Politics

If Ronna McDaniel Is Beyond the Pale, NBC May Have Trouble Presenting ‘Diverse Viewpoints’

Two weeks after the 2020 presidential election, Ronna McDaniel, then chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), let Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s lawyer, hold a press conference at the RNC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. During that bizarre presentation, Giuliani and Sidney Powell, another member of the Trump campaign’s “elite strike force team,” crystallized the craziness of the president’s stolen-election fantasy by describing a baroque international conspiracy that supposedly had delivered a fraudulent victory to Joe Biden.

On January 29, 2021, three weeks after angry Trump supporters who believed that fantasy invaded the U.S. Capitol as Congress was about to affirm Biden’s election, McDaniel expressed regret about hosting Giuliani’s clown show. “When I saw some of the things Sidney was saying, without proof, I certainly was concerned it was happening in my building,” she told The New York Times. “There are a whole host of issues we had to deal with: What is the liability of the RNC, if these allegations are made and [prove to be] unfounded?”

That incident reflects McDaniel’s ambiguous role in promoting Trump’s baseless claims of decisive election fraud in the two months prior to the Capitol riot. Her support for those claims, which stopped short of outright endorsement but nevertheless lent them credibility, was at the center of the complaints that yesterday persuaded NBC executives to abruptly rescind their decision to hire her as an on-air commentator.

As Reason‘s Robby Soave noted after several NBC and MSNBC personalities publicly objected to McDaniel’s gig, it is not at all unusual for news outlets to hire former party or White House officials. But McDaniel critics such as Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough, and Rachel Maddow argued that giving her a forum on NBC was different from that standard practice because she had assisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, undermining democracy by threatening the peaceful transfer of power.

McDaniel “was not the most aggressive or outlandish member of Mr. Trump’s team,” the Times notes. In fact, “she fell short of Mr. Trump’s demands and expectations,” prompting “calls from his allies and grass-roots activists to be far more aggressive.” But the Times adds that “a review of her record shows she was, at times, closely involved in and supportive of Mr. Trump’s legal and political maneuvering ahead of the violent attempt to block Congress from certifying Mr. Biden’s victory on Jan. 6.”

While that seems like an accurate assessment, NBC’s conclusion that McDaniel is beyond the pale raises questions about where exactly a network should draw that line when it tries to present a mix of political viewpoints. Given Trump’s domination of the Republican Party, finding former GOP officials who did not acquiesce in his increasingly desperate attempts to remain in office after he lost reelection may prove challenging. And if dissident Never Trumpers are the only acceptable on-air Republicans, news outlets like NBC will be presenting a highly skewed selection that does not reflect prevailing opinions within the party.

McDaniel’s public statements about fraud after the election were less extravagant than Trump’s but open to various interpretations. On November 6, the day before news organizations called the election for Biden, she said the RNC was looking  into “irregularities” in four states, including Michigan. Four days later on Fox News, she citedPolitico poll finding that “70 percent of Republicans don’t have faith in the results of this election right now.” She suggested they were right to be skeptical:

It’s been rigged from the beginning—rigged from the laws that were being passed in the name of COVID to create a porous election, rigged in the sense that they kicked Republicans out of poll watching and observing. Why do you do that if you have nothing to hide? And now you have a media that’s rigging it again by saying, “We’re not going to even listen to these stories. We’re not even going to validate the 11,000 incident reports we have, the 500 affidavits we have across these states, people testifying under oath how they were disenfrachised.”…It is stealing when you validate a vote that shouldn’t be in. You are stealing from a voter that voted legally.

Here is how McDaniel summed up her message when she posted that clip on Twitter: “The American people deserve to have faith in our elections. That’s why the RNC is going to pursue this process to the very end.”

Exactly what that meant was unclear. As Trump saw it, “the very end” did not come after Republican officials (including his own attorney general) debunked his claims of systematic fraud, after states certified their electors, after the Electoral College met on December 14, after courts rejected numerous lawsuits challenging the election results, or even on the day that Congress was meeting to ratify those results. But McDaniel’s idea of “the very end” seems to have been more conventional.

