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Lawyer tactics White House press can use on President Trump

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  • President Trump’s coronavirus task force press briefings are known for his tense interactions with reporters. 
  • We asked Kent Zimmermann, a legal analyst and former attorney, to reveal courtroom tactics that lawyers would use in similar situations.
  •  One approach is treating the president as a so-called “hostile witness.”
  • Once a witness is designated as hostile by a judge in a courtroom setting, the attorney is permitted to ask “leading questions,” which can steer a witness toward necessary answers.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Kent Zimmermann: I give the White House reporters in particular during this presidency a huge amount of credit for doing an extremely difficult job under difficult circumstances. I’m Kent Zimmermann. I’m a principal with the management consulting firm Zeughauser Group. I am a recovering lawyer.

Reporter: My second question is —

Donald Trump: That’s enough. Thank you very much.

Zimmermann: Let’s take a look at some White House correspondents asking President Trump questions where it’s not so easy to get an answer and let’s see whether there are things to be learned from how courtroom lawyers handle hostile witnesses.

Kaitlan Collins: You said, “When someone is president of the United States, their authority is total.” That is not true. Has any governor agreed that you have the authority to decide when their state opens back up?

Trump: I haven’t asked anybody. Because you know why? Because I don’t have to. Go ahead, please.

Collins: But who told you the president has the total authority?

Trump: Enough.

Zimmermann: Kaitlan Collins from CNN, when the president said that his power over states was “total,” absolute, she said, “That’s not true. Who told you that?” That was very effective, but frequently the facts are not used enough against him.

Peter Alexander: Nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?

Trump: I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.

Zimmermann: That’s not responsive to the question. Certainly, a judge would say to a witness, “That’s not responsive. Please answer the question.” It certainly is an option to say, “Is there a reason you’re not answering the question? Do you have an answer to the question?” And keep him focused on answering. To the extent there are other people, you saw Dr. Birx. You saw Vice President Pence behind him. Certainly, you can say, “Mr. President, you’re not answering the question. Vice President Pence, are you able to answer the question? Dr. Birx, are you able to answer the question?” That would be the closest I think the reporter could come to try to appeal to somebody else.

Yamiche Alcindor: You’ve said repeatedly that you think that some of the equipment that governors are requesting, they don’t actually need. You said, “New York might need, might not need $30,000.”

Trump: I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. Come on.

Alcindor: You said it on Sean Hannity’s Fox News. You said that you might —

Trump: You know, why don’t you people act, let me ask you, why don’t you act in a little more positive. It’s always trying to get you —

Alcindor: My question to you is —

Trump: Get you, get you, and you know what, that’s why nobody trusts the media anymore.

Alcindor: My question to you is how is that gonna impact —

Trump: Excuse me, you didn’t hear me. That’s why you used to work for The Times and now you work for somebody else.

Zimmermann: First of all, she is a fabulous journalist and very talented. One thing is rather than saying, “You said on Hannity,” and then characterizing what he said and then Trump says, “No, I didn’t” and denies, a slight change could be, “On Hannity, on this date, you said, quote,” and quote a sentence or two to him. Use the exact quote, which is what would happen in a courtroom rather than characterizing what was said. Little more likely to pin him down, although certainly not easy to do with this president.

Jim Acosta: What do you say to Americans who are upset with you over the way you downplayed this crisis over the last couple of months? “We have it very much under control in this country.” “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” “It’s going to disappear.” “It’s like a miracle.” “It will disappear.” March 4, “We have a very small number of people in this country infected.” March 10, “We’re prepared, we’re doing a great job with it, it will go away.”

Trump: It will go away. You know it is going away. And it will go away, and we’re gonna have a great victory. And it’s people like you and CNN that say things like that, that, it’s why people just don’t wanna listen to CNN anymore. And instead of asking a nasty, snarky question like that, you should ask a real question, and, other than that, I’m gonna go to somebody else.

