Dealt dreadfully lousy cards—that is, widespread and justified criticism of NBCUniversal and its traumatized news division for hastily gifting Donald Trump an hour of free airtime at the same moment that Joe Biden was doing his previously scheduled town hall over on ABC—Today show co-host Savannah Guthrie did not fold.
Quite the contrary, she managed to burnish her journalistic reputation, if not that of her employer, by repeatedly forcing the president to answer the sort of inconvenient questions he has easily evaded during countless press gaggles, phoned-in interviews, and his first and possibly final official debate against the frontrunning Democratic nominee.
The 48-year-old Guthrie, a lawyer before becoming an NBC White House correspondent and network anchor, took command of the situation from the outset of the hour-long campaign event, something the nominally more seasoned Chris Wallace was unable to accomplish during an embarrassing Sept. 29 shout-fest staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates as if produced by Jerry Springer.
It seemed like the volume on Guthrie’s microphone was turned up a notch or two higher than Trump’s (if so, a good thing) as she sat a safe distance away on a waterfront stage in Miami and pressed him, and even fact-checked him, relentlessly.
Her interrogation included the frequency of his COVID-19 tests and whether he was diagnosed with pneumonia; the increase in American deaths because of his reluctance to wear a mask; his tepid objections to white supremacy; his bogus claim of a rigged election due to nonexistent voting fraud and his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power.
She also made news with those and a host of other issues that—with the possible exception of Axios reporter Jonathan Swan’s epic grilling on HBO two months ago—knocked the perspiring president back on his heels.
Under Guthrie’s questioning, Trump revealed that he had a serious lung infection, essentially confirmed The New York Times’ recent reporting that he paid only $750 in 2016 income taxes and personally owes more than $400 million to somebody (he wouldn’t say who, although he denied it was anyone in Russia), unenthusiastically promised to abide by the election results, and even offered to meet with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to negotiate federal pandemic relief money—something he has refused to do for several months.
The line of the night, of course, was when Guthrie chided the Twitter-obsessed commander in chief for spreading the insane QAnon fiction—to his 87 million followers—that Biden arranged to have the members of SEAL Team Six murdered to cover up that Osama bin Laden’s death was faked.
“That was a retweet,” Trump protested. “That was an opinion of somebody… I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position.”
“I don’t get that,” Guthrie fired back, addressing Trump as though he were one of her misbehaving young children. “You’re the president. You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”
While it didn’t stop Trump from spewing lies, or induce him to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophilia ring (“I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said approvingly about QAnon. “They fight it very hard.”), Guthrie’s grilling surely tamped down the presidential geyser, and it certainly wiped the Cheshire cat grin off his carrot-hued face.
Guthrie’s performance was punctuated by questions from various socially distanced, mask-wearing audience members, but the only memorable query, at least for this viewer, was the granddaughter of Russian and Polish immigrants who swooned over Trump’s smile and how handsome it made him look.
One gauge of the effectiveness of Guthrie’s performance was the howls of protests from Trump’s acolytes and sycophants, as reflected in a tweet by Fox News’ resident imp terrible, Greg Gutfield.
“NBC is embarrassing itself. worse than expected,” he complained. “Guthrie is like a poorly disguised ambush. even she follows up with planned questions after the ‘townhall’ question. what a horrible show trial.”
Another marker was the reaction of international relations professor David Rothkopf, among the hundreds of opinion-makers who condemned NBC on Wednesday morning when the Trump town hall was announced.
“Gotta say, I’m warming to Savannah Guthrie’s performance,” he tweeted as the town hall progressed. “Right now, it’s a B or B plus… but light years better than, for example, Chris Wallace in controlling Trump’s bullying and bullshitting.”
While former Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, a member of the Lincoln Project, expressed disappointment that Guthrie didn’t press Trump on his misogyny (a gambit that didn’t go especially well for Megyn Kelly back in the day), several media-elite reviews were effusive.
“FWIW,” tweeted the Times’ Michael Barbaro, “@SavannahGuthrie has figured out how to repeatedly and frequently interrupt the president in exactly the way required to actually interview him.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker praised her for “sharp, tough questioning” and for “smartly following up to pin Trump down when he responds with vague or rambling answers.”
The BBC’s Paul Danahar opined that Guthrie “is the toughest moderator/interviewer that the President Trump has faced for some time,” while his colleague Nick Bryant asked: “Can Savannah Guthrie moderate every presidential debate?”
Even Rachel Maddow, who was at pains post-town hall to dissociate MSNBC from the entire enterprise, stressing that it was a production, however dubious, of NBC News, called Guthrie’s performance “sharp.”
Albeit a handsomely remunerated TV star, Guthrie has faced down head-swimming challenges before—being installed in the Today show chair beside Matt Lauer right after Ann Curry’s ugly departure and having to announce live on the air Lauer’s even uglier exit. She was a significant improvement, in any case, on a previous NBC town hall in 2016, when Lauer tormented Hillary Clinton about her emails for half of a 30-minute session but let Trump get away with murder.
Trump on Thursday night must have been missing the disgraced Lauer.