Rachel Maddow wants to meet with Roger Ailes: 'I'll buy you breakfast' (Q&A)

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Rachel Maddow, marker in hand, is contemplating a whiteboard on the wall of her show's newsroom. It's 2:20 p.m. on April 5, and on the board is a long list of topics: the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council; sexual-harassment allegations encircling Fox News' Bill O'Reilly; an investigation into possible ethics violations by President Trump's EPA chief, Scott Pruitt.

"We have Putin's ex-wife up here?" says Maddow, surveying the room. Lyudmila Putina, rarely seen in public since her divorce four years ago from Vladimir Putin, has re-emerged with a new husband 21 years her junior and a villa in the French seaside town of Anglet. Turning back to the board, Maddow picks up the eraser. "I'm going to go ahead and delete Ivanka and Jared and the things they say about things," she says, as she erases the names of the president's daughter and son-in-law.

The discussion among Maddow and her 20-some producers, including executive producer Cory Gnazzo, turns to Trump's evolving flexibility on military intervention into Syria after a chemical attack in a rebel-held town killed nearly 100 civilians. A producer suggests collating Trump's tweets on Syria that came when he was a private citizen: "We should stay the hell out of Syria"; "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?"; "Stay away and fix broken U.S."

"He's starting to identify Syria on a map," says Maddow dryly, noting that this is not the first time Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. "You can see the proud ignorance of his early statements," she continues. "It's like, 'Now I see!'"

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MSNBC - ELECTION COVERAGE -- Election Night 2016 -- Pictured: Rachel Maddow, Host, 'The Rachel Maddow Show' on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 from New York -- (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE WITH ANDY COHEN -- Pictured: Rachel Maddow -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE WITH ANDY COHEN -- Pictured (l-r): Rachel Maddow and Chris Hardwick -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0639 -- Pictured: (l-r) MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on March 15, 2017 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MSNBC - ELECTION COVERAGE -- Election Night 2016 -- Pictured: Rachel Maddow, Host, 'The Rachel Maddow Show' on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 from New York -- (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) -- Moderator Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, Anchor, MSNBC's 'The Rachel Maddow Show' appear on 'Meet the Press' in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday July 24, 2016. (Photo by: Bill McCay/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) -- Rachel Maddow, Anchor, MSNBC's 'The Rachel Maddow Show', Michael Steele, Former RNC Chair; NBC News Political Analyst appear on 'Meet the Press' in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday July 24, 2016. (Photo by: Bill McCay/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: TV personality Rachel Maddow visits the SiriusXM Studios on April 29, 2016 in New York, New York. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0429 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actress Tina Fey, host Jimmy Fallon, and television personality Rachel Maddow play 'Know It All' on March 2, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MSNBC - ELECTION COVERAGE -- MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate -- Pictured: (l-r) Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd appear during the 'MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate' on Thursday, February 4, 2016 at the University of New Hampshire at Durham in Durham, NH -- (Photo by: Scott Eisen/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Host of �The Rachel Maddow Show� MSNBC Rachel Maddow speaks onstage at the Road to the 2016 Election: A Campaign Preview panel presented by NBCUniversal during Advertising Week 2015 AWXII at the Times Center Stage on September 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: (L-R) NBC News Political Director and Moderator of Meet the Press NBC News Chuck Todd, Anchor of NBC Nightly News and Dateline Lester Holt, Co-Anchor of �Today� and NBC News Chief Legal Correspondent NBC News Savannah Guthrie, and Host of �The Rachel Maddow Show� MSNBC Rachel Maddow pose at the Road to the 2016 Election: A Campaign Preview panel presented by NBCUniversal during Advertising Week 2015 AWXII at the Times Center Stage on September 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured (l-r): Andy Cohen, Nicole Richie and Rachel Maddow -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 0012 -- Pictured: (l-r) Television host Rachel Maddow during an interview with host Seth Meyers on March 11, 2014 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured (l-r): Rachel Maddow and Michael Strahan -- Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) ? Rachel Maddow, Host, MSNBC?s ?The Rachel Maddow Show,? left, and Ralph Reed, Chairman, Faith and Freedom Coalition, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, June 30, 2013. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured (l-r): Rachel Maddow and Lil Jon -- Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14: Political commentator and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow attends the 2013 Philadelphia Book Festival at Irvine Auditorium on April 14, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 03: TV personality Rachel Maddow enters the 'Late Show With David Letterman' taping at the Ed Sullivan Theater on April 3, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/FilmMagic)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 4421 -- Pictured: (l-r) Rachel Maddow during an interview with host Jay Leno on March 11, 2013 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: Rachel Maddow appears on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 11: Political commentator Rachel Maddow signs copies of her new book 'Drift' at Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove on April 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee Gifford and Rachel Maddow appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt Lauer and Rachel Maddow appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire
MSNBC Live -- Decision 2010 -- Pictured: Rachel Maddow, host ��The Rachel Maddow Show�� during 'Decision 2010' on November 2, 2010 (Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW -- Pictured: (l-r) -- MSNBC's Rachel Maddow anchors live from Will McDonogh Memorial Park in New Orleans on August 26, 2010 to address the progress and struggles of the city, five years after Hurricane Katrina (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Read more: 12 Top D.C. Political Media Stars' Standout Moments

Like virtually every day since Trump moved into the White House, the news cycle is spinning at warp speed. And Maddow — in her eighth year on MSNBC and long the network's most prominent progressive star — is attracting her biggest audience ever, averaging 2.7 million viewers a night in March, a 100 percent gain year-over-year. In the 25-to-54 demographic, Maddow even beat Fox News rival Tucker Carlson. Her highly touted (and mocked) March 14 program, in which she revealed a small portion of Trump's 2005 tax return, drew an eye-popping 4.1 million viewers, making The Rachel Maddow Show the most-watched program on cable for the night and beating scripted programming on ABC and Fox. "This administration is Chaos, Incorporated, and that means you can't plan ahead, ever," notes Maddow, 44, who spends weekdays in New York and weekends with her partner, photographer Susan Mikula, in Massachusetts. "That's exciting. But being at work takes more energy than it ever has."

Are you writing up until almost 9 p.m. when the show begins?

Through the show. Almost every night something changes during the show that modifies what is on the air that hour, whether it's a last-second booking or throwing something out or an ad-libbed segment or "Add these questions on x to our previously booked person and see if they can talk about it."

The Trump administration has prompted a not-my-president resistance. Do you view yourself as a leader in that movement?

Ha! Am I the leader? No. I'm not the leader of anything except the 9 o'clock show on MSNBC. But I do think that there is an equal and opposite reaction in the country to what Trump represents. It'll be interesting to see how sustained it is.

As a progressive, is it ever depressing to cover this stuff every day?

I don't operate that way, really. I do not see my job as advocating for what's important to me. If I did, it would be a very different show. I see my job as explaining what's going on in the news. With this administration, regardless of how I feel about anything they're doing, there is so much that needs explaining. We've put a lot of effort into the Russia scandal and I don't regret that, and I intend to be as aggressive as I possibly can on that story because here is a scandal that is of transcendent, historic importance and is existentially about whether or not this presidency should exist or whether it is the product of a crime. And if that's the case then how much is it worth it to talk about Tom Price's corruption and Carl Icahn's inappropriate regulatory role? If you plagiarized your whole book are we going to diagram the sentences in it or should it just be pulled off the shelf? And as somebody whose job it is to explain the news, and to explain what is most important in the news, that is a real tension for me. With an existential crisis looming, how do you contextualize non-existential crises alongside that? Or do you