Kristen Welker was handed a daunting enough task when she was tapped to moderate Thursday night’s debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden – the youngest by nearly a generation of the four journalists chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates to oversee this election season’s series of nationally broadcast candidate faceoffs.
Then the stakes were raised when her fellow moderators found themselves criticized for failing to maintain order, and the president’s positive coronavirus test prompted the cancellation of the second Trump-Biden matchup. Now, the NBC White House correspondent has the herculean challenge of refereeing the last significant media moment for the candidates before election day.
Not to mention the fact that one of the participants has been insulting her to whoever will listen. In recent days, Trump has called her a “no good,” “crooked,” “terrible,” and “unfair” “disaster” who is a “radical left Democrat” and a “totally partisan” and “totally biased” “Never Trumper” (“That’s not true,” Welker’s colleague Kelly O’Donnell shouted back at Trump after he accused her of being a secret liberal on Monday.) Over the weekend, an article in the conservative New York Post, which was hyped on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends,” claimed that Welker has “has deep Democrat ties,” based largely on the fact that her parents have made campaign donations to Democratic candidates.
Libby Leist, who serves as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show and is part of Welker’s debate prep team, says that her colleague is brushing off the criticism and staying focused on the task at hand. Like this year’s other moderators, Welker declined to grant pre-debate interviews.
“You just have to do your job, do your research, do your prep, do your reading, do your phone calls, do your reporting and ignore everything else,” Leist said. “I know Kristen’s head is down and is focusing on what’s happening Thursday night. … The rest of that is noise.”
Says NBC colleague Andrea Mitchell, who considers Welker a good friend: “I just think that she and all of us have to put blinders on and ignore all the noise, because it’s such a distraction. Obviously, I don’t want to see my friend criticized in any way, but she’s tough and she can take it. We’re all in the arena, and we’ve all faced a lot of criticism. And I think it’s inevitable and it comes with the territory. And I think she’s ready for it.”
The debate will undoubtedly be the biggest moment of Welker’s quickly moving career. At 44, she is 29 years younger than Chris Wallace, who moderated the massively unpleasant first debate between Trump and Biden, which was hijacked by interruptions and candidate rule-breaking. Susan Page, 69, moderated the one and only vice-presidential candidates debate between Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, which was widely considered to be a more substantive event – though she also received a heavy dose of criticism. Welker, however, will likely benefit from a change made by the debate commission for Thursday’s debate that will see each candidate’s microphone muted when the other is initially answering her questions, so as to minimize interruptions.
A Philadelphia native, Welker worked the local television station circuit for more than a decade after graduating from Harvard University in 1998. In 2005, Chris Blackman hired Welker as a general assignment reporter and weekend news anchor at NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate.
“She was just relentless in trying to improve and that’s what struck me initially about her,” he said. “She was so focused on what she wanted to achieve.”
After making it to the big leagues of NBC News, in 2009, Welker became a White House correspondent just two years later. Throughout the Trump administration, she has made a name for herself in the White House briefing room, where she aggressively presses Trump administrations officials. During a June 2018 briefing with then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Welker grilled her about the whereabouts of young children who were separated from their parents as part of the administration’s no tolerance policy meant to deter illegal immigration.
“She’s one of the people that you have to insist on (her) taking a day off,” Leist said. “She’s just always constantly on the go and she always says ‘yes.'”
In January of this year, Welker added on a regular hosting gig as co-anchor of the weekend edition of “Today,” which, quite ironically, Trump praised her for. “By the way, congratulations on your new show,” the president told her during a news conference in Davos, Switzerland. “They made a very wise decision.”
In addition to being the youngest debate moderator of the cycle, Welker is also the only moderator of color at a time when racial inequality and systemic racism are significant issues for voters. (Welker’s mother, Julie, is Black.) She has selected “Race in America” as one of the five topics she will ask about, along with covid-19, national security, climate change and the less tangible “leadership” and “American families.”
“You’ll see that her approach is to try to come up with issues that are really important and resonate with the voters,” said Mitchell, who covered Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run with Welker. “I think everyone is hoping that it is a better debate that is more substantive, more polite, and I would say even if my good friend weren’t moderating it.”
Welker and Mitchell, along with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, were teamed up to moderate the fifth Democratic primary debate last November. Welker posed questions about Medicare-for-all, housing affordability and race to the 10 candidates assembled.
That debate, which featured little back-and-forth and no jousting between the moderators and candidates, is a far cry from what Welker will likely experience on Thursday night, considering how the president badgered and called out Wallace at the Sept. 29 debate in Ohio.
“It’s a tough challenge, but she is really very smart, very adept,” Mitchell said. “She has no agenda, she does her homework, and I think if I anyone can pull this off, it’s Kristen.”
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