UNIVERSAL CITY, Hollywood—On two afternoons this past week, Chuck Todd hosted his MTP Daily show from a studio in Los Angeles, which eagle-eyed MSNBC viewers may have been able to tell from the images of the downtown L.A. skyline behind him.
“I’ve always wondered, does it bother you if somebody is [broadcasting] from New York with a D.C. background?” Todd asks me. “Do you feel like we’re misleading you?”
We’re sitting on greenroom couches on the Universal Studios lot, where Todd has joined a slew of other NBC talent at the network’s mid-season press junket. In his D.C. uniform of a nondescript suit and tie, he stands out among the more stylish actors from shows like Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD.
As Todd explains, it used to be a TV news rule that the backdrop would match whatever city the guest was in, but too often these days that convention has gone out the window. “That would bother me as a viewer,” he says. “I don’t like when my New York friends have a D.C. background. But I’m old school. As my daughter would say, why do you care about that, Dad?”
This is just one of the many things that Chuck Todd, who is about to enter his 12th year as NBC News’ political director, cares about. He also has much bigger things on his mind.
As moderator of Meet the Press, the longest-running show in television history, Todd spends his Sunday mornings trying to get straight answers out of Trump advisers who don’t always believe there is such a thing as objective truth. And in June, he will be playing some yet-to-be-determined role in the first Democratic debates of the 2020 election, which will span two nights to accommodate the ever-growing field of contenders.
Most people would probably display some signs of stress under the weight of such massive responsibilities, but Chuck Todd, the consummate political junkie, has never seemed more ready for the next campaign.
So the big news for NBC News is that the network will be hosting the first debates for the 2020 Democratic primary campaign.
Yeah, we’re happy about that. What I’m excited about, frankly, is trying to pull off back-to-back nights. That’s how I’ve always wanted to try to accommodate that many people. I had a bunch of ideas that I wanted to try four years ago of figuring out a way to accommodate these large fields. So that it doesn’t feel like there’s a kids’ table. Now, the DNC wants it evenly split, randomly done, back to back. But it’s still not going to be the exact same event. How can it be? What I’m interested to see is how the candidates on night two react to what happened on night one.
Will you be moderating?
I don’t know. We’re not making those decisions quite yet.
But will it be the same moderators both nights?
For what it’s worth, it will be the same group. Does that mean everyone will ask the exact same questions each night? No. But whatever group of people that’s moderating this event will be the same group of people each night.
You mentioned the “kids’ table,” which received a lot of derision in 2016—
That is something you feel strongly about avoiding? The undercard debate.
Look, the question always was, if you were going to do it all on one night, how do you accommodate all of that? The RNC took a debate away from us [in 2016]. We were going to do a debate and I don’t think we would have had to do a kids’ table by then. But I had an idea of trying to create pods of four. You could do four 20-minute debates, each with one subject. So I had this idea where that table will be the debt table and that table will be Syria and you do 20 minutes each.
You probably can’t win no matter what you do though.
No matter what, people are going to feel as if, “They only talked for five minutes total!” Well, there’s 20 people running. We’re doing the best we can.
Trump was really able to take advantage and take control of the large field in 2016. Do you see something like that happening in 2020 with the Democrats?
Here’s the thing. Any debate I’ve ever moderated, somebody tries to be the alpha. No matter whether it’s a two-person debate or a 10-person debate. Trump lived his whole life worried about being the alpha, in every room he ever went into, not just on a debate stage. But that is what is I’m going to be fascinated to watch. It’s that interplay. It’s the candidate who decides to interrupt the moderator first. “Hey, I’m going to get in on that!” That’s their way of saying, look at me, I’m an alpha too. Look, politics ain’t beanbag, and there’s no permission slips. Donald Trump erased that. And in some ways, so did Bernie Sanders. Nobody invited him to run in the Democratic Party. He said, screw you guys, I’m not even a Democrat and I’m going in. There will be an attempt to out-alpha each other. Because at the end of the day, you gravitate toward a leader. I think they’re all mindful that people are going to be watching, not just who do I agree with, who can handle him? Who can handle the elephant in the room?
