Donald Trump’s inaugural sit-down with late night host Stephen Colbert was far from the bout expected from two of the nation’s leading comedians, one of whom happens to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. It was, as approximately half of Twitter joked, a “low energy” affair, in which both host and subject operated at about 25 percent of their capacity, unsure of the turbulence that might ensue should they push harder.
Colbert’s finest joke of the night was his first—delivered in the monologue, while Trump lingered in the green room. “One day,” Colbert said, “I might be able to tell my grandkids I interviewed the last president of the United States.” Nothing afterward even came close to that barb, itself mild by the standards of Colbert’s previous show.
The first segment of the interview was almost entirely an exchange of pleasantries. Trump spoke as usual about his tremendous success in every poll of everything, ever—though in a more hushed tone than usual, recognizing that the Ed Sullivan Theater was less friendly territory for the full Trump Experience. Instead of gently mocking him, Colbert abetted his braggadocio: “You see Zogby?” Colbert said, referring to the most flattering poll for Trump in the days since last week’s debate. Colbert would complete the segment with such penetrating questions as “Would [the White House] be a step down for you?” and compliments about his “Make America Great Again” merchandise.
The second segment had its moments. Colbert seemed to be the first interviewer in history who was unable to get Trump to say something stupid about President Obama’s birthplace. “I don’t talk about it anymore,” Trump said, after Colbert asked him whether Obama was born in the United States. “I talk about jobs, I talk about our veterans being mistreated.” He will almost certainly talk about it again, but not in the presence of Stephen Colbert.
The interview ended on a fun note, with Colbert subjecting Trump to a game of “Trump or Colbert: Who Said It?” Trump did not wish to take credit for all of the quotes that were attributable to him.
What might a feistier Colbert have done? He might have included in this seemingly innocent game some of Trump’s most unequivocally racist remarks and made Trump own them in front of an unsympathetic audience. That might have ensured that Trump’s first visit on his show would be his last, but it would’ve been worth it.