MSNBC Anchor Nicolle Wallace on Trump, Cable News, and Why Voters Are ‘Ripsh*t Mad’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo Courtesy of NBC

Turn on MSNBC at any given hour, and odds are you’ll hear someone speaking out against Donald Trump. Given the president’s dismal poll numbers — and the ratings surge experienced by networks and personalities that rail against him — this is not exactly a shock. But there’s something different about the anti-Trump vibe emanating from MSNBC every weekday at 4 p.m. For the past eight months, that hour has been hosted by Nicolle Wallace, a former panelist on The View and a longtime Republican political operative who served as President George W. Bush’s communications director. Despite her GOP roots, or perhaps because of them, Wallace’s disdain for the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue feels driven less by ideology than by a sense of disgust over what’s happening at her former workplace. If you watch her show, it’s hard not to come to one conclusion: Nicolle Wallace is simply done with Donald Trump.

This does not mean the self-confessed “non-practicing Republican” uses her MSNBC hour, dubbed Deadline: White House, to launch extended tirades against Trump (ahem, Lawrence O’Donnell) or as group therapy for fellow members of the Resistance (that would be Joy Reid’s weekend program). Instead, Wallace has fashioned Deadline as an essential rundown of the day in Trump, a place where she and her fellow Beltway insiders do their best to make sense of the ever-shifting madness in Washington.

The approach seems to be working: Since she took over the 4 p.m. hour, MSNBC has moved ahead of CNN time slot rival Jake Tapper in overall audience, with Deadline beating Tapper’s The Lead by about 100,000 viewers for the eight months they competed in 2017. Although Tapper maintains a lead among the younger viewers important to advertisers, Wallace has shrunk the demo gap every month since September, fighting to a virtual tie in December. Vulture recently checked in with Wallace, chatting for a half hour about her trial by fire as a newbie anchor in the Trump era, her abrupt exit from The View, and whether she’d ever consider jumping back into politics.

Deadline is the first show you’ve anchored solo. Not to sound like Stephen Miller sucking up to the president, but you don’t come off like a talking head who’s been given a TV show. Did your past life of telling politicians how to deal with reporters prepare you for being on the other side?
I quibble with the premise of your question. I think I’m best served by the fact that, in this moment, polish has taken a back seat to passion and bluntness. I’m just the beneficiary of an incredible moment in our politics where people are — and this is not a partisan observation — people are out of their mind! The Trump voters are ripshit mad still, and I’m not sure exactly why. I’m not sure what they expected. And the 67 percent of the country who doesn’t approve of him are beyond despair.

The experience that may have served me well was serving as a crisis manager for the politicians I worked for. When you work on a campaign, you don’t have the night to go home and think about how to respond. The Post and the Times call you on deadline with a terrible story for your principal, so you have to think quickly and it has to be authentic. To the degree that we’ve built an audience and viewers come back every day, it’s a tribute to the team who works for us and this moment calling for, or permitting, my lack of polish, if you will.

You mentioned your experience as a crisis manager. I feel like we’ve been in crisis mode since Trump got the nomination. That’s probably great for your ratings and your second career, but are you tired of this as a human being?
I don’t know anything else in TV news. I only know daily newscasting in the context of the daily crisis, the daily calamities, the daily exercise of making a rundown at 9 a.m. and ripping it up at noon — and then ripping it up one more time at 3 p.m. To the degree that this is all I know, I think it’s more unsettling when we have a day that unfolds as we think it will the night before, or the morning of. I’ve got the syndrome of adrenaline addiction. In this moment, the velocity is so unprecedented, you feel knocked off when it slows down.

But I’m wondering how this affects you as a human being and a citizen. Does it feel like we’re in a slow-rolling crisis?
I don’t want to sugarcoat it. My personal feelings about what we’re living through are laid bare every day at 4 p.m. There are a lot of things about Trump’s presidency, with all due respect to the people who chose him, that debase and degrade the office. When I think about it and talk about it, it upsets me. The show has a lot of Never Trump Republicans. I call myself a non-practicing Republican. I think you get through it by sort of going there. It’s upsetting, but I don’t think it goes away by ignoring any of it.

Your show is your way of dealing with this moment. 
We try to unpack it. There’s very, very little we do with just me [on the show]. That’s the idea of having the table [of experts]. The idea is how people — and again, this is not exclusive to Trump’s political detractors, since even Trump voters feel under siege in this climate — we try to simulate how people in their real lives are getting through all of this political upheaval.

