It was really exciting when Joe Scarborough told Donald Trump that unless he stopped filibustering they would cut to a commercial break. And it was even better when he actually did it. This unusual moment of journalistic courage was celebrated from one end of the internet to the other. And it really was a nice moment. Trump is a master at dominating the conversation so it's refreshing to see someone rein him in. The only problem is that when they came back, the panel was as obsequious as ever and they let him go on and on. And on.
Here's an example of the hard-hitting questioning that followed that brave moment of journalistic integrity, an exchange between Trump and former George W. Bush Press Secretary Nicole Wallace:
WALLACE: This is Nicole
TRUMP: Hi Nicole
TRUMP: I hope your father still likes me
WALLACE: Well I was going to ask about your supporters. Because you have a lot of supporters and they have been drawn to your strength, and your straight talk for many, many months now. You've been at the top of the Republican field now for a long long time. Do you feel any obligation to them to balance your passion for these issues in the wake of the Paris attacks and the attack in San Bernardino with things that comport with our values and our constitution?
TRUMP: Yeah I do. I have an obligation, not just to my supporters, to my country. I feel I have a great obligation to the country and I think I'm saying something that has to be said. And not all the candidates that I'm running against have come out and scorned me for this. I'm using common sense and I'm using something that we have to use.
Boy, she really put him in his place.
This is how it went all day on Tuesday as Trump went on TV to defend his new policy proposal to deny entry to the U.S. to all Muslims. After Wallace's aggressive questioning about his "passions" and his "strength," Scarborough went on to agree with Trump about Obama's fecklessness and then went in for the kill politely asking Trump if he still thought that there were some Muslims who are wonderful people:
TRUMP: Oh, yes I do. I have Muslim friends and they agree with me. My friends say that when they become radicalized they become different people.
Scarborough then suggested that he and Trump go to an Islamic center or a mosque and talk to some Muslims. Trump responded: "I would go. But talk is cheap, if you talk to these two horrible people, everyone said they were normal, that they were not radicalized, that nobody knew. Now, the fact is that many people knew Joe. The neighbors knew."
Trump says this as if it's perfectly obvious. Throughout the day as he rambled on various shows he painted a picture of a community that was in on the plan. None of his interlocutors seemed to notice.
Instead, they sucked up to him like they were backstage groupies at a rock show:
SCARBOROUGH: You and I both know that if we're going to win the war against ISIS and if we're going to stop terror in America we have to make sure the Muslim American community is on our side. It's like community policing. You've seen ... my gosh, you were tough on crime in New York City in the 1980s, you took out full page ads and then you have Giuliani, Bloomberg and other coming together and they did community policing. So if you see something, you report something...
TRUMP: I've always been tough on crime.
SCARBOROUGH: Don't we need to do the same thing with the Muslim community where Muslims see themselves as part of the American fabric where they're on our side against the radicals?
TRUMP: I want them to be on our side Joe. Many people knew what was going on in that thug's apartment. Many people. I watched the sister being interviewed and she's lying.
SCARBOROUGH: But many more didn't ...the more we can engage the Muslim community, the more likely those thugs would be reported ..
TRUMP: You know, that sounds great Joe, it sounds good and it's beautiful words but the sad part is that if you just look at this example of what just took place in California, many people knew that there's some really strange and bad things going on. One guy said, and even more than one guy, about racial profiling, "I didn't want to report it because I didn't want to be a racial profiler." Give me a break!
Trump went on to recite his bogus statistics from Frank Gaffney's Islamophobia factory which Scarborough did challenge. Sort of:
TRUMP: If you look at the statistics, I don't know if you read the polls, but 25% [of American Muslims] agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as part of the global jihad. These are people living in the United States.
SCARBOROUGH: Is that the Frank Gaffney poll?
TRUMP: that's the Gaffney poll and they also have the Pew research poll
SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, the two are far different, the Pew is more respectable than the Gaffney poll. Let's go to Mark Halperin in New York.
