In this Press the Press media interview, Tony Nicholls chats with Richard Cooke, one of Australia’s most experienced journalists.


TN:  We are joined by Richard Cooke. Richard Cooke is a contributing editor for The Monthly and he has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times. He is also a former comedy writer at ‘The Chaser’. We are about to jump into Trumpism in the age of the coronavirus.

TN:  Well welcome to Press the Press, as always we are joined by Good Talent Media’s David Latham. Welcome along David.

DL:  Tony, great to be here, really looking forward to this chat today.

TN:  Well today we will have a US focus as coronavirus still grips the world. It’s a pandemic and it’s obviously a huge concern economically. And when you look at Trump’s most recent calls to America it’s very curious that he is calling it the ‘China Virus”. Isn’t that interesting. I think Trump does really well when he’s got an enemy. When he is up against someone.

DL:  Yeah absolutely, I think it’s a bit of political insurance there for Trump so if things go pear-shaped, people start dying, partly perhaps the result of his direction that he has a fall-back position and someone to blame.

TN:  Well he is obviously appealing to his domestic base there isn’t he? And it started when he came out banning travel to Europe, excluding the UK and Ireland. Again, blaming it on Europe if you will. I’m finding it interesting also how he is almost now peddling the cure in this old anti-malarial drug.

DL:  Yeah, very bizarre and I think everyone will take that in the context in which it should be taken. We know he is up to about 16,000 recorded lies and they are probably growing exponentially each hour. I think people will take that with a grain of salt. We’ll see how that washes through the news cycle.

TN:  Well there is a lot at play here, and joining us to explore further is Richard Cooke, Richard is a US correspondent, he is a contributor at The Monthly. Welcome along Richard.

RC:  Thanks very much.

TN:  Richard, what are your thoughts on how Trump is playing this?

RC:  Well, that’s a hard question to answer in one go partly because the way that Trump is playing it sometimes feels like it is changing minute by minute. If you go back even three, four days ago it is just a completely different picture. One of the things which makes it hard to orientate to is that Trump’s large body of supporters seems to change that orientation with him. We go from the virus being a non-concern to being a major concern in a few days. Nothing has really changed apart from a few in the US and everybody else just has to pay along like we have always been at war with East Asia.

TN:  Exactly, but it no surprise is it that Trump changes his mind every minute, every day. This is his style. He knows the news cycle moves so quickly David, that what he does or is saying today doesn’t really matter 48 hours later in fact he will backflip on it. So there is no real surprises here.

DL:  Yeah look, I think people have commented before, it’s like the Russian propaganda style. You dump a whole load of rubbish into the news cycle and while people are sifting through that and sorting out responses for the next day the news cycle has moved on and he’s dumped a whole lot more provocative language into the news cycle. I mean he is really speaking to his base. He is not trying to speak to liberals and so on, he is just feeding the beast which he has created.

TN:  And when you check in on the death toll, so the death toll in Italy has now surpassed China’s. The situation is obviously progressing pretty rapidly. Can you give us an update on the States and the coronavirus numbers and the impact that you think it will have economically?

RC:  It’s difficult to find accurate numbers in the US partly because the testing regime has been so poor to date. The number of deaths is still relatively low. This is also a situation where there may be people dying from pneumonia or flu related illnesses. Some people are saying that some of the flu related deaths we are seeing are the past month or six weeks may have actually been coronavirus deaths that haven’t been tested for. There still isn’t an Italy or Iran style situation and the US weather changing and becoming warmer may create a situation there that may taper off a little bit. But because of this weak response initially, there is still the real prospect of the health system being overwhelmed, we just have to wait and see unfortunately.

TN:  And Richard you reference Iran there, one person dying every ten minutes would you believe David. Absolutely incredible. But Economically they are forecasting for the States and for all of us great impacts than the 2008 GFC.

DL:  It’s a moving feast. It sounds to me like people are talking about the ‘D’ word, recession to deep recession, to possibly depression. When you have two thirds of the Qantas workforce being dumped it doesn’t bode well. With Trump and fake news, that has served him quite well, but in the context of a crisis which could engulf the American health system, which is in a calamitous state, that could be really terrible.

TN:  So Richard if you contrast it to Obama and his health focus and his efforts with Obama Care, do you think the sates would be in much better shape if they had Democrats in right now?

RC:  I think there is a limit and Obama found this limit to what any president can do in trying to reform the US health system. Especially over the course of one or two terms, especially because of decades long under investment in public health in particular. It might be the case that Democrats would have a different approach but many of these, what were once termed ‘blue dog Democrats’ really relied on insurance and medical companies so we may not have seen a more aggressive approach its just very difficult to say. What I do know if you do go around the United States when you’re seeing depressed towns, depressed areas very often the nicest buildings and the newest buildings will be part of a medical complex and this enormous over cost really for people and especially people with no insurance to get treated.

