The Trump Show, argues Chris Matthews, “is wearing surprisingly well.”
The voluble “Hardball” host, now in his 25th year on the air—making him one of the last remaining pioneers of the 24-hour cable news culture that has shaped American politics—is clearly not a fan of Donald Trump. But he thinks people still don’t get what’s working for the president, or what’s ahead for the people who are looking to beat him.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that 22 percent of voters—including 37 percent of Republicans—are ready to call the media “the enemy of the people,” and that by just a 53-37 majority, voters trust the media to do a better job than Trump at representing facts on important stories.
That’s the wrong way to think about how people are thinking about Trump and journalism, Matthews said.
“I’m not sure trust is what people want from Trump. … I think they want from him his attitude, and I think that they don’t mind him being wrong on the facts,” Matthews told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “He doesn’t tell the truth on a lot of
Last weekend’s White House Correspondents Dinner marked the latest outrage cycle in Trump’s war on facts and journalism, and journalists’ careful efforts to not fight the war, but not be conquered in it, either.
In the space of a few hours on Saturday night, Trump stood on stage at his counter-programming rally in Michigan, complaining about “fake news” and “very dishonest” reporters, then turned around to tweet about comedian Michelle Wolf making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and others in the administration—which anyone, including the Trump aides who earned sympathy for sitting through the attacks, could have expected had they previously watched 30 seconds of any Michelle Wolf clip on YouTube.
At the dinner itself, as Wolf hammered administration officials, lobbyist and American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted that he and his wife White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp “walked out early,” tired of “elites mocking all of us”; he went on to attend the NBC/MSNBC afterparty. “Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace,” tweeted ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who was much more willing to take iPhone photos across the party circuit than he was to provide deep answers to questions at the White House briefing room. Elsewhere, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who last year looked into changing the First Amendment ostensibly to tamp down on unfavorable coverage of Trump, was heard telling an old friend that he loves the correspondents’ dinner, and has gone every year he could—except when he had to join the Trump administration’s boycott last year.
Arguably, no one has quite the perspective on the president who is a creature and creation of TV than the cable TV host who’s been interviewing Trump for 20 years. “Are you running for president?” Matthews asked Trump at a town hall in 1999, prompting Trump to say, “I am indeed.” (Pressed then by Matthews whether he’d release his tax returns, Trump said, “I probably wouldn’t have a problem with doing it.”)
Matthews points out that independent journalism is a relatively new phenomenon, but not one that viewers should really expect out of cable news. In his mind, hosts don’t, and shouldn’t be, playing it straight for an hour a night, every night. The primetime anchors on MSNBC or Fox aren’t reporters, says Matthews, they’re more like columnists right out of the op-ed page: “some columnists are news columnists, reporting columnists, some are thinker columnists.” There are liberals and there are conservatives. There are Democrats and there are Republicans.
Matthews acknowledges that there are prominent undeclared liberals in the media—as he discovered when he interviewed legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite years into retirement: “I said, ‘You’re a liberal, right?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m a liberal.’”
Matthews himself is a left-of-center moderate, describing himself as pro-choice, anti-war and pro-voting rights, and famously worked as a top adviser to Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill before entering the world of journalism. But asked if that makes him the same thing as, say, Fox’s very pro-Trump host Laura Ingraham, Matthews rejects it as “a trick question.” He comes at his job hoping to bring pointed, reported news analysis, and says that he feels particularly good at how he’s used the resources of his show and network to dig in on the many questions about the relationship between Trump and Russia.
“People, in the end, need substance, and they stop watching shows after a while when they’re not getting anything out of them, and I really believe that’s true,” Matthews says. “We’re teachers. Maybe that’s pompous, but if you’re not giving people information, you’re failing.”
Matthews has known and interviewed Trump for two decades, but hasn’t had him on “Hardball” since March 2016, when he famously pressed the then-candidate for details on what it meant to be “pro-life,” and Trump responded by grilling Matthews about the Catholic Church’s teachings before declaringthat there should be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions.
They have spoken a few times since. The most recent occasion? In their tuxes at the Gridiron Dinner, a lower profile but much more clubby politicians and journalists party that Trump did attend. He sat through songs and speeches of jokes making fun of him, then responded with a speech of his own jokes that would have fit right in at the Correspondents Dinner if he’d wanted it to.
“The Press Is the Enemy!” Matthews titled a chapter in his 1988 book, “Hardball,” a collection of straight-talk about how politics really works, published years before he was on the air. “Failure, misery, disaster—that’s what makes the bells go off in a journalist’s nervous system: the kind of story where somebody gets hurt,” he wrote. “There are only two kinds of media-wise politicians: those who are born fearing the press—who keep their distance from day one—and those who learn to fear it the hard way.”
In 2007, he published “Life Is a Campaign,” leading to a famously uncomfortable interview with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, which still gets him going. Trump likes that idea himself: “Life is a campaign,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One last year, as a means of explaining why he was holding a campaign rally a month after his inauguration.
That mentality—the seemingy tireless one-man publicity machine—presents part of the challenge to those Democrats hoping to take on Trump in 2020. They’re candidates who will need to compete in a cable news environment that’s done airing live shots of empty Trump podiums, but is still defined hourly by whatever new statement he decides to put out.
Matthews is skeptical of Democrats’ chances so far when he applies his old theory that for American voters, “the man with the sun on his face always beats the guy behind the desk.”
“Who are the Democrats going to put up who has a face, the sun on his face, who comes across as Mr. America—the guy or woman who just smiles and is American, is so healthy and happy to be an American, and wants to knock this guy off his throne? Who is that person?” asks Matthews.
“That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it? A helluva question. Because if it is somebody with a dark suit on and it looks like they belong behind a desk somewhere, who may be very good on full funding for Title X programs—you know, who’s one of those people, you know? It’s very hard to figure out. I can think of a lot of running mates.”
And don’t mistake how Trump’s carried on against the media or anyone else for changing the formula of what people are looking for in a president. “I don’t think Trump has lowered the heft requirement. I think with all his flaws, there’s heft there,” Matthews says. “He’s the leader. The Republican Party’s doing what he said.”