It’s been a rollicking, damaging couple of weeks for the Donald Trump presidential campaign, highlighted by his apparent joke about Hillary Clinton being assassinated, his attacks on the Khan family in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, his seeming lack of knowledge of Russian incursion into Ukraine, and on and on.
So on Sunday, vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and campaign manager Paul Manafort waded into the waters of the Sunday shows to try to do a little clean-up. Pence’s interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace was nowhere close to as pointed at what Manafort experienced on CNN, however. The Trump campaign manager was called out for spreading falsehoods by Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, and embroiled in a lengthy game of “blame the media.”
This is nothing new for Manafort. Outside of Trump himself, he’s been the tip-of-the-spear for the campaign’s broadsides and bias accusations against the media, and he was clearly more than willing to play that card when the going got tough with Tapper. From the start, Tapper put Manafort in a defensive posture, commenting on how worried many elected Republicans throughout Washington D.C. were becoming over their nominee’s ability― or lack thereof―to control himself, and stay on message.Specifically, Tapper cited how Trump even recently brought up Monica Lewinsky, and asked Manafort how he responded when GOP officials asked him to “please get Mr. Trump to focus.” Manafort sidestepped the question and pivoted into an attack on the media, and on Hillary Clinton’s tax plan:
“The piece you just did is an example of why, what he said last night, that besides running against Hillary Clinton, he’s running against the media. The point he was making is this week was a substantive week. He talked about an economic plan, and Hillary Clinton presented her economic plan, they were two different plans.”
Manafort then praised Trump’s tax cut plan, which calls for regressive cuts, disparaged Clinton’s plan as “exactly what this administration is doing, raising taxes, raising spending, increasing the national debt.” He also rebuked The New York Times for its recent story alleging disunity and chaos within the Trump campaign, and accused Tapper of failing to focus on the real issues.To put it mildly, that did not fly with the CNN host. Tapper pointed out to Manafort that the reason the Trump campaign gets so much coverage it doesn't want is largely due to the candidate's inability to stay on-message.
Specifically, he noted how Trump recently derailed his own news cycle with a joking aside about Hillary Clinton being assassinated by "second amendment people," a crack the Trump campaign has attempted to spin as a statement about the power of gun rights supporters's political coalition.
Tapper played a clip of one of the Trump supporters who was in attendance at the rally, who made it clear that he heard the joke as a crack about somebody shooting Clinton. But Manafort gave no ground on the matter, and once again pivoted to lambasting the media for not providing Trump with more favorable coverage, and instead following “the Clinton narrative.” That was when Tapper’s frustration became glaringly obvious:
“Okay, first of all, as a factual matter, on Monday my show covered Mr. Trump’s speech. Okay? We did. We covered Mr. Trump’s speech, and we did cover those Hillary Clinton emails. So these things, just because you’re saying them, they’re not true.”
Manafort insisted that there was “no discussion,” and “no comparison” between the media’s coverage of the different stories. Tapper replied with some visible incredulity, asking Manafort “And Mr. Trump bears no responsibility for his campaign being off-message? His comments about the Second Amendment had nothing to do with why we weren’t covering the economic message?”
Manafort doubled-down on the Trump campaign’s official line on the offending remark, and tried to neutralize the issue by invoking Clinton’s 2008 gaffe regarding her then-primary challenger Barack Obama and the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Tapper acknowledged that he’d covered Clinton’s gaffe in 2008, and pointed out that the former Secretary of State had actually apologized for it.
Tapper and Manafort also tangled on the matter of Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, on the grounds that he’s being audited and won’t release them until it’s done. He’s also refused to release returns from prior years that aren’t under audit, however, like 2008. Tapper asked Manafort why Trump wouldn’t release even his 2008 returns and pointed out that Trump himself had criticized GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 for dragging his heels on releasing his tax returns. Manafort did not address the question in any meaningful sense.“Mr. Trump’s position has been clear from the beginning. He is under audit, when the audit is completed, he’ll release his returns,” Manafort maintained.
The interview ended on a particularly contentious note, as well. Tapper once again brought up Trump’s weeks-long controversy involving the Khan family, the Gold Star parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
More specifically, Tapper brought up Trump campaign New York co-chair Carl Paladino's remarks against Khizr Khan, Capt. Khan’s father. Once a Republican gubernatorial nominee for the state of New York, Paladino smeared the father Khan as undeserving of the title of Gold Star parent in an interview highlighted by BuzzFeed’s Christopher Massie on Friday, suggesting he might be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and accusing him of “supporting this ISIS-type of attitude against America.”Understandably, Tapper was curious what Manafort thought. Manafort denied having heard Paladino’s comments and declined to speak on them, saying he’d “have to check into the situation.” And that led straight into Tapper’s withering goodbye: “Mr. Paladino, your New York co-chair, is attacking a Gold Star family. So you may want to look into that.” Tapper said.
The full interview is a shining example both of the challenges media outlets and interviewers face in reporting on Trump in the face of his campaign's widespread denials—even about things the candidate has said in public and on video—and how the Trump team is trying to diffuse every damaging story by undermining the credibility of the messenger, putting the media on public trial.
In this particular round, however, the Trump campaign didn’t exactly hit a home run. Tapper was clearly well-prepared to grapple with a slippery interview, and he didn't let Manafort off easy.