TN:  And of course we do know that crises do favour incumbent leaders, so if you have the United States in shock, in panic now and in economic peril surely David this is a good thing for Trump as he heads into his second election?

DL:  It should be I just think its very fraught though. When you have a war or something like that which comes along or a natural disaster you should be able to get a bounce off it. The problem here is that it is very high stakes and if it is seen that Trump and his campaign of misinformation and subterfuge and silliness is leading a spike to American deaths we don’t know how that will impact or how that will start to hit at his base, quite possibly those ex-Democrats supporters who are down at heel, Richard.

RC:  I think that after the 2016 elections anyone who thinks that they can price the odds of a US electoral outcome should go and take a cold shower. It is very very difficult to predict in so called normal circumstances, let alone a possible incumbent depression, let alone an unprecedented situation with a global pandemic. That’s before we even get to things like, concerted voter suppression in particular states. It looks like Biden will be the nominee, he is not going to excel in the debates, let’s be honest. Trump has a really good history of destroying his opponents and the incumbency of the US Presidency offers a big advantage to someone no matter who they are. It’s only really George Bush Snr. which has had in recent times that one term presidency. So I think that Trump has some advantages but if you look at the betting markets, again they were wrong last time, it is Biden now who has just nudged into favourable territory. We can speculate but we are on shifting sands.

TN:  We certainly are but wouldn’t it be wonderful for Trump if he was an underdog again because the first time around, he was the underdog and he played the whole anti-establishment, drain the swamp line, campaigning against Clinton who was well and truly in establishment and he goes ahead and wins it. If he is the underdog again he will absolutely love it. What do you think Richard and David, I’m really worried about Joe Biden senior moments, if he has them with Trump we are talking beyond being destroyed, he’ll be killed.

DL:  Yeah it could be a real blood bath. Just going back Tony to what you were talking about, I happened to have a conversation with someone here who knew an adviser to Clinton when he was running, Bill Clinton, and he back then, people forget was an outsider. Hillary Clinton is now seen as an insider and kind of on the nose, and enmeshed with all the problems that beset America. Obama was an outsider; Trump was an outsider and I think Biden will be seen as that insider and coupled with the senior moments it’s problematic. What are your thoughts Richard?

RC:  Yeah, a friend of mine has said that both Trump and Biden have dementia but Trump is really leading into it a lot better. He’s not fighting it. He is kind of riding it out. Look it is easy to turn this into a Trump v Biden and just think about it through that lens, but everyone in the US in particularly should be asking themselves how these to kind of very old, angry, East Coast figures have reached the apex of world power. This is not a healthy sign for a country its not a healthy sign for the world. Surely we can be doing better than this to lead us through times of crisis, apparently not.

TN:  And you would think so and its sad to reflect that if Bill Clinton was running for Democratic party leader, he would be the youngest candidate right now.

RC:  Yeah I mean in the Democratic primaries you had a 78 year old who had just had a heart attack talking about the mental and medical fitness of one of his younger opponents who is also in his early 70’s. This is not a seemingly sustainable program to run a country with.

TN:  You wouldn’t think so. It’s interesting to think we are having a laugh now and wrapping up the interview, you worked on The Chaser for a little while when you were getting started in your career and probably one of the greatest Chaser moments that I can recall is back at the APEC 2007 summit and The Chaser has that that fake Osama Bin Laden Motorcade going through all the security. Not sure if you were there at the time but surely you could reflect on that moment.

RC:  I was thinking about that the other day and how it really feels like an artefact from another time. I mean that wasn’t that long ago in relative terms, it was what 10 years ago roughly. Now it just feels like something from another planet. At the time I remember hearing some people went out for a drink and – this was months later – and happened to meet some of the special forces or special operations police who happened to be involved and one of them was a sniper who actually said ‘oh we had Chas Licciardello lined up and then got the order to not to shoot’. I’m not sure that would pan out that way now, and that the prank would turn out the way that it did.

DL:  Insurance premiums would have gone through the roof I’d imagine for public liability.

RC:  Yeah I don’t think the ABC would sign off on that one anymore.

TN:  I don’t think so. All eyes are on the American political situation and obviously the global pandemic as well. Richard Cooke, thank you so much for joining press the press.

RC:  Thank you, thanks guys 

DL:  Thanks Richard

TN:  Great chatting to Richard Cooke, some interesting insights into Trump and coronavirus in the Unites States has had some huge ramifications there and their health system most certainly. I cannot believe that he shared the insight at the end and Chas was in the line of a sniper during that APEC stunt. Unbelievable.



Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.


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