Setting aside his famous disdain for journalists, US President Donald Trump picked ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos for his first interview after sitting down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore for an historic face-to-face meeting.
It was an exclusive coup for Stephanopoulos in a good week for prominent Greek-Americans after Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis’ team won the Stanley Cup National Hockey League championship, with a parade through the nation’s Capital.
What made Stephanopoulos’ being able to land Trump is that the President almost always prefers Fox News which is sympathetic to him and which critics say pushes his agenda in favor of ratings and doesn’t even try to be impartial about him.
Stephanopoulos knows politics very well, of course, having been an advisor to the Democratic party and as a Communications Director for the 1992 Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and then in the same position as White House communications director.
He was later senior advisor for policy and strategy, before departing in December 1996 and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is known for his political savvy although critics said as someone with such strong political leanings he shouldn’t have been picked for the plum position at ABC but he has won over the audience with his non-confrontational but piercing ability to lure answers out of tough interviews, as he did with the notoriously difficult Trump.
Stephanopoulos didn’t shy away and talked to Trump about a host of topics, including the powwow with the reclusive North Korean leader, the Iranian nuclear deal the President hates and even the stare-down between the President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-7 meeting in Canada, getting Trump to explain what it was about.
With his inside player knowledge of Presidential politics and foreign policy, Stephanopoulos has displayed an affable charisma that works to elicit answers, such as getting Trump, who proclaims everything he does is sensational, to admit a denuclearization agreement with North Korea was, while a “terrific document,” was also more of a starting point than a done deal.
“There are things that we negotiated after that document that are also very important,” Trump said and Stephanopoulos seized the opening for a quick hit instead of rambling, asking the President simply: “Like what?”
“They’re going to get rid of certain ballistic missile sites and various other things. We’re gonna put that out later. But we have the framework of getting ready to denuclearize North Korea,” said Trump, but Stephanopoulos pushed him on whether it as a complete denuclearization that would remove a nuclear umbrella over US ally South Korea.
“No. That means that they’re going to get rid of their nuclear weapons. We never even discussed the other. They’re going to get rid of their nuclear weapons, George, and I think they want to do it relatively quickly,” said Trump.
Stephanopoulos quickly tied the nuclear issue with North Korea over Trump’s dislike of a previous American deal to make sure Iran wasn’t building nuclear weapons, telling the President that, “You’ve set the bar for nuclear agreements by criticizing the Iran nuclear deal, said it’s the worst deal ever made,” and pushed him over whether he’d be just as tough with North Korea.
The two went back-and-forth with Stephanopoulos getting Trump to talk openly instead of being confrontational as the President is wont to do with reporters, perhaps sensing in the TV anchor a knowledge of how US leaders work behind closed doors.
Stephanopoulos reminded Trump, who took to praising the North Korean leader, that “Just a few months ago you accused him of starving his people. And listen, here’s the rub. Kim is a brutal dictator. He runs a police state, forced starvation, labor camps. He’s assassinated members of his own family. How do you trust a killer like that?”
Instead of barking as he often does, Trump answered, if a bit hesitant as Stephanopoulos is less likely to be bamboozled given his extensive experience at the highest level of politics and now in the media as well.
“I think he wants to denuke, it’s very important. Without that, there’s nothing to discuss. That was on the table at the beginning, and you see a total denuclearization of North Korea,” said Trump.
Stephanopoulos also pressed him on why the US should believe Kim, casting some doubt on whether North Korea would really give up the nuclear weapon hunt and pressing Trump even more for answers. “You trust him?” Stephanopoulos asked.
The talk eventually led to the showdown photo with Merkel with Trump saying that, “She was looking at me, you know what we were doing? We were talking while we were waiting for the final copy of the document. That was, that was such an innocent picture. You know, we put out that picture. That was put out by my people,” and that it wasn’t as intense as it looked.