Why The ‘Axios On HBO’ Interview With Donald Trump Worked: A Real-Time Fact Check Of The President’s Fusillade Of Claims

Ted Johnson
·6 min read

Jonathan Swan’s interview with Donald Trump for Axios on HBO is getting a lot of attention for what the president says about the rising number of coronavirus cases, claims of Russia funding of the Taliban and what he thinks of the late John Lewis, among other things.

What also stands out, though, is Swan’s willingness to challenge Trump on some of his most common pronouncements. Watch the interview below.

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The president has a gift for repeating exaggerated, misleading and false claims, to the point where they have become just a routine part of discourse. He often answers questions with a fusillade of assertions, making it difficult for any reporter to know how and when to interrupt and when to just let him speak.

Swan, though, countered Trump on some of his oft-repeated lines at some key moments. Example: Trump’s frequent attacks on mail-in voting as fraudulent.

TRUMP: “You look at some of the corruption having to do with universal mail-in voting. Absentee voting is OK. You have to apply. You have to do it through a process.

SWAN: “You have to apply to mail-in. It’s the same thing.”

Trump then look a bit annoyed and pulled on his coat.

TRUMP: “Look, they are sending out millions of ballots.”

SWAN: “No, it’s applications. You can get them off the Internet.”

In another instance, when talking about his response to the coronavirus, Trump went back to his often-repeated point that he banned travel from China in late January.

“It was already here,” Swan said. “By the time you banned China, it came in through Europe.”

This was the outlet’s fourth interview with the president. Swan and Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei sat down with Trump for an interview with Axios on HBO when it was launched in 2018. Then, Swan did get some criticism for not pushing back on one of the president’s claims about birthright citizenship. He did another interview with Trump in June, before his Tulsa rally.

Swan declined comment for this article, saying he wanted his interview to speak for itself, but VandeHei told Deadline that they knew a few days ahead of time that the sit-down was likely a go. It was taped, in a documentary style that is a specialty of the HBO series, on July 28, and trimmed from about 45 minutes to 38 minutes total.

“The only thing we really edited was just sort of cleaning it up,” VandeHei said. “It wasn’t much of the interview that didn’t make the final cut.

He also said that he has not heard any reaction from the White House.

“I think the reason that Swan got [the interview] is because he is tough and fair,” VandeHei said. “The White House might not love our coverage or love the stories, but I don’t think you can make the argument that we don’t do our best to be very clinical in our coverage. We’re not hyperbolic. We don’t have reporters popping off on Twitter. We don’t have an opinion page, so we are probably one of the least partisan news sites out there, and I think Swan is one of the least partisan reporters. He’s tough, but he’s kind of tough on everyone, and that is kind of the way you want it to be.”

Swan was born in Australia, joined The Hill after working for the Sydney Morning Herald and became national political reporter for Axios in 2016. He’s developed a reputation for inside sourcing and scoops and, in the Trump interview and others, for his preparation. He also doesn’t attend the most visible part of the White House beat, the briefing. “I mean, why would you?” VandeHei said.

VandeHei said that a challenge in interviewing Trump is that “he’s extremely self confident, and he will try to dominate a conversation, so you have to be sort of meticulous in your preparation to be able to push back, and to be able to do so in a persistent and respectful way. And I think that is why the Swan interview stood out. I think Chris Wallace’s interview, a week or two ago, was a great example of that. You have to be able to push back.

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“By the way, it’s not like President Trump is going to walk off the set,” he added. “In some ways his love language is confrontation. And I think what you saw in Swan was very polite and meticulous and highly effective confrontation, but it was subtle and it was fact-based, and it was based on persistence and preparation.”

The interview obviously showed the value of preparation and the ability to listen, but also the value of time. Trump often takes questions from reporters multiple times a day but compared to a sit-down interview they are fleeting moments, and the focus of reporters often is on the news of the hour.

The president does a fair number of sit-down interviews — more so with Fox News than any other outlet — but they have been of varying degrees of followup. And in some cases, the interviewer has been over mindful of the clock, determined to race through too many topics in too little time. This one was different, as Swan at times interrupted the president with a question, and at others sat attentively but also looked rather relaxed with his legs crossed, occasionally moving his left foot up and down.

As can be seen by the interview, Trump did his best to just try to move forward with his talking points — but not without challenge to some of his more hyperbolic assertions, including one that he has made a few times recently.

TRUMP: “I did more for the Black community than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, whether you like it or not.”

SWAN: “You believe you did more than Lyndon Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act?”

TRUMP: “I got criminal justice reform done. I got prison reform.”

SWAN: “Lyndon Johnson. He passed the Civil Rights Act.

TRUMP: “How has it worked out, if you look at what Lyndon Johnson did?”

SWAN: “You think the Civil Rights Act was a mistake?”

TRUMP: “How has it worked out? Because frankly it took a long time.”

SWAN: “But you think that was a mistake.”

See the full interview below.

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