When Chuck Todd announced in June that he would be retiring as host of "Meet the Press," not a few people who take politics seriously breathed a sigh of relief: No more of Todd's insight-free, planed-down, both-sides-do-it horse race approach to news.
The NBC News publicity machine immediately built up Todd's successor, Kristen Welker, as a tough, whip-smart journalist, "dogged" and a master of "sharp questioning of lawmakers."
That whole PR edifice came crashing down Sunday, when Welker got steamrollered by Donald Trump on national television.
Is there any scenario by which you would seek a third term in office?
Kristen Welker asks Trump the stupidest question
Welker's interview with the former president, pitched as her inaugural coming-out party as the show's new moderator, served as yet another demonstration of the impossibility — and irresponsibility — of treating Trump as a normal political figure.
Despite ample evidence that dealing with Trump on his own level — through four years of the Trump presidency and as recently as May, when Trump chewed CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins to pieces at a misbegotten town hall — was a no-win situation, NBC News went ahead and subjected its hopelessly unprepared journalist to ritual humiliation. It was a milepost in the deterioration of network news' ability and inclination to hold politicians to account.
What Trump received was a nearly hour-long, essentially unmoderated publicity platform, gratis, an opportunity to once again show that he is a feral exploiter of television's tendency to take everyone at their own level of self-esteem.
Of Welker the sharp questioner of lawmakers, nothing remains. Here's a fair sampling of her presence during the interview (drawn from the full official transcript of the encounter, of which only a portion was shown during the broadcast):
"But Mr. President—"
"Let's stay on track, though, Mr. President."
"Mr. President, we have so many topics to cover."
"You had —"
"You — Mr. President —"
"But, let me, let me, but Mr. President —"
"Mr. President, let me just ask this question, please —"
No journalist has been able to fully overcome Trump's assault on truth one-on-one. The one who came closest to rattling Trump was Jonathan Swan, then of Axios, who interviewed him for an HBO program in 2020.
Swan, an Australian, was plainly raised on the British tradition in which television interviewers grant the politicians they're interrogating all the deference and respect they deserve, which is to say: none. But a fresh look at the interview shows that even Swan was hard-pressed to keep Trump on the hot seat, and mostly failed.
CNN’s Jake Tapper managed to hold Trump’s feet to the fire in a 2016 interview about Trump’s complaint that the judge handling a lawsuit over Trump University was biased because the judge was “Mexican” (he wasn’t). But Tapper couldn’t keep Trump from veering off into mendacious accusations about the lawsuit and its plaintiffs, and Hillary Clinton and then-New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman.
In her interview, Welker seemed fed on the American tradition of treating every politician, even those complicit in an attempt to overturn the democratic tradition, with the utmost in politesse. Consequently, Trump stomped her flat.
The transcript illustrates how often Welker, bollixed by Trump, ended up stepping on her own questions. Trump delivered the coup de grace late in the program, when he complained to Welker, "You keep interrupting me."
Welker allowed Trump to emit lie after lie in what I've described as his "Gish gallop," a technique named for a notorious creationist who would conduct debates with experts in evolution by “spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.”
Welker tried, here and there, to counter Trump's lies, but on the whole she failed miserably; they just keep coming at too great a pace. But she displayed abject ignorance about too many of the issues she herself raised. NBC News posted a "fact check" online after the broadcast, but at a mere 1,800 words it couldn't possibly correct the record adequately.
Let's take a look at some of Trump's most egregious lies.
On abortion, Trump claimed that Democrats advocate allowing abortions "after five months, six months, seven months, eight months, nine months, and even after birth."
Not only is after-birth abortion a contradiction in terms, but late-term abortions aren't done out of a casual decision not to proceed with birth, but because the fetus is not viable or suffers from extreme deformities, or the pregnancy is a threat to the woman's health.
Welker's response to this was a wan, "Only 1% of late-term abortions happen."
When Welker asked about the consequences of anti-abortion laws in red states — "How is it acceptable in America that women’s lives are at risk, doctors are being forced to turn away patients in need, or risk breaking the law?" — Trump simply failed to give an answer, and Welker failed to insist on one.
