On October 17, Donald Trump tweeted 44 times, mostly about the same old stuff he always tweets about: his rallies (this time in Michigan and Wisconsin), Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter, and “Crooked Hillary” (yes, even four years later). But his 13th missive of the day had a new target: Kristen Welker. “She’s always been terrible & unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters, but I’ll still play the game,” he wrote.
Although Trump has name-checked many journalists during his Twitter tenure, Welker’s callout was significant: In just five days, she was set to moderate the final presidential debate between the president and Biden. She is certainly qualified to do so; Welker has been a national White House Correspondent for NBC News since 2011, is a coanchor for Weekend Today, and in November 2019 moderated the Democratic debate for MSNBC. Come Thursday, she will be the second Black woman ever to moderate a presidential debate solo.
Yet the president wasn’t happy about it. The aforementioned tweet was a reference to a recent story by the New York Post claiming that Welker’s parents had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates. It also linked to a Facebook photo of Welker posing with President Obama in 2012. Neither of these points necessarily mean Welker has uncontrollable or uncheckable biases: Everyone’s parents have opinions. Nor does a singular photo translate to unilateral support or adoration. (By that logic, Trump and Hillary Clinton are the best of friends.) But it didn’t matter; the president amplified it, and soon enough, others harped relentlessly on it too. On October 19, Fox & Friends cohost Brian Kilmeade made it the topic of that morning’s show: “This moderator, whose parents are Democratic donators, who was a registered Democrat before, who has [asked] the most hostile questions possible to Kayleigh McEnany, or whoever the press secretary is, and the president,” he said. “How does she get picked to be the moderator at this debate?”
The outrage felt old. Because, well, it was. A day earlier, Team Trump pushed the same narrative about Savannah Guthrie. After the Today coanchor fact-checked and followed up with the president at his Miami town hall, his staff sprang into action. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany retweeted an account that said Guthrie “sounds like she’s screaming at an ex-lover.” His campaign blasted an email that “President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate.” In reality, Guthrie just did the job journalists are supposed to do—ask tough questions and hold power accountable—and better than the man who came before her: Fox News’s Chris Wallace. Something worth noting, though: Pre-debate, Wallace, a registered Democrat who has been famously tough on Trump, didn’t receive nearly the same scrutiny that Welker did, or have his competency questioned. So, what is it about Welker? Some of the attacks, surely, are acts of self-preservation; if Trump performs poorly on Thursday night, like he did at the town hall, he has a built-up excuse to fall back on: liberal-media bias.
There’s another factor, however, that we can’t ignore: gender. While, yes, Trump disdains most journalists, women in particular seem to get under his skin. The examples are numerous, but we’ll list a few here: A tempestuous exchange with CBS’s Weijia Jiang in which he called her questions about COVID-19 testing “nasty” and told the Chinese American to “ask China.” When Trump told PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, a Black woman, to “be nice. Don’t be threatening.” His current rage against 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl, and ending his interview with her early before sending a barrage of snarky tweets. “Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes not wearing a mask in the White House after her interview with me. Much more to come,” he commented in one. He called Guthrie “so cute” during his town hall. Then there’s the interaction with Megyn Kelly that foreshadowed it all: After she pressed him about his history of misogynistic comments in the 2015 Republican debate, Trump later said that the then Fox News host had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The president’s sexism-laced comments, it seems, are nonpartisan. As New York’s Olivia Nuzzi put it, “The President’s unprofessionalism is always revealed most clearly when he is interacting with female reporters.”
Welker is an accomplished and lauded veteran reporter who excels at her job, and is qualified for the one ahead of her. Yet days before she’s even spoken into the microphone, Trump has decided she is unfit. On October 19, he brought up Welker again, on a rally stage in Arizona. “She’s a radical Democrat. She deleted her entire account,” he seethed. “But I’ve known her—she’s been screaming questions at me for a long time. She’s no good.”
Jake Tapper quickly counter-tweeted about that narrative: “She’s not radical, she’s not a Democrat, she didn’t delete her entire account, she doesn’t scream her questions,” he said, “and she’s a good journalist and a good person.”
And the latter is really what matters on Thursday—not parental donations, pictures, or the preferences of power-holding presidents.