“Meet the Press” premiered Sunday morning with a new moderator, a former president and an eerily familiar pattern of mainstream media normalizing extremist stunts for ratings.
NBC News co-chief White House correspondent Kristen Welker sat down with the The Republican presidential favorite for a segment that was mocked as “Donald Trump’s first network interview since leaving office,” a tame description for someone who has been charged with numerous felonies related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election and who has been found responsible for sexual assault in a civil trial since losing the White House to Joe Biden.
But the television event also highlighted a problem that traditional media outlets have faced since Trump emerged as a potent figure on the political scene in 2016. Treating the former reality TV star like any other presidential candidate or victor before him is who is playing by the same set of rules as his predecessors. News flash: it’s not.
After an assault on the U.S. Capitol and four indictments later, it’s clear that the interview dynamic that “Meet the Press” has employed since Harry Truman took office isn’t working in 2023. At least for the people who really care. would like to see a substantive conversation: or question past or future leaders.
Sunday’s “new episode” of “Meet the Press” set the stage for the interview with an opening that mentions the impeachment trial, the president’s legal troubles and how his questionable dealings with members of his family could affect his chances in the election. 2024. But they were talking about President Biden, not Trump. The system validated long-standing complaints about banditry in traditional journalism, when an issue between opposing beliefs is presented as more balanced than the evidence supports.
The show’s producers surely saw this as an opportunity to show off the skills of Chuck Todd’s successor, to prove that he could hold his own in the face of a notoriously difficult interview topic. Todd announced last week that he would be stepping down after nine years as host of the public affairs talk show, although he remains at NBC News.
Welker is the first Black journalist to moderate “Meet the Press,” television’s longest-running show. The Trump camp likely saw it as an opportunity to reach viewers beyond his loyal Fox News constituency, normalizing a troubled candidate for a wary electorate.
But it’s doubtful that Sunday’s show moved the needle one way or another. There was no chance of arriving at any kind of shared truth in response to Welker’s questions about abortion policy, Ukraine, China, the storage of classified documents, or his involvement in a deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.
Trump laid waste to his interviewer, attacking his opponents with a barrage of insults while pushing the narratives he wants to push. Admittedly, Welker fared better challenging him than most of his teammates, including Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly. She pressed him on federal versus state abortion bans, his slow response to the Jan. 6 attack and whether, if elected, he would again send troops to Taiwan if China invaded. There were no major revelations in his response, but plenty of bluster about Florida Governor Ron “DeSanctimonious” DeSantis and the “deranged, lunatic prosecutor” he claims attacked him.
Welker asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s praise for him after Trump criticized Biden’s handling of the Russia-Ukraine war, arguing that if he were in office he would quickly end the conflict. In a previous report, NBC News covered Putin’s praise from Trump at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia last week, where he said: “We surely heard Mr. Trump saying that he will resolve all the hot-button issues in several days, including the Ukraine crisis. We can’t help but feel happy about it.”
Trump’s response: “Well, I like that you said that, because that means that what I’m saying is right.”
Although Trump’s admiration for Putin shined through, he toned down his combative nature during the taped interview. Instead of attacking her interlocutor and silencing her with intimidation tactics, he complained that Welker was interrupting him and not allowing him to finish her thoughts. Quite a comment coming from the King of Switches.
He answered more difficult questions with lies that may have surprised us seven years ago but are now commonplace. “What did you do when they attacked the Capitol?” Welker asked.
“Nancy Pelosi was in charge of security,” he said. “She turned away 10,000 soldiers. If she hadn’t, the attack wouldn’t have happened.
“Nancy Pelosi didn’t have the authority, you did,” Welker pressed.
“Pelosi is responsible for January 6,” Trump insisted.
It was useless at the time to correct the blatant lies, so Welker did so before commercial breaks. “A little context here about Mr. Trump’s accusations. He ordered troops in the days before the Jan. 6 attack. The Defense Department says the former president never gave a formal order to have 10,000 troops ready to deploy to the Capitol. Of course, it is unreasonable to blame former Speaker Pelosi or lawmakers on Capitol Hill for what happened that day. Pelosi’s office said at the time that the claim that she turned away troops was ‘completely made up.'”
The reunion may prove a boon for the network’s ratings, and perhaps even further boost Welker’s career, but it failed to overcome the usual underreported bravado of past interviews with the former president. Trump was Trump. Legacy media was legacy media.
But somewhere in between is the high-stakes story of ratings versus journalistic responsibility and the dangers that dance presents to our democracy.