The Slatest

It Took Savannah Guthrie 19 Minutes to Give Trump His Toughest Grilling in Years

Trump speaks as he and Guthrie sit across from each other on an open-air stage, with water and a bridge in the background
Savannah Guthrie questions President Donald Trump at an NBC News town hall event in Miami on Thursday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Rather than face former Vice President Joe Biden in a town hall debate on Thursday, President Donald Trump took questions from voters in a one-hour special on NBC. Before the Miami crowd got its turn, however, host Savannah Guthrie interviewed Trump directly, appearing to respond to criticism of the network’s decision to hand Trump airtime by giving the president one of the most intense grillings of his four years in office.

Guthrie pressed the president on details related to his own experience with COVID-19, his baffling evasiveness when asked to condemn white supremacy, and the QAnon conspiracy theory, which Trump declined to condemn, though he did say, “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.” While Trump tried to fall back on his usual bluster, Guthrie was a cheerful but firm interrogator, returning again and again to the facts and details of Trump’s answers. As usual, Trump attempted to lie through the barrage of tough questions—and almost every time got pinned down by an interviewer who didn’t back off. At one point, after Guthrie parried one of Trump’s attempts to undermine a question’s premise, the president replied, “So cute.”

Quite a lot happened in 19 or so minutes! Let’s take it topic by topic.

COVID-19

Guthrie wasted no time in launching into Trump’s inconsistencies. After introducing herself, explaining the situation behind the competing presidential town halls, and wishing the first lady and their son good health, she asked Trump to explain his unusually intense medical treatment.

Trump responded that he “didn’t feel good” and that he had a temperature, and that “all I know is I felt good the following day.” Guthrie wasn’t satisfied with the answer. “Did the doctors ever tell you that they saw pneumonia on your lung scan?”

Trump: No, but they said the lungs are a little bit different, a little perhaps infected, and—

Guthrie: Infected with? 

Trump: I don’t know. I didn’t do too much asking. I really felt good. I didn’t have much of a problem with the lungs. I did have a little bit of a temperature. Obviously I felt there was something missing. And then I tested, you know, I tested positive.

Guthrie then tried to pin Trump on the dates of his infection, a topic on which the White House’s explanations have shifted. “Your first positive test was Thursday, Oct. 1, OK? When was your last negative test? When did you last remember having a negative test?” Trump didn’t give a definitive answer, but thanks to Guthrie’s persistence, he offered a bit more detail—and made a revealing obfuscation:

Trump: Well, I test quite a bit. And I can tell you that before the debate, which I thought was a very good debate, and I felt fantastically, I was—I had no problem.

Guthrie: Did you test the day of the debate?

Trump: I don’t know, I don’t even remember. I test all the time. But I can tell you this. After the debate, like, I guess, a day or so, I think it was Thursday evening, maybe even late Thursday evening, I tested positive. That’s when I first found out—

Guthrie: Back to the debate, because the debate commission’s rules, it was the honor system, would be that you would come with a negative test. You say you don’t know if you got a test on the day of the debate?

Trump: I had no problem. Again, the doctors do it. I don’t ask them. I test all the time.

Guthrie: Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?

Trump: If you ask the doctors, they’ll give you a perfect answer. They take a test, I leave, I go about my business.

Guthrie: Did you take a test on the day of the debate, I guess, is the bottom line.

Trump: I probably did. I took a test before, the day before. I was in great shape for the debate. It was only after the debate, like a period of time after the debate, that I said, that’s interesting, and they took a test, and it tested positive.

Guthrie: Just to button it up, do you take a test every single day?

Trump: No. But I take a lot of tests.

Guthrie: And you don’t know if you took a test the day of the debate?

Trump: Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.

Guthrie then went on to press Trump on the details of the event held at the White House the Saturday before he tested positive, at which attendees of an indoor reception were seen without masks. “My question to you is, at this point in the pandemic, knowing what we know, shouldn’t you have known better?” she asked. “Shouldn’t the White House know better than to hold an event like that?”

Trump responded with false public health information. “As far as the mask is concerned, I’m good with masks. I’m OK with masks. I tell people to wear masks. But just the other day, they came out with a statement that 85 percent of the people that wear masks catch it.”

Guthrie fact-checked him immediately. “They didn’t say that. I know that study.” Trump appeared frustrated.

Trump: That’s what I heard. And that’s what I saw. And regardless—but everybody is tested, and they’re tested often. And I also knew that, hey, I’m president, I have to see people, I can’t be in a basement, I can’t be in a room, I can’t be—I have to be out.

Guthrie: You can see people with a mask, though, right?

Trump: I can. But people with masks are catching it all the time. If you look at the governor of Virginia, he was known for a mask. If you look at Thom Tillis, a great guy, he always had a mask and they caught it.

Guthrie: There are pictures of Thom Tillis with one of Judge Barrett’s kids not wearing a mask.

After another couple of exchanges, Trump tried to paint a misleading portrait of the United States’ handling of the pandemic, and Guthrie pushed back, citing the country’s high COVID mortality rate. After another back-and-forth, Guthrie asked about the White House’s approach. Trump became defensive, refused to answer her question about herd immunity, blamed China for the pandemic, and boasted that his administration had avoided the predictions of more than 2 million deaths. “That 2 million figure, though, is if you literally do nothing,” Guthrie pointed out. “The question is, should the deaths be better than 200,000 when, relative to the rest of the world, we have the worst death rate?”

