In a contentious interview that aired Monday on “Axios on HBO,” journalist Jonathan Swan attempted to press President Trump on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing protests against racial injustice, and alleged Russian bounties for the lives of American soldiers.
The questioning at times revealed an inability by Trump to detach his own interests from issues facing the country: Despite Swan’s attempts to solicit Trump’s thoughts about the legacy of the late John Lewis, Trump repeatedly referenced Lewis’s decision not to attend his presidential inauguration. And when Swan asked about the decision to hold an indoor campaign rally amid a pandemic, Trump used much of his answer to boast of the crowd size and ratings on Fox News.
Here are five highlights from the interview:
Pressed on the wisdom of holding a large indoor rally amid the pandemic, Trump was fixated on his crowd size
As Trump and Swan went back and forth about the US response to the pandemic, Swan tried to press Trump on his dismissal of expert advice, which cautioned that holding large events indoors — especially without requiring social distancing or mask-wearing — was dangerous.
“But the question is, Mr. President, by June, we knew. Things were bad,” Swan said. “And you know, the last time I was with you was the day before your Tulsa rally, in the Oval, and you know, you were saying, ‘big huge crowd,’ it was indoors. These people, they listen to you.”
But on the mention of the Tulsa rally, Trump immediately turned the topic into a debate about his crowd sizes, claiming the media incorrectly reported the numbers, and repeated his false claim that Black Lives Matter protesters blocked huge numbers of supporters from accessing the rally.
“We had a tremendous crowd, we had tremendous response,” Trump said. “It was like an armed camp, you couldn’t even get through. You couldn’t get anybody in. We had 12,000 people, it was incorrectly reported. The other thing we had that nobody wants to talk about: So Fox broadcast it. It was the highest rating in the history of Fox television.”
“I think you misunderstand me, I’m not criticizing your ability to draw a crowd,” Swan replied. “Are you kidding me? I’ve covered you for five years. You draw massive crowds, you get huge ratings. I’m asking about public health.”
Trump continued to cite testing to suggest the United States has the pandemic under control
Trump responded to the climbing death toll by saying “it is what it is,” and claimed the pandemic is “under control, as much as you can control it,” though his own public health experts say the US hasn’t done enough to stem the spread of the virus.
When Trump repeated his misleading claim that cases are rising because of increased testing, Swan said increased testing couldn’t account for increases in hospitalizations and deaths.
“The figure I look at is death. And death is going up now, and it’s 1,000 a day,” Swan said.
Trump countered by claiming that the US has a lower death rate among positive cases than some other parts of the world, and tried to show Swan a series of charts that he said proved his point, leading to a sharply worded exchange.
“The United States is lowest in numerous categories. We’re lower than the world, we’re lower than Europe,” Trump said.
“You’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera,” Swan replied.
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
Trump called the reports of Russia paying bounties for the lives of US servicemembers a ‘fake’ issue and dismissed reports of Putin supplying weapons to the Taliban
After he was widely criticized for failing to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin on reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters for the deaths of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Trump wouldn’t accept the intelligence as true.
“Frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said, as Swan pressed him to be more specific.
Trump then claimed that the intelligence reports “didn’t reach my desk,” though the Times reported that the information was in the daily intelligence briefing prepared for the president.
Swan then asked whether he at least pressed Putin on the issue of Russia supplying weapons to Taliban fighters, which his own commander in Afghanistan had confirmed.
“Isn’t that enough to challenge Putin over the killings of US soldiers?” Swan asked.
But Trump dismissively said the US had done the same to the Russians in the 1980s.
“Well, we supplied weapons when [the Taliban] were fighting Russia too,” he said.
Trump became heated when asked about protests in Portland
Calling protesters in Portland “terrorists,” Trump refused to respond to an incident in which a Navy veteran protesting in Portland, Ore., was beaten by unidentified federal officers.
“Here you go, the fake news,” Trump said as Swan described the incident, at one point interrupting him. “You’re trying now to blame law enforcement instead of anarchists.”
Trump claimed law enforcement personnel had to hide their identities for their own safety, and said he did not support an investigation into the tactics being used by federal agents deployed to Portland.
Asked whether he believes police treat Black people differently, Trump said, “I hope not,” and he repeated his misleading claim that more whites are killed by police than Black people.
Trump criticized the late John Lewis for not attending his inauguration
When Swan asked Trump to reflect on US Representative John Lewis and offer his thoughts on what Lewis meant to the civil rights movement and the nation as a whole, Trump would only discuss Lewis in the context of himself: His relationship with the late civil rights leader, and Lewis’s feelings about him.
Asked how history would remember Lewis, Trump said he didn’t know.
“I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis,” Trump said. “He chose not to come to my inauguration. . . I never met John Lewis, actually.”
Asked whether he found Lewis objectively “impressive,” given his record on civil rights, Trump again would not say.
“I can’t say way one way or another,” Trump said, again noting Lewis boycotted Trump’s inauguration and State of the Union, before adding: “Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.”
“But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive, what he’s done?” Swan asked.
“He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also,” Trump said.
Watch the full interview: