With the sort of near-mystical media savvy on which Donald Trump built his celebrity brand as a novice politician and reality-television star, his White House aides specifically asked for World News Tonight anchor David Muir—and not chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, according to knowledgeable people—to conduct Trump’s first broadcast television interview of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was This Week and Good Morning America host Stephanopoulos, a seasoned Democratic political operative-turned-astute political journalist, who, in a series of interviews with the president over two days last June, produced a headline-making primetime special notable for Trump’s self-immolating bombshell that he’d welcome dirt on a political rival from a foreign government.
This time, while Trump was willing to venture from the safety of Fox News toward the potential hazards but bigger audience of ABC—a calculated risk as he faces an increasingly difficult re-election race in which his approval ratings have plummeted for his mishandling of a pandemic that has killed more than 72,000 Americans—Stephanopoulos was apparently a risk too far.
Thus by most accounts, including Trump’s, the White House got exactly what it wanted from Tuesday’s network exclusive, which the Disney-owned network hyped in an afternoon special report, on its 24-hour online outlet ABC News Live, on Nightline, and on Good Morning America—not to mention Muir’s flagship weeknight news program, which, with an average of 10.5 million viewers, happens to be the highest-rated show in all of television, catnip for a ratings-obsessed president.
What the Trump White House got from Muir’s interview was the strangely calming image of a somber, restrained, message-disciplined president—hardly the whopper-spewing, insult-sniping bully of Trump’s coronavirus briefings and Twitter feed—fielding gently posed questions from the imperially slim anchorman who wore an expression of perpetual concern and empathy on his finely chiseled face.
Among ABC News’ journalists, however, it was a different story.
As the interview broadcasted from Phoenix, Arizona, where Trump was touring a Honeywell factory that had been retooled to make N95 face masks, some of them watched with growing dismay as Muir let Trump utter well-worn talking points and market-test new falsehoods unchallenged—such as the president’s complaint that Barack Obama had left behind “broken tests” for a virus that didn’t even exist when Obama left office three years ago—while failing to ask pertinent questions.
For instance, Muir didn’t grill Trump on his apparent failure to invoke the emergency Defense Production Act to force private companies to mass-produce much-needed coronavirus tests and personal protection equipment for frontline healthcare workers; he didn’t ask him about Vice President Mike Pence’s public prediction that the White House Coronavirus Task Force is soon to be disbanded—a revelation that Trump ultimately contradicted elsewhere; he didn’t ask Trump’s response to Dr. Larry Bright’s whistleblower complaint that the National Institutes of Health removed him from directing the government’s vaccine research because he questioned the president’s bizarre treatment recommendations; Muir didn’t press him on the seeming lack of a comprehensive national testing strategy to identify and isolate carriers of the virus, a program that Dr. Anthony Fauci, among other experts, says is necessary; he didn’t ask Trump his reaction to red-state governors who are relaxing or simply rescinding safety measures in opposition to Trump’s own White House guidelines.
It was, in the view of some of Muir’s colleagues, a squandered opportunity—a presidential interview that barely made news.
“This is literally a matter of life and death, and there was no news,” a television journalist from a rival outlet told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how you get an interview with the president and not make news.”
CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy was especially critical, writing that “Muir didn’t challenge Trump in any meaningful way. And worst of all, Muir allowed the President to float brazen misinformation with no pushback to his 10 million+ viewers.”
Yet several media critics, notably Poynter’s Tom Jones, credited Muir for his “tough but fair and not contentious…professional demeanor,” and praised Muir for his ability to “plow through many topics and call out many of Trump’s past missteps.”
While ABC News officially declined to comment, a high-level news division source defended Muir’s Trump interview to The Daily Beast: “David’s interview speaks for itself. He repeatedly pressed the president in several tense exchanges, which comes with the territory when you conduct a presidential interview.”
Television news analyst Andrew Tyndall, however, was among those who didn’t feel a whole lot of tension.
“Muir’s interviewing style,” he said, “is ‘I’m going to sit in a room with you and be your interlocutor, and you can get all your talking points off your chest. I’m not going to be there in order to grill you.’ Nobody would call it forensic.”