Trump responded by critiquing the actions of Democratic governors who enacted more stringent coronavirus restrictions and describing their states as bleak and bad for business.

White Supremacy

During his last debate with Joe Biden, Trump declined to unambiguously condemn white supremacists rallying in Portland, Oregon. As Guthrie began to ask Trump about that moment, Trump cut in. “You always do this,” he said. “You always do this. You’ve done this to me and everybody—I denounced white supremacy, OK? I denounced white supremacy for years. But you always start off with the question, you didn’t ask Joe Biden whether or not he denounces antifa.”

Guthrie pressed Trump on his reaction:

Guthrie: This is a little bit of a dodge.

Trump: Are you listening? I denounce white supremacy. What’s your next question?

Guthrie: It feels sometimes you’re hesitant to do so. Like you wait a beat.

Trump: Here we go again. Every time. In fact my people came, “I’m sure they’ll ask you the white supremacy question.” I denounce white supremacy. And frankly, you want to know something, I denounce antifa, and I denounce these people on the left that are burning down our cities, that are run by Democrats who don’t—

Guthrie: While we’re denouncing, let me ask you about QAnon. 

Which brings us to …

QAnon and Conspiracy Theories

Guthrie began by explaining to the audience and the president what the QAnon conspiracy entails. “It is this theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior of that. Can you once and for all state that that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?

The whole exchange is worth reading:

Trump: I know nothing about QAnon.

Guthrie: I just told you.

Trump: Well, you told me, but what you tell me doesn’t necessarily make it fact. I hate to say that. I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it.

Guthrie: They believe it is a satanic cult run by the deep state.

Trump: I’ll tell you what I do know about. I know about antifa and I know about the radical left and how violent and vicious they are, and I know how they are burning down cities run by Democrats, not run by Republicans.

Guthrie: Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said, “QAnon is nuts, and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”

Trump: He may be right.

Guthrie: Why not just say it’s crazy and not true?

Trump: I just don’t know about QAnon.

Guthrie: You do know.

Trump: I don’t know. I don’t know. No, I don’t know. … Let me just tell you what I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that, I do agree with that.

Guthrie: OK, but there’s not a satanic pedophile cult being run by—

Trump: I have no idea. I know nothing about that.

Guthrie: You don’t know that? OK.

Trump: No, I don’t know that. And neither do you know that.

Guthrie: OK, just this week you retweeted—

Trump: Why aren’t you asking me about antifa? Why aren’t you asking me about the radical left? Why aren’t you asking Joe Biden questions about—why doesn’t he condemn antifa? Why does he say it doesn’t exist?

Guthrie: Because you’re here before me.

Trump: So cute.

Guthrie then asked Trump about another conspiracy theory the president spread.

Guthrie: Just this week you retweeted to your 87 million followers a conspiracy theory that Joe Biden orchestrated to have SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up the fake death of bin Laden. Now, why would you send a lie like that to your followers?

Trump: That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there.

Guthrie: I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.

Trump: No, no, that was a retweet, I do a lot of retweets. And frankly, because the media is so fake and so corrupt, if I didn’t have social media—I don’t call it Twitter, I call it social media—I wouldn’t be able to get the word out. And the word—

Guthrie: The word is false.

The Election

Guthrie then brought up another one of Trump’s nonanswers from a previous debate. Trump has declined to say he would accept a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. “You have said repeatedly, ‘The only way we lose this election is if it is rigged.’ ’’ she said. “Now, that is simply not true. The fact is either candidate can lose fair and square without ballot fraud. So will you accept the results of the election?”

Trump responded by claiming that there was widespread voter fraud, citing rumors. Guthrie cut him off.

Guthrie: That is a handful … a single case here, a single there. We’re talking about 150 million votes. Your own FBI director said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud.

Trump: Oh, really? Then he’s not doing a great job.

He then cited false numbers of supposed fraud and claimed, baselessly, that “they” spied on his campaign.

Trump: And then they talk about “Will you accept a peaceful transfer?” And the answer is yes, I will. But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else. When I see thousands of ballots dumped in a garbage can and they happen to have my name on it, I’m not happy about it.

Guthrie: OK. But those are—there is in fact no evidence of widespread fraud, and you are sowing doubt about our democracy, our democracy.

Trump: How can you say that? You do read newspapers.

Guthrie: I do.

Trump: Because every day they’re talking about ballots that are corrupt, that are fraudulent. … You can win a race by 1 percent.

Guthrie: But why are you laying the groundwork for that? It’s like if I go play tennis with my husband and I say my ankle is hurting.

Trump: Savannah, I want it to be clean. I really feel we’re going to win. But I want this to be clean. … Peaceful transfer, I absolutely want that. But ideally I don’t want a transfer because I want to win.

After the interview portion, Trump took questions from voters, with follow-ups from Guthrie. Among other topics, the president said that he did not know whether any of the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes is to foreign entities, and that he has a plan to replace Obamacare, which he does not.