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Trump's 'Axios on HBO' interview is a self-demolition derby

President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors

President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act on Tuesday in the White House. Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

'It is what it is'

President Donald Trump's 38-minute interview on "Axios on HBO" was must-see TV and a mother lode for ad makers mining for material with which to bury him in the November election.

When reporter Jonathan Swan sharply challenged Trump's declarations that he has brought the coronavirus pandemic "under control" when "a thousand Americans are dying a day," the president all but shrugged off the horrific and still-growing numbers.

“They are dying. That’s true. And you — it is what it is,” Trump said. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.” The "it is what it is" line from the interview, which aired Monday night, was in a Joe Biden campaign ad by Tuesday afternoon.

Trump waved around papers to argue the U.S. toll from the disease was "lower than the world." Swan pointed out that the U.S. has 5% of the world's population but around 25% of global COVID-19 deaths. "I'm talking about death as a proportion of population. That's where the U.S. is really bad," Swan said.

Trump complained, "You can't do that" — he insisted that mortality should be measured against the record U.S. case numbers. But on lives lost, the math is on Swan's side because of the U.S. failures, continuing in many parts of the country, to curb the spread.

Trump even defended his June 20 arena rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, inflating the actual attendance figure from 6,000 to 12,000 while also grousing about the thousands of empty seats. The outbreak there "was pretty much over" at the time, Trump claimed. But shortly thereafter, dozens of Secret Service agents and campaign staffers tested positive and, as local health officials feared, infections in Oklahoma spiked. It's not certain where Trump booster Herman Cain caught the virus that killed him on July 30 after a month in the hospital, but he was maskless while attending the event.

Testing credibility

The president, who has complained that too much testing makes him look bad, advanced a novel and fanciful-sounding argument in the interview.

"There are those that say, you can test too much. You do know that."

Swan: "Who says that?"

Trump: "Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books."

Swan: What "manuals" and "books?"

Trump had no backup — he just changed the subject.

Lewis? What about Trump?

The Axios interview was recorded July 28, one of the days the body of John Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman and a hero of the 1960s civil rights movement, was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol. Swan asked Trump how history would remember Lewis.

The president's answer made clear how he views history — from the center of his own universe. "I don't know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration," Trump said. Nor did Lewis attend his State of the Union speeches. "He should've come. I think he made a big mistake," added Trump.

When Trump went back to his frequent claim that he's done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Swan reminded Trump that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. And then came news: Trump seems skeptical about the value of that landmark legislation.

"How has it worked out? If you take a look at what Lyndon Johnson did? How has it worked out?" Trump asked. Swan followed up: "You think the Civil Rights Act was a mistake?" Trump changed the subject.

Lewis also skipped the first inauguration of George W. Bush, who nonetheless joined two other ex-presidents in paying tribute to him at last week's funeral. “John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity and he believed in America," said Bush. Trump did not attend.

The full Axios interview can be seen online.

Janison: Pal of Joey

Trump's performance and rhetoric seem to be making Biden's efforts to deny him a second term easier than necessary, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

From the start, Trump showed no interest in expanding beyond his core Republican base. His messaging that associates Democrats with radical America-hating subversives will allow Biden, if he chooses, to position himself as a moderate who can unite Americans.

Trump plays the role of sideline heckler in the COVID-19 crisis, showing little initiative on a national containment policy. Griping that "nobody likes me"; refusing to set second-term goals; demanding more debates; repeating false corruption charges; saying mail-in votes are "rigged"; and complaining he's been "very unfairly treated" — all sound like premature loser talk from Trump.

Trump portrays Biden as mentally deficient and manipulated by others. But much of what the incumbent says on a daily basis sounds unclear, rambling and fantasy-based. Many negative ads for Biden even feature videos of Trump in his own words.

Back to the wishing well

The self-advertised "law and order" president saw no incongruity during the Axios interview in offering well-wishes for Ghislaine Maxwell, the jailed accused child-sex trafficker with whom he used to hang out along with her now-dead companion Jeffrey Epstein.