After Giuliani and Powell took the lead in pursuing remedies for Trump’s groundless grievance, the Times notes, the RNC “shifted away from the legal involvement with the Trump team.” It “attached its name only to four” of “the 65 lawsuits that Mr. Trump and his allies filed after the 2020 election.”

McDaniel continued lending rhetorical support to such challenges, however. “Every illegal vote is stealing from a valid vote, and every state that conducted their election fraudulently is stealing from states that conducted their elections fairly,” she told Fox News host Sean Hannity on December 8.

That formulation was consistent with longstanding Republican concerns about voter fraud, complaints about pandemic-related changes to election procedures, and objections to the alleged mistreatment of GOP poll watchers. It did not necessarily imply that fraud was massive or widespread enough to change the outcome of the election. But in the context of Trump’s refusal to admit that he had lost the election, McDaniel’s comments left the impression that his complaints were valid.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, McDaniel was helping Trump press those complaints. During a December 6 teleconference, the House select committee that investigated the Capitol riot noted in its report, Trump and his legal adviser John Eastman “solicited the RNC’s assistance” with their plan to present “alternate electors” in battleground states, and “McDaniel agreed to provide that assistance.” But according to the federal indictment that charges Trump with illegally interfering in the election, Eastman “falsely represented to her that such electors’ votes would be used only if ongoing litigation in one of the states changed the results in [Trump’s] favor.”

McDaniel also supported a quixotic election lawsuit spearheaded by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear, much to Trump’s dismay. The Times notes that McDaniel “helped Mr. Trump rally state attorneys general” to join that lawsuit and praised it on Fox News. “I’m so happy about this Texas lawsuit,” she told Hannity. “There’s going to be more states joining that lawsuit.”

The House select committee’s report also faults McDaniel for sins of omission. Although “RNC leadership knew that President Trump was lying to the American people,” it says, “they did nothing to publicly distance themselves from his efforts to overturn the election.”

The afternoon of the Capitol riot, McDaniel condemned that particular result of those efforts. “What these violent protesters are doing is the opposite of patriotism,” she said on Twitter. “It is shameful and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

That was followed, a few weeks later, by McDaniel’s public expression of regret for giving Giuliani and Powell a post-election forum at the RNC. McDaniel told the Times she was immediately “concerned” about the seemingly “unfounded” claims that Powell made “without proof” at that wacky press conference. But as the House select committee noted, she kept her concerns to herself.

Nowadays, McDaniel unambiguously rejects those claims. While “it’s fair to say there were problems in 2020,” she told Kristen Welker on NBC’s Meet the Press this week, it is clear that Biden won “fair and square.” She added that “it’s certified” and “it’s done.”

Appearing later on the same show, Todd, a former Meet the Press host who is now NBC’s chief political analyst, expressed skepticism about McDaniel’s sincerity. “I think our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation because I don’t know what to believe,” he told Welker. “She is now a paid contributor by NBC News. I have no idea whether any answer she gave to you was because she didn’t want to mess up her contract.”

Sincere or not, McDaniel’s avowed view of what happened in 2020 contradicts what most Republicans say they believe. In a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted last December, just 31 percent of Republicans agreed that “Joe Biden’s election as president was legitimate,” down from 39 percent in a similar poll two years earlier.

That reality presents a problem for TV news executives who say they are trying to present a diversity of political opinions. After canning McDaniel, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said the network remains “committed to the principle that we must have diverse viewpoints on our programs.” Toward that end, he said, “we will redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum.”

If those “different parts” exclude Republicans who think Trump actually won reelection (which, it’s worth noting, would make him ineligible to run this year), NBC already has ruled out most members of the party. And if McDaniel’s acknowledgment of reality was too late or too convenient to make the cut, the options are even more limited. When “major Republican Party figures like Ms. McDaniel are deemed unacceptable by viewers or colleagues,” the Times wonders, how can an organization like NBC meet “the challenge of fairly representing conservative and pro-Trump viewpoints in their coverage”? It’s a good question, and the answer probably will not satisfy anyone.

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