Zimmermann: The only thing I might’ve done differently is after he went into the, “Why can’t you ask a nice question?,” I would just say, “Sir, do you believe it’s your job to tell reporters what questions they should be asking you?” I might also ask, “Sir, do you believe that if you don’t like the question, you don’t have to answer it?” I’m not sure there’s much more that could be done beyond that. I think all that reporters could do is point out when what he’s saying is false, which many reporters do. Jim Acosta has done that, many others have done that.

Trump: On January 30 —

Reid: What did your administration do with the time that your travel ban bought you?

Trump: A lot.

Reid: What?

Trump: A lot. And, in fact, we’ll give you a list what we did. In fact, part of it was up there. We did a lot. [Reid faintly speaking] Look. Look. You know you’re a fake. You know that? Your whole network, the way you cover it is fake. And most of you, and not all of you, but the people are wise to you. That’s why you have a lower approval rating than you’ve ever had before. Times probably three.

Zimmermann: I thought she did a nice job. Could she have tried anything else? Couple of possibilities. One is: Rather than an open-ended, “What did you do in February?,” she could say, “Sir, can you name the top two most important things you did in February to protect the nation from the coming pandemic?” Nailing him down on answering.

Trump: Let me ask you this, why didn’t Biden, why did Biden apologize? Why did he write a letter of apology?

Zimmermann: And then, second, when he went off and started talking about Vice President Biden, which was a diversion, she, instead of saying, “Nobody cares about Biden,” and then that’s of course a debatable point, she could just say, “Sir, you didn’t answer the question.” Attempting to move away from questions that could be debatable or questions that you could divert from or deflect, or, “Sir, you’re not answering the question, can you please answer the question?”

Weijia Jiang: Why did you wait so long to warn them and why did you not have social distancing until March 16?

Trump: Who are you with? Who are you with? 

Jiang: I’m Weijia Jiang with CBS News.

Trump: So, if you look at what I did, in terms of cutting off or banning China from coming in —

Jiang: Chinese nationals. But, by the way, not Americans who were also coming in from China.

Trump: Nice and easy. Nice and easy. Just relax. We cut it off.

Zimmermann: You know, when he says to a reporter asking a very reasonable question using facts, “Take it easy,” “Nice and easy,” there’s a part of me that wishes somebody would say, “Why are you telling me to take it nice and easy? I’m asking you a question.”

Jiang: Do you acknowledge that didn’t think it was going to spread?

Trump: Keep your voice down, please. Keep your voice down.

Jiang: Did you not think it was going to spread?

Trump: How many, how many —

Zimmermann: So, ironically, when Trump tried to turn that around and ask how many cases were here of the reporter, that actually would be a good tactic to use on him, to ask very specific, pointed questions. “How many,” “Tell us your top two,” “Tell us the date you did this.” Those things more difficult to deflect, and when he does, easier to say, “You’re not answering the question.” The tactic that would be good to use on him, and what trial lawyers would use to try to pin down somebody to actually answer a question truthfully.

Trump: Let’s do one more, please, in the back.

Olivia Nuzzi: If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be reelected?

Trump: So, yeah, we’ve lost a lot of people, but if you look at what original projections were, 2.2 million, we’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. It’s far too many, one person is too many for this, and I think we’ve made a lot of really good decisions.

Zimmermann: So, I thought that was very effective. She asked a hard question. She didn’t get “yes” or “no,” but she did get an answer. Remember, that press conference was not long after he embarrassed himself by suggesting that perhaps people should be drinking poison to cure themselves of the coronavirus, that caused him to get extensive criticism. Now, he tried to make it self-congratulatory, but he did answer, he answered the question, and I give her a lot of credit for the way she asked it. It was short, concise, called for a “yes” or “no,” cited data, and I thought that was effective.

Great journalists are looking for the truth. I think they perform extremely well under the circumstances. So I think we owe the press a great deal and should be very thankful for the work they do under hard conditions. Every day they try to hold public officials accountable to get them to tell the truth, even when they deflect, even when they lie. This president, he belittles men, he belittles women. Particularly women of color. I give those reporters, those journalists a world of credit for maintaining their professionalism, for doing their very best to hold him accountable, for asking serious questions.

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