Trump claimed that abortion is "a 50/50 issue," meaning that the U.S. public is evenly split. That's not true.
According to Gallup, 67% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy — the first 90 days. The most stringent anti-abortion laws enacted in red states don't allow abortion at all or restrict it to the first six weeks, a period in which many women don't even know they're pregnant.
Importantly, Gallup finds that 58% consistently oppose the Supreme Court's 2022 ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade, which had guaranteed abortion rights nationwide. Trump has long bragged about having installed the court majority that overturned the 1973 ruling.
Trump defended his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including his notorious call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to find enough votes to flip the Georgia results from Joe Biden to himself. He said Raffensperger "again last week said I didn't do anything wrong... Raffensperger said 'it was a negotiation.' "
This is a lie. Raffensperger has not said Trump did not do anything wrong. At a federal court hearing last month on a motion by former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows to move the trial over his indictment over conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, Raffensperger was asked point-blank by the judge whether the call was a "negotiation." He replied that it was not.
Trump has also been indicted in that case, brought by Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis.
Turning to economic affairs, Trump claimed that his 2017 tax cuts, which went mostly to corporations and wealthy people, "created tremendous jobs.... More importantly, we had more revenue with lower taxes than we did with higher taxes." These assertions are false or highly misleading.
Job growth under Trump fell short of the mark set by former President Obama. In the first three years of Trump's administration (leaving out 2020, when the pandemic provoked huge job losses), 6.36 million jobs were created, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; in the last three years of the Obama administration, 8 million jobs were created.
In the two years following the tax cuts, job growth was meager — 2.3 million new jobs in 2019, and 2 million in 2019. Those were worse than the annual figures for 2013-16. Under Biden, incidentally, nearly 14 million jobs have been created, in part thanks to the post-pandemic recovery.
Higher revenues after enactment of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act? No, not really.
Corporate income tax receipts fell to $224.9 billion in 2018 from $230.34 billion the year before and fell again to $210.45 billion in 2019. Personal income tax receipts held their own in 2018, coming in at $1.615 trillion, up modestly from $1.613 trillion in 2017, then rose to $1.7 trillion in 2020.
But those figures fell significantly below what had been projected by the Congressional Budget Office in 2017 — a shortfall of $275 billion, or 7.6% of pre-tax cut projected revenues, the Brookings Institution calculated.
Put it all together, and Brookings found that despite conservatives' promises, "The TCJA did not pay for itself, nor is it likely to do so in the future."
Welker, of course, was utterly ill-equipped to push back on Trump's job and revenue claims. He simply blamed the pandemic, though the consequences of the tax cuts were felt long before then.
What's most shocking is that almost none of Trump's lies was new — he's been spouting most of them nonstop. So how could Welker be so unprepared to address them head-on?
Given that the quality of Welker's interrogation scraped the bottom of the barrel clean, it's hard to pinpoint the lowest of low notes.
My vote for the single stupidest question she put to Trump is this one, which wasn't heard during Sunday's broadcast but appears in the full transcript: "Is there any scenario by which you would seek a third term in office?"
Leaving aside that Trump has served only a single term, lost his bid for a second term, and is not yet the official GOP candidate for the 2024 campaign, there's this little thing out there known as the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That amendment states forthrightly, in black and white, "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice."
Perhaps Welker hasn't had a chance to learn about it yet, it's been around only since 1951.
Trump was perhaps too canny to answer her question; he turned it into an attack on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is challenging him for the nomination.
But one can only ask: What the hell was Welker thinking? Was this her way of asking Trump if he would stage an anti-constitutional coup d'etat? If so, why not ask that outright?
And where the hell was the NBC News staff, who surely were in the room at Trump's New Jersey golf club where the interview took place? Did no one say, "Er, Kristen...."
So that was that. At the end of the interview Welker docilely asked Trump, "If you have time, I think we want to get one little shot of us walking together." Because, of course, what's important to NBC News and its fellow TV enterprises is the optics.
If squeezing information out of an interview subject is what's important to you, however, don't expect it from NBC or "Meet the Press."
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.