Trump suggested skepticism about the charges against the socialite as well as the official story — from Attorney General William Barr and the New York City medical examiner — that Epstein took his own life after his arrest on the trafficking charges.

“Her friend, or boyfriend, was either killed or committed suicide in jail. She’s now in jail,” Trump told Swan. “Yeah, I wish her well,” he said, reiterating his remark from a July 21 coronavirus briefing. “I’d wish you well. I’d wish a lot of people well. Good luck. Let them prove somebody was guilty.”

Trump socialized with Epstein and Maxwell in past years at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, but the president has insisted Epstein was never a member of the exclusive resort.

A new book by reporters from the Miami Herald and The Wall Street Journal shoots down that account. The authors said they were shown a club registry that had Epstein listed as a member until October 2007. He was banned after an incident with another member's teen daughter, according to the book, "The Grifter's Club."

Reading is Trump-da-mental

Officials who brief Trump have known from early on to keep the written word to a minimum and make use of charts, graphs and other visual aids. Trump told Swan his reputed impatience with reading — a trait he acknowledged before becoming president — is undeserved.

“I do. I read it a lot. I read a lot,” Trump said. “They like to say I don’t read. I read a lot. I comprehend extraordinarily well, probably better than anybody you’ve interviewed in a long time.”

The topic came up as Trump was contending that U.S. intelligence reports on Russians offering bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan "never reached my desk” because intelligence community officials “didn’t think it was real.”

A ray of sunshine for mail voting

After months of bashing mail-in voting and even suggesting the 2020 election should be delayed because of it, Trump is now for it — at least in the critical swing state of Florida.

“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”

The state has allowed excuse-free mail-in voting since its disastrous 2000 presidential election recount that took a Supreme Court ruling to end, Politico wrote.

At Tuesday evening's coronavirus briefing, Trump wouldn't say what about Florida’s mail voting made it more trustworthy than the rest. But he indicated that his concerns lay with states trying to quickly scale up their vote-by-mail operations because of the pandemic.

Florida GOP officials welcomed Trump's tweet, The Associated Press reported. “Thank you for the clarification Mr. President! This is very helpful,” said Joe Gruters, the chair of Florida’s Republican Party.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Bart Jones with Matthew Chayes. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump missed the mark at a signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act as he tried to pronounce the name of Yosemite National Park in California. He was meant to say "Yo-sem-it-ees." In Trump's rendition, it sounded like "Yo Semites." (See the video.) It's surprising in that someone from Trump's generation should remember the Yosemite Sam character from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
  • At least three people who have been active in Republican politics are linked to Kanye West’s attempt to get on presidential ballots this year, The New York Times reports. The connection raises questions about the aims of the hip-hop entertainer’s effort and whether it is regarded within the GOP as a spoiler campaign that could aid Trump.
  • Trump's fundraising swing through the Hamptons later this week will include a $580,600-per-couple dinner on Saturday, according to Newsday's The Point. Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle are the headliners at a “Trumpstock Boat Parade” in Montauk.
  • The White House and Democratic leaders agreed to try to finalize a deal to address lapsed unemployment benefits and eviction restrictions by the end of this week and hold a vote in Congress next week, The Washington Post reports.
  • After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lit into Trump's coronavirus response Monday as "the worst government blunder in modern history," Vice President Mike Pence responded in kind on Laura Ingraham's Fox News show Monday night. "Our hearts grieve for the fact that one in five of all the American lives that have been lost in the coronavirus pandemic were lost in the State of New York," Pence said, "and some of that was because of poor decisions by the state and by Governor Cuomo."
  • While Republicans are fretting that Trump's attacks on mail-in voting could hurt turnout on their side, an Axios-Ipsos poll suggests a potential flip side. It found 64% of Democrats considered in-person voting to be a large or moderate risk to their health, while only 29% of Republicans felt that way. 
  • National security adviser Robert O'Brien returned to the White House on Tuesday after a period of self-isolation following his coronavirus diagnosis last month, CNN reports.

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