Creative Space

Lawrence O'Donnell on 2020 Debates and Why There's "Zero Value" in Putting Trump Surrogates on TV

Annie Tritt
"Every cable news channel was a very big business success before Donald Trump," says Lawrence O’Donnell, photographed May 31 at his Rockefeller Center office.

Ahead of the first 2020 primary debate, the MSNBC host also discusses why he thinks the president is obsessed with TV: "It's an illiterate man's window on the world."

Lawrence O'Donnell didn't think he'd make it this long. "I had never signed a three-year contract for anything," the MSNBC host says of his first deal at the network that's been his home since 1996, taking a seat in a conference room down the hall from his Rockefeller Center office. "I didn't think I had a year of it in me. I didn't think I had anything to say."

The 2.2 million viewers who tune in to his 10 p.m. show, The Last Word, disagree — even if the 67-year-old liberal commentator trails his competitor on the right, Fox News firebrand Laura Ingraham. O'Donnell, single with one grown daughter, first came to MSNBC as a political analyst, ultimately scoring his own hour in 2010. That's not to say it's been his only gig. He has a unique résumé, working as an author, a Capitol Hill staffer, and a West Wing producer-writer at various points in his pre-cable-news career, experiences he draws on as one of the political left's most prominent statesmen.

Right now, O'Donnell's gaze is fixed on the 2020 presidential election, an inevitably bruising battle for his colleagues and rivals that will end with another Donald Trump term or a Democratic replacement. When asked if he'd welcome covering four more years of the Trump show, the chatty host offers a simple "no" and stops.

O'Donnell, who considers himself bicoastal and keeps an office in Santa Monica, spoke with THR in late May about what's at stake in the debates, which begin June 26, the "enormous impact" Fox News boasts and the toll of working until 11 p.m. every night.

How would you compare the pace of cable news to your previous jobs in Congress and Hollywood?

Show business comes with wonderfully long vacations, like the life of a college professor. With this [job], it's very hard to say where the borders of the work are. "What time did I begin work today? Well, I was in bed when I saw my first Trump tweet. Was that work?" It's a pace that I now understand and doesn't cause me any stress, because I know the rhythms of it now, finally.

Do you ever find it exciting when new stories pop out of nowhere and completely upend the news cycle?

I like it better. That just might be my way of deciding to like reality better. But, it doesn't upset me at all when someone comes running in with the breaking news and I have written already hundreds of words about something else and that's going to have to be thrown away. It is exciting. There's much more energy that goes into that. 

Has your work-life balance shifted since Trump became president? 

I don't have a life because I work nights. It's my working hours. So, I'm out on the streets of New York at 11:30 p.m., so I'm unavailable for dinner, for theater, anything that I want to do. 

What about weekends?

I mostly get out of New York and I do everything I can on the weekends now to remove myself from it. I get The New York Times but I do not eagerly begin my Saturday and Sunday morning with it, as I used to, because I'm actually pushing it away as much as I can. That's something that I don't have a formal explanation for. I'm doing it at a very instinctual level. It makes me suspect that if I didn't have this job, I would be consuming no news whatsoever or I would be obsessed with it and watching every minute of MSNBC. And, I don't know which it is. I really don't. It just feels like the therapeutically correct stance for me is to try to pull away from it on the weekends. I have to do a lot of catching up on Monday during the day. 

I also think there's a challenge of seeing this thing from the right perspective. ... So, instead I do a lot of historical reading actually to get my mind in a historical frame. 

How do you decide how important and history-making news developments are these days?

So, it begins for me as a writer as just a really difficult writing challenge, which is, "How many ways are there to say 'unprecedented?" and "How many times can you say 'unprecedented'?" and "When does 'unprecedented' lose its meaning in repetition? Or does it?" This is kind of a societal experiment that we're all in and a language experiment, and we don't really know the answers.

Do you think things will slow down if a Democrat defeats Trump?

