Andrea Mitchell quietly slips off an NBC News set at the network’s New York headquarters after several hours on camera with Brian Williams, where the pair analyzed FBI director nominee Christopher Wray’s Senate judiciary hearing. Wearing a coral Michael Kors dress and jacket, Mitchell, 70, is petite and unassuming as she sips on a cup of coffee — a staple in her diet, along with peanut M&Ms and bananas. Her producers, many of whom are less than half her age, are confounded by Mitchell’s seemingly unwavering energy and passion. To illustrate that, her executive producer scrolled through her emails to show a 2 a.m. email from Mitchell, who would appear on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” four hours later to talk President Trump.
At NBC and sister station MSNBC, Mitchell is a legend for her drive to relentlessly chase down taciturn political types and demand answers, shouting out questions on any occasion without any shame. MSNBC touted one such moment and used it as a promo. It showcased Mitchell pressing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a photo op in March. Mitchell’s barrage of questions was not met with answers but instead the sound of clicking camera shutters. She can be heard snickering off camera as aides escorted her out of the ornate room.
But Mitchell’s reputation for being an aggressive, at times pushy, never-take-no-for-an-answer spitfire of a reporter contradicts the journalist’s polite, soft-spoken and thoughtful demeanor. She got her start in the late Sixties as a City Hall reporter in Philadelphia for KYW radio and KYW-TV. In 1976, she moved to Washington, D.C., for a job at CBS-affiliate WTOP, now known as WUSA. Two years later, Mitchell would join NBC, where she has remained since. There, she has held various roles, from general correspondent and energy correspondent to chief White House correspondent and chief congressional correspondent. In 1994, Mitchell was named chief foreign affairs correspondent, a role she still holds. In 2008, she added her weekly noontime show on MSNBC called “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
This year, Mitchell will be honored with five lifetime achievement awards from various media associations. But rather than recap her career and rest on her laurels, Mitchell prefers to field questions about Trump, his feud with journalists, sexism in the media — and fashion, a serious passion.
WWD: News on the Trump administration breaks continuously. Talk about the importance of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails and what needs to break to make an impact?
Andrea Mitchell: We have to follow the evidence and we can’t jump to conclusions. We have to be very careful not to lead to any conclusions before we know what the background is and the context. Certainly, the development with Don Jr. putting out his emails just one step ahead of The New York Times publishing them — The New York Times let him know that they had emails so he tweeted them out. Those emails are fascinating. It’s a window into what was going on at the top of the campaign brain trust at a critical time. It was the week when Donald Trump nailed the [Republican party] nomination, and they were contacted by an associate who said, “We have information from the highest levels of the Kremlin that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton,” and his response, in his own email, was, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” So that tells you that he didn’t say, “Let’s go to the FBI.” He didn’t say, “We can’t take anything from the Kremlin” and he didn’t say, “Let’s talk to our lawyers.” It really is a very revealing emailed conversation. I don’t know what the legal implications are — you certainly can suggest what the ethical implications are, but I’m not sure if there ever will be any legal fallout from this. It’s now in the hands of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and it does raise this to another level. It certainly undermines the White House claim that there never was any contact at all with Russia, and it’s also something that was not disclosed previously, when they were repeatedly asked if they had any contact with Russia.
WWD: What is the impact of the Trump administration’s obfuscation of the truth on the office of the president and on journalism?
A.M.: I think it diminishes and demeans the presidency. It affects the credibility of the White House as well as the way people view our institutions, and that includes the media. He’s got a big megaphone, as do his spokespeople, and so when they say we are fake news, a lot of people are going to believe that. The media are not held in high regard. We know how bad our polling is, so we have to be very, very careful about always fact-checking ourselves, going through our processes, making sure that we don’t make mistakes, because they will seize on any mistake. We owe it to our viewers, and the print people owe it to their readers online. We have this constant barrage of new information. We’re drinking from a fire hose and we have to keep up with it all. One of the things that concerns me is that while we are focused appropriately on the Russia investigation — what are we not seeing?
WWD: What do you think has to happen for the Republicans to turn on Trump?
A.M.: That’s a really interesting question because there’s very little respect of this administration to organize itself, to focus on facts, to nominate people and get them cleared in a timely fashion. They are way behind. The transition was by all accounts qualitatively and quantitatively one of the worst in memory. There are hundreds and hundreds of vacancies, at the Pentagon, at the State Department, all these agencies that they are just now beginning to nominate and fill. If they begin to see more events like these emails from Don Jr., which were pretty shocking to the President’s own party, you’re going to start seeing more and more people bail. But party loyalty is on the cusp; it’s wavering. As long as they think the base is with him, many of the House and Senate Republicans are going to be reluctant to criticize the President because they are afraid of being “primaried.”
WWD: What do you make of Trump’s use of social media and his Twitter war with Mika Brzezinski?
