Dana Bash isn’t letting Sunday’s showdown with Kellyanne Conway get her down.
As CNN’s chief political correspondent, Bash is already on to the next story, spending her day in West Virginia where she’s working on a story about the Republican candidate vying to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But she’s clearly still thinking about it.
Filling in for Jake Tapper on State of the Union, Bash got way more than she bargained for when she asked what she thought was a fairly innocuous question about Conway’s husband’s Twitter habits.
“What is up with your husband’s tweets?” she asked the counselor to the president, referring to George Conway’s tendency to retweet articles that are openly critical of Trump.
What followed was an unusually aggressive and personal attack—even for her—from Conway about CNN and Bash. “We’re now going to talk about other people’s spouses and significant others just because they either work at the White House or at CNN?” a furious Conway asked. “Are we now going to do that? Because you just went there. CNN just went there.” Later, Conway referred to “adultery” and spouses “draining the joint bank account” without providing any context for her accusatory remarks.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone, Bash says she has “no idea” why the question hit such a nerve with Conway and was taken aback by the reaction she got to it.
“I thought it was a legitimate question and I still do,” she adds.
During their back and forth, Bash brought up the way President Trump has openly criticized the spouses of opponents like former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. She could have mentioned an interview just this past week in which Kellyanne Conway brought up James Comey’s wife’s politics as a means to discredit him. Conway also played a prominent role in the Trump campaign’s efforts to tar Hillary Clinton with her husband’s misdeeds.
Bash’s deft handling of Conway’s mini-meltdown garnered praise from her fellow journalists, including ostensible competitors like MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, who tweeted, “Some stories have a clear hero who has to overcome insults, lies and personal attacks—this is one of them. @DanaBashCNN is my hero.” Kirsten Powers, a fixture on Fox News before decamping to CNN, added, “x1000.” Jake Tapper retweeted a message calling her performance “a real demonstration in grace and professionalism under fire.”
For her part, Conway tweeted after the appearance that Bash’s question was “cheap” and “irrelevant,” adding, “Meant to harass & embarrass. Mission unaccomplished.”
Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
So Kellyanne Conway obviously did not appreciate you asking about her husband’s tweets. Why do you think that hit such a nerve with her?
I have no idea. I really don’t. I obviously can’t read her mind. But it was probably obvious from my reaction that I was surprised by the way that she responded. I still kind of am. But I really don’t know why, because I thought then and I think now that it was a completely legitimate question that can and should be asked to somebody who is the counselor to the president out there defending and explaining his positions and what goes on inside the White House. Her husband, who is a prominent Republican lawyer pretty regularly retweets or tweets criticism of the administration in which she works. I thought it was a legitimate question and I still do.
Yeah, you described it to her as a “lighthearted” question and it seems like something that she could have answered with a joke and that would have been the end of the interview. But she obviously didn’t want to do that.
And I will say, knowing her as I have for many years, that’s the kind of thing I’ve seen her do in many, many other interviews. She’s known for going on the attack, but she also has taken questions and answered them in a very sort of short but to the point way without taking things personally.
Things got awfully personal in her answer. She was saying things like “this ought to be fun moving forward” and started mentioning spouses of people at CNN, did you take that as some sort of threat?
I didn’t know how to take it really. And I didn’t know what she was talking about at all. And I still don’t. But that’s the kind of journalism I’m in, that’s not the kind of person I am. That’s not how we roll at CNN, getting into that kind of tit for tat. And it was very odd that she made it almost about “this is war” or “game on.” And as I said, she’s known for going on the attack, but I also know her as somebody who is warm, who is whip smart, who is a good person, a great mom, extremely loyal. And I have a lot of respect for her and have for a long time. She came up as a female Republican pollster. That is like being the ultimate woman in a man’s world. And you know, she got a Republican president across the finish line against all odds. She deserves her due for that. But she also, especially as somebody who now works in the White House and goes out to talk about the president’s policies, is subject to questions like the one I asked her for that very reason. And I do think, in my heart of hearts, that she understands that.
She loves to say and said to you that there’s a “double standard” for her. And you were adamant that this had nothing to do with gender, that you would have asked the same question had it been man and his wife was tweeting negative things about their boss.
Exactly, and I would have. And let me just say that the way I began [the question], it has been a buzzy thing. I was not the first person to raise this. There have been stories written about this and it’s something that has been noticed. So it’s not like I just asked it out of the blue. And by the way, after this interview her husband was still retweeting something that was not complementary to the White House in which she works.
Every time CNN has Kellyanne Conway on, I see people on Twitter and elsewhere—and I’m sure you do too—urging the network to stop inviting her to speak for the administration. Given her penchant for spin and obfuscation, what value do you think she has as a guest on a show like State of the Union?
Listen, she represents the president. She works in the West Wing. She knows the president extremely well. Does she answer all the questions? No. Does she spin? Of course. But what politician or political aide doesn’t? She’s more deft at it than others, but sure. And I think that anyone who works for any administration who is willing to come on and take tough questions, which 99 percent of the time Kellyanne Conway does, is worth talking to.
From her perspective, do you have any idea why she keeps coming back on CNN if she apparently has such disdain for the network?
I think that generally the answer to that is she understands the power of CNN. She understands that despite the line that comes from the president on down about CNN, CNN is a place that opinion-makers watch, that opinion-makers come on to engage and we’re a place that is incredibly powerful and have been, but especially in the age of Trump. The fact that she comes on is a tell-tale sign that she understands that.
Since you’ve said you’ve had a warm relationship with her over the years, what happened after this interview when the cameras went off? Are you able to be friendly with her in that setting or does the tension spill over?
Listen, I didn’t talk to her afterward because we didn’t take a commercial break after her interview. We went straight from her interview to Sen. Corker, so I didn’t talk to her. But I think the answer to that question is, I am a professional, she is a professional and I can only speak for myself, but I intend to have a professional outlook and relationship from here on just as I would with anybody else. I’m a grown-up. I’m a big girl. And I don’t take things personally.
In general, has it been more difficult since Trump was elected to keep your opinions out of your political analysis?
It’s really not. Because opinion is still opinion. What we have to do more that we didn’t do before is fact-check and truth-tell. That’s not opinion. So I still don’t give my opinion. And who cares what I think? It’s what I know and what I’m hearing from sources. And that’s really the only thing that our viewers should expect from a reporter.
How do you think the administration labeling CNN “fake news” has affected what you do, either positively or negatively?
I don’t necessarily think that the answer to that is specific to CNN. From the perspective of CNN, my job is exactly that way it is. It’s to be as straight-up of a journalist that I can, to get the facts, to tell the story. And that was true in the Obama years, it is true in the Trump years. More broadly, the notion of “fake news” is a very dangerous thing to throw around because we have seen evidence of dictators around the world using the president throwing that term around as an excuse to really prosecute and persecute journalists in their countries.
There was an interesting moment in the Kellyanne Conway interview when you said you would be covering important issues more if Trump would tweet less. But do you think the media is spending too much energy covering his every tweet?
No. I don’t. Because it’s 2018. And these are presidential statements. Just like the fireside chat was a very new notion for FDR to come speak to the nation on this new thing called the radio, the technology has changed and morphed into Twitter. And he is the first Twitter president. He got elected that way and he is using it as his tool in office. He knows exactly what he is doing. He could use Twitter to say, look at how great the economy is or to push pieces of legislation or to talk about his policy on North Korea. But he spent the weekend talking extensively about the idea of his fixer “flipping,” of course it’s news. Of course it distracts from his own agenda. Just ask any Republican who shares that agenda or look at the hole on their head from the hair they’ve pulled out because of it.