I think it will return to normal very quickly. I wasn't alive, but I've made enough study of it to know how quickly the United States and Europe returned to normal after World War II. And that was a lot more to get over than what people are going to have to get over at the end of the Trump presidency.

Trump has said that if he loses, major media companies will all go out of business because they need him for clicks and ratings.

Every cable news channel was a very big business success before Donald Trump started lying about Barack Obama's birth certificate. And they were all making more money than they knew what to do with then and more money than Donald Trump has ever seen in his life.

Have people have become inured to the president's unusual obsession with television news?

It's a deadly accurate measure of his intelligence level, of his ability to handle complexity, which is to say: zero. It's an illiterate man's window on the world, television. He says he doesn't read books. This is a genuinely illiterate person's window on the world.

Do you think it's generally problematic for television hosts to have an impact on the direction of the country, as some seem to have during the Trump presidency?

I'm sure there have been some delusional people in television news who thought they had bigger impacts on politics than they did, but we have never seen such enormous impact on a presidency as Fox News has. I'm sure Sean [Hannity] is enjoying every minute of that. My impression of Sean is that he is a true believer and so he really does care about the issues in the ways that he says he does, even if that involves a change of mind over time. I don't think it's possible to exaggerate Sean's effect on the presidency.

There's a school of thought that Trump hires people specifically because he thinks they will defend him well on television.

There's no other Republican White House that would've ever employed Kellyanne Conway in any capacity whatsoever. He has, like he had on his TV show, the people who are willing to do it. The people he wanted to have on his TV show never would have agreed to be on his TV show. He wanted a much higher level of celebrity, to put it mildly.

Do you think there's value in bringing Trump supporters on cable news to provide "the other side"?

It has zero value. I've never understood the value of putting someone on television to lie, knowing that they're going to lie ahead of time, knowing that that is their deal: to lie ahead of time. There is zero news value in that.

How much do you program for ratings?

There's times where you can watch television and say, "Look at that cheesy thing they're doing for ratings," and you're right. Luckily — thanks probably entirely to Rachel [Maddow], who is the lead-in — we're the second-highest-rated show on MSNBC and have gotten there by doing exactly what we wanted to do. It's a very different experience from the people who were struggling to find a place. The truth is that every show that is not in the top of the ratings, what you see them doing is an attempt to get there.

Was the pressure different on The West Wing?

Aaron Sorkin was not trying to get a rating. He was just trying to [make] his best show. NBC said, "There's no ratings here" and rejected [the pilot]. A year later, John Wells is attached as an executive producer — while also getting them the biggest ratings they have with ER. He uses his leverage to get them to make this pilot about guys in neckties, mildly disagreeing and trying to do the right thing. Then a magical thing happens. People watch.

What lessons did you learn from covering the 2016 race?

I am approaching the Democratic field with a feeling I've never had before, which is that I don't know anything. I do think it's going to be one of the recognized top-tier people: Joe Biden, one of the senators. I think Beto [O'Rourke] has a chance. I think virtually all of them could end up as the vice presidential nominee.

NBC News will be co-hosting the first primary debate, on June 26 and 27. Are you bullish on the moderating team your company has put together?

With good debaters, the moderators don't matter that much. The good debaters will deliver in very, very effective ways and work off of each other. The NBC teams doing these debates will do a superb job. I'm glad they have the first one.

How important do you think the first debate will be?

One of the challenges of that debate as a candidate is [that] some of them might be lucky to get four minutes of speaking in the whole thing. You have to make it work. And there is a second place in this contest, and it is called vice president.

How many more election cycles do you think you have in you at MSNBC?

I was very surprised that it got traction and that it didn't just make it to three years — it made it to three years in this network's terms: very successfully. And, then the next contract was four years, and I thought, yeah, it will be four years. So, I've never thought about it. I don't know how to think about that. I'm very surprised that it's gone on as long as it has. It's now the longest job that I've had. I never thought that was going to happen. It's way more years than I thought already.  ... I really like the unpredictability of it, because if this was still a version of meteorology in San Diego, I would've been bored of this job a while ago. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story also appears in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.