On Friday afternoon, Chuck Todd was talking Trump. Never mind the over-the-top chaos of the last two weeks and a White House that at times seemed to be coming unglued, Todd told me in an interview for The Global Politico — Donald Trump was finally getting the presidency he’s been “dreaming of.”
He rattled off a few recent White House trends: “Shooting from the hip,” ignoring and alienating advisers, going “by his gut,” and bashing the media while “begging for compliments” from them. This, said Todd, now in his fourth year as the buoyant host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” is the presidency as Donald Trump has always envisioned it. “What you think is crazy,” he told me, “he thinks is successful.”
Barely 24 hours later, Trump seemed determined to prove the point. In a raging, manic performance at a Saturday evening campaign rally for a House candidate in Pennsylvania, he attacked the “fake” American press corps, crowed about his accomplishments and belittled the “low IQ” Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — while stopping the rowdy crowd from booing at the mention of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un he will soon meet. As for Todd, Trump singled him out by name, calling the veteran political journalist a “sleepy son of a bitch.”
Hours later, Todd sat in the anchor chair for his Sunday morning edition of “Meet the Press.” He never directly mentioned Trump’s personal attack on him beyond a joke or two about his “sleepy” a.m. audience, but he grilled Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the president’s harsh rhetoric and trashing of Waters. Mnuchin offered an unconvincing defense: Pay no attention to what the president says, it’s just “campaign” talk. “The president likes making funny names,” the Treasury secretary said.
Later, Todd returned to the subject. What, he said, are you supposed to tell your children about the president using vulgarities to attack individuals? Mnuchin again ducked, saying there had been a lot of “funny moments” in Trump’s rally. “Hilarious,” Todd said drily as he ended the interview.
In our conversation on Friday, the NBC anchor — a repeat target of the president — had seemed to anticipate just such a Trumpian eruption against him, and he warned that Trump constitutes a grave threat to journalism, with his presidency an “Iraq War moment” that reporters have to get right even with all the confusion and chaos that have become Trump’s trademarks in the office.
“Our credibility is being challenged now by the president,” Todd told me. “And maybe it’s a tactic; maybe it’s the same-old, same-old. But one of their strongest arrows in their quiver is the media’s coverage of the Iraq War, and so we can’t afford to get a big story wrong basically twice in a decade — twice in, I guess, a generation.
The collective press corps’ coverage of Vietnam and Watergate gave the media its credibility. If we blow this moment, it could be something that we’ll pay a price for [for] a generation.”
“[Trump is] getting more and more comfortable shooting from the hip and conducting his presidency by his gut” — Chuck Todd
Since Trump won the White House, Trump has blasted Todd publicly and privately – but often, at least in off-the-record settings, he has also seemed to be seeking his approval. That dynamic is eerily similar to the way Trump has treated another frequent target of his Twitter ire, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman (and indeed, Trump on Sunday responded to a Haberman scoop by tweeting a blast at her as a “Hillary Flunky” who is not “given access” despite his repeated calls and interviews with her).
I asked Todd in our interview Friday why he thought the president had such an obsession with him. His nasty tweets about Todd – including calling him “sleepy” – go all the way back to 2011 (“’Sleepy’ Chuck Todd of NBC falls far short of the late great Tim Russert,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 28, 2011). Todd told me that was the year Trump was repeatedly calling him, trying to sell him on the idea of a Trump-led ticket against Barack Obama.
“For a long time, he used to call me up and be upset because I wasn’t taking the idea of him running for president seriously in 2011,” Todd said. “And we would have these half-hour conversations regularly and I would sit there and I remember one time with Savannah Guthrie and I, we, literally put him on mute, going, ‘Does he have other things to do but call?’” The future president, Todd recalled, seemed to think that because his television reality show, “The Apprentice,” was also on NBC, Todd should reflect that in his journalism. Once, Todd said, Trump called him and said, “‘Come on, we’re colleagues. I make you a lot of money.’ I’m like, ‘What?’”
Since he’s been in the White House, Trump has kept up the focus on Todd, who made his name in political journalism running the must-read faxed newsletter The Hotline back in the 1990s when I first met him and remains one of Washington’s savviest political handicappers. In one off-the-record group session that was later reported on, Todd recalled, “Trump one second called me a monster and the other second [was] going, ‘And I love this guy.’”
The analyst in Todd sees all this contradictory behavior as firmly of a piece with the head-spinningly inconsistent governance coming from Trump as president.
And he predicts a lot more of it over the coming months, as Trump grows increasingly emboldened in the White House and less constrained by the expectations of more tradition-minded staff around him.
“I don’t want to hurt somebody else’s credibility by making a snarky mistake” — Todd
“He’s getting more and more comfortable shooting from the hip and conducting his presidency by his gut,” Todd said. “I think this last week, these last 10 days of him is the presidency he’s dreamed of…. ‘Yes, oh, there’s the little scandal over here. Well, that will entertain the troops over there. But, look at everybody’s begging me to save them from the tariffs, but I’m getting tough and the steelworkers love me and look, Kim Jong Un wants to meet with me. I’ll be able to handle this.’”
That’s a lot of tumult, but Todd said, “If you think the last 13 months have been tumultuous, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Amid all of last week’s news, Todd had taken an evening off to receive the First Amendment Award on behalf of “Meet the Press” from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association, so he was already in a reflective mood about the role of the press in the Trump era well before the president’s Saturday night salvo.
Trump, he told me, has upped the risk factor for journalists already under greater scrutiny than ever before in the rapid-response, everything-is-on-social-media-instantly era. “Unfortunately, the margin for error is much smaller,” he said.
“Look, when CNN makes a mistake, you and I pay for it. When I make a mistake, you pay for it. The point is, unfortunately, we don’t own our own credibility. We’re collectively in this, and I want all of my colleagues to think about that. I think about it every day. I know there are certain things that if I say that I might want to tweet, but I know it doesn’t reflect on Chuck Todd; it reflects on NBC News or it may reflect on the political press corps. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hurt somebody else’s credibility by making a snarky mistake.”
I immediately thought back to this comment when I heard about Trump’s remarks over the weekend.
I’m sure there were a million retorts, a thousand insults of his own Todd could have have fired back at Trump. But he chose not to.
Would Todd respond and if so, how? For journalists whose job it is to cover the story — and not be the story — the president had forced him into a most awkward position. And besides, no matter how much we’ve all tried to get used to this presidency like no other, there’s no journalism training for what to do when the president of the United States randomly calls you a “son of a bitch” on a Saturday night.
I’m sure there were a million retorts, a thousand insults of his own Todd could have have fired back at Trump. But he chose not to. If you watch the video of his interview with Mnuchin, he is clearly furious — and clearly professional.
I’ve long thought that Trump is the ultimate political X-ray machine, revealing what’s inside those who come into contact with him, whether they like it or not. Chuck Todd had a Trump X-ray moment this weekend, and showed the class he’s made of.