I’ve been alluding on Twitter lately to a conversation I had last week after the debate in St Louis with a Donald Trump cable news surrogate, and the ethical merits of publishing it and outing him or not. Ultimately, I have decided against it, even after finding a fine and reputable publication that was willing to run it, because, while the guy I was talking to never once said anything was off the record, and I identified myself as a reporter, it seems clear he didn’t think he was being interviewed, and that’s a tricky line to walk.
Ok fuck it. I had a candid conversation with a Trump cable news surrogate, someone on TV a lot, the other day and here is what he said:
— luke o’neil (@lukeoneil47) October 13, 2016
I decided naming him and dealing with a my-word-against-his type of situation with potential legal ramifications just wasn’t worth it, particularly in a post-Gawker Trumpist climate that has become increasingly hostile toward journalists. Most publications I talked to about it didn’t find it worth running without using his name. At any rate, here it is, with his identity and some identifying details removed. It’s an illuminating look, I think, into the mindset of the people who go on TV all the time defending the indefensible. TV time is a hell of a drug.
A very cool part about being a freelance journalist is not being covered for a frivolous lawsuit by many publications you might write for.
— luke o’neil (@lukeoneil47) October 12, 2016
There’s an old maxim that applies to the appropriate subject matter for discussion at a bar: No politics and no religion. It’s a fine rule for the average person on any given day, but in a city populated with hundreds of reporters in town to cover a presidential debate, you would think its essence would apply tenfold. Unfortunately, at least for one Donald Trump surrogate, who was in St. Louis as part of the campaign on Sunday to spin on TV after the debate, those rules didn’t seem to apply.
I met the commentator at a sleepy bar a few miles away from Washington University, an hour or two after the proceedings had ended. He and the rest of the “middle class of the campaign staff,” as he put it, were being lodged at a hotel nearby. The upper class —- Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself— were already on their way back to New York.
The exceptionally affable and friendly surrogate was in fine spirits — there wasn’t anywhere to go but up for the campaign after the past couple of days he admitted. Although, despite my instantaneous and repeated comments that I was actively hoping for Trump to lose, and our conversation about my being a reporter both at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of our talk, for some reason he felt comfortable disclosing his, and the others in the campaign’s true feeling about Trump, and with telling an exceptionally racist joke.
At no point during our conversation did he ever so much as hint that anything we were speaking about was off the record, even as I took notes on my phone. Perhaps in the Trump orbit, the sanctity of “locker room talk” extends to the bar now as well.
Trump, he told me, was actually his last choice out of the 17 candidates in the primary, but he was relishing the opportunity to get on television in support of him, he said. Among other things, he told me, Trump “is crazy,” which probably didn’t need to be verified, but was simultaneously alarming and reassuring to hear from someone working to get him elected. It had been a horrible couple of days for the campaign, he admitted. Anything remotely positive was received ecstatically.
There’s little belief he’ll actually win, and it’s hard, with all of the networks against him, he went on.
“He hates FOX and wants to do media,” he said. “He’s definitely not looking to retire. He’s not the 70 year old guy that’s going to go relax on the beach.”
It was around this time that I started to wonder whether or not there was a story here. I started to look around the room to make sure I wasn’t being pranked in some way. How could someone so ostensibly media savvy feel free to speak frankly with a reporter like this? We were certainly enjoying a friendly conversation, and we spoke about many other unrelated things, in the manner two solo men on the road meeting at a bar often do, but, and this gets to the larger point surrounding the fall out of the Trump and Billy Bush discussion that’s framed the election cycle for the past week: The assumed safety of the Bro Code. That’s certainly something I can understand when it comes to private citizens, and things that aren’t matters of presidential politics, but this clearly crossed the line.
The so-called locker room isn’t meant literally in the mind of Trump and many men who think like him. Instead, it’s a metaphor for a protective space that brackets any number of traditional “masculine” redoubts, from the bar, to the board-room, to the actual locker room, our gender-serving as a de facto invitation into a zone of confidence.
The mood was up among the campaign that night despite Trump’s rambling, often chaotic, and downright David Lycnhian performance, he said. The only thing keeping him alive after the fallout from the infamous Access Hollywood video, he told me, was that Trump was going up against Hillary Clinton, the only possible Democratic nominee that he could have hoped to beat.