In addition to crisis mode, we live in the era of what I call “peak punditry.” I’m wondering how you stand out in this golden age of professional prognosticators and pontificators, of which you are one? 
Well, the marching orders that I received from my bosses when I started doing the analysis for the Today show every day — and I was never paired with a Democrat, it was never under the auspices of right and left — was to come with original, fresh reporting. When there were 17 Republicans running in the primary, I think I personally knew about 11 of them, so I would just call them all every night. And because it was the Today show, they would all call me back. As it winnowed down further and further, I just covered the campaigns, and by the time we were in the general [election], I knew as many people in the Clinton campaign as on the Trump campaign. The MSNBC show is an extension of that original reporting.

I call a lot of the people who I know in the administration, and the people who were former colleagues either in my six years of the Bush administration or the McCain campaign. I knew hundreds of people in government — career and political appointees at the DOJ, the White House, the crew on Air Force One. I built the show around coverage of the White House. It’s the only show on [MSNBC] with White House in the title, and we take that as a mission statement. We really benefit from having this focus on the White House and the presidency. It helps us getting into any story.

You’re on MSNBC, a network that has a lot of partisan fans and loyalists. Those fans are very vocal on social media, and they don’t always like it when folks from the right end up on “their” network. Was that in the back of your head when you started the show? 
You know, I’ve been in front of the MSNBC viewer for ten years. I was a regular on Morning Joe, and that’s a debt I owe to Joe and Mika. I’ve been on their show since it started, so I was very familiar to MSNBC viewers. When I went to The View, I had it written into my contract that I would stay at MSNBC and do Morning Joe while I was at The View. So I’ve been on MSNBC for a long time, and I think that one of the things that people get wrong about viewers is something that people get wrong about voters. Voters aren’t looking for politicians that agree with them up and down the line; they’re looking for politicians that don’t lie to them.

I think the concept applies [to] the MSNBC viewers. They’re extremely sophisticated. They understand policy and politics. They know everyone I’ve worked for, they know the record of the people I’ve worked for, they know my political leanings. But nothing has happened behind closed doors. There’s nothing I haven’t disclosed to the viewers — not ever. When the Palin thing went sideways, I talked about it on Rachel Maddow’s show. I’ve been really open, in and out of the George W. Bush White House, about the things that I’m still proud of having worked on, and he’s been open about the things that didn’t go well. I think sometimes people don’t give voters and viewers credit for knowing the difference.

So many GOP pundits and personalities who were widely loathed by people on the left now almost seem like honorary Democrats. I remember wanting to throw things at the TV whenever Jennifer Rubin would bash Barack Obama. Now I watch her and she doesn’t just bash Trump — she yells about the GOP tax-cut bill! You could say the same thing about conservatives like Steve Schmidt or David Frum or Bill Kristol … 
Or George Will or Michael Steele.

What do you think that’s all about? 
Listen, when Joe Lieberman left the Democratic Party to become an Independent, he said, [quoting Ronald Reagan], “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.” I think that may explain some of it. When I was inside the Jeb and George Bush administrations, I was always in media, press, and communications roles, and I was known to be extremely moderate. I never pretended when I was inside Republican politics to be more Republican than I was, and I never pretend now that I’m out of them to be any more or less moderate than I am. What’s been purged from the GOP is moderation. I think the Democrats have some of their own issues on that front, but not nearly as many as the Republicans do. I think that’s one explanation. I don’t speak for Bill Kristol and all those folks, but I think that’s definitely part of it.

Is an awakening is going on among Republican moderates? I may be projecting my own opinions here, but the night Obama was inaugurated, the GOP decided to oppose everything he did. And it worked spectacularly well in the short term, at least in terms of electing Republicans down ballot. Do you think that sort of thinking helped pave the way for the tribalism that led to Trump?
No. I think you can go back through Trump’s three predecessors, who we’d all take for a ten-year term now given what we have. Things back then were really harsh and personal during “the politics of personal destruction” under the Clinton presidency. George W. Bush was much maligned by Democrats, who had deep, emotional disagreements with him over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, the opposition to Obama was extreme — I don’t disagree with your description of it at all. But Bill Maher was pretty funny after Trump was elected. He said, “God, I’m sad that I was so mean about George W. Bush, because when someone worse comes along, you feel like the boy who cried wolf.” There’s plenty of blame to go around for being hyperbolic about politicians that people didn’t agree with. There was never a moment I wasn’t proud to have Obama as our president, and I didn’t vote for him either time. But with Trump, it’s a very different time, a different moment in our politics.