A.M.: I just think it was so unfortunate and so personal. Whatever you say about any of us who make — I mean, the President is clearly chafing under the criticism of the media and social media. But we should hold our presidents to higher standards than to get personal and to get involved in these kinds of social media Twitter wars. He’s got a huge following and he should use it to try to sell his programs. But if you look at the numbers of tweets that he has written on his personal account on policy issues compared to criticizing individuals in the media, it’s not even a close call. It’s not my job to advise the White House on how to get their programs passed but it just seems to me that he’s diminishing his credibility with everyone but the base, with independents and with anyone else who might want to follow him. There are some issues that I think if he reached across the aisle more, maybe we could break through some of these barriers.
WWD: Why are so many Trump scoops coming from print media and not from TV?
A.M.: We are building up our investigative team and expanding it. I think everyone realizes that covering this administration requires a much larger force because he’s 24-7 because when you have a president tweeting major, news-making messages at 6 in the morning on Saturday, you’ve got to staff the White House and other beats with more people. Print media is uniquely capable of doing that kind of reporting. They have the resources. At The New York Times, Washington Post and other organizations, they’ve got layers and layers of experts in every field. We’re building our teams, as are other TV organizations, but we’re on television 24-7, on cable, broadcast, online and all of these other platforms. I think we can drill down on individual investigations as we have been and we’ve done some really fine work on “Dateline,” on Megyn Kelly’s program, on “Today,” on “Nightly News,” Richard Engel’s new broadcast…I do a lot of reporting on our program at noon…still, when you add it all up, there are more print journalists at The Washington Post and The New York Times than correspondents and reporters that we have.
WWD: How do you have the stamina and passion to continue reporting on politics?
A.M.: I love it. I guess I’m inherently a curious person, always have been. It’s really challenging, and it’s especially challenging covering this State Department. I’ve spent the last few months flying around the world following Rex Tillerson, but he no longer has the press corps on his plane. If you can’t fly on a military plane and you’re flying commercially going through different countries trying to keep up with his military plane, and then you get to Moscow and there’s no access, none. He’ll take one question at a press conference or two. It’s very frustrating. I think he is, with all due respect, missing the point that the American secretary of state has always traveled the world with the press corps to many countries that don’t have a free press — Turkey, Russia, China — specifically to show the flag and show what our values mean, and he’s not doing that. I think he’s also hurting the expression of American policy and American values around the world by not paying attention and not respecting the role of the media. He is still in the mindset of an oil executive from an industry that is not very accessible or transparent. That is not the role of secretary of state, of our nation’s top diplomat. He could be much more effective if he let the American media travel with him and the international press, help him explain U.S. policy. That’s what we used to do with Republican and Democratic secretaries of state…not that we are their spokespeople, but we could say with some context and authority and experience, “These are the goals of the U.S. government.” That is all being lost to them.
WWD: Does fashion play a role in your job?
A.M.: I love clothes, and you dress for television because up until recently you couldn’t really wear prints and you had to wear solid, primary colors. As the cameras have evolved, you’re a lot freer, you can do more prints and you can wear white. Back in the day with early video cameras, you couldn’t wear white because you’d be washed out. Lighting is better. But I just love color…I’ve always worn a lot of Oscar de la Renta. I knew him. He did my wedding dress. I had a wonderful friendship with him. I love fashion but I’ve never been to fashion week. I love Cucinelli for a lot of casual things, sweaters and pants and jackets. Is this too trivial? I guess I wear mostly Akris, Michael Kors, Oscar for work, Armani and Cucinelli for more casual.
WWD: Is there still criticism of how female broadcasters dress?
A.M.: Not so much. There was criticism when everyone started going sleeveless, partly it was just a change culturally in norms. We used to have this office dressing thing in the Eighties. I went from covering Jimmy Carter’s White House, which was very casual, in blue jeans and such, and then all of a sudden, the Reagans came in, and I was covering eight years of the Reagan White House, which really had a dress code. If you were traveling on Air Force One with President and Mrs. Reagan, you were wearing a suit unless you were out in Santa Barbara, where we would always wear pants.
WWD: Can you talk about sexism in media from when you started out to today? It’s still an issue. How has it changed?
A.M.: It’s very empowering because when I started, I couldn’t even get a job at first because they weren’t hiring women in the newsroom. I’ve seen this change from the end of the Sixties through the Seventies, and there was a spurt of “let’s hire women,” and then people kind of backed off from that. For a long time the most important beats were always occupied in Washington by men. There were very few women on the campaign trail. Breakthroughs there were with Cokie Roberts and Judy Woodruff and a lot of my print colleagues, Susan Page, Ruth Marcus. It was very lonely at first but we always banded together. The stereotype of women not helping each other is completely, in my experience, just a false paradigm. On the campaign buses in the Seventies and Eighties, we were always the closest of friends and supports for each other — especially the women who were juggling so much with careers and kids back home. I’ve seen my colleagues doing all kinds of things trying to adjust — even this latest Hillary Clinton campaign. For the three networks, we were all women, and we would often get scrunched together in a row on the plane. We would all meet up in White Plains [New York] airport in the morning to do the morning shows and we would all be in the bathroom trying to get our hair, in the middle of terrible humidity, and my friends would be calling their kids, telling them, “This is what you have to do for school today.” This is at 6 in the morning at a commuter airport and we were getting ready to go off with Hillary. Everyone was juggling. I was calling home. Women really connect with each other and help each other on the road in media. I think we’ve all had the experience of having mostly men as bosses, with some exceptions here at NBC where we’ve had women executives, fortunately. Most of us have grown up working for men and working around men and having to work around men — and this is a great time to be a woman in journalism.
