Joe Biden made news on all kinds of subjects yesterday, a bracing reminder of what can happen when a president moves from scripted speeches and photo ops to taking journalistic questions.
And then there was the former guy, who got some things off his chest with his longest television interview since leaving office.
On “Good Morning America,” George Stephanopoulos repeatedly pressed Biden, including on some uncomfortable topics, and the president, notecards in hand, came prepared to generate some headlines.
The ABC sitdown convinced me that Biden has taken the wrong path in refusing to hold a news conference until a week from today. He was fine, he didn’t ramble on or commit a gaffe or accidentally trigger a nuclear confrontation. And even if he had (except for the last one), that’s a small price to pay for forcefully getting out your message.
Either Biden’s staff is being overly protective or the new president has misjudged the value of using interviews to shape the agenda. And by the way, it’s very easy for a president to finesse questions he doesn’t want to answer, as Biden on whether he’ll withdraw more troops from Afghanistan, or what price Vladimir Putin will pay for meddling in the 2020 election.
The president was clearly ready to throw Andrew Cuomo under the bus. He started with the safe Democratic position that if the sexual harassment allegations are proven true, the governor should resign. But then Biden, twice, raised an even grimmer specter: “It may very well be there could be a criminal prosecution.”
That was like a giant Bat signal sweeping across Gotham City. For the leader of the party, the president of the United States, to raise the prospect of Cuomo going to jail means more than all the Democrats’ combined calls for resignation. It cements the impression that Cuomo’s party wants him gone, even if only 35 percent of New Yorkers in a new poll agree.
And Biden may have had in mind a New York Times story on the governor and his aides trying to discredit the first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, in saying that women who come forward shouldn’t be “scapegoated” or “victimized.”
The most important exchange was on the border, the first with the president since the migrant crisis spiraled out of control, given his lack of media engagement.
The ABC anchor asked the key question: “Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?”
Biden deflected by saying Trump had his own surges and he, unlike his predecessor, isn’t separating children from their parents.
Stephanopoulos got a bit hung up on whether Biden was in effect telling these refugees to cross the border. “I can say quite clearly, don’t come over,” Biden said. What’s more important are his actions, which are allowing unaccompanied minors into Texas without having the facilities to house them.
And when the president said he will arrange for migrants to apply for asylum from their home countries, Stephanopoulos should have reminded viewers that was the Trump policy, which Biden ended.
Still, both men got what they wanted from the interview. Maybe Joe felt comfortable because he’s undoubtedly known George since his Clinton White House days.
Trump may have also gotten what he wanted with a call to Maria Bartiromo on Tuesday night: to tout his record and trash his successor for half an hour.
He said, for instance, that Biden will pass “the biggest tax increase in the history of our country to pay for everything.” Biden says only those earning more than $400,000 will pay more.
On the border, Trump ignored his own problems with migrant surges—and the criticism of his policy of separating families: “So we had very few people coming in and we also stopped human trafficking. When I say stopped, it made a tremendous dent like has never been made before…
“They’re dropping them off and they’re pouring into our country. It’s a disgrace. They’re going to destroy our country if they don’t do something about it.”
The 45th president thanked the Washington Post for correcting a false story about his having told a top Georgia election official to “find the fraud” (unfortunately, he was mistakenly asked about his call with Georgia’s secretary of state, which the Post had accurately reported based on an audio recording). And that led him back to his unproven claims of election fraud and how America looked like a Third World country:
“Our Supreme Court and our courts didn’t have the courage to overturn elections that should have been overturned because you’re talking about decisive amounts, hundreds of thousands and even millions of votes they didn’t have.”
An interview with a former president is, almost by definition, more backward-looking, and Trump didn’t generate much coverage. Maybe he will start appearing on the air more often to compete with Biden. But whether such interviews remain highly newsworthy as his time in office recedes—unless Trump declares for 2024—is an open question.