Rachel Maddow on Trump, Record Ratings and a Possible Roger Ailes Meeting: "I’ll Buy You Breakfast" (Q&A)

David Needleman
Rachel Maddow

MSNBC's progressive star has seen her ratings double as she trains her wonky focus on the Trump White House: "They do not say true things."

Rachel Maddow, marker in hand, is contemplating a whiteboard on the wall of her show's newsroom. It's 2:20 p.m. on April 5, and on the board is a long list of topics: the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council; sexual-harassment allegations encircling Fox News' Bill O'Reilly; an investigation into possible ethics violations by President Trump's EPA chief, Scott Pruitt.

“We have Putin’s ex-wife up here?” says Maddow, surveying the room. Lyudmila Putina, rarely seen in public since her divorce four years ago from Vladimir Putin, has re-emerged with a new husband 21 years her junior and a villa in the French seaside town of Anglet. Turning back to the board, Maddow picks up the eraser. “I’m going to go ahead and delete Ivanka and Jared and the things they say about things,” she says, as she erases the names of the president’s daughter and son-in-law.

The discussion among Maddow and her 20-some producers, including executive producer Cory Gnazzo, turns to Trump's evolving flexibility on military intervention into Syria after a chemical attack in a rebel-held town killed nearly 100 civilians. A producer suggests collating Trump's tweets on Syria that came when he was a private citizen: "We should stay the hell out of Syria"; "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?"; "Stay away and fix broken U.S."

“He’s starting to identify Syria on a map,” says Maddow dryly, noting that this is not the first time Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. “You can see the proud ignorance of his early statements,” she continues. “It’s like, ‘Now I see!’”

Like virtually every day since Trump moved into the White House, the news cycle is spinning at warp speed. And Maddow — in her eighth year on MSNBC and long the network's most prominent progressive star — is attracting her biggest audience ever, averaging 2.7 million viewers a night in March, a 100 percent gain year-over-year. In the 25-to-54 demographic, Maddow even beat Fox News rival Tucker Carlson. Her highly touted (and mocked) March 14 program, in which she revealed a small portion of Trump's 2005 tax return, drew an eye-popping 4.1 million viewers, making The Rachel Maddow Show the most-watched program on cable for the night and beating scripted programming on ABC and Fox. "This administration is Chaos, Incorporated, and that means you can't plan ahead, ever," notes Maddow, 44, who spends weekdays in New York and weekends with her partner, photographer Susan Mikula, in Massachusetts. "That's exciting. But being at work takes more energy than it ever has."

Are you writing up until almost 9 p.m. when the show begins?

Through the show. Almost every night something changes during the show that modifies what is on the air that hour, whether it's a last-second booking or throwing something out or an ad-libbed segment or "Add these questions on x to our previously booked person and see if they can talk about it." 

The Trump administration has prompted a not-my-president resistance. Do you view yourself as a leader in that movement?

Ha! Am I the leader? No. I'm not the leader of anything except the 9 o'clock show on MSNBC. But I do think that there is an equal and opposite reaction in the country to what Trump represents. It'll be interesting to see how sustained it is.

As a progressive, is it ever depressing to cover this stuff every day?

I don't operate that way, really. I do not see my job as advocating for what's important to me. If I did, it would be a very different show. I see my job as explaining what's going on in the news. With this administration, regardless of how I feel about anything they’re doing, there is so much that needs explaining. We've put a lot of effort into the Russia scandal and I don't regret that, and I intend to be as aggressive as I possibly can on that story because here is a scandal that is of transcendent, historic importance and is existentially about whether or not this presidency should exist or whether it is the product of a crime. And if that's the case then how much is it worth it to talk about Tom Price's corruption and Carl Icahn’s inappropriate regulatory role? If you plagiarized your whole book are we going to diagram the sentences in it or should it just be pulled off the shelf? And as somebody whose job it is to explain the news, and to explain what is most important in the news, that is a real tension for me. With an existential crisis looming, how do you contextualize non-existential crises alongside that? Or do you ignore everything except that? I think it's a hard question, every day. 

If you had a sit-down with Trump, what's the first question you would ask him?

I do not want to give that away because I am hoping to be able to interview Trump.

How does Maddow get an interview with Trump?

I thought that I had an interview with him during the primaries. I spoke with him, and the people who supposedly speak for him told me it was a go. The problem with dealing with this administration internally as well as the way they talk to the country is that there is no reason to believe anything they say.

So you haven't had a conversation with him since then?

Since the election, no, I have not spoken with him. Although I fully expect to. He likes cable news, he likes mixing it up with people whom he has differences of opinions with, he likes making examples of people whom he sees as bad for the country. He's got every reason to talk to me, don't you think?

You did get his attention by revealing his 2005 tax return on TV. They said you were "desperate" for ratings.

Do you know the funny little backstory about that? That line in the statement, the "desperate for ratings" line, was not in the statement that they gave us. So they gave us the statement, we read the whole statement on the air, and then they subsequently put out that statement, plus the "desperate for ratings" line. And then told everybody that we were too afraid to use that line in the statement, which they had not given us until after we had already released the statement that they gave us. I was like, "That is some junior high stuff."

You endured some criticism for the way you handled the build-up and the preamble to the tax return. Stephen Colbert did a widely shared parody of it on Late Show. Any regrets?

I think the Colbert thing was spectacular. Corey [Gnazzo, Maddow’s executive producer] came in and was like, "I have to show you something." He was very worried. So we pulled it up and watched it and I immediately responded [on Twitter]. I thought it was freaking spectacular! I was like, "Who told you this was bad news? That means he has watched the show, you guys!"

People who know you say you're a perfectionist. In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

No. And I recognize that people don't like the way I did it or don't like the way I do TV generally. But I have been doing the same thing all this time. We've always had that mantra: Try to increase the amount of useful information in the world. I'm not reading the news, I'm explaining the news — and that means explaining what's important about it, what's not important about it, where it comes from, how you ought to see it in light of other news that's being discussed. I'm not the leader of the resistance. I'm not the opposition party. I am a person who is trying to increase the amount of useful information in the world.

Roger Ailes wrote a blurb for your 2012 book, Drift. Have you spoken to him recently?

I tried to reach him around Christmastime. I just tried to reach out just to reconnect and was not able to get in touch. But Roger, if you're reading this and you want to have a conversation, I'll buy you breakfast.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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