NEW YORK — Nicolle Wallace lives for the sort of chaos that makes most cable television hosts shudder.
On the day investigators raided the offices of President Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, the news broke moments before the start of Wallace’s MSNBC show at 4 p.m. Eastern. The rundown that she and her team had planned for “Deadline: White House” was quickly discarded.
“When news happens, we respond immediately,” Wallace said. “We don’t blink. We don’t flinch. We don’t think about it. We never say, ‘let’s stick with what we’ve scripted.’ We blow it up. My most Zen moment is when the prompter goes black and (executive producer) Pat Burkey is talking to me and we’re trying to get through the moment.”
Dealing with the unexpected was a regular part of her work as White House communications director for President George W. Bush and senior adviser for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Although news often knocked her on her heels, she loved the adrenaline rush.
President Donald Trump now provides regular opportunities to relive that feeling. One year into her role as a daytime host, Wallace has thrived with a sharp show that stays on the news. She’s incredulous about what she sees on a daily basis in the building where she used to work, and not reluctant to express it - making her a perfect fit for a network fueled in large part by viewers similarly angered by the Trump presidency.
Wallace took over a time slot that averaged a million viewers a day and lifted it to more than 1.3 million this spring, the Nielsen company said. MSNBC used to run neck-and-neck with CNN’s Jake Tapper but has opened a lead that now approached a half million viewers. Wallace’s show even beat Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto in March, the first time an MSNBC show had done that in the time slot since 2000.
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“The audience has found somebody that they have confidence in, somebody that’s not scripted or prescriptive but reports on the events of the day,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. “It’s about this period, this era, that’s extraordinary. But Nicolle would succeed in any era.”
That, of course, remains to be seen. It’s worth wondering how Wallace would fare with an MSNBC audience if someone closer to the Republican brand she was once identified with, like Jeb Bush, were president. Or if Hillary Clinton won. Before Wallace, MSNBC viewers rejected Greta Van Susteren, a transfer from Fox News Channel.
With Wallace and some other disaffected Republicans frequently on her show — commentators like Steve Schmidt, Charlie Sykes and David Frum — some conservatives refer to her show as the “traitor hour,” said Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center.
“We joke that she put paycheck ahead of party,” he said.
Wallace, who has called herself a “non-practicing Republican,” said the party as she knew it left her.
“This Republican Party is unrecognizable to me,” she said. “Non-practicing to me means not voting for Republicans if this is what it looks like, but I’m not embarrassed to share a political party with John McCain or the 41st president or 43rd president. That’s about it. I’m trying to think if there’s anyone else.”
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She telegraphed her disgust with the brand of populism embodied by Trump at its roots a decade ago, when she was one of the McCain aides made uncomfortable by the rise of Sarah Palin, a journey publicized by her portrayal in the HBO movie, “Game Change.”
After shifting out of politics, Wallace spent a less-than-satisfactory year as the conservative voice on “The View.” She’s been a regular commentator for several NBC News shows, notably “Morning Joe” and Brian Williams’ nighttime news hour. A post-election reporting assignment for “Today” seeking out the Trump voters who had defected from the Democratic Party was particularly meaningful to her.
The 4 p.m. hour for MSNBC is a key transition from daytime news programs to more opinionated nighttime fare, a time when many big stories break. Key to Wallace’s success is that her show is more about reporting than punditry, Griffin said. From her days in the White House, she knows many of the people who work there, and tries to speak to someone who’s had contact with the president each day. She’s more apt to have active reporters as panelists.
“She targets her questions specifically to every guest,” Griffin said. “She’s not looking for approval of her ideas, but she’s trying to draw out the information that she thinks best serves the discussion they’re having. That’s a really unique quality and makes her show different from all the others.”
On one recent show, Wallace fact-checked a series of misstatements by Trump before airing video of him speaking that day, instead of correcting the record afterward.
“He’s becoming like a cigarette,” she said. “You have to warn people of the side effects.”
She believes that service in a Trump administration will end up staining the resumes of most who worked there. She understands why many Republicans stand silent when Trump does something like attack the federal justice system, but doesn’t excuse them. She said they’ll have to answer to history.
“I don’t know if there’s any effect to making the points that we do,” she said, “but I never tire of trying to come up with creative and different and effective ways to break through on the audacity of him.”
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