Dueling Presidential Cable News Interviews Reveal the State of the Race

Dueling Presidential Cable News Interviews Reveal the State of the Race

Whoever is living in the White House after January 20, 2025 will likely be calling up their favorite ideologically-allied cable-news hosts on the Oval Office landline. Monday’s cable news lineup made clear that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both off their prime as campaigners, are eager to use the Phone-a-Friend advantage. 

Monday’s cable news agenda began with Biden dialing up MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and ended with Trump ringing Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Neither candidate appeared, while speaking to their respective home-turf cable networks, on camera; both (to varying degrees, with Hannity coming off far worse) were fed softballs. Back when Nixon debated Kennedy and was found unphotogenic by comparison, Kennedy exploited the difference and emphasized his relative youth; in the wake of the June 27 CNN debate that established Trump as a solid frontrunner, both candidates seem to be trying to escape the camera.

On Fox, Trump struggled to come up with anything in particular to say about Biden’s debate performance. 

“He looked extremely pale, to put it nicely,” Donald Trump said on Monday night’s “Hannity,” his first interview since the debate — and the second of two dueling presidential cable-news phones on Monday. “Maybe it was a good makeup job or maybe it wasn’t, but he was a pale-looking man.”

Trump had seemed to have won the debate by default: Merely by showing up and by speaking in relatively clear and complete sentences, he had outdone — on style and not substance points — the incumbent President, who had shown up and done little else. In the intervening days, Trump has largely stayed out of the spotlight; this was his first interview since the debate. 

And it seemed plain that Trump, too, has lost a step; his ability to sidetrack himself has perhaps never felt quite so pronounced as when Sean Hannity tossed him an over-the-plate question about his impressions of debate night and Trump began by describing how special and important it felt to be at CNN headquarters. (He’s always been ensorcelled by TV, but he has at times known to be a bit more on-message.) And his energy in delivering an anti-Biden screed about the likelihood of World War III under the incumbent president’s watch seemed tepid to nonexistent — it was a low-energy stump speech at precisely the moment Trump has inherited the wind. Perhaps, for him, it’s more fun to be running from behind. 

Not that he has ever acknowledged he’s been losing an election. And that may be the one thing he shares with his opponent. Biden’s interview on Monday on MSNBC was safer ground than his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, on July 5; Biden used it to berate not merely his opponent but his own party. 

On “Morning Joe,” Biden was in relatively comfortable territory — while anchor Joe Scarborough is among those who have urged the President to consider dropping out of the election, he and co-host (and wife) Mika Brzezinski have generally been avid partisans on Biden’s behalf throughout his term. And the broadcasters provided largely muted sounding boards for a torrent of words from Biden, an anguished and often bitterly sarcastic tirade in which Biden vowed to continue fighting not merely against Trump but against Democrats, at one point declaring “I’m getting so frustrated by the elites in the party.” In a bitingly sarcastic tone, he added, “They know so much more.” Late in the interview, as if to settle the question of what accounted for the sound of rustling paper on his end, Biden announced that he was reading his answers from a list. 

Both anchors, especially Brzezinski, asked real questions of the President (Brzezinski in particular pressed him on whether he’d received a neurological workup post-debate, to which the answer was a long-winded and confusing “No”). And this differentiated them from Hannity. But no fundamentally sympathetic interviewer can stand up to the power of a President, no matter how worn the President: Both Scarborough and Brzezinski were, ultimately, overwhelmed both by the President’s willingness to just push past them and his indignant tone, shouting down elites who were not on the call but out there, waiting to be proven wrong.

It was a performance that recalled Trump — not the Trump who called into Hannity to shoot the breeze, comfortably knowing he was ahead and willing to play the hits for 20 minutes. The insurgent Trump of 2016. The one whose substance didn’t look like Biden’s but whose style, too, Democrats couldn’t abide. If Biden could subject himself to an interview that didn’t so obviously call to mind Trump’s lazy-man style of campaigning-by-phone, reaching out to the cable news show most obviously congenial to his perspective and most willing to let the tape run, shouldn’t he have? 

After all, Trump’s “Hannity” phoner is nothing new. Over audio-only cable-news appearances in the 2016 campaign, including calls into “Fox & Friends,” Trump established a cultlike hold over his party by insisting, contra reality, that “I alone” could win the race. There was a Wizard of Oz quality, perhaps, for his supporters — over the phone and with the visuals hidden, Trump created his own reality, in which they could take part.

Whoever is advising Biden has decided to crib from the same playbook. It’s ugly to the point of heartbreaking — the Democrats’ line has, to this point, been that they exist on a higher plane than Trump, and here is their standard-bearer hopping on the phone to rail against elites, decry polls and news organizations as fake and untrustworthy, and position himself as the sole holder of special insight. And when these points ring false, the principal just repeats them again, louder. 

A key difference, though, may lie in these politicians’ specific value propositions. Trump, in running against his own party, had a claim as an outsider, a breath of fresh air, an agent of change (and, indeed, of chaos). Biden, first elected to the Senate under President Nixon and, incidentally, the incumbent President since 2021, cannot credibly run against the establishment of which he is a part — to do so is to look like a man shouting at the wind as it shifts directions. 

The best one can say for Biden’s MSNBC appearance is that he either dissembled in answering or outright ignored the hosts’ questions; that they were questions at all gave the interview more integrity than ones Biden did over the weekend. Appearing on two radio shows targeting Black audiences — and, on one of them, calling himself “the first Black woman” vice-president — Biden’s team had ensured he’d face no friction. The hosts claimed they had been given a short list of pre-approved questions. (The Biden campaign has said that accepting the questions was not a precondition.)

What lies ahead for Biden is known only to him. The pressure from within his party to drop out will likely intensify. And that pressure seems to presuppose something that Biden cannot admit — that, in an election against a candidate crafted by reality television and catalyzed by Fox News, he simply can no longer compete in terms of conveying his message. And relying on MSNBC to transmit it for him will only go so far. On Fox News, Trump was just coasting. But for Biden, as evidenced by the last two weeks, this “Morning Joe” appearance seems, right now, the very best he could do.

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