Except he won’t be in the room for these debates.
But he’ll be in the social media room, won’t he?
If you were to end up moderating one of these big, many-candidate debates—and even split in two it’ll probably be a lot of people on that stage—what are the biggest challenges of managing all of those personalities?
Let’s just say, I’ve thought long and hard about what debates should look like. And there are questions you ask at a debate that you’d never ask in a one-on-one. And there’s questions you ask in a one-on-one that you don’t ask in a debate. So I think first and foremost I think the challenge as the moderator is reminding yourself that nobody’s watching you. Nobody has tuned in to watch the moderator. And I believe that moderators of debates are like referees at a football game. If you’re talking about the refs after the game, it was a poorly officiated game. If you’re talking about the game and you’re not thinking about the refs—my goal, whenever I’ve moderated a debate is I don’t want my name to show up until at least paragraph eight [of the recap]. That’s when you know you’ve moderated a successful debate.
The goal, in a first debate, there is an introduction aspect. Don’t shy away from that. Let it happen! This is the first time. Let them have an opening statement. Don’t fight these things. Be mindful of the moment you’re in. Too many times my colleagues see an opportunity to moderate a debate as an opportunity for them. And the minute you do that… By the way, short-term social media fame for a cleverly worded question doth not make a career.
One of Trump’s effects on the political system is that he is somehow able to get away with a lot. But does that mean that Democrats end up by default getting held to a higher standard in terms of having to actually explain how they’re going to do what they want to do?
Everybody’s being held more accountable since Trump got elected except the president. Whether it’s Hollywood executives, TV anchors, print journalists—you get where I’m going here. I don’t know what that phenomenon is. It’s not like an edict went out, it’s just that we’ve decided we’re not tolerating that anymore. But you’re right, it comes across as if, wait a minute, why are you demanding more than what we’re demanding of him?
You can certainly argue that Hillary Clinton was held to a higher standard than he was.
Yeah, and in hindsight I can tell you why that happened. She was the assumed president-in-waiting. So she was being judged as if she was already the president. He was being judged as the celebrity reality TV show guy that’s dabbling in politics and making it entertaining. Look, I’m not defending it, I’m just explaining it.
But there are some things that Trump has erased that I think the Democrats ought to learn a lesson from. Number one, be present. One thing you can say about Trump is he was everywhere. During the campaign, was there an interview he ever ducked? He was willing to do whatever. There is an expectation in the 21st century that there are no filters or if there are a hundred filters, speak through all of them. That is one habit they ought to pick up from him.
So I’m also really interested in your interviews on Meet the Press with members of the Trump administration.
I don’t know why I’ve become these weird moments, like [Kellyanne Conway’s] “alternative facts” and when Rudy [Giuliani] pulled off the “truth isn’t truth.” I was like, no, don’t do this. Literally, don’t make this a meme, what are you doing? This was a case where you’re like, really? You’re going to go down this stupid road? We all know how ridiculous this sounds.
Do you find yourself in those moments trying to control yourself? Is that kind of uncomfortable?
Yes! The “alternative facts,” I hated that moment because I let her get under my skin. I did laugh at the absurdity of it all. And she goes, “Why are you laughing?” And I’m like, because I can’t believe—you’re right, this isn’t a serious issue, so why are you trying to lie about it, or mislead about it? So yeah, it was sort of like, is this really a serious conversation I’m having on day two of a presidency?
So there’s a lot of criticism surrounding Kellyanne Conway, and now around Rudy too, that amounts to why are you having these people on your show if they are known to mislead or lie, or whatever you want to call it?
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about who I put on and who I don’t. All I will say is, just look at how often I have had them on and when I don’t have them on. And I’ll let you decide that. [Editor’s note: After making her “alternative facts” comments in January 2017, Conway did not appear as a guest on Meet the Press for the next 17 months and has been on the show just twice since.] But I don’t think you ban anybody. She works for the president of the United States. If she is relevant to a story we’re doing, I do think it’s important for the country to hear from a senior aide to the president. If she’s most relevant person, whether it’s she is the face of opioids, what they’re doing on that. The thing is, don’t just put someone on to have an argument. And there are people who book her and she knows why they’re booking her, so she does it. She puts a show on. And they want to have a show. That isn’t what I’m doing on Sunday morning. So I don’t do that.
