John Podesta appeared only briefly on one major Sunday show but he made the most of it.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked the chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign about Donald Trump’s threat to seat Gennifer Flowers in the front row of the audience of Monday night’s first presidential debate at Hofstra on Long Island.
Decades ago, Flowers was a mistress of Bill Clinton, the former President who is Hillary Clinton’s husband.
Podesta said the Republican candidate was engaging in his “favorite sport.” And what might that be?
“To dive in the sewer and go for a swim,” Podesta said. “When you poke him a little bit, he comes back and attacks . . . That’s what he does. That’s who he is. That’s why he’s dangerous and unpredictable.”
Trump invited Flowers – who accepted – on Saturday, shortly after Clinton invited Mark Cuban to sit in the front row. Cuban is an entrepreneur and NBA team owner who often finds fault with Trump. On Sunday, the Trump campaign seemed to withdraw the invitation to Flowers.
This wrinkle in the debate narrative was covered thoroughly by most of the Sunday shows, which also addressed – less prominently – the killings last week of two black men by police, one in Tulsa, Okla., and another in Charlotte, N.C.
Crime, “law and order” and police violence against African-Americans could be among the issues brought up Monday by moderator Lester Holt of NBC. He probably won’t ask Clinton and Trump about Flowers, but you never know what Trump might bring up.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence – Trump’s vice-presidential running mate — told host Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday that Flowers would not be attending the debate.
Trump was just kidding, Pence said.
“Donald Trump was using the tweet yesterday to mock the effort by Hillary Clinton and her camp to really distract attention,” Pence said.
WALLACE: “So why would Trump even go down the road of bringing up Flowers, who once had an affair with the President?”
PENCE: “The question really should be why her campaign is inviting some celebrity basketball owner to the debate to sit in the front row, someone who mocks and ridicules my running mate.”
WALLACE: “Do you really see those two as equivalent – Mark Cuban and Gennifer Flowers?”
PENCE: “Well, look, Mark Cuban has been out there saying some pretty tough stuff about my running mate . . . the truth is, Donald Trump has a unique way of communicating with the American people.”
(Indeed he does. Some prestigious media outlets lately have taken to calling it “lying.”)
The distance between Trump and Flowers grew on CNN’s State of the Union when host Jake Tapper asked Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway about Trump’s invitation.
“We have not invited her formally and we don’t expect her to be there as a guest of the Trump campaign,” Conway said.
TAPPER: “Is he planning on bringing up Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity?”
CONWAY: “He has every right to defend himself.”
Later, on the same show, political professionals David Axelrod and Mark McKinnon took up the idea of Trump mentioning Flowers in the debate.
AXELROD: “It would be like Trump to make an attack like that. It’s a high-risk strategy.”
McKINNON: “No. I wouldn’t go near that. That is such a risk. That could be a debate-ending moment.”
When Conway appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he asked her to explain Trump’s Saturday tweet about Flowers.
“He wants to remind people that he’s a great counter-puncher,” Conway said. “They started this one.”
Of Flowers, Conway added: “She has the right to be there if somebody else gives her a ticket.”
On CBS, host emeritus Bob Schieffer told John Dickerson on Face the Nation that the Cuban-Flowers sideshow was “beneath the dignity of the office that these two people are running for.”
When Todd on NBC asked Trump surrogate and military advisor Michael Flynn about the Flowers threat, the retired lieutenant general avoided the question.
So Todd asked again.
TODD: “Do you think it’s appropriate to invite Gennifer Flowers to the debate?”
FLYNN: “Well, you know, is it appropriate — was it appropriate — to invite Mark Cuban? . . . He’s not a legitimate person.”
Stephanie Cutter, the Democratic strategist, explained the difference later in the show.
“Hillary Clinton is doing it with a legitimate businessman – also a celebrity,” she said. “And as John Podesta put it early on your show, Trump is just jumping right down the sewer.”
Todd later said “others” in the Trump camp are trying to talk Trump out of bringing Flowers. He made it sound as if there was still a possibility that she would show up.
Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist, said Clinton baited Trump, who took the bait, and that the pattern could continue Monday night.
