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Donald Trump whipped out the charts to make his case about coronavirus. They didnt help him get around reporter Jonathan Swan

For the second time in less than a month, US President Donald Trump sat down for a one-on-one interview with a reporter outside his friendly orbit.

The President came prepared, or so it seemed.

He entered the room carrying a bunch of papers, scattered with charts, evidence of America’s successes combating the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s an age-old strategy: intimidate the interviewer with statistics they haven’t seen, then catch them on the hop while the cameras are rolling.

But for that game plan to work, the person holding the data needs to understand it.

Armed with his own facts, Axios’s Australian reporter Jonathan Swan seized the opportunity to pick apart the data with basic follow-up questions.

Who? What? And How?

They teach this on day one at journalism school. But Trump has become accustomed to interviews with friendly players, uninterested in challenging his responses.

From the outset, it was clear this wasn’t to be Swan’s style.

Trump downplayed 150,000 deaths

Post-interview, Swan, the son of the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan, has received widespread praise for pressing the President in ways he didn’t during his first sit-down with Trump back in 2018.

Swan was criticised then for failing to push back on the President’s claim that the US was the only country that offered birthright citizenship.

He started this latest interview by zeroing in on the President’s boundless positivity — the way Trump has done business his entire life.

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The President has implemented this strategy for the past five months, repeatedly touting “the pandemic is totally under control”, as cases and deaths have spiralled.

It’s a message many within the medical world have criticised as being disconnected from reality and a danger to public health.

Swan pressed Trump on whether “wishful thinking” and “salesmanship” was an appropriate leadership style for handling the worst pandemic of the century, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans.

“Right now, I think it’s under control,” Trump said at one point.

“How? A thousand Americans are dying a day,” Swan interjected.

“But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.”

“You really think this is as much as we can control it? A thousand deaths a day?” Swan asked.

A US Marine stands beside the flag-draped coffin of a veteran who contracted the coronavirus disease.A US Marine stands beside the flag-draped coffin of a veteran who contracted the coronavirus disease.
Deaths from COVID-19 are again consistently above 1,000 a day.(Reuters: Brian Snyder)

The point Swan appeared to be trying to articulate was whether positivity had detracted from reality, and indeed the country’s response.

Over the course of 15 minutes, he sparred in a direct and uncompromising manner with the President, interrupting Trump as Trump interrupts others.

It was clear the President wasn’t ready to respond.

Trump brought charts. They didn’t help

A man sitting down showing a graph on a piece of paper.A man sitting down showing a graph on a piece of paper.
US President Donald Trump in an interview with Axios political correspondent Jonathan Swan.(Axios via YouTube)

As the President put forward chart after chart to illustrate America’s successes, Swan picked apart those measures.

“Right here,” Trump said at one point, showing Swan a chart. “The United States is lowest in— numerous categories, we’re lower than the world.”

“We’re lower than Europe,” Trump continued. “Take a look. Take a look. Right here.”

He handed Swan the sheet of paper, allowing him to understand what Trump was claiming.

“Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” Swan said. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”

Swan pushed Trump to justify claims

A man gestures while another listens with a notepad and pen.A man gestures while another listens with a notepad and pen.
Jonathan Swan speaks with US President Donald Trump.(Axios)

It became apparent Trump didn’t have a grasp on what was happening in the pandemic.

He was holding up numbers but didn’t appear to understand what they showed — or more importantly, what they didn’t.

It left him fumbling and unable to justify his repeated claims that everything was under control.

“You have go by …” Trump said, rifling through his papers.

The administration uses the mortality rate as a measure of success, because a month ago, that was the only metric on which the United States fared well.

Cases were surging in the south and west but daily deaths, which lag behind cases, were still heading down.

That’s no longer the case. Deaths are again consistently above 1,000 a day and, while that’s still lower than the peak reached in April, it’s hardly good news.

Throughout the interview, Swan repeatedly prompted the President to demonstrate how he felt about the mounting death toll.

He even brought up Trump’s public rallies and suggested he should use his power over his followers for good.

“Many of them are older people, Mr President — it’s giving them a false sense of security.”

But Trump’s response was to accuse the media of playing down the size of the crowd he drew to Tulsa in June, where only a few thousand people turned out.

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Trump comments on John Lewis, Ghislaine Maxwell

The 37-minute interview focused mostly on coronavirus, but there are two additional takeaways worth pointing out.

Despite claiming to have done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Trump couldn’t say how history would remember the late civil rights leader, John Lewis.

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He credited that lack of familiarity to Lewis having not attended his inauguration ceremony, twice declining to describe the former congressman as impressive.

“I can’t say one way or another,” Trump said.

“I found a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive, but he didn’t come to my inauguration, he didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches.”

And Trump again sent his well wishes to an associate of Jeffrey Epstein, alleged child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell.

He also promoted the conspiracy theory that Epstein was murdered: “Her friend or boyfriend was either killed or committed suicide in jail.”

It comes after a press conference last month, where the President first offered well wishes to Maxwell — a move seen by some as signalling a possible pardon for his long-time acquaintance.

But the most pressing issue on voters’ minds remains the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s here the President’s repeated assertions of success reveal a pressing political reality.

His chances of winning are reduced, if not dashed, if the country is still focused on the virus come November.

With tens of thousands of cases still being recorded each day, any other reality seems beyond the realms of possibility.

After all, as the President said, it is what it is.

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