Decoding Trump: How he engaged, deflected or ducked my questions at Mar-a-Lago

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I came armed with a fistful of blue cards, and still didn’t get to half the questions, but Donald Trump made a whole lot of news in our Mar-a-Lago interview.

What’s revealing is how he chose to answer the most sensitive questions, or to deflect them, and how various media outlets chose to frame them.

Some, like the New York Times, ABC and the Hill, played it straight. Other operations, many of them left-leaning, cherry-picked quotes to make Trump look as awful as possible, while ignoring the reasonable-sounding things he said.

A classic example was when I asked the former president about the murder of Alexei Navalny in a Siberian prison camp. I thought he might duck because of his friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin.

But I put it to him point-blank: Is the Russian dictator responsible for the death of the opposition leader?

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Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump takes the stage to introduce a new line of signature shoes at Sneaker Con at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Feb. 17 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Perhaps,” Trump said. “I mean, possibly, I could say probably. I don’t know. He’s a young man, so statistically he’d be alive for a long time…Certainly that would look like something very bad happened.”

Keep in mind that Trump has never even mentioned Putin in the same paragraph as Navalny, and now he’s saying “probably” responsible. Of course, Trump can’t prove it, and neither can I.

Here are some of the headlines:

“Trump Couldn’t Bring Himself to Condemn Putin for Alexei Navalny’s Death.”

“Trump Delivers Head-Spinningly Awkward Answer to New Question About Putin.” 

“Trump: ‘I Don’t Know’ If Putin Was Responsible for Navalny’s Death.”

You get the idea.

Which brings us to Trump’s rhetoric. I asked why he uses words like “vermin” and “poisoning of the blood” to describe illegal migrants – especially since the press says such language was used by Hitler and Mussolini.

Trump says he didn’t know that and then repeated “our country is being poisoned” – prompting a wave of headlines that he had doubled down on such harmful language.

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I guess you could say that – and I’m not letting him off the hook – but the more telling part of his answer came next.

I asked the 45th president whether he uses “over the top” and “inflammatory” language to drive the media debate, meaning a focus on his words gets news outlets spending days on his turf, on his preferred issue, in the arguments over whether he went too far. And Trump didn’t deny it, saying he wouldn’t limit himself to “politically correct” verbiage.

“It also gets people thinking about very important issues,” he said. “That if you don’t use certain rhetoric, if you don’t use certain words that maybe are not very nice words, nothing will happen.” My theory, based on decades of observing him, was correct.

Then he went off on migrants coming from insane asylums and how crime will double – neither of which has been shown to be true on a major scale. 

Migrants in a line

Migrants line up at a remote U.S. Border Patrol processing center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Dec. 7, 2023, in Lukeville, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The same was true with NATO, when Trump caused a global uproar by saying he’d encourage the Russians to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that don’t pay their fair share of defense costs.

That sounds like someone taking a pro-Putin stance, I said.

“It sounds like somebody that wants to get people to pay money,” Trump said. In other words, it was a negotiating tactic.

Half an hour before airtime, the media were awash in headlines about Trump saying there would be a “bloodbath” if he lost the election. So I watched that portion of his speech at an Ohio rally the night before.

There have been times when Trump used loaded words to signal the possibility of political violence. This wasn’t one of them.

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Trump was going on about Chinese cars and their impact on the American auto industry. Then he said if he wasn’t elected there would be a bloodbath – in terms of the impact on jobs. Then he went right back to talking about electric vehicles and industry competition.

Now some pundits said the mere use of the word bloodbath was like a bat signal, telling his supporters to get ready for violence. After all, he was so Machiavellian that he added, “That’s going to be the least of it.” But as I said, too many outlets were so in love with the bloodbath story that they wrenched it out of context.

Trump also said at the rally that some migrants were “animals” and “not people.” That’s unacceptable language, in my view, but remember what he said about inflammatory words driving the media debate. I wanted to decode his approach for viewers.   

Trump also made news on abortion. I asked him about a Times story that said he is discussing with advisers a national ban after 16 weeks of pregnancy – not knowing his campaign had dismissed it as fake news – and figured he’d dismiss the story.

Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande at the southern border

Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico are lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Sept. 23, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Nope. He essentially confirmed the 16-week story – saying he’d make a decision “pretty soon,” which would obviously be in that range – that had previously been attributed to unnamed sources. He said, despite my skepticism, that he wants to “make both sides happy.”

When Republicans grapple with abortion in the post-Roe world, Trump said, “you have to go with your heart. But beyond that, you also have to get elected.” He said that opposing the three exceptions – rape, incest, life of the mother – caused Pennsylvania Republican Doug Mastriano to lose the governor’s race in a landslide.

Then Trump went off on the Democrats and late-term abortions – which I said in one of several fact-checks are exceedingly rare.

He also made news on subjects ranging from Israel to TikTok.

The first time I met Donald Trump was in 1987, in New York, when he was promoting his first book “The Art of the Deal.”

And this, unprompted, is what he said to me:

“When I go up to New Hampshire – I’m not running for president, by the way – I got the best crowd, the best of everything in terms of reception. The politicians go up and get a moderate audience. I go up and they’re scalping tickets. You heard that? They’re scalping tickets. Why? Because people don’t want to be ripped off, and this country is being ripped off. I think if I ran, I’d win.”

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I confess I did not then envision Trump, still a largely local real estate guy, in the White House, but now he’s going to head the Republican ticket for the third straight time.

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