“It provoked Donald Trump to go down the Gennifer Flowers rabbit hole,” Murphy said. “ . . She’s going to try to push his buttons all through this debate and get a volcanic eruption.”
It was a different story on Media Buzz, where Fox News host Howard Kurtz opened his show with a passing, dismissive reference to Trump’s Flowers ploy.
“I have some breaking news,” Kurtz said from the debate site. “Gennifer Flowers will not be here as Donald Trump’s guest tomorrow night.”
Hand me the remote . . .
FOX NEWS SUNDAY: In light of Trump’s continuous race-baiting and of the police killings of black men last week, Juan Williams spoke with urgency on Wallace’s pundit panel.
“Race is a key issue in this campaign, Chris, no getting away from it,” Williams said. “Ninety percent of Trump voters are white. We have a social crisis . . . I just worry that there is a lot of white denial about what is a very racial situation that unfairly burdens people of color in American society. And that, in the midst of this campaign – “
Wallace cut him off.
“Yeah but forgive me, we’re really running out of time,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is saying that you couldn’t improve black policing. That doesn’t mean every single shooting was unreasonable and unjustified.”
Williams answered with a warning.
“If you focus on the raindrops,” he said, “you can miss the coming storm.”
STATE OF THE UNION: Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, discussed the low expectations surrounding Trump’s first one-on-one debate.
“Just because he doesn’t fly off the handle in the middle of this debate does not mean that he is prepared to be President of the United States,” Mook told Tapper. “Unless he tells the truth during this debate, unless he shows his ability to conduct himself without lying constantly, he is not getting a passing grade.”
McKinnon, the Republican operative, said Clinton must make Trump “come off the chain” by wearing him down.
“Thirty to 40 minutes, he can hold his composure,” McKinnon said, “but 90 minutes is a long, long time.”
Panelist Van Jones said Trump has botched his outreach to African-Americans with a “zig-zaggy” approach that included his urging of the return of “stop-and-frisk” police tactics that have been ruled unconstitutional.
Jones called stop-and-frisk “the most unpopular, least effective and most alienating policy” a candidate could wish on African-Americans.
THIS WEEK: On ABC, Stephanopoulos was in full hype mode. He said some people are comparing the debate Monday to the Super Bowl, the first bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and the first men landing on the moon.
“The most-watched political showdown in American history,” he predicted.
Conway stopped by and Stephanopoulos asked her if Trump would apologize to President Obama for spreading a lie that Obama was not born in the United States. Only last week, after five years, Trump admitted the lie and then lied about Hillary Clinton starting it.
“That’s a very personal thing,” Conway said, referring to a possible Trump apology.
Another guest was Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who was asked which candidate – Trump or Clinton – worries him the most.
“Well, they both do,” he said.
He also said “We do have to inhabit other planets.” He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.
On the panel — when Matthew Dowd wasn’t interrupting her – Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation made several good points.
She discussed how cable news channels cover Trump as a TV star from his old reality show and blend that persona into Trump the candidate.
“There is a conflict between media as a profit center and media as a factual, truth-telling institution,” vanden Heuvel said.
As to who will win the debate, she dismissed the presumption.
“Who defines `winner?’” she said. “Debate shouldn’t be duels.”
FACE THE NATION: On CBS, host John Dickerson asked Pence if the debate will be truthful. Pence said Trump always speaks “straight from his mind and straight from his heart” and that that he is “the most bold truth-teller to run for President of the United States.”
“But does he speak the truth?” Dickerson asked.
Dickerson moved to an American air attack in Syria last week that killed the wrong soldiers. He noted that Trump seemed to belittle the U.S. military.
“Is it wise for a future commander-in-chief to say about the military they are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?” Dickerson asked.
Pence answered by talking about how Trump will “rebuild the military.”
Later, Dickerson interviewed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) about Trump’s big spending plans for entitlements like child care, which violate Ryan’s bedrock beliefs.
Ryan held up a little pamphlet called “A Better Way” and assured the host that the Republicans in Congress have serious plans.
Dickerson responded: “So, the public should pay attention to your pamphlet and not the Republican nominee?”
