or at least their ruling classes; that sort of position is almost never taken seriously except in rare moments). Trump doesn't dodge the question as much as force the viewer to ponder what to do. In this sense, the self-mythologization that he's shredding is not the one that presents America as a uniquely moral country, but the one that posits the president as someone who is uniquely qualified to run our lives.
Trump is not the cause of debased discourse and political dysfunction. He is the result of it. The way out of this is not to get a better, smarter president. It's too whittle down the ability of the government (and other actors, such as corporations and social institutions, working in conjunction with the government) to dictate aspects of our lives. Consider this take:
"Trump is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being," says Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired and author of the new book Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet. "The power of the state is way too exalted [and] bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era."
That's the biggest takeaway from last night's interview. And it's a realization that should inform not just whether Trump gets a second term but how we vote in the midterms too. Candidates and policies that shrink the size, scope, and spending of government should be favored by those of us who want to control more parts of our lives.