Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and the history of ‘gotcha’ questions
Donald Trump says conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt gave him the “gotcha” treatment on air, which seems to have involved asking a series of questions, particularly about Middle East figures, that GOP frontrunner could not answer. “Every question was, ‘Do you know this one or know that one?'” Trump told MSNBC on Friday morning.
Trump is new to campaigning, but gotcha is a trail veteran, with a long and influential campaign history. Earlier this year, our colleague Colby Itkowitz traced its lineage:
An early example of a so-called “gotcha question” was in 1992 when NBC News correspondent Stone Phillips asked President George H. W. Bush if he’d ever had an affair. The Miami Herald quoted Larry King as saying, “gotcha questions are not my style,” but that it was an issue to be explored if it exposed hypocrisy.
Also in 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton said questions about his marital infidelity were “a game of gotcha.” George W. Bush, during his presidential campaign in 1999, complained of “gotcha” questions when reporters asked whether he’d used cocaine.
In 2006, with the country still deep in the Iraq War, Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein asked members of Congress if they knew the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni. Stein himself described it as a “gotcha question,” but said it shone a light on whether the people who voted to go to war knew who the enemy was. Many didn’t.
Gotcha’s back out on the trail this year: In February, Trump presidential rival Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used it to describe a query about whether or not he believed President Obama was a Christian.
But few gotcha charges have been lobbed with as much intensity, grabbed as much attention, and stirred as much debate as the ones delivered early and often by GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008, following a series of awkward and error-filled interviews with then CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
How does this year’s most recent addition stack up? We decided to launch a Fix inquiry.
First, a flashback: Here’s Couric’s full Palin sitdown, which aired on CBS over the course of two days in late September 2008:
Analysis: Okay, so Palin did face questions that covered a lot of ground. No doubt. Two days of conversation were edited down to 30 minutes — but it could take you almost as long to read through the list of topics covered in that package. Here it is: campaign finance, the bailout proposal to address the financial crisis, how to best address the country’s mushrooming home foreclosure problem, whether the recency of her passport was an indicator of limited interest in the world, U.S. troop engagement in the Middle East and the United State’s relationship with several countries in that region, Alaska’s proximity to Russia and what on earth that taught her about international relations. And that’s not even a complete rundown.
At one point, Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, joins Couric and Palin for a second sitdown in a different city. While trying to explain away a statement Palin made a few days earlier about the use of force. McCain introduces the “gotcha journalism” charge. Then Palin uses it too.
“…This is all about gotcha journalism. A lot of it is. But that’s OK too.” (around 19:19 in the video above)
The moment that most people remember about the Couric-Palin sitdown came roughly six minutes from the end, when Couric asks what newspapers and magazines Palin read regularly before she was tapped to become a vice presidential candidate. Palin’s response — “a vast variety of sources” — is now legendary.
Verdict: Palin had told Couric earlier that she didn’t have the one-percenter advantage of world travel and college without work. So, Palin said, she’d relied on a lot of reading to become knowledegable about other countries and cultures and global matters. The question of exactly what that reading material might be is, in that context, a pretty natural followup.
Palin was either ill-informed or ill-prepared for an interview with a journalist who has perfected the art of asking sometimes searing questions with a smile. Some of Palin’s answers were, indeed, counter-factual or incredibly broad and slogan-laden when specifics and substance were clearly in order.
World leaders do have to nurture the capacity to connect with and sometimes speak just like much less powerful people. But behind that kind of political charm and skill must also lie a big brain with the capacity to manage stressful situations and deliver detailed-but-accurate public statements.
The vice presidency is one of those jobs where those characteristics could become critical in an instant. Any vice president who gets an unexpected promotion, likely does so amid some sort of major national trauma. Palin had been seen as a potentially formidable political force — possibly even the “game changer” Republicans had been predicting, and Democrats fearing, she would be. This interview was one of the biggest in a series of stumbles that led to a different reputation: that of an anti-intellectual lightweight who may have been added to the ticket, as some had charged, for reasons other than her qualifications and abilities as a possible commander-in-chief. In the end, the interview severely damaged Palin’s political prospects. It helped bring Couric a prestigious duPont award.
Now, let’s turn our attention back to Trump.
The Hugh Hewitt show makes full transcripts available online, and the audio of much of the interview can be heard if you click below. Hewitt asked Trump some questions about public and private, but likely dangerous, individuals in the Middle East who each play a key role in matters in which the United States or its allies have large and long-term interest, including the security of the United States.
If Donald Trump is going to make a gotcha charge, you just know it’s going to be the biggest, hugest, most luxurious gotcha charge you’ve ever heard. The mogul only had a few minutes — but he delivered several gotcha claims, in multiple stages. First, he said he misunderstood or misheard a central part of Hewitt’s questions. Then he tried to redirect the conversation to the topics he loves. He went on to characterize the entire topic as irrelevant and inappropriate: He’s a delegator, he said. Finally, he promised to know more than the interviewer within the first 24 hours of his election.
The questions kept coming. And so Trump pulled out the final fallback of the cornered politician. “Well, that is a gotcha question, though,” he told Hewitt of one detailed question. “I mean, you know, when you’re asking me about who’s running this, this this, that’s not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”
Analysis: Trump wasn’t exactly blindsided here. Hewitt, who regularly interviews GOP presidential candidates, is known for his painstakingly detailed military and foreign policy questions. Now, these weren’t names the typical real estate magnate would have known. They aren’t even names many politicians would know. But for a potential commander-in-chief who has repeatedly said he will not reveal many of his foreign policy strategies to maintain an element of surprise for potential international foes, demonstrating a depth of knowledge that would allow voters to place their trust in his judgment becomes even more crucial than usual.
The names Hewitt mentioned have allegedly been responsible for guiding a range of dangerous and illegal activities, and have appeared with some regularity in sections of national and international newspapers that people with a serious interest in national security read. This wasn’t a daytime talk show appearance. If you’re appearing on a show with a well-established reputation for depth and a strong national-security focus, you’re going to have to expect — and be prepared for — deep questions with a strong national-security focus.
Verdict: The president has to make difficult, rapid-fire decisions about a constantly changing cast of international actors and locations every day. What has happened in the past and who did it also informs important aspects of the ever-changing present. So a president must do more than appear interested in directing a team of underlings — they must work constantly to grasp the context and details of world events. If Donald Trump is willing to do that homework before being elected president, his responses didn’t reflect it.
Trump has transitioned from a reality show career to, at least for the moment, a political one; Palin’s journey was in the opposite direction — from politician to pundit and reality TV star. Trump has spent most of his life in the Big Apple, Palin in The Last Frontier. But they have at least one thing in common: Both tried to shift the burden of their foreign policy missteps from themselves onto the person whose questions shone a spotlight on those failings.
A few days ago, Palin interviewed Trump for the One America News Network. There wasn’t a hardball question in sight.