President Trump’s campaign predicts Joe Biden won’t face tough interviews before Election Day, setting aside precedent in the process.
Trump’s team is adjusting its strategy, which depended on dinging the two-term vice president over mistakes he made during unscripted moments on the trail, as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee proceeds with his light press schedule amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
But while Trump’s camp is seething, frustrated by the perceived double standard, Biden hasn’t encountered the same criticism.
Modern politicking has evolved to include fewer interactions between candidates and the public, first because of security, and now, because of the coronavirus, according to historian David Pietrusza. Though mass-media dealings increased, they’ve also become more controlled, he explained.
“If Biden — a challenger — forfeits the chance to fashion his own narrative, Trump will construct one for him, and Trump’s accusation will resemble the diagnosis Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy invariably reached, ‘He’s dead, Jim,’” Pietrusza joked.
But Pietrusza was serious when he said avoiding reporters generally hadn’t worked in the past, particularly for challengers without the bully pulpit.
“In 1960, Jack Kennedy was far more accessible to the press than the guarded Richard Nixon. In answering questions, Alf Landon got out of the box very slowly after his 1936 GOP nomination, and it foretold a dismal subsequent campaign,” he said.
Pietrusza cited President Woodrow Wilson as one of the most flagrant examples of the media going easy on a lawmaker. When Wilson was toying with the idea of a third term in 1920, he granted one sit-down interview to the New York World’s Louis Seibold.
“It was total fake, with Wilson’s answers composed by his secretary, Joseph Tumulty. Nonetheless, it won Seibold the Pulitzer Prize,” Pietrusza said. “That the remainder of the press put up with such a situation seems remarkable.”
For Democratic strategist Nathan Ballard, Biden’s media tactics are commonsense, given his standing in the polls.
“Biden’s low-profile strategy is a smart one — for now. As Sun Tzu taught us, never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” Ballard said. “However, in a month or two, if Trump rebounds, Biden is going to need a higher profile, and he won’t have the luxury of turning down major interview requests.”
Biden hasn’t been condemned because he hasn’t spent his time in public office haranguing the Fourth Estate, Ballard contended.
“In his long political career, he has had friendly relations with the press corps, so you’re not going to see the same outrage that’s generated by Trump, who demeans members of the media at every opportunity,” he said.
Biden has spoken one-on-one with a handful of national outlets. But he’s prioritized local media for prearranged interviews, which typically throw him softball questions. If he takes questions after his sporadic events, they’re usually from a list of preapproved reporters.
But even with precautions, Biden still makes faux pas. In an interview last week, he compared the pressure on him to take a cognitive test to the black TV host being hypothetically required to take a drug test.
“That’s like saying [to] you, before you got in this program, ‘Will you take a test? Were you taking cocaine or not? What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?’” Biden asked.
He also walked back comments in which he said that “unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community.”
Trump’s aides claim Biden is cowering in his basement, a message they’ve amplified with altered photographs. They document the number of days Biden goes without holding a press conference, as well.
At the same time, Trump’s staff members have oscillated between shielding their apparent nominee from the media to offering him to a slew of outlets.
Trump regularly gaggles with reporters, but staffers nixed his daily White House pandemic briefings after he floated ultraviolet light and disinfectant injections as possible COVID-19 treatments.
More recently, Trump’s campaign has organized sit-down interviews with a range of journalists and personalities, including those from less traditional platforms, such as Barstool Sports. One of those interviews went viral last week, receiving more than 100 million views — for the wrong reasons.
Staff members spun Trump’s conversation with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, a 40-minute public relations disaster in which the pair sparred over the virus, absentee voting, and the late civil rights icon John Lewis, by asking critics whether Biden would’ve submitted himself to that level of scrutiny.
Trump’s team “committed malpractice by allowing him to be interviewed by Axios,” Ballard argued.
“The more Trump speaks, the more he calls attention to his bungling of the coronavirus epidemic,” Ballard said.”Trump’s performance is so inept that rule No. 1 for Biden should be ‘stay out of the way.’”
He added: “My advice to Biden: Stay the course — but if Trump sees an improvement in his poll numbers, come out swinging.”
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