The key to conducting any successful political debate is to first agree to the terms of the debate. If you can’t agree upon the underlying facts and exactly what you’re discussing, you’re going nowhere.
And a telling exchange between top Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and late-night host Seth Meyers on Tuesday showed just how difficult that can be when it comes to Trump.
Conway and Meyers discussed Russia’s hacking shortly after news broke Tuesday afternoon that Trump was briefed on unconfirmed intelligence that said Russia had compromising information on him. Here’s the exchange:
CONWAY: It’s not fair that people don’t give [Trump] his due. He received that intelligence briefing. He made comments about it afterwards. And I have to tell you, there wasn’t very compelling information in terms of the nexus that many people would like to make between alleged hacking and the election results. Vladimir Putin didn’t tell Hillary Clinton to ignore Michigan and Wisconsin. She did that all by herself.
MEYERS: I agree.
CONWAY: She spent more money on Georgia and Arizona than Michigan and Wisconsin. That’s how you lose.
MEYERS: I’m not going to sit here and argue with you that the Clinton campaign was a well-run campaign.
CONWAY: Oh, or that the Russians interfered in the election successfully — that they disrupted our democracy. Which is really what we should all care about. Is that true or not. Nobody has proven that.
MEYERS: I agree. But shouldn’t we care if the Russians tried to interfere, whether it affected the outcome of the election or not? Isn’t that something that — I sometimes fear that the president-elect has no curiosity as to the amount they tried.
CONWAY: That is completely false. He has enormous curiosity. I’m there every day with him.
At this point, some in the crowd audibly expressed their dismay at this comment from Conway. It was clearly a Meyers crowd — or at least not a Trump one.
But I think this, more than just about anything I’ve seen in recent weeks, explains the disconnect between the Trump team and its opponents. Trump — and increasingly, his staff — say they see this whole Russian hacking thing as an attempt to undermine him, to prove he’s not actually a winner, rather than a legitimate attempt to get at what Russia did. Trump’s opponents — among whom you can surely include Meyers — say they think this is first about getting at what Russia tried to do (while maybe also believing it could have changed the results or leaving that open as a possibility). They think Trump doesn’t listen to anything he doesn’t want to hear.
Which they have plenty of reason to. Trump has questioned the intelligence on Russia’s hacking in a way almost no other Republican has, even suggesting the intelligence community is out to get him for political reasons. His aides insist he’s a different man behind closed doors, but we can only go on his public statements, which have been highly skeptical and do suggest he’s not terribly curious — or at the very least that he’s prejudged the intelligence before it can be nailed down.
We’re largely debating past each other here — about two different things. Which is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome for either side.