With the final presidential debate having taken place just 12 days before the election, moderator and NBC News’ White House correspondent Kristen Welker hasn’t had any downtime in between. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m so happy to be back on the campaign trail,” she said in a phone interview Friday, having just returned to Washington, D.C., from Tampa, Fla., where President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden held dueling rallies the previous day.
“I love to be there to witness the actual speeches that the candidates are giving and just talk to the voters,” she added of her time in the swing state. “It’s one thing to see the poll numbers. It’s another thing to be on the ground.”
Until last week, her time on the road had been limited. Like much of the country she was for a while largely grounded by the coronavirus pandemic and most recently, in the run-up to the debate, she took a couple of weeks out to laser-focus on the task at hand.
Her break from the day job paid off, though. Welker, the first Black woman to moderate a general-election presidential debate since Carole Simpson in 1992, received widespread praise for her performance, probing the two candidates on an array of important topics including COVID-19, child separation at the border, climate change and race in America.
Despite Trump calling her “terrible and unfair” prior to the debate, she remained poised and maintained control throughout, in stark contrast to the first debate when moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace struggled to restore order. True, she did have assistance on the night with the introduction of a mute button and Trump appearing to opt for a calmer approach after derailing the first debate, but both Democrats and Republicans agreed that she played a large role in making the 90 minutes watchable.
Originally from Philadelphia, the Harvard graduate with a degree in history began her career at ABC affiliates WLNE-TV in Providence, R.I., and KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. She joined the NBC-owned and operated station WCAU-TV in Philadelphia in 2005. Five years later, she became an NBC News network correspondent, based in Burbank, Calif., and began covering the White House for the network in 2011. She was named co-anchor of “Weekend Today” last January.
Here, Welker, 44, discusses how she prepared to moderate the debate and how she is covering the presidential election. (She’ll be part of NBC’s team covering election night from 7 p.m. Tuesday.)
WWD: You’re a TV pro, but were you nervous in the run-up to the debate?
Kristen Welker: I was absolutely nervous. I think you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t nervous to moderate a presidential debate. I had to say I worked with an incredible team at NBC and it really is about the preparation and so that’s how I dealt with the nerves. We spent hours a day preparing, working on questions, researching the questions, fact-checking them and literally every day starting weeks before the debate. When I sat down in the chair I knew that I was prepared. I’d also spent the past several weeks before the debate trying to take care of myself. Trying to get good sleep, exercise, rest, all of those sort of things. I think that allowed me to be as present, and put my nerves aside as much as humanly possible. But, of course, I had some butterflies when I sat down in that chair.
WWD: Did those nerves get worse when you saw the first debate and how chaotic it was?
K.W.: First of all, I just want to say Chris [Wallace] did a great job under a really tough circumstance and I knew that after that there would be conversations with the debate commission, with NBC about how we could be prepared for any scenario and there certainly were. I really tried not to focus on what if that happened. I tried to focus again on the preparation — being prepared for any scenario — which, by the way, is your job as a moderator regardless of the circumstance.
WWD: As part of your preparation did you speak to Chris Wallace, Susan Page and Savannah Guthrie?
K.W.: I approached this really in a two-pronged way. One, focusing on the content of my debate but then two, reaching out to people who had experience doing this sort of thing. There’s no one better than Savannah. She did such an incredible job [at the town hall with Trump held after the president pulled out of the second debate]. She is someone that I turn to frequently when I’m undertaking big projects and so I absolutely reached out to her. She was incredibly supportive, but also informative. I reached out to Chris Wallace, Susan and then I reached out to moderators of past debates to really get their perspective on how to prepare and how to think through the best ways to be ready for anything under that kind of circumstance. The other thing that I did to prepare, which I found to be very helpful, was to reach out to voters. Voters of all strengths — Democrats, Republicans, undecided voters — and to ask them what they wanted to hear from this debate and everyone had very similar responses and I found that to be fascinating. They really wanted to hear the issues and I think especially in Washington we sometimes get caught up in the nuance of whatever is developing on any given day. But for voters, they’re living their lives. They have their own jobs that they’re focused on, so when they sit down to watch a presidential debate, particularly just days before an election, they want to hear about health care, they want to hear about the economy. They want to hear about these big issues that they feel impact their lives on a daily basis, and so that really drove my preparation.
WWD: What advice did Chris Wallace give you?
K.W.: I don’t want to get into our private conversation just because I wouldn’t want to betray his trust, but I will just say he was incredibly supportive and generous with his time and I think, broadly speaking, all of the people with whom I spoke reiterated similar themes — make sure that you’re not only prepared, but being fair with every question and that you listen. It’s really about being present and listening and allowing the candidates to have a debate and to discuss these issues for themselves. That was my goal also — just being present in the moment.
WWD: Were you relieved when you found out there would be a mute button to at times cut off each candidate’s audio feed when the other was speaking in the allotted time?
K.W.: I was relieved afterwards when I felt as though it went as smoothly as possible, I think, in regards to that. I didn’t quite know how it would all look and ultimately I think it looked quite well and I think the candidates seemed to feel fine about it, so I felt good about that. But I just want stress that was a decision that the Commission on Presidential Debates made. NBC News had nothing to do with that. I did not control that button at all.
WWD: Was President Trump calmer than you expected?
K.W.: I didn’t really have any expectations of either candidate heading into the debate. I wanted it to be a good discussion and I feel as though we ultimately had a good discussion and a discussion where viewers got to hear about the key issues and the issues they cared about. That was my main focus and, again, I tried not to have any expectations for him or Vice President Biden. But certainly, once it was finished, I said to myself I think we got to really hear them talk and so I was pleased with that.
