She wouldn’t let him get away with rants and non-answers. She pressed on his spreading of wild conspiracy theories, his handling of COVID, and his lack of a disavowal of white supremacists. And she got him to talk about his finances.
Last night, Savannah Guthrie did what few other journalists have been able to do: Hold the president accountable and fact-check him in real time.
That’s what we expect of journalists, but the kind of fast-thinking, don’t-fall-for-obfuscation tenor of her exchanges with Trump hasn’t really been seen since Ted Koppel left the air waves.
The town hall Guthrie moderated took the place of the scheduled presidential debate that Trump decided not to attend because it was to be virtual after his COVID diagnosis. Many commentators objected to NBC giving Trump this platform, but if anyone expected puff-ball treatment they were wrong.
When asked about a tweet that theorized, without any facts, that Osama Bin Laden was still alive and that Seal Team 6 had killed a body double, Trump said, “That was a retweet,” insisted Mr Trump. “I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I won’t take a position.”
“I don’t get that, you’re the president,” Guthrie shot back. “You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
Let’s Hear It For Moxie
Until last night, it’s pretty certain that people underestimated Savannah Guthrie. She is, after all, the host of the Today Show, not a Sunday morning program where politicians are regularly grilled. On Today, she often shows photos of her two children and talks about mommy things with co-anchor Jenna Bush Hager. But being underestimated can be a true advantage, if someone knows how to play it, and Guthrie certainly did.
Trump is notoriously difficult to interview and keep in check. It’s hard to counter wild untruths, contradictions, and faulty logic when they come barreling out of the mouth of the president of the United States. That’s why so many journalists have failed at the task.
Trump did try to shut her down with a creepy and blatantly sexist, “So cute” response to one of her rebuttals, but she was undeterred.
For instance, Guthrie pressed him on his finances, which have been revealed in an in-depth investigation of his tax returns by the New York Times.
“Who do you owe $421 million to?” she asked.
Trump equivocated and claimed he owed “a very small amount of money” and was “underlevered”.
Guthrie continued: “Are you confirming that, yes, you do owe some $400 million?”
“What I’m saying is that it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth,” Trump said.
“That sounds like yes,” Guthrie responded.
Who is Savannah Guthrie?
After the town hall, I googled Savannah Guthrie and wasn’t surprised to see that she was 48 years old. You have to have age and experience behind you to mount such a sustained line of questioning under pressure.
It helps too that Guthrie has a background as a litigator. Guthrie pursued a law degree at Georgetown University Law School while freelancing for a Washington D.C. TV station in the 2000s, and graduated magna cum laude. When she took the bar exam in Arizona, where she grew up, she had the top score of all 634 test takers. She went on to work for two years at the well-known law firm Akin Gump focusing on white collar criminal defense before returning to TV full-time.
She actually came to NBC as a legal analyst, and then moved up to the co-anchor role of the Today Show in 2012 with (eewww!) Matt Lauer (replacing Ann Curry, but we don’t fault her for how that went down).
Though her Today Show duties mean she often does segments about cooking and the like, she has shown her capacity for another type of grilling before. For example, last year she interviewed Nikki Haley, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, about Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine, which led to his impeachment.
“When you look at that situation it’s hard to see where impeachment would qualify for that,” said Haley. Guthrie interrupted, “Can I stop you right there because—with all due respect, to borrow a phrase—that doesn’t seem like much of a defense of the president.”
After that interview, Guthrie was criticized by Trump supporters as being unprofessional, just as she is being vilified right now for her approach with the president at the town hall.
“Questions, topics, tactics all reeking of nothing but pure political bias,” said Fox New’s Sean Hannity.
This is What Badass Looks Like
Megyn Kelly wasn’t complimentary of Guthrie either. But remember Kelly had her own run-in with Trump when she served as a moderator for the Republican presidential debate in August 2015 and used to work at NBC until she spectacularly flamed out. Sour grapes much, Megyn?
“So far, this is not a town hall for voters, it is designed to appease the angry NBC employees/Dems who are pissed off Trump’s on NBC at all,” Kelly tweeted, referring to the uproar over NBC offering Trump the town hall after he declined to do a virtual debate with Biden.
But Guthrie has plenty of admirers. “Good for #SavannahGuthrie for holding his bone spurs to the fire,” tweeted Bette Midler, an outspoken Trump critic.
In a Today Show segment earlier this year, Guthrie and her co-anchor Hoda Kotb shared the “most bad-ass thing they’d ever done.” “In my career the most badass thing I’ve done was leave TV to go to law school,” Guthrie said. “It was a big deal to detour completely off a path and just hope it works out. And then I quit my job again to go back to TV with no job offers and a ton of student debt. It was, well, crazy. But it worked out, so we can call it badass!”
After last night, we think Guthrie needs to revise her assessment. We can think of something far more badass!