Here’s How Chris Matthews Forced A Donald Trump Abortion Error
Donald Trump earned condemnation from liberals and conservatives alike on Wednesday for stating that women who get abortions should receive “some form of punishment.” (The men impregnating those women, however, should not be punished, he said.)
Trump’s campaign quickly realized he had committed a major error and went into overdrive to correct it. Within hours, his campaign released a new position, the complete opposite of the one Trump originally articulated. During one cleanup interview, his spokesperson said, “This was a complete misspeak.”
I’m under no illusions that Mr. Trump will take media training advice from me (or seemingly anyone else). But there’s a technique at play in the exchange between MSNBC host Chris Matthews and Trump that’s worth examining for the rest of us.
If you haven’t seen the full exchange on abortion, it’s worth watching in its entirety.
How did Chris Matthews create a potentially campaign-altering moment when so few interviewers before him could?
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow partially answered that question on Wednesday night when she dubbed Matthews “The Great Interrupter.” He’s known for jumping in, cutting people off, doggedly pursuing a line of questioning, and refusing to allow guests to filibuster. But there’s one additional related piece that’s worth parsing out.
Matthews controlled the tempo.
Look at the below transcript. Notice how fast this back-and-forth occurs—and also keep in mind that a lot of this happened as crosstalk, meaning the two men kept cutting one another off.
TRUMP: I would — I am against — I am pro-life, yes.
MATTHEWS: What is ban — how do you ban abortion? How do you actually do it?
TRUMP: Well, you know, you will go back to a position like they had where people will perhaps go to illegal places.
TRUMP: But you have to ban it.
MATTHEWS: You banning, they go to somebody who flunked out of medical school.
TRUMP: Are you Catholic?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think…
TRUMP: And how do you feel about the Catholic Church’s position?
MATTHEWS: Well, I accept the teaching authority of my Church on moral issues.
TRUMP: I know, but do you know their position on abortion?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I do.
TRUMP: And do you concur with the position?
MATTHEWS: I concur with their moral position but legally, I get to the question — here’s my problem with it…
TRUMP: No, no, but let me ask you, but what do you say about your Church?
MATTHEWS: It’s not funny.
TRUMP: Yes, it’s really not funny.
What do you say about your church? They’re very, very strong.
MATTHEWS: They’re allowed to — but the churches make their moral judgments, but you running for president of the United States will be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe…
TRUMP: No, but…
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman?
TRUMP: Yes, there has to be some form.
Such a fast exchange doesn’t give a guest much time to think. Notice that for the key question on this topic—whether a woman should be punished for having an abortion—Trump looked away for just a moment and seemingly felt compelled to answer the question. That boldness is a function of his personality, but he’s far from alone in falling victim to a fast-moving interviewer.
We see that all the time in the training room—most interviewees speed up to match the pace of the interviewer.
A fast pace usually works in our favor as journalists, but not yours as a spokesperson. It takes poise and confidence to let the reporter go as fast as he or she wants and to insist on answering at your own, slower pace. In fairness, Trump’s baseline is to speak quickly—we tend to do that here in New York—but it would have served him well to realize he was up against a master interviewer and remember to slow everything down a bit.
As the 1990s dance song said, rhythm is a dancer. Good spokespersons don’t allow the reporter to determine the tempo of the dance. If the reporter suddenly goes into double time, all you have to do is keep the original beat.