Asked his debate advice for Trump, Ryan said “Prepare, prepare, prepare. And I hope he is doing that.”
As for Trump’s bleak descriptions of black communities – they’re dangerous, they’re depressed, they’re jobless, they’re uneducated – Ryan said “I don’t see it that way. That’s not how I would describe it.”
Another guest was Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent semi-socialist from Vermont, who ran second to Clinton in the chase for the Democratic nomination. Now he supports her.
“You know what Donald Trump’s position is on climate change?” Sanders asked “He thinks it’s a hoax and that is really frightening for the future of this planet.” He also said of Trump: “The cornerstone of his campaign is bigotry.”
MEET THE PRESS: Todd turned up the pressure on Clinton for the debate in Ali-Frazier terms.
“There’s a sense that if Clinton doesn’t knock him out tomorrow, she may never be able to before November,” Todd said.
Todd and his guests mocked the endorsement of Trump by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination.
Todd showed tape of Cruz a few months ago calling Trump a “sniveling coward . . . a pathological liar . . . a bully . . . a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”
“It looks very cynical,” Murphy said of Cruz’s endorsement of Trump.
Of Trump’s rhetoric, Murphy said: “He’s been in the code-language business for a long time, sometimes even pretty explicitly.” He said Trump brings tensions forward with the excuse that he is “politically incorrect.
“`Politically incorrect’ is a politically correct way to say things in our dialogue that maybe don’t belong there,” Murphy said.
In terms of Trump’s handlers who try to keep him from saying contentious, unplanned things, Murphy said: “The problem is Trump breaks out of the cage.”
MEDIA BUZZ: Kurtz’s best guest on Fox News Channel was Julie Roginsky, who described how Trump can win the debate.
“Donald Trump needs only not to fall down drunk,” she said. “All he has to do is show up and be a sober candidate, a boring candidate, and he will be declared the winner.”
She also suggested Trump not “allude to women having blood coming out of their whatever.”
This was a reference to comments Trump made about Megyn Kelly of Fox after the first primary debate in which Kelly asked Trump a hostile question about Trump’s history of sexist comments.
Kurtz reacted with disapproval to how major news outlets are covering Trump.
“In the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post and Politico, there are pieces basically examining how, in view of these reporters, Donald Trump is a liar,” Kurtz said.
(Kurtz was almost right here, except that he should have said “in view of the true facts, Donald Trump is a liar”)
Erin McPike was almost as offended as Kurtz.
“I was amazed by the tone of what the New York Times did here,” she said, adding that some of the comments in Sunday’s review of Trump’s lies were “snarky.”
McPike also said Clinton can win if she avoids “one of those condescending cackles.”
Kurtz also tsk-tsked the fact that late-night comedians are making fun of Trump. On The Daily Show, Kurtz said, it was reported that Clinton “lies like a politician” while Trump “lies like an alcoholic.”
“What does it say,” Kurtz asked, “that they’re all catering to a liberal audience that views Trump with disdain?”
Kurtz played a clip from Seth Meyers on NBC that said Trump played the “Birther” angle against Obama until last year.
“And, by the way,” Meyers said, in a clip from his show. “I’m not sure the guy who holds fake press conferences, has a fake university, a fake foundation, fake hair and fake tan should be the one in charge of deciding what’s real.”
Joe Concha of The Hill came by to discuss how the media picks on itself when Trump isn’t criticized enough. Matt Lauer of NBC took negative reviews for his easy questions to Trump during a recent forum with Trump and Clinton, back to back.
“Anything short of throwing a pie in Donald Trump’s face while calling him a lying racist xenophobic is seen as a softball interview,” Concha said.
RELIABLE SOURCES: One of Brian Stelter’s guests on CNN was colleague Dylan Byers, who said “In many ways, Donald Trump doesn’t just lie. He sort of brutally assaults the truth.”
Stelter also did a face-to-face interview with the comedian Meyers, who said of Trump: “We try very hard, when we call him a racist or a liar, to back it up with examples of him being a racist and a liar.”
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, publisher of Observer Media.