"Whatever you think of Trump," former Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in a post promoting his prerecorded interview with the former president on the social platform that is still located at twitter.com but now is supposedly known as X, "he is, as of tonight, the indisputable, far-and-away front-runner in the Republican race. We think voters have an interest in hearing what he thinks."
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, we know what Carlson thinks, thanks to private communications that Dominion Voting Systems uncovered through discovery in its defamation lawsuit against Carlson's former employer, which agreed to pay $788 million rather than defend its promotion of Trump's stolen-election fantasy. "There isn't really an upside to Trump," Carlson said in a January 4, 2021, text message to his staff, describing "the last four years" as "a disaster." Back then, Carlson was eager to be rid of Trump: "We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can't wait. I hate him passionately." The day after the January 6, 2021, riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, Carlson privately called him "a demonic force" and "a destroyer."
But that was then. Carlson, like the GOP politicians whose phoniness he claims to despise, has adjusted to the reality that Trump remains stubbornly popular among Republicans. He is even willing to reinforce the election conspiracy theory that he publicly called unfounded and privately called a lie. Carlson's current coziness with Trump was on vivid display Wednesday night, starting with the question of why the "far-and-away front-runner," whose views are of such keen interest to voters, decided to skip the Republican debate in Milwaukee and any other similar forum in which he might have to defend those views or his record as president against competitors keen to make a dent in his commanding lead.
Trump's answer was that felt no need to go through that ordeal, precisely because he is so far ahead. Why put up with "all these people screaming at me, shouting questions at me"—which Trump contradictorily claimed he "love[s] answering"—when he could sit down with an interviewer who is desperate to please him, especially in light of the criticism revealed in those embarrassing messages? Anyway, Trump said, he would probably get better ratings "using this crazy forum" than he would on Fox News, which televised the debate that he skipped. "I'm grateful that you did," Carlson replied.
The solicitude went both ways. As evidence that Fox News has lost its way, Trump cited its decision to fire Carlson. "I think it was a terrible move getting rid of you," he said. "You were number one on television."
Trump repeatedly asserted that the 2020 election was "rigged" and that he would still be in office if the Democrats hadn't "cheated." Despite his previous skepticism of Trump's claim that systematic fraud via deliberately corrupted voting machines had deprived him of his rightful victory, Carlson never once questioned Trump's assertions. To the contrary, he lent credence to the idea that something was fishy about the election outcome.
When Trump complained about absentee ballots, Carlson echoed his concerns. "Anytime you have mail-in ballots, you're gonna have massive cheating," Trump said. "Isn't that the whole point of them?" Carlson replied. "So you can cheat?"
Rather than ask Trump for evidence that Joe Biden did not actually win the election, Carlson seemed to take it as a given. "You're saying they stole it from you last time," he said. "Why wouldn't they do the same this time?"
Trump got the same softball treatment on the subject of his four indictments. "It's all bullshit," he said. Instead of asking Trump to elaborate on that point, Carlson praised him for his sunny attitude in the face of numerous criminal charges. "How do you get indicted, you know, every week and stay cheerful?" he marveled.
Trump repeated his claim that Mike Pence, as vice president, "had the absolute right to send the votes back to the legislatures" when he oversaw the congressional ratification of Biden's victory. He said "some lawyers" (the ones whose advice he preferred) agreed with that interpretation of the vice president's constitutional powers. Unfortunately, Pence "got very bad advice" from his own lawyers.
This is the sort of claim that cries out for a follow-up question. Pence, who is now competing with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, has repeatedly accused his former boss of asking him to betray the Constitution. Trump's pressure on Pence to reject electoral votes from supposedly contested states figures prominently in two of the four indictments that Carlson mentioned. But Carlson let Trump's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Constitution go unchallenged.
Trump disclaimed any responsibility for the Capitol riot, noting that he urged his supporters to protest "peacefully and patriotically." Might his fiery pre-riot speech, during which he warned his audience that democracy would be destroyed if Biden were allowed to take office, nevertheless have some relationship to the violence that followed? Carlson, who immediately after the riot described Trump as "a demonic force" and a "destroyer," did not bother to ask.
More generally, Carlson let Trump blather on in his usual stream-of-consciousness fashion, flitting from one topic to another for no apparent reason. Trump bragged about his relationships with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, saying they respected him because he was tough, unlike Biden. For the same reason, Trump claimed, he could "very easily" stop the bloodshed in Ukraine through unspecified means.
Trump perseverated about the wonders of the Panama Canal. He slammed presidential contender Asa Hutchinson as "weak," "pathetic," and "nasty." He said Kamala Harris is obviously unsuited for the presidency (no argument there) because "she speaks in rhyme," which is "weird." Trump said Biden is "the worst president in the history of our country" and "the most corrupt president we've ever had." As if that were not bad enough, Biden "looks horrible at the beach," what with his "skinny legs" and uncertain gait. Trump went on about the threat that Democrats pose to gasoline-powered cars, gas stoves, decent dishwashers, and satisfying showers without clearly explaining the underlying policy issues. And even as he complained about the burdens that arbitrary restrictions impose on consumers, he bragged about imposing tariffs on imported washing machines.
Carlson never tried to keep Trump on track, never asked for clarification, never even noted what people who disagree with Trump might say. But he was quick to laugh at Trump's jokes and agree with his sentiments. When Trump complained about former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who as moderator of a Trump debate with Biden took a decidedly firmer hand than Carlson did last night, Carlson agreed that Wallace is "a bitchy little man."
At times, Carlson seemed crazier than Trump. "I'm not a conspiracy person at all," Carlson said as he repeatedly pressed Trump to agree that Jeffrey Epstein, the former financier convicted of sex trafficking, was murdered in jail rather than committing suicide. "Why would [then–Attorney General] Bill Barr be covering up the death of Jeffrey Epstein?" Carlson wondered. Trump was noncommittal, saying Epstein probably had killed himself, but who knows? "A lot of people think he was killed," Trump conceded. "A case can be made either way."
Carlson repeatedly suggested that Trump himself might suffer a similar fate. "It started with protests against you—massive protests, organized protests by the left," he said. "Then it moved to impeachment twice. And now indictment. I mean, the next stage is violence. Are you worried that they're gonna try and kill you? Why wouldn't they try and kill you?"
Trump allowed that his opponents are "savage animals" without endorsing the claim that they were planning to assassinate him. Later in the interview, Carlson broached the subject again. "It's an escalation," he said. "So what's next after, you know, trying to put you in prison for the rest of your life? That's not working. So like, don't they have to kill you?" Trump again tried to change the subject, bragging about his political resilience in the face of bogus criminal charges.
Carlson also wanted Trump to endorse the proposition that "we're moving towards civil war," with "open conflict" around the corner. "I don't know," Trump said. "I can say this: There's a level of passion that I've never seen. There's a level of hatred that I've never seen. And that's probably a bad combination."
You know what else is a bad combination? Trump plus a former critic turned sycophant, so eager to court the favor of a man he once privately condemned that he abandons any pretense of challenging, or even elucidating, his interview subject's positions.
Trump said Biden "is worse mentally than he is physically," as evidenced by the fact that he "can't put two sentences together." Trump, by contrast, can put many, many sentences together, but they do not necessarily make sense, bear any logical relationship to each other, or stand up to critical scrutiny. Fortunately for Trump, Carlson was offering none of that.