On Sunday evening, Donald Trump took to his failing social media platform to deliver a full-on fascist broadside against both NBC News and the First Amendment. In this late-night blast, Trump declared that all media is “corrupt” but that NBC News needed to be investigated for “Country Threatening Treason.” The only reason Trump provided came in the form of a complaint that NBC had devoted too much time to the Trump-Russia investigation.
Trump then repeated anti-media statements that echoed those of his 2016 campaign, declaring NBC “the enemy of the people.” He insisted that should he come to occupy the White House again, he would not only launch that treason investigation but also see that both NBC and others of the “corrupt and dishonest media” would lose their broadcast licenses and face “a big price for what they have done to our once great country.”
Whether Trump’s rant was the result of an evening spent mulling over old wounds or a signal of some upcoming story he’s trying to undercut in advance isn’t clear. All of this comes just a week after NBC’s “Meet The Press” devoted the first program of the Kristen Welker-hosted era to an extended interview in which Trump was allowed to release a Niagara of unchecked lies. It was a masterclass in handing a sharp knife to someone who wants nothing more than to murder you.
The fault with booking Trump for that first “Meet the Press” interview likely falls mostly not on Welker, but on the people who thought “Megyn Kelly Today” was a good idea. There seems to be a certain echelon of management at NBC—and at every media outlet other than Fox News—that thinks if they surrender even more of their integrity, they can capture some of Tucker Carlson’s cast-off audience.
However, Welker is not a damp-behind-the-ears newcomer. She has more than 18 years of experience as a local reporter, network reporter, White House correspondent, and news anchor. She certainly didn’t step into Chuck Todd’s badly abused shoes without an understanding that she was going to have control over who appeared on her program and what she asked them.
If Trump was there, it was because she wanted him there. If Trump was allowed to make repeated unchallenged lies, it was because she allowed it.
The Los Angeles Times described that interview as a “gross dereliction of journalistic duty” and CNN declared it “a bleak start” to the new era at “Meet the Press.” Those admonitions fall on NBC News as a whole, but they fall most directly on Welker, who is largely responsible for the content of her program and wholly responsible for the questions that she asks.
Welker’s interview has received widespread criticism. However, it was not all bad. In fact, the one thing that the Los Angeles Times complained about most—Welker’s flailing efforts to return Trump to the subject of the question asked—was likely its best feature. The worst feature was three words that Welker used repeatedly: “Let’s move on.” Those words signaled the point where Welker, unable to convince Trump to admit to a mistake, misdirection, or outright lie, simply surrendered and tossed the next softball.
And those balls were extremely soft. It took Welker exactly two questions—just two—not only to ask Donald Trump what he thought about Hunter Biden but also to tee him up with, “Can you continue to say that there are two systems of justice?”
When Trump, unable to do more than spew a ketchup-coated word salad of old campaign phrases, doesn’t give a juicy enough answer, Welker pitches this one again. And again. The name Hunter Biden gets said three times in the interview—every single time by Welker.
Too often in the interview, there were points where Welker didn’t even try. She just let Trump flap on, apparently more frustrated that things weren’t following her script than that Trump was saying things that were not just untrue but also openly antithetical to democracy. Whether that involved defending the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, promising “retribution” against opponents, or repeating massive lies about the 2020 election, Trump got it all out there largely unchallenged.
Welker has a reputation for being both smart and capable. That’s likely true considering her experience and her rise through the ranks of local and national news. Colleagues keep insisting that she knows how to present challenging questions. Maybe she spent too long at “Weekend Today,” where the greatest challenge was remembering the price of the current product being pushed or the name of the celebrity chef bringing in some tasty treat.
As CNN put it, this was a “low moment in Welker’s otherwise pristine career” as she “failed spectacularly to meet the moment.”
The best way to interview Donald Trump is simply this: Don’t. Trump has been given more free air time, by far, than any candidate in history. That was true in 2016 and 2020, and it’s still true now. Bringing Trump on and allowing him to speak is nothing short of a campaign contribution. By now, everyone in the news business should be well aware that inviting Trump onto a program is inviting him to spread lies and attack democracy for the length of his appearance. Anyone who doesn’t know this shouldn’t be in the news business.
But if Trump must be interviewed, the transcript of that “Meet the Press” interview offers a place to start in understanding how it should be done.
Here’s Welker’s start.
Welker: “There are a number of things that make your campaign unprecedented. You are the first former president to run for re-election in more than a hundred years. You are facing four indictments. You have an incredibly significant lead in the GOP primary polls. But I want to ask you this, Mr. President: Why do you want to be president again?”
There’s a lot to not like even in that opening, because after tossing off that Trump is facing four indictments, “why do you want to be president” shouldn’t be the immediate follow-up. But the real fault of the interview is apparent just a few seconds later.
Trump: “Well, it’s a very simple answer, and I can give it very easily. It’s called: “Make America Great Again.” Our country is in serious trouble. I don’t think we’ve ever been so low in terms of, certainly opinion, world opinion and country opinion.”
There. Right there. That’s where Welker should have stepped in to say that this isn’t true. World opinion of the United States right now is extremely positive. That opinion represents a huge rebound since President Joe Biden took office, with a Pew Research survey of 16 nations showing that “75% expressed confidence in Biden, compared with 17% for Trump.”
Welker should have interrupted Trump’s statement at this point and disputed his false characterization. Even if the numbers weren’t at her fingertips, certainly the broad knowledge that world opinion of the United States was vastly improved without Trump should have come readily. And she should not have left this point until that was clear.
No “let’s move along” or simply asking the next question. Nothing else until the truth of this point was clear. And if that was the whole interview—either because Trump never admitted the truth, or because he walked off the set in a huff—that’s fine. Any interviewer unwilling to accept the possibility that an interview may be terminated by a subject unwilling to admit to facts should never be engaging in an interview to begin with.
What actually happened is that Welker ignored this statement and allowed Trump to carry on lying about the state of immigration, about the economy, about the military, and about Afghanistan. She allowed him a side trip talking about how someone tried to keep him from saying “insane asylums,” and another excursion into lying about international terrorism. He was allowed to do it all uninterrupted.
Is world opinion of the U.S. the most important issue facing the nation? No, but by making it the keystone of his pitch about why he should be handed the White House keys again, Trump made it important. Most of all, by allowing this first lie to sail past without ever being touched, Trump and Welker together set the terms for their discussion: He would get to make lengthy, lie-riddled statements, and she would trail along behind him, picking just one or two things to challenge.
How many lies should journalists attempt to correct when confronting not just Trump, but any politician or candidate for public office? All of them. And especially the first of them, because letting that first one go is simply giving permission for an unlimited number to come.
Trump is an existential threat to both democracy and journalism. Treating him as anything less is trying to normalize the apocalypse.