Commentary: 'Meet the Press' debuts with Kristen Welker and treads familiar ground with Trump

"Meet the Press" premiered Sunday morning with a new moderator, a former president and a disturbingly familiar pattern of mainstream media normalizing extremist chicanery for ratings. Kristen Welker, NBC News' co-chief White House correspondent, sat down with the Republican front-runner for president Donald J. Trump
Former President Trump with Kristen Welker in an interview that aired on "Meet the Press." The journalist took over as moderator of the NBC show on Sunday. (William B. Plowman / NBC)

“Meet the Press” premiered Sunday morning with a new moderator, a former president and a disturbingly familiar pattern of mainstream media normalizing extremist chicanery for ratings.

Kristen Welker, NBC News’ co-chief White House correspondent, sat down with the Republican front-runner for president for a segment that was teased as Donald Trump’s "first network interview since leaving office,” a tame descriptor for someone who's been indicted on numerous felonies involving efforts to overturn the 2020 election and who’s been found liable of sexual assault in a civil trial since losing the White House to Joe Biden.

But the television event also highlighted a problem that traditional news outlets have faced since Trump emerged as a potent figure on the political scene in 2016. Treating the former reality TV star like any other presidential candidate or victor before him assumes that he’s playing by the same set of rules as his predecessors. News flash: He’s not.

One storming of the U.S. Capitol and four indictments later, it’s clear that interview dynamic that “Meet the Press” has employed since Harry Truman was in office does not work in 2023. At least for folks who would actually like to see a substantive conversation — or grilling — of past or future leaders.

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Sunday’s “new chapter” of “Meet the Press” set the stage for the interview with an opener mentioning impeachment, the president’s legal troubles and how his questionable dealings with family members might affect his chances in the 2024 election. But they were talking about President Biden, not Trump. The set-up validated long-held complaints of bothside-ism in legacy journalism, when an issue between opposing beliefs is presented as more balanced than evidence supports.

The show’s producers surely saw this as an opportunity to showcase the skills of Chuck Todd’s successor, to prove that she could hold her own against a notoriously difficult interview subject. Todd announced last week that he was leaving his post after nine years of hosting the public affairs talk show, though he remains with NBC News.

Welker is the first Black journalist to moderate "Meet the Press," the longest running show on television. Trump’s camp likely saw it as a chance to reach viewers beyond his loyal Fox News constituency, normalizing a troubled candidate for a wary electorate.

But it’s doubtful that Sunday’s show moved the needle one way or another. There was no chance at arriving at any sort of shared truth in response to Welker’s questions about abortion policy, Ukraine, China, the storage of classified documents or his involvement in a deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.

Trump steamrolled over his interviewer, attacking his opponents with a barrage of insults while pushing the narratives he wants to push. To her credit, Welker did better at challenging him than most of her peers, including Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly. She pressed him on federal versus state bans on abortion, his slow response to the Jan. 6 attack and whether — if he were elected — again, he would send troops to Taiwan if China were to invade. There were no great revelations in his answers but plenty of bluster about Florida Gov. Ron “DeSanctimonious” DeSantis and the "deranged, lunatic prosecutor" whom he says targeted him.

Welker asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s praise of him after Trump criticized Biden's handling of the Russia-Ukraine war, arguing that if he were in office, he would quickly put an end to the conflict. In an earlier report, NBC News covered Putin's praise of Trump at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia last week, where he said, "We surely hear that Mr. Trump says he will resolve all burning issues within several days, including the Ukrainian crisis. We cannot help but feel happy about it."

Trump's response, "Well, I like that he said that, because that means what I'm saying is right."

Although Trump's admiration for Putin shined bright, he toned down his combative nature for the pretaped interview. Instead of charging at his questioner and silencing her with bully tactics, he complained that Welker was cutting him off and not allowing him to finish his thoughts. Quite a comment coming from the King of Interrupters.

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He responded to harder questions with untruths that may have shocked us seven years ago but that are par for the course now. “What did you do when the Capitol was attacked?” asked Welker.

“Nancy Pelosi was in charge of security," he claimed. “She turned down 10,000 soldiers. If she hadn’t, the attack wouldn’t have happened.

“Nancy Pelosi didn’t have the authority, you did,” pressed Welker.

“Pelosi is responsible for Jan. 6,” insisted Trump.

It was futile in the moment to correct the outright lies, so Welker did so before commercial breaks. “A bit of context here on Mr. Trump's allegations. He ordered troops in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. The Defense Department says the former president never gave a formal order to have 10,000 troops ready to be deployed to the Capitol. Of course, it’s unreasonable to blame former Speaker Pelosi or lawmakers on Capitol Hill for what happened that day. Pelosi's office said at the time that the claim that she turned down troops was quote 'completely made up.'”

The sit-down may prove to be a ratings boon for the network, and perhaps even further boost Welker’s career, but it failed to cut through the usual low-information bluster of past interviews with the former president. Trump was Trump. Legacy media was legacy media.

But somewhere in between is the high-stakes story of ratings versus journalistic responsibility and the dangers that dance presents to our democracy.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.