That was the extent of any questioning of Trump's statistics which have been debunked by fact checkers and should not be taken seriously in any case since Frank Gaffney's anti-Muslim agenda is well known.
Mark Halperin seemed to think he came loaded with questions so potent it would put Trump in his place once and for all. He repeated abstract questions designed to show that Trump does not believe in American values. It was so abstract in fact, and offered in such an obsequious tone, that it ended up meaning nothing because Halperin's robotic questioning simply gave Trump the opportunity to spew more of his bigoted nonsense.
There was one moment in the exchange in particular worth highlighting:
HALPERIN: Did the Japanese internment camps go against American values?
TRUMP: We have to be smart, Mark. And we have to be vigilant. And honestly we also have to be tough.And if we're not going to be those things we're not going to have a country left.
HALPERIN: Did the internment of the Japanese violate American values ?
TRUMP: We're not talking about internment, this is a whole different thing.
HALPERIN: I understand that but I'm just asking you to weigh in.
TRUMP: No, no you're asking me a different question.
HALPERIN: Did the japanese internment question violate American values?
TRUMP: Mark, what about Franklin Roosevelt's presidential proclamations 2525, 2526 and 27. Take a look at it Mark.
HALPERIN: Just asking one more time, did the internment if the Japanese Americans violate our sense of American values?
TRUMP: I don 't want to respond to it, you know why? That's not what we're doing.
HALPERIN: But for some people the same values are at stake.
TRUMP: It's wonderful that you asked me that, it's an entirely different question. Has no relationship to what I'm talking about.
From the discussion by various network personalities over the course of the day, they all thought Halperin was very clever by asking Trump about the Japanese internment and "American values." But in reality it was just useless moral posing by Halperin, who could have used his time much more effectively. (Later in the program he got back to his happy place by asking Trump about his political prospects.)
It was left to Willie Geist to ask Trump how he would to make his plan work. It was an interesting exchange that left Trump looking flustered and confused as he tried to explain how the government could possibly know the religion of people trying to come into the country. (He wound up saying that a customs official would just ask people trying to enter if they were Muslim.)
But through all the interviews Trump gave yesterday nobody bothered to ask him the most obvious questions. He cited those statistics about American Muslim's attitudes in Gaffney's bogus polls in his official statement and in every media interview about it. He is clearly very frustrated with the American Muslim community:
"The Muslim community is not reporting what’s going on. They should be reporting that their next-door neighbor is making pipe bombs and they’ve got them all over the place. The mother’s in the apartment, other people, his friend was buying him rifles. Nobody was reporting that. The Muslim community has to help us, because without the Muslim community, we would have to get very tough and much tougher, and I don’t want to do that. But the Muslim community is not a one-way street. The Muslim community knew that this guy, what he was doing, and his wife, his very heavily radicalized wife, they knew what they were doing was wrong. Nobody called the police. Nobody said this is what happened."
He brought this up over and over again throughout the day, along with his suspicions that the family as well as neighbors and other "members of the community" were co-conspirators. Indeed, he seemed to be obsessed with the idea, working himself into a fine frenzy over it. And not one reporter quizzed him as to why he thinks any of that's relevant to his proposed policy of blocking foreign Muslims from coming into the country.
But he did offer up some hints about what he would do about this alleged problem. He repeatedly stressed that he didn't want to be forced to take draconian steps if the Muslim community refused to step up, which he insisted they have not done. It's quite clear that Trump is working himself up to some kind of action against American Muslims and others who are already in the country. He hinted at it all day long as he fulminated over the reports that the Farooks got money transfers and the idea that the mother and sister are lying. Despite their obsession with Japanese internment camps and "American values," nobody asked him specifically what he meant when he said "we will have to get much tougher."
We probably won't have to wait too long before Trump escalates once again. And once again we'll watch the political media preen like church ladies, moralizing about abstractions and acting as if they're being tough while kissing his ring and praising him for his "strength" and "passion." Trump and his followers won't have have the slightest clue or interest in any of their clever questions about American values and the rest of us will be left waiting once again for someone to pin him down on what exactly he has in mind.