WWD: How do you ask a really tough question?
A.M.: It’s really hard sometimes. I think I have a reputation for being really tough and aggressive and pushy but I really am a very shy person who wants to be liked, and that’s the conflict constantly. There’s something that takes hold — I want people to like me, I don’t want to be mean — but if I see something that just cries out to be answered, I go for it, and think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I did that.” My mother used to say to me, “How could you be so rude, shouting at the president when he goes to the helicopter?” I’d say, “Well, he kind of expects it.” That was Ronald Reagan and that’s the only way he’d talk to you. Then she’d say, “I didn’t raise you to be so rude!” I think about her sometimes because I was always one of the shorter people. To get in front where the president would see me so I could catch his eye, I’d crawl between the legs of the tripod of the cameraman, so I would get down on my hands and knees and get under the tripod and then pop up in front and then he would see me and stop. He also didn’t want to be rude and walk by me, and so I’d get an answer. See?
MSNBC’s promotion of Mitchell’s run-in with Tillerson at a photo op.
WWD: You and your husband, Alan Greenspan, move in powerful circles. Can you take off your reporter’s hat in social situations?
A.M.: I’ve always had a rule that if you’re at dinner speaking with someone socially, that it’s off the record, and then if they say something, then you say, “Can I follow up on that? Can I call you tomorrow? Can we talk about that?” Otherwise, people are always guarded around you. I live in Washington and I know people and because I’ve lived there so long, I know people who were in past administrations, or on the Hill, or cabinet secretaries. Yes, you develop some friendships. I don’t think that is a bad thing. There are some people who criticize us with being too cozy. I think you do have an obligation, if you hear something or see something, to follow up and make sure you can report it.
WWD: What about with your husband when he was chairman of the Federal Reserve?
A.M.: There were so many times when he was doing something that was really important, and we’d be on vacation and he’d say, “I’ve got to take this call, the Mexico crisis, the Russia crisis.” In August we’d be out on the tennis court in California and he’d say, “I’ve got to go inside.” So I knew something was going on but I didn’t know what was going on. There was one time when I was at a big Christmas party, and it was during the [George W.] Bush years, and my husband went off in a corner with Dick Cheney. They had known each other back in the Ford White House when Cheney was chief of staff and my husband was head of the economic council. It was a December night, a Saturday night, Christmas party, and they were off whispering and I didn’t know what it was about so I didn’t ask. I never asked; I didn’t want to put him in the position of him saying, “I can’t tell you.”
We get home and I was having a Christmas party for all of his colleagues the next day from his office, so he went to bed and I had to stay up and set the table and get some of the stuff ready, you know at 11 or 12 at night, worrying about a dinner party. In the middle of the night, the phone rang, and it was the office, saying an Iranian news service had reported that Saddam Hussein had been caught. NBC wanted me on the air right away, like, on the phone, like, if I could confirm it, and I was going to have to call intelligence officials. And I turned to my husband and I said, “Is that what you and Dick Cheney were talking about?” He said, “Don’t ask me that question.” So, I had to start — like I think it was Sunday morning at 4 or 5 in the morning — calling the CIA, trying to confirm this damn thing, and he wouldn’t even confirm. So we always had our lanes.
WWD: Do you feel that you’ve ever gone too far where you’ve shown bias in your reporting?
A.M.: I don’t think anyone is ever perfect. One of my early mentors, David Brinkley, when he was anchor at NBC, said, “There is no such thing as objectivity because the very decision of what you think is important for our broadcast, the stories you choose, you’re making a decision.” Everything is subjective to a certain extent. Let me think about that. I’m sure there have been times where I have —either through not enough reporting or through some sort of incipient opinion — let something creep in. I can’t think of it. Maybe I’ve been too aggressive at times? I know some of the candidates that I’ve covered might think I’ve been too aggressive. I know that Hillary Clinton didn’t like being asked a lot of the questions she got asked on rope lines, but if she had had more news conferences and been more accessible, maybe we wouldn’t have to chase her down at rope lines. That is what everyone had to do.
WWD: Who are some of your dream interviews?
A.M.: I’d love to sit down with Donald Trump. I’d love to have that opportunity. It would be fascinating. I’d love to interview Vladimir Putin. I give Megyn Kelly props for everything she did on that. I’d love to interview the Pope. He’s fascinating. He’s a complete contradiction in many ways —someone with such a moral vision and so much humility, yet occupying that position. I’ve had the wonderful privilege of talking to Queen Elizabeth over the years at various moments on state visits and a private visit that we had in the U.K. and when she came to Willamsburg for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, socially, but not anything on the record. I think it would be fascinating since she was coronated in 1953; she has met every world leader. She is brilliant. She knows more about policy, but one is cautioned whenever you meet her that she doesn’t talk about those things. But I would be fascinated to sit down with Her Majesty the Queen.