FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2020
The absence of the logicians: What happened last night happens so rarely that it should be memorialized.
Last night, Savannah Guthrie asked the commander-in-chief a perfectly sensible question. And yes, it actually happened:
When the commander didn't answer her question, she asked her question again!
In fact, depending on the way you want to count, she asked her question as many as seven times. Here's how the extended exchange began. You almost never see what happened next:
GUTHRIE (10/15/20): Well, let’s talk about testing because there’s a little bit of a, I guess, confusion about this. And I think we can clear it up.
TRUMP: Yeah, and there shouldn’t be.
GUTHRIE: Your first positive test was Thursday, October 1st, okay? When was your last negative test? When did you last remember having a negative test?
The commander tested positive on Thursday, October 1. He had debated Candidate Biden, live and in person, just two nights before.
Had Trump produced a negative test before the debate with Biden? This question has been floating around for the past two weeks.
Guthrie asked a form of that question in the passage we've posted. When was Trump's last negative test? Here's the non-answer he gave her:
TRUMP (continuing directly): 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 problems before. It was afterwards—
Trump hadn't answered the question. If this had happened at a White House press briefing, slumbering journalists would have rolled over and asked him about something else.
Guthrie wasn't playing that game. In response to Trump's non-answer. she made her question a bit more specific, as you can see below.
Once again, the commander failed to answer. In response, Guthrie asked her question again and again. Here's the full exchange:
GUTHRIE (continuing directly): 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, 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 about it.
GUTHRIE: Well 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. And they-
GUTHRIE: Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?
TRUMP: If you ask the doctor, they’ll give you a perfect answer. But they take a test and I leave and I go about my business.
GUTHRIE: So you— Did you take a test on the day of the debate, I guess is the bottom line?
TRUMP: I probably did, and I took a test the day before, and the day before, and I was always in great shape, and I was in great shape for the debate. And it was only after the debate, 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. No, but I take a lot of tests.
GUTHRIE: Okay. And you don’t know if you took a test the day of the debate?
TRUMP: Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t. But you know the doctor has very accurate information, and it’s not only that doctor, it’s many doctors. The one thing, if you’re president, you have a lot of doctors you’re surrounded by. But I was in great shape for the debate. And sometime after the debate, I tested positive, then that’s when they decided to, let’s go.
GUTHRIE: Okay, good. I hopefully provided some clarity for folks. Let’s talk about the event that was held at the White House on the Saturday before you tested positive...
Was Donald Trump tested before the debate? On the day of the debate?
In standard journalistic fashion, the testing protocols to which the two campaigns apparently agreed have never been made fully clear. As recently as this Wednesday, Mika was still saying, on Morning Joe, that Trump arrived at the debate too late to be tested.
Rather plainly, it seems that that had never been the agreed-upon protocol. As we watched Mika continue to misstate this point, we wondered how many millions of dollars she gets paid each year.
It seems clear that the two campaigns had agreed to test the candidates themselves, "on the honor system." Was Trump ever given any such test? If so, did he test negative?
Given Trump's dedication to misdirection and misstatement, it would have taken a very long time to nail down a complete set of answers to such basic questions.
That said, Guthrie did what very few of our upper-end journalists ever do. As Donald J. Trump kept failing to answer, she just kept repeating her question!
She asked her question again and again. In service to American history, let us list the ways:
GUTHRIE: When was your last negative test? When did you last remember having a negative test?
GUTHRIE: Did you test the day of the debate?
GUTHRIE: You say you don’t know if you got a test on the day of the debate?
GUTHRIE: Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?
GUTHRIE: So you— Did you take a test on the day of the debate?
GUTHRIE: You don’t know if you took a test the day of the debate?
For our money, Guthrie's performance wasn't perfect. Most notably, she didn't ask Trump to guarantee that his doctors will provide this basic information—the information he says he can't remember.
We thought that was a glaring omission. But good lord! Grading on the mainstream press curve, we'd give Guthrie whatever grade comes above A-plus.
As the hour proceeded, Guthrie wasn't always this persistent. She let several matters slide.
In fairness, Trump emits misstatements at a truly remarkable clip. For that reason, it would be very hard to follow up on every such item within a one-hour format.
The key point here cuts in Guthrie's favor. In that early exchange with Trump, she engaged in a type of journalism our journalists almost always avoid.
Originally, we had planned to spend this week discussing the things which happen when professors and press interact. When we spent several days watching the Barrett hearings, we were largely knocked off course.
We'd planned to revisit the absence of the logicians—the failure of our nation's professors of logic to intervene in our endlessly bollixed public discussions.
(As with the moral philosophers who spend their time exploring "Kant's attempts to ground fundamental normative conclusions in his account of agency," our logicians tend to spend the bulk of their time off in La-La Land. As with Bergman's absent God, they're defined by their silence—by their apparent indifference to what happens here on Earth.)
We'd planned to mention how badly we tend to be served by the progressive professors who do decide to pipe up.
(Are we still supposed to believe Tara Reade, the way Professor Manne instructed? Will these hapless progressive professors ever stop asserting belief in cases where they have zero idea who is telling the truth? Duke lacrosse? UVa? Do they ever quit?)
We'd planned to mention the history professors who offered accurate criticisms of the New York Times' 1619 Project. In the wake of reports like this, we expect to explore that fascinating topic next week.
We'd planned to mention the former professor, Robin D'Angelo, whose work is so clownishly bad that it almost gives Donald J. Trump a chance to be almost right. With respect to our mammoth, unexplained health care spending, we'd planned to wander the fields in search of economists or professors of public health.
Many things happen when professors and press interact, or when professors hold back. In all these areas, the most striking example remains the way the upper-end press corps refused to speak with the medical experts.
Is Donald J. Trump psychiatrically or cognitively impaired? In January 2018, the press corps agreed not to ask.
Instead, they've continued to be "shocked, shocked" by his endless disordered behavior.
They've agreed to be mystified by the ways the commander behaves. For better or worse, Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee and her colleagues were disappeared.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. In one of human history's oldest stories, our failing nation has descended into a vast tribal breakdown.
Our press corps has frequently driven this mess. As the nation has slid toward the sea, our professors have largely stayed silent.
By the clock: By the clock, Guthrie's exchange with Trump took one minute and fifty seconds.
Guthrie's brisk questioning moved things along. We admire the skillful way she performed. The commander never answered.