Chris Matthews’ Trump Checkmate

Over the past week, Donald Trump added a few more soundbites to the Titanic-sized library of such moments.  Now, right beside Trump’s calls for a wall along our southern border and all of his grotesque comments toward women, sits Trump’s refusal to rule out nuclear weapon use in Europe and his statement that women should be “punished” for getting abortions. 

In an in-person interview with often the abrasive, yet exceptionally smart MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Trump stated that should abortion become illegal, women – and not fathers – should face punishment for getting an abortion.  The soundbite has since been chopped, packaged, and replayed thousands of times across all networks and forced Trump off message to defend his pro-life stance.  It is one of the first times during his campaign that Trump has appeared flustered and frustrated by a media onslaught.

Unlike many of Trump’s other distasteful lines, which came about unprompted during off-the-cuff speeches, these remarks on abortion were elicited following a brilliant setup by Chris Matthews.  After taking a question from the audience about abortion, Trump delivered a prepared one-paragraph response that boiled down to him being pro-life with the “three exceptions.”  Instantly, Matthews set the trap and began walking Trump down the path that would lead to Trump’s punishment quote.

Much like a chess player dreaming up a guaranteed checkmate, Matthews began asking Trump questions that took him through a logical reasoning exercise on what the term pro-life means.

The logic goes something like this.  If a politician is pro-life, then should they get their way, abortion would be illegal.  If abortion is illegal, it is a crime.  If it is a crime then it must carry sanctions – a fine, jail time, probation, etc.  Within those steps,  many pro-life activist identify abortion as murder.  So if abortion is illegal and abortion is murder, then women who get them should face the same penalties as murderers.

Branding the over one-million women who get abortions each year as murderers is a much harsher and less desirable political stance than identifying as “pro-life” and that is why Trump’s comments are so controversial.  It is a rather simple logical route to get there but no other pro-life politician has had their feet held to the fire in this same way.  All Matthews did was breakdown what the term “pro-life” means in practical terms, knowing that the end result would be Trump saying exactly what he said.

“Yes, there has to be some sort of punishment.”

This was more than Matthews probably hoped for.  Not only did Trump step directly into the soundbite trap, but rather than use legalese and mention a sanction or penalty, he chose the word “punishment” with carries with it a condescending connotation of denouncing wrong from right.

At the end of the day, who can say if this gaffe will affect Trump at all.  In this bizarro world for all we know it will take his poll numbers higher.  But part of stepping into the hot white light of presidential media scrutiny as an untested candidate is the susceptibility to falling victim to traps set by a more skilled debater and interviewer like Matthews.

Rather than move on to the next question after Trump’s attempts to dodge an answer, Matthews engaged him on a personal level, discussing the role of the Catholic Church in abortion policy, and then returned to the interview to zero in on Trump’s own stance.

More journalists should follow Matthews’ example and push Trump beyond his domineering comfort zone.  If we are to avoid swearing in President Trump next January, moments like this will become increasingly more important.

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