When was the first time you felt powerful in your life that you can recall?
I always felt that I had a strong voice and I could make myself heard. In this industry as a broadcaster, I would say it wasn’t until I was probably in the prime time at Fox News when I realized I could say something and it might drive headlines or cause powerful people to get upset. If I chose to shine a light on a given issue, I could actually have an impact on it.
I’d like to ask you about your interactions with Trump. At the moment during the presidential debate when you asked about his treatment of women and how he speaks about them, were you aware of the effect that that would have on how people perceive you?
My job was to go out there and challenge powerful people. The night of the debate in 2016, I was aware that Trump would not like my question and that he was likely to get angry. But what can you do? I had a job to do and I did it. How could I possibly have anticipated exactly what he would then do and what a story that would become?
After the debate, Trump tried to bully me for nine months. I never changed my coverage. I was just as hard on him as I ever would have been, but he wouldn’t knock it off. To this day, I don’t know what’s in his head, but I do think he was genuinely angry in the beginning. Then I believe he enjoyed the narrative. He likes to create media stories, and I became one of his favorites. Once, I went to Trump Tower and told him I was not enjoying it. He agreed to let it go, but he was sorry to see it go because I do think he enjoyed the thread.
Sometimes it seems like he thinks he’s almost doing the other person a favor, or being nice somehow, when he is attacking them because he assumes —
He’s elevating you. Trump’s pugilistic by nature. He doesn’t care. I had my sit-down interview with him shortly after the Trump Tower accords. I had only one goal in that interview: to see whether Donald Trump has any empathy. If you go back and watch it knowing this is my goal, the questions will make perfect sense.
I don’t think he thinks about it in terms of how the other person feels. He doesn’t look at the world that way. He really only looks at the world through the prism of how it affects him. He enjoyed picking on the woman, the Fox News anchor, doing something that many perceived as misogynistic or sexist and still emerging the leader of the Republican Party and the nominee. To him, the victory was sweeter in having defied those odds.
Do you ever consciously think about wanting to become a powerful person?
Never, never. I became a lawyer to be taken seriously. I hadn’t come from a circle of power at all. I didn’t even have a connection to anyone in a powerful position. That’s the thing I was most attached to in my early legal years: being taken seriously. Being a thinker. Being someone who could be respected in a circle of big-brained academics. The sheen on that wore off fairly quickly. I really did learn the lesson in that first job that just because you’re good at something, just because you are well respected, it doesn’t mean it makes you happy. I was about to make partner at Jones Day. I just didn’t care.
You were an attorney, and then you became a news anchor. What made you feel confident enough to take a leap like that?
My career change from law to television came out of unhappiness. I was burnt out. I had spent all of my 20s at the office. Every vacation we ever took, I got FedExes on the beach. I have no memories of sitting on a lounge chair without a stack of papers. There was no Thanksgiving, there was no Christmas that I didn’t have materials to review. I was not going to be out-hustled by my adversaries, and I never thought of myself as the smartest person in the courtroom, but I was never going to be out-hustled. I remember once I was driving down the Kennedy [Expressway] one night, coming home at two or three in the morning in Chicago, hoping to have a car accident where I would break a major body part, like a femur, that would keep me out of commission for weeks. It needed to be something major so that I would have a legitimate excuse to not go to work.
I was in Chicago practicing law on 9/11. I was home, like the rest of the nation, watching the towers. And Ashleigh Banfield was on the streets of New York: She was calm, cool, collected. I thought, What a service she’s doing to the nation. She’s not trying to make me overly emotional, she’s not disconnected from her own humanity, and she’s advancing the story every time they go to her. At that point, I knew I’d be leaving law and going to the lowest rung on the totem pole of news, and I was thrilled.
Do you find power in your femininity?
Fashion and bolder fashion choices can be empowering. The biggest example of that for me was the spaghetti-strap dress at the Republican National Convention in 2016. That dress telegraphed a lot. Here’s Donald Trump, accepting the Republican nomination after how many months of trying to bully me, calling me a bimbo. On top of which, I had just been outed as a Roger Ailes accuser against my will. It’s like Trump, bimbo, “blood coming out of her wherever” on the one hand. Ailes — I’ve become the scorn of a lot of people who, the day before or at least the month before, were dear friends. I felt encircled by men who did not at all understand what it’s like to be a woman with power and to hear yourself called those names and referred to in those terms, and to see a company turn against you when all you’re really trying to do is stand up for what’s right.
I put on the most feminine thing I had, and I rocked the coverage. I asked all my normal questions, which are always probing and often merciless, in my sexy dress. For me, it was a double-barrel moment of I can do it all. Just because I’m blonde and I have my sexy dress on doesn’t make me a bimbo. It doesn’t mean I need to go along with people who think only loyalty matters.
Many people were very angry at me that I wasn’t backing Ailes. Finally it comes out, not only is she not backing him, she’s one of the people complaining against him. Raising a hand against him. It was extremely tense inside of Fox News at that time in so far as my relationships with my friends there, who didn’t, in their defense, understand what he was at that time. I do believe they didn’t, because even I didn’t and I had been on the receiving end of his “attentions.” In my mind, he took a shot at being with me, it didn’t work out, and he moved on. I didn’t know him to be serial harasser.
That is the reason I went to Lachlan Murdoch when the Gretchen Carlson complaint was filed. Once I learned that they were not going to hire outside counsel, I said, “I have a story to tell you, and you do need to do a real investigation because it is a possibility that he is what she says — I don’t know — but this is the time you need to figure it out.” Let me tell you, it would have been much easier at Fox News to not say anything about Roger Ailes. Roger and I got along just fine. He loved me. I would have had a long and profitable career had Roger stayed at the helm, but it would have been the wrong thing to do once confronted with the allegations that I read in the paper. Not just Gretchen’s but the ones that came in the days thereafter.
Were you conscious at Fox of how powerful you became, at least in terms of the public perception of you?
One of the things people don’t understand is the difference between power and success. For me, I realized I had power, but I didn’t have success. People will be confused by that because I had very strong ratings, and I had a lot of editorial freedom, but I wasn’t seeing my children grow up at all. I was failing. I was failing as a human being. The overall score card of my life had an F even though professionally it had an A because of the value I put on those two different things.
I joined NBC in May of ’17. For two years now, I have not had a single complaint about not getting enough time with my children. Every night I’ve had dinner with them. Every night I get to tuck them in and be the one who lies next to them and hears the stories about the day and helps them navigate their problems. For me, that’s everything.
I need to work. I need to financially, but I need to for my own sanity. Have I found the perfect balance? Not quite. I’m working on it.
*A version of this article appears in the October 15, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!