“Bernie would’ve wiped the map with Trump,” he told me. “He would’ve won 48 states. Maybe not the Dakotas.”
Did none of the recent controversy about his comments about women bother him, I asked.
“I’m disappointed in more of the recent stuff,” he said. “Alicia Machado in particular. There was no reason to keep going on that.” Similarly, he thought Trump’s criticism of the Kahn family, the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, who died serving in Iraq, were over the line. Other Trump surrogates have said that the Kahn family don’t deserve the Gold Star designation.
It was things like that that made me want to like him. Perhaps he’s one of the reasonable ones, I thought.
“Trump is very thin-skinned, and doesn’t let any slight go,” he told me, as I stabbed lazily at a mediocre caesar salad.
So why support him, then?
Trump, he said, is a lot different than what the average person sees. “He’s very studious and contemplative in person,” a far cry from the showman on television.
Showmanship is something appealing to my drinking buddy, he admitted. He was mostly using his advocacy for Trump as an opportunity to get on TV more, and hopefully as a springboard to something bigger once Trump starts his own media company in the likely event he loses.
I again told him, as I did at the beginning, and multiple times throughout our conversation, that I was a reporter, and an unabashed critic of Trump. I said I’d spent the last couple of days talking to students at Washington University to see who they were supporting. None of them were for Trump, he assumed. Weirdly, a few were, I told him.
I wondered what he thought about Trump’s standing with minorities. Didn’t any of the comments about hispanics or African Americans bother him?
“There’s no doubt he’s toxic with minorities,” he said. He’s not actually racist though, he assured me. His outreach to minorities may not work this time, but it could pay off politically down the line.
“Everything about him is a contradiction,” he added.
Did he have any insight on the sniffles that have plagued Trump in the two debate so far, I wanted to know?
“He never did it in the primaries,” he said. “I have no idea. It drives us all nuts!”
Ok. Fine. But “grab her by the pussy.” That has to have been a deal breaker for some in the campaign. “My word. What else could you say besides grab her by the pussy that would be any worse? That’s as bad as it gets,” he said. “Unless he’s going to come out and admit to doing a gang rape.”
That is actually starting to seem less and less far-fetched these days, to be honest. Either way, I said, the tape certainly has led to a number of Republicans jumping ship including John McCain.
“I forgot about McCain,” he said. “There’s so many different things to keep track of.”
Giuliani is the last loyal Trump soldier standing, I mentioned. What is his deal?
“I honestly think he’s a little senile. Which is sad. I think he gets a little confused.”
That was nothing compared to the contempt reserved for John McCain and Ted Cruz, who’ve wavered, then come on board, and jumped off the Trump train once again.
“McCain and Cruz whored themselves out twice over,” he said. They never believed in us, they did it to save their own ass, then they got on board when we won, and the second we got in trouble they got off,” the man who had just told me Trump was his 17th choice said. “They proved themselves super unworthy twice. It’s bad enough to whore yourself out once, like, I married this guy for the money. But then to say, I married another guy for the money?”
Still, things had gone well tonight.
“I think we had a great night tonight. They’ll come running back again,” he said of Cruz and McCain and other turncoats. But then, “Trump will say something retarded and they’ll be gone again.”
A couple more things: What’s up with my best friend Tom Brady. Are he and Trump really friends?
“Tom Brady loves Trump. They talk on the phone a lot. They’re boys.”
How about insane person and gunshow poophole tweeter Curt Schilling?
“Curt Schilling is a wacko.”
Finally, something we can agree upon.
Anything else before I go? Actually, there was. We were talking about some of Trump’s comments on Mexicans, which segued, naturally of course, onto the merits of the attractiveness of women in certain South American countries versus others.
The ones in which they had exterminated all the Indian blood out of the gene pool were where the best looking women are, he said, laughing. “I don’t want to sound racist,” he assured me, which is what you always say when you’re definitely not being racist. Furthermore, he said, Trump is not racist against Mexicans. He just set things off on the wrong foot, and with the wrong tone, by accusing them of being rapists, but that’s not how he really feels.
“Well, nice talk,” I told him as I got up to leave. “No offense, but I hope you don’t win.”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t bet on it. I wouldn’t bet $10 on it,” he said.
I wouldn’t either.