Few would guess that Ari Melber is anything other than a progressive Democrat. More than a decade ago, before law school, the Seattle-born Melber toiled as a legislative aide for Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, then held down various jobs on Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign.
But now, at age 39, he’s a registered independent in Brooklyn—having renounced the label of partisanship while anchoring his own show at 6 p.m, The Beat, and working as a legal analyst for NBC News and chief legal correspondent for MSNBC.
Melber is something of an outlier on the liberal-leaning cable network, and not only because his show regularly features hip-hop stars—his musical obsession since high school—and, almost nightly, he finds an excuse to introduce rap lyrics into an otherwise sober discussion.
It’s also because he is a rare MSNBC host who regularly welcomes Donald Trump enthusiasts into his studio at 30 Rock, and listens patiently, if critically, as they make their case.
One fan is Jay Sekulow, President Trump’s combative, camera-ready personal attorney.
“I like him, he’s a tough questioner, and I think that makes it all the more interesting,” Sekulow, a recent first-time guest on The Beat, told The Daily Beast about Melber. “He’s a smart guy. Where we agree we agree, and we where disagree we disagree, but it’s never personal. I would not go on if it was. It’s not. He’s a tough inquisitor, and in a constitutional republic, that’s a good thing.”
Sekulow said he has spoken with Melber as recently as this week about going in front of The Beat’s audience in the near future. But such warm and friendly feelings would have been difficult to discern from Sekulow’s sword-crossing maiden appearance opposite Melber in late March, the day after Attorney General Barr issued his deceptively exculpatory summary of the then-confidential Mueller Report.
It was nearly 12 minutes of intense bickering—an eternity in cable television. When Sekulow repeatedly talked over the host, Melber flashed a tooth-baring grin, less an affable smile than an animal threat-gesture, and upbraided his guest for filibustering.
“Jay, I know we’re both lawyers, I’m gonna finish the question and then let you answer, all right?”
When Sekulow again interrupted a question—concerning Barr’s revelation that the Mueller Report didn’t “exonerate” Trump—Melber scolded: “Let’s keep this pleasant.”
After more bickering, Melber said, “I’m not trying to get you, Jay,” and Sekulow retorted, “With due respect, I do watch your show” and complained that Melber was purposely underplaying the important legal distinctions between an independent counsel such as Ken Starr (who reported to a panel of judges) and a special counsel such as Mueller (who answers to the attorney general).
Sekulow added: “You conflated the independent counsel with the special counsel and you conveniently leave off [in Melber’s report of Barr’s summary] where it says ‘we’re not accusing the president of a crime.’”
“Jay, Jay, Jay, save the media criticism for when we’re not doing the interview,” a clearly annoyed Melber responded, adding that he had just presented the entire quote prominently onscreen. “So what you just said was inaccurate, and I’ll leave it at that… I’m not gonna do a Trump media debate with you, Jay… We deal with context here.”
Weeks later, in his office, Melber reflected: “I’m thrilled to have the president’s lawyer on. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but there are plenty of people watching any channel who might say ‘That’s not the first person I want to hear from now that Mueller’s finished. I want to know other stuff.’”
More Republican fandom comes Melber's way from the decidedly nerdy Bill Kristol, a longtime GOP operative and political theorist, and frequent guest on The Beat (occasionally alongside hip-hop artists such as rapper Fat Joe, to comic effect).
Kristol called Melber, in a text message, “a good host—substantive on the legal issues, [and he] asks focused questions.” Melber’s program, meanwhile, contains “more analysis [ and] less opining than most shows,” he added.
Even Ann Coulter, who has claimed to be an obsessive viewer of MSNBC, her favorite cable outlet to hate-watch, can find something positive to say: “He is the only MSNBC host who delivers the news without the network’s signature smirk. (whatever you want to say about fox, they aren’t smirkers.),” she emailed. “I haven’t watched much recently because the entire network seems to have become Soviet State Propaganda.”
Of course, Kristol, these days editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a publication that values traditional institutions and conservative positions that the president regularly derides, is a vocal Never-Trumper. And Coulter, formerly one of the president’s more prominent boosters, has become one of Trump’s harshest critics over his failure keep his most oft-repeated campaign promise and build that wall on the border with Mexico.
They [Trump’s minions] are not there to make my audience feel entertained or excited or informed,” Melber told The Daily Beast.
Two heavy binders containing a generously tabbed copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted 448-page report lay on the coffee table in front of Melber as we spoke in his office. “They‘re not there just because they want to talk to me—they could do that off-air. They’re there because they think this forum is fair enough that they can get their views out.”
