Kristen Welker’s Meet the Press debut was focused on her interview with former president Donald Trump, and their sit-down, his first with a major broadcast network since leaving office, was pretty much what you would expect.
Welker tried, successfully at points, to make news and also to counter him on certain key facts. There were several moments that will likely prove important to his criminal indictments, as well as his presidential campaign on issues like abortion.
But interviewing Trump is perhaps a greater challenge and even risk for news outlets now than it was in 2016 or even 2020, as he has hardened in his determination to churn out long-debunked claims, to try to divert attention, to obfuscate and deflect. As The New York Times’s Peter Baker told Welker later in the broadcast, “He’s just a bulldozer shoveling falsehoods and lies throughout your interview and you are fact-checking him all along the way, but he is creating a different reality that has been successful for him so far in leading the Republican nomination fight.”
One of the most frequent — and consequential for the coming election year — is Trump’s claim that Special Counsel Jack Smith’s criminal indictments against him are politically motivated, ordered up by President Joe Biden.
“They saw this happening, and went to the attorney general of the United States, and he told them, ‘Indict Trump,’” Trump told Welker at one point, one of several moments when he referred to them as “Biden indictments.”
“There is just no evidence of that, Mr. President,” Welker said to him.
Perhaps aware of the difficulty of matching every Trump claim with a fact check, Welker interspersed the pre-taped interview with “context,” elaborating with viewers later, “Former President Trump referred to the federal indictments against him as Biden indictments. The indictments have been charged by a special counsel. And according to the White House, President Biden has not spoken to the attorney general about that, and the White House found out about them from news reports.”
Yet in this case, the context goes beyond just what the White House says. Trump’s claim that the indictments were at the behest of Biden, repeated by his allies and others in the GOP field, seems to be based entirely on the fact that they are happening under Biden’s watch, or that Biden has has embellished facts in the past. (At one point Trump claimed that Biden has lied about his golf handicap.)
But there’s no evidence that Biden called up, emailed or even spoke to Attorney General Merrick Garland or to Smith about the case, as Baker noted later in the show. Smith on Friday asked a federal judge to place restrictions on what Trump can say about the case, arguing that it prejudices the jury pool and is “substantially likely to undermine confidence in the justice system.”
NBC News’s announcement that Trump would be Welker’s first guest drew a social media backlash, as a ratings-getting gimmick that platforms someone who sought to remain in power even after he lost the 2020 election, and who has called for the “termination” of provisions in the U.S. Constitution.
The network has defended its decision by noting its newsworthiness, as he is the leading contender for the GOP nomination. NBC News also was quick to note was that this would be pre-taped and not before a live audience, differing from the CNN town hall with Trump that drew criticism, from inside and outside the cable network, that it played out like a rally. In addition to broadcasting an edited interview with moments of context, NBC News also did a fact check on its website.
That said, Welker’s sit down still underscored the vexing challenges of interviewing him.
Welker’s strategy in the interview appeared to be to bypass some of Trump’s oft-repeated claims and instead elicit other answers.
That was apparent when Welker asked Trump about why he ignored lawyers in his administration, who told him that his election challenges were over, and instead turned to outside lawyers.
“They turn out to be RINOs, or they turn out to be not so good,” he said. “In many cases I didn’t respect them. But I did respect others. I respected many others that said the election was rigged.”
Welker then asked, “You called some of your outside lawyers, you said they had crazy theories. Why were you listening to them? Were you listening to them because they were telling you what you wanted to hear?”
Trump responded, “You know who I listen to? Myself. I saw what happened. I wanted that election, and I thought that the election was over at 10 o’clock in the evening.”
Trump then tried shift the focus to books “that were written on how the election was rigged,” but Welker pressed him. “Just to be clear, were you listening to your lawyers’ advice, or were you listening to your own instincts?”
Trump continued to divert to his claim that the “election was rigged,” and to a book by Mollie Hemingway, but Welker pressed him further.
“Were you calling the shots, though, Mr. President, unfortunately?” Welker said.
“As to whether or not I believed it was rigged? Oh sure,” Trump said.
“It was my decision,” he finally said. “But I listened to some people.”
The exchange may undermine a defense by Trump’s attorneys, who have been leaning into the idea that he was relying on legal advice as he pursued efforts to overturn the election results.
At other moments, the former president repeated a long-debunked claim that Nancy Pelosi was “responsible” for the January 6th attack, eliciting another moment for Welker to point out Trump’s authority as commander in chief and to later provide context. “Of course it’s unreasonable to blame former Speaker Pelosi or lawmakers on Capitol Hill for what happened that day,” Welker told viewers. At another moment, Trump was silent when Welker asked him what he was doing as the Capitol attack unfolded.
“Were you in the dining room watching TV?” she asked.
“I’m not going to tell you,” Trump responded.
His non-answer was telling in itself. And in the months ahead, as Trump is willing to step out of the conservative media comfort zone, other news outlets likely will make their own efforts at a sit down. It’s the accountability function of journalism in the midst of a presidential campaign. But amid those lofty goals, his choice as Welker’s first Meet the Press guest shows that he remains a mighty media temptation.