Journalists and commentators for years have wrestled with the question of how to approach Donald Trump, a former president who is both a prolific liar and facing dozens of criminal charges in federal and state court. In her debut turn as moderator for Meet The Press, Kristen Welker wanted to be the latest to prove to critics that he could be challenged.
But like those who have tried before, her inherent skills as an interviewer were no match for a chaotic interview subject like Trump.
Welker managed to squeeze a plethora of topics into the hourlong exchange—a mighty feat when dealing with a man known to meander on a topic long enough to derail the overarching conversation. She approached Trump with the respect gifted to former presidents—often calling him “Mr. President”—and infrequently interrupted him, even when an in-the-moment fact check could be justified. Welker even managed to nail down semi-specific answers from a candidate who made a talent out of skirting specificity. (“I don’t think you should be allowed to have abortions well into a pregnancy,” he said at one point.)
But Welker’s relative control and composure during the sit-down also allowed for some of the steam-rolling Trump successfully landed in his garbled CNN town hall.
He repeatedly refused to answer questions—directly telling Welker “I’m not going to tell you” when asked if he watched the chaos on Jan. 6 from a White House dining room—and made multiple ludicrous claims that were left largely unchallenged, or weakly so. (Democrats want to kill babies after birth! Nancy Pelosi was responsible for Jan. 6!)
NBC produced multiple post-interview fact-checks on air and online, including after each interview segment during the broadcast, but that is no replacement for an on-the-spot confrontation. Presenting an evidence-backed fact check to Trump’s face allows an audience to watch him reject truth in real time. That serves a greater purpose than roundups scattered throughout NBC’s online platforms.
The framing of her questions was also puzzling. Welker introduced some subjects to Trump like a writer would script a pilot episode of a television show. “Tell me how you watched all this unfold,” she asked about Jan. 6. There would be some merit if an item was a fresh development, as was the case with Hunter Biden’s criminal indictment, but Americans have heard Trump ramble on the issues of Jan. 6, abortion, Vladimir Putin, and immigration for years. A new platform for Welker should not be a reason to treat these ongoing stories—and Trump’s position on them—as new, as it permits Trump to challenge the basis of fact in the question while regurgitating false information.
Welker herself attempted to head off the inevitable criticism during the broadcast. “He is the former president,” she noted to a panelist. “He’s facing four indictments, as journalists just set the scene, the backdrop why there is still news value and value for the public to hear from him.”
Trump is indeed the former president, and Welker is an established professional who can conduct an inquisitive interview. Perhaps current President Joe Biden would have been a better interview subject for her first episode as Meet the Press moderator, as they at least would have been able to start from the same set of facts.
But since the White House declined to make Biden available, she was left with the Trump train wreck.