They are, of course, appearing on a cable outlet that is succeeding largely by stressing a storyline in which the former reality television star is unfit to be president, is probably guilty of corruption and criminal misconduct in the White House, and deserves to be impeached and removed—thus attracting a like-minded viewership of millions (an average of 1.6 million daily for Melber’s show).
“In times of crisis, people reach more for the values and institutions that might help,” Melber said. “So for a large part of the country it’s obvious that Donald Trump reflects a crisis. For another part of the country,” he added, “there’s clearly a lot of excitement about him disrupting and openly attacking norms and institutions that they might not hold in high regard to begin with.”
The Beat inspired headlines in January when Melber devoted an entire show to a panel of Trump supporters and ex-advisers (Carter Page, Michael Caputo, Sam Nunberg and Jerome Corsi) who’d been interrogated by the Mueller prosecutors—with the newsmaking takeaway that the investigation was increasingly focusing on Roger Stone.
Melber said he was especially pleased when former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, a conservative Republican loyalist best known as Bill Clinton’s tormentor who exposed the 42nd president’s fling with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, agreed to appear on The Beat late last year to discuss Trump’s potential legal exposure and the possibility of an impeachment proceeding.
A photo of a somber-looking Melber and a wildly grinning Starr, commemorating the TV lovefest, hangs just outside Melber’s office.
“Ken Starr is a great guest,” he said. “We want everyone who’s credible and can bring something to the table to be on… It’s not in contrast to whatever else is on this channel—that would be too media-centric.” (Melber is proud that Starr’s appearance was especially successful online; Melber’s interview last year with one of his rap-music idols, 50 Cent, also attracted impressive online traffic.)
With his background as an attorney (practicing First Amendment law under famed Cahill Gordon & Reindel litigator Floyd Abrams from 2009 to 2013) and as a political journalist (writing for publications ranging from The Nation to The Atlantic to The Daily Beast), Melber arguably is perfectly positioned to chronicle the ongoing drama of “whether law and journalism will act as guardrails against someone who openly touts himself as an enemy of the press, of fact-checkers, and of the scientific and empirical process of truth,” as he put it.
The 45th president, Melber continued, also touts himself “as an enemy of judges whom he castigates unfairly, including based on their race, and the enemy of a judicial system that requires truthful cooperation, when he says ‘Be strong,’ ‘Don’t be a rat,’ ‘Don’t tell the truth.’ But then you find out, after all that, that the good news—the whole first part of the Mueller Report—is that they didn’t criminally conspire with Russia.”
MSNBC's biggest star, Rachel Maddow, has been criticized by some for pushing the speculative narrative that Trump and his presidential campaign actively collaborated with Russian political saboteurs—a notion that the Mueller Report (and notably Attorney General William Barr’s 4-page summary of it) seems, at least for now, to have debunked, prompting a temporary MSNBC ratings slide.
Melber, by contrast, prides himself on spotlighting “witnesses and evidence, as opposed to doing hypotheticals and speculation or anything else, or bringing only a certain view to it,” he said, careful not to cite any of his MSNBC co-anchors.
Regarding the Mueller investigation, “we felt that our approach—focusing on witnesses regardless of whether you like them and following what you could glean about the probe—was really vindicated,” Melber declared. “The theory of the show is we’re gonna give you the evidence and we’re gonna tell you some things whether you want to hear them or not.”
The Beat’s videos get around 13 million viewers per month on YouTube—the highest of any MSNBC show, according to a network spokesperson. Melber explained his efforts to feature political figures who might otherwise not be favorites of MSNBC’s core audience this way: “People didn’t know they wanted to eat raw fish either. Now it’s in every airport in America.”
In another counterintuitive instance, in 2017, after Trump issued his executive order banning travelers from predominantly Muslim countries, Melber recalled, “I told my viewers, ‘There’s what you think about this’—a candidate openly running on religious discrimination would horrify The Founders. ‘Then there’s the thing that you don’t like’—I said from the start that, according to precedent, this will likely be upheld…The Supreme Court has said that other than war-making, immigration is one of the president’s highest powers.” (Indeed, the high court’s nine justices narrowly upheld the travel ban in June 2018.)
“Ari is terrific. He’s one of the best legal minds on television. He’s also got his finger on the pulse of today’s culture. That’s why our audience has responded to him in a such a positive way,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin told The Daily Beast in a statement. It’s a predictable encomium given that Melber, since The Beat launched in July 2017, has prospered in a previously troubled time slot that had never before gained traction in the channel’s 23-year history.
Floyd Abrams, for his part, told The Daily Beast that Melber “worked with me on a number of First Amendment matters, always with the greatest skill and creativity. From his first days at Cahill Gordon to the time he moved on to MSNBC, Ari could quickly get to the heart of whatever legal issue we were working on and set forth our position with clarity and persuasiveness.”