If there’s any upside to this, do you think there’s a chance of us emerging as a better country, depending on what happens in 2020?
I do! We’ve built our show around the idea that one of the silver linings is that [left-wing Democrats] and Bill Kristol can agree on something for an hour. My hope is that the realignment is to realize that some of the things we used to fight about just aren’t worth it. It’s a full-on assault by a Republican president against his own appointees at the Department of Justice. That’s absolutely terrifying. I don’t know why that’s something Trump’s base is fired up by. It should be appalling to everybody. I think the silver lining, or the upside, is that maybe this is an opportunity for some new alliances.

Let’s go back to you and your TV career. It was such a short amount of time, but you had your widest audience exposure with The View. And then ABC decided to replace you — and you found out by reading it in Variety.
That was the only bad day I ever had on The View. The whole year was totally pleasant. I’m still really close to Whoopi and Rosie Perez. And Rosie O’Donnell and I have a Twitter/texting friendship even though I don’t see her as much. It was like a year abroad! I loved it, and I never would have quit. But in hindsight, I’m really grateful that everything worked out. My last show of The View was in August 2015. I started on Today the day after Labor Day, and was on almost every day through the general election for 15 months.

So you carried out without a hitch.
I had never left MSNBC, so I was never off figuring out what I should do next. Because of the nature of the primary on both sides, frankly, I never had a minute to think about it. I read about it in Variety and I called Rosie Perez: “Is it true?” “Of course it’s true, it’s in Variety.” There was this feeling of being rejected, but in hindsight it was such a blessing.

It seems like ABC really wanted you to be the token Trump-like Republican on that panel, even before Trump was a candidate. I think you even said at the time that they wanted someone to be the Republican caricature. You were not that.
I mean, I don’t know if that’s what they wanted. If it is, they knew what they were getting with me. I was on TV all the time. By the time they hired me, it was 2015, and I sounded a lot more like an independent on TV than a Republican. So that was their error for not knowing. I haven’t seen the show since I had my last day, so I don’t know what they replaced me with. But I know they moved things around a lot.

I will say this: The View’s viewers are so awesome and so loyal. I still run into people at airports who say, “Oh, I watched you the season you were on!” To have your first job on TV in front of a studio audience where you get instant feedback is priceless. Just to learn how to be connected and present — I don’t know if you ever learn that if you don’t do that in front of a live studio audience, where even on breaks you have to be present. There is nothing about that experience that I didn’t love, including being fired from it.

It was good training, in other words.
It was awesome! I learned what clothes to wear. It was the first time I ever had my own hair and makeup done. There was nothing about it where I didn’t get a huge kick out of it. I loved it.

Sarah Paulson played you in HBO’s Game Change. Did you talk to her a lot while she was preparing for the role? 
I never met her until the night of the premiere. [But] we’ve become good friends and gone out to dinner. We stayed in touch. She came on The View once or twice, and we’ve stayed in touch over text and email. She’s amazing.

Back to politics. Do you think Trump will get a GOP challenger in 2020, assuming he’s still in office?
My range of options for Trump is that he’s either impeached, sooner rather than later, or reelected and we have him for eight years. It’s up to him. In a day, he could probably make himself more popular by ten points just by stopping the craziness. But it’s so impossible to predict the events that he’s put in motion between the Russia investigation and sexual-harassment allegations. It’s just impossible to know.

Who do you think the final three contenders will be for the Democrats in 2020? 
2016 cured me of my impulse to try to predict. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that the blessing is that among the people who do what I did, after getting 2016 wrong, most of us are out of the business of trying to project our best guesses onto viewers and everyone else.

Okay, but if you were the Democratic National Committee, who would you want to be your nominee?
I would find someone who speaks to both Trump and Clinton voters. I think Doug Jones is a great example of someone who has to be included in the cast of characters. I think Kirsten Gillibrand is important; she matches the moment. But I think when parties have prevailed, they’ve spoken to the largest and broadest number of people in the country, not just excited the most extreme parts of their base. So that’s the challenge for both parties.

Final question: Would you ever jump back into politics?
No. I am out. Out, out, out, out, out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace on Cable News in the Trump Era