She seems to enjoy those fights too.
Well, I don’t see the point of doing that on television. But at the end of the day, the decision we make when we decide whether to put somebody on or not: If we don’t get it from this person, is there any other person who can provide this point of view? At the end of the day, Rudy Giuliani is the lawyer for the president of the United States. And there’s an existential threat against the president of the United States in this Mueller report. How Rudy defends him matters. And I get it, the last time he was on I was ambivalent about putting him on. But it felt like, we need to hear from the president’s lawyer. I felt as if, he’ll say something and it’ll get retracted in a day. Sure enough, he did it again! Even though I went three times, when he said, oh yeah, this Russia thing went all the way through the election. “OK, you just said, I want to clarify it.” I clarified it twice, because his reputation is not good.
Does it feel like there was a time when you could nail him on something like that and people would kind of accept it, but now…
Now, no one accepts it. You know, it’s funny you say that, you’re right. We’re lacking shame. Donald Trump’s greatest superpower is not feeling shame. The media’s greatest power was shaming people into admitting wrongdoing, leaving, resigning, whatever. And if people don’t feel shame anymore then, you know what? That’s a big weapon to take away from us. That is something I fear. What if the unintended consequence of Trump is more and more people are comfortable not being shamed? They’re OK with being known as somebody who just sort of laughs at truth.
Yeah, I mean, Giuliani said it’ll be on his gravestone that he lied for Trump.
By the way, that’s what makes it so you can’t quit Rudy. There are these odd moments of clarity from some of these folks that do need to be added to the conversation.
Looking to the future — hypothetically, if the Mueller report comes back with the most airtight, damning evidence that Trump “colluded” with Russia and obstructed justice to cover it up, what do you think happens? Do Republicans care?
Here’s what I think happens. I think the level of damage—the perception of the Mueller report will be directly correlated to how many Republicans decide to run against him for the nomination. Because I know of at least two who are waiting to see how lethal the report is to decide whether to get in. Look, I do think the timing of this is going to lead to an interesting debate come the fall. If you are one of the seven or eight Democrats who have a shot at this thing, and you see that this Mueller report is out there, who do you want to run against all of a sudden? Would you rather run against a damaged incumbent, or “our national nightmare is over” vice president who, suddenly the country feels like, “give the guy a chance?” So, what will be interesting is that I do think Democrats are going to be at cross purposes. Congressional Democrats are going, if we’re not going to hold this guy accountable now, what does this say about holding future presidents accountable? Versus those on the campaign trail are going, leave him on the ballot. I’d rather face him than Nikki Haley. Or I’d rather face him than Pence/Haley.
Do you think any of them would say that out loud? It seems pretty cynical, especially if they’re a senator.
Correct. But I do think we’re going to have a debate, generally. Should Congress have the debate about removing him from office or should this be in the hands of voters? And I think that is going to be a robust debate in this country. There’s part of me that believes, as painful as the [impeachment] process might be, there’s a reason it’s in our Constitution. And if this doesn’t rise to the occasion, then what will? And more importantly, we already have precedent for what has. And impeachment doesn’t mean ousting. Impeachment is having a debate: Is he fit? And guess what, it’s a political debate. And the United States Senate are the ones who decide, up or down. That’s your jury pool, love it or hate it. That’s the system and I think it’s healthy for us to get that civics lesson.
If you say you want to avoid all that because it’s say, easier to have it handled at the election, well it’s also easier to build your border wall without getting Congress to do it, but if you keep skipping the Constitution and treating the document like it’s just some sort of suggestions on how to run a government, then you’re going to find yourself where suddenly, what happened to our checks and balances? I’ll put it this way, I’m this guy again. [Todd literally pulls a copy of the U.S. Constitution out of his breast pocket.] I’m walking around with this thing all the time. Because I feel like we all need a lesson.
This interview has been edited and condensed.