Calling Melber “a great guy,” one of Abrams’ more famous clients—Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter James Risen—recalled that when the Obama Justice Department was threatening him with jail unless he identified a confidential source, Melber “was always very supportive of my stance to refuse to reveal my sources and for the cause of press freedom.”
Melber grew up in central Seattle, the younger of two boys, in a highly educated household. His mother is a sociologist who received her doctorate from the University of Chicago, taught at the University of Washington and Boston University, and later worked for a non-profit; his Israeli-born father is a neurologist whose parents fled Germany for Jerusalem as the Nazi regime began persecuting, and ultimately murdering, millions of Jews. Many of their blood-relatives were among the victims.
Being the grandson of Holocaust survivors has clearly informed Melber’s worldview, although he cautioned: “Part of what my job requires is not importing every personal thought or experience to the fairness and evidence in covering a story.”
On the other hand, “we’re human beings and our humanity is part of what makes us—hopefully—good at understanding what other people are doing,” Melber added. “I’m sure my family’s history and identity as minorities—and if you go back far enough, as persecuted minorities—definitely informed my view of a lot of social issues and thinking about the difference between what the majority, or the mob, might say at any given time, and the rights of the minority, the rights of the accused, the rights of all sorts of individuals.
“We’re talking right after Passover. I’m not super-observant, and I don’t quote a lot of the Torah, but Passover can look like a holiday that includes a lot of exploration of humanitarian principles—like you should love the stranger, that children should have a chance, and that you can migrate for a better life.”
Yet Melber, while doing a summer internship at the New York County public defenders office during his time at Cornell Law School, discovered that his capacity for altruism is limited.
“I didn’t have the emotional grit and toughness and I found it really sad,” Melber said, describing waking up depressed every morning to attend the arraignments of indigent clients who were pressed to plead guilty in order to keep a massive bureaucratic machine running smoothly. “I felt helpless because of the way the system was set up. I thought I’m not cut out for this. And it smelled like piss.”
After graduating in political science from the University of Michigan and gaining hands-on policy and political experience with Cantwell and Kerry, Melber began writing about politics and appearing on cable as a telegenic pundit.
His TV career was launched in earnest in 2013, when MSNBC recruited him to be a regular on The Cycle, a short-lived afternoon panel show; Melber soon was pressed into service as a regular substitute host for vacationing prime-time anchors such as Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.
He is divorced after a brief marriage—to Collider journalist Drew Grant—and declines to reveal if he’s dating anyone in particular, except to say, “I’m a happy guy.”
Melber dates his attraction to television to a moment when he was a precocious third-grader performing in the elementary school talent show, when he wrote a playlet about prosecuting Exxon for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and cast himself as the star.
“I cast myself as the lead prosecutor, and I had actual props like a fish covered in oil, and I wrote it,” he recalled. “No spoilers here, but I won the case. I think I always had an interest in performing, but also for a purpose and meaning. When I look back, I think it was sort of me, from a young age, wanting to be out front. But I also wanted it to be a mission, with the idea of holding Exxon accountable.”
Now Melber wants to be out front holding Trump and his minions accountable. His Wednesday program, for instance, featured a lengthy excoriation of Bill Barr for willfully misleading the American people and failing in his duty as attorney general to uphold the law.
“It is an unshakeable political fact of this era that the resistance to Donald Trump has been larger than the support for Donald Trump from his first day in office,” Melber said in his office. “That is a peculiarity of our electoral constitutional system that’s not likely to change soon. So it’s not just that he’s all these other things, it’s also that he didn’t win most voters and try to reach out them. He didn’t win most voters and then doubled down on his relatively small base…”
“The most important thing about Donald Trump to Americans’ lives is not my opinion of him,” he cautioned. “And the most interesting thing about Donald Trump to people’s lives will almost never be my opinion of him…What’s important and what’s interesting is actually revealing what’s happening. And there’s no doubt that this is one of the greatest, most fascinating and most stressful stories that America has experienced in the television age.”
With his palpable ambition and appetite for performing—on the day that the Mueller Report was released last week, he spent a dozen hours in front of various NBC and MSNBC cameras—Melber himself seems bound for a larger role in the television age, whether at MSNBC or elsewhere.
For the moment, the epic legal and political story of the Trump presidency—with court fights over subpoenas, televised House hearings and possible impeachment proceedings—will keep Melber busy on The Beat.
“There’s a little something for everyone here,” he said. “The true nature of Trump has to be covered, scrutinized and exposed. But I don’t feel that we need to be at 11 to do our work.”