Last night, Donald Trump appeared as a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. You could also say that Colbert had Trump as a guest, but that grammar wouldn’t be quite accurate to the spirit of the interview. Because, last night, Colbert was trumped.
Colbert’s strategy for the interview seemed a play on the one that political journalists have long relied on: Start with softballs, cajole, win over, and then progress to the heavier stuff. Thus, Colbert’s first question: “Are you shocked at all about the amazing reaction you get from crowds?” He added, “Because you shocked the Republicans.”
Trump, for the record, is not at all shocked about that. He’s Donald Trump.
Colbert then mentioned Trump’s most recent polling numbers. (“You see Zogby?,” Colbert asked. “Thirty-three percent! That came out today. Thirty-three percent, it’s incredible!”)
“I’m liking him a lot,” Trump told the crowd, in response.
“I’m liking you, too,” Colbert replied. “I’m liking you, too.”
Then, Colbert ramped it up. A bit. Some of his questions:
“[The] Republican party has been a bigger pusher of the idea that money is speech. And you’re a $10 billion mouth! You’re their worst nightmare. They really want to stop you. Do you think they can stop you?”
“You say that people who gave money to politicians owned them. What politicians did you own when you were giving money?”
[Invoking Ted Cruz’s appearance on The Late Show the night before] “He asked me to ask you if you would give him a billion dollars.”
“You seriously want the job?”
And then there was this.
Colbert: You’ve got the hat. Let’s talk about the hat. It’s a great hat. It’s called “Make America Great Again.”
Trump: It’s a hot hat. The New York Times did a big story on it.
Colbert: Oh, the hat! The hat should be your running mate.
Trump: I would like it.
Colbert: Trump/Trump Hat 2016. But that implies that America is not great now. You’re not saying America is not a great country or it’s not full of great people. You’re not blaming America, are you, sir?
“No, I’m not blaming America,” Trump replied, predictably. He was blaming, he continued, “people that have run the country—for many years, in all fairness.” He proceeded to go on a long lark about the Iraq war and wounded veterans and the destabilized Middle East and ISIS and his belief that “Iran is going to take over Iraq” and that “we’ve handed everything to everybody on a silver platter, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
This was a good segue into a discussion of the Iran nuclear deal. Colbert’s question: Would Trump sign a copy of his book The Art of the Deal for his next guest, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz?
Trump acquiesced, gamely. They cut to a commercial break.
Then came round two.
Colbert, apologizing for his treatment of Trump over the years, asked him, “Is there anybody you’d like to apologize to, yourself?” (Trump’s reply was basically a physical ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, which in words manifested as “uhhh … no.”)
He followed up with, “I know you believe that illegal immigrants should all be deported. True?”
“That’s true,” Trump replied.
Then, Colbert tried role-playing. He asked Trump to imagine himself, as president, informing the Mexican president of his plan to make Mexico pay for the wall he has said he wants to build between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. It was a cheeky approach, but it backfired. Trump played along. Worse, Colbert’s rendition of the Mexican president involved him adopting a Speedy Gonzalez-esque voice and uttering responses to Trump that included the line, “Oh! Oh! My corazón! No, no, no!”
Trump managed to turn the game into a discussion of the “big, beautiful wall” he wants to erect on the Mexican border, China-in-220 B.C.-style, which, he claimed, will stop illegal immigration, curb crime, “stop problems,” and generally Make America Great Again. “The money comes out, the drugs come in,” he declared. “We’re gonna stop it.”
To which Colbert replied: “Okay, well, that’d be good. That would be good. That’d be good.”
Then he gave Trump a chance to acknowledge, once and for all, that Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Trump’s reply: “You know? I don’t talk about it anymore,” launching into a list of all the other things he does care to talk about.
This—Trump’s tacit acknowledgement that his approach to both his own mistakes and the world’s inconvenient truths is simply to ignore them—might have offered the perfect segue into Colbert’s final gambit, a game that asked Trump to identify whether a given line was uttered by Trump or by the “over-the-top conservative character” Colbert used to play. It could have been brilliant. Instead, Trump got every single question right. (That’s including a trick question Colbert threw in at the end: “The real strong have no need to prove it to the phonies.” Trump’s guess: “It’s not me. It could be you.” He was right: It was Charles Manson.)
It was a great night for Trump. It was a considerably less-great night for Colbert. Coming off of his tough interview with Cruz the night before, the host was repeatedly bested by his guest. The grammar was all off, with Trump as the subject, and Colbert as, repeatedly, the object. Was he intimidated by Trump? Was he reprimanded for the harshness of the conversation with Cruz? Did he simply not take Trump seriously as a contender for the highest office in the land?
The Big Question about Colbert’s place in late night has been, pretty much as soon as it was announced that Colbert would take over for Letterman, how he would negotiate precisely this kind of interview. An interview with a high-profile politician. An interview with a high-profile politician who is extremely different from Colbert when it comes to questions of ideology. An interview with high stakes, not just for Colbert as an entertainer, but for Colbert as a kind of pseudo-journalist.
Had the Trump interview occurred on The Colbert Report, it would have been—or, well, it could have been—quite a match-up. Two blowhards, blowing hard against each other! But, of course, it wasn’t the character “Stephen Colbert” who conducted last night’s interview. It was Stephen Colbert, the affable late-night host. And that Stephen Colbert—the funny one, the charming one, the complicated one, the one who needs to keep booking politicians for his show—seemed unable to stand up to a man whose response, when asked whether there’s anything at all he would like to apologize for, is a simple “no.”