WWD: What was your biggest concern prior to the debate and how did you tackle it?
K.W.: One of my biggest concerns was would I get to ask all of my questions or even a fourth of my questions. You spend hours crafting these questions that you really care about and each one felt incredibly important, so that was one of my biggest concerns and I wanted to make sure we got to all the topics. I tackled that by really forcing myself to go through each segment and just think if you only get a few questions in this segment what are the questions that you absolutely have to ask that you would be so upset with yourself if you didn’t ask. So I really focused on making sure that I got to all those questions. I think I got to almost all of my must-ask questions and a few of them that weren’t must-ask. I sadly, probably, asked about half of my questions though.
WWD: You got great feedback. How did you feel about it?
K.W.: This was the first general-election presidential debate that I’ve ever moderated so I felt proud of the job that, frankly, I did with the team of NBC reporters, researchers, producers with whom I worked. I just felt very proud to be part of that team and what we accomplished together. And I felt relieved. I took the job very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility. I was there on behalf of the American people, 12 days before an election, and that is a very serious task and so I took it very seriously. It felt like an incredibly furious responsibility every day and in the days leading up to it.
WWD: In future debates, if candidates don’t stick to the rules, how should it be dealt with?
K.W.: Here’s what I can tell you: I think this probably happens after every election cycle regardless — that there will be discussions with the CPD and with the moderators about what worked and what didn’t and what could we do differently, what could we do better. And that’s certainly, I think, something that would happen at the end of any cycle and I expect that to be something that happens once we get through this election. Right now I think everyone’s focused on Tuesday and making sure that we’re ready for that next challenge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are conversations about what are the things that we might want to differently or do the same. What worked really well, but what didn’t?
WWD: Could you ever see town halls replacing debates?
K.W.: The candidates love town halls and moderators love town halls. I think it’s always going to be a part of this cycle. I don’t know that it would replace them outright, but I definitely think it is such a wonderful chance for voters to ask questions directly to the candidate. I think that’s really what this is all about.
WWD: Did you know Maya Rudolph would be playing you on “Saturday Night Live?”
K.W.: I had no idea. I am such a fan and admirer of her work. I was just humbled that she played me on “SNL” and it really was a surreal moment and it was a lot of fun.
WWD: Have you had any downtime between the debate and returning to report on the campaign?
K.W.: I think I had one good night’s sleep and then I was back out on the campaign trail and, I have to tell you, I’m so happy to be back on the campaign trail. It felt so good to be reporting. I had come off of the beat for a couple of weeks just to focus completely on the debate.
I was in Tampa yesterday where, of course, the president and vice president had those dueling rallies. Tampa is in a swing district and there’s nothing better as a reporter than being on the ground and talking to voters in the days leading up to an election and hearing from them directly about why they’re voting early, who they’re voting for, why they decided on that person and what are the key issues that matter to them.
WWD: Is that some of the first on-the-ground reporting you’ve been doing around the election, or have you been on the ground the whole time?
K.W.: On Super Tuesday, I was in California with Biden and I was expecting to be living out of a suitcase for the remainder of the election cycle and then, like the rest of the world, everything changed and changed for the people who were covering the campaign and so there hasn’t been a whole lot of travel. In recent weeks, our teams have started to travel again with the candidates and because of the focus on the debate I have not been engaged in a whole lot of that. But I don’t know if this was the first time. I think before I got this assignment I had started to do some travel. But this is kind of go-time and I’ve just been out since I finished the debate, which has been absolutely wonderful.
WWD: You’ve recently been going out to talk to voters, but up until then has the general lack of a campaign trail had a significant impact on your ability to report?
K.W.: In the beginning I was like, “I can’t work from home for two weeks. How’s that going to work?” It felt impossible. But I think that it challenged us to become more aggressive reporters from home and to work our phones that much more. If I need to get a reaction or if I need to talk to someone, I’m going to call them until they answer my phone call. So I think it’s challenged us to really make sure that we’re still getting the story, we’re still getting the information for the American people. That’s our job whether we’re in a pandemic or in regular times. We still very much have to keep going.
WWD: Come Election Day, are you expecting it to take a while until there is a decisive nominee?
K.W.: It’s certainly possible that it will take several days, if not weeks. It’s also possible that we could have a good sense of what will happen on Election Night. We are preparing for every possible scenario you can think of.
WWD: If Biden wins, how do you expect the White House’s relationship with the press to change? Would you expect a resumption of the more traditional processes prior to Trump or has the Trump White House changed the landscape for future presidents?
K.W.: I have covered the Obama administration. I’ve covered the Trump administration. Obviously, there are things that make each of them unique and my job is — whether Trump gets reelected or Biden gets elected — my job stays the same. That means I’m there to ask very difficult questions that sometimes upset people, whether it’s the Obama administration or the Trump administration. That’s the context in which I really approach it. My job stays the same no matter who gets elected.
WWD: How do you relax and turn off from work?
K.W.: One of the activities I’ve been doing a lot more of in this pandemic is just taking really long walks with my husband [John Hughes, a marketing executive] and exploring D.C. and all of the places that we never really took a beat to explore, so the parks here, all of the sights here and that has been one of the silver linings. I love to exercise, whether that’s going for a run, riding my Peloton. And just having a nice dinner with my husband. I’m fortunate that my husband cooks very well. I’m not the greatest cook, full disclosure. So I enjoy cooking with him and just sharing a really nice meal. We try to do that at least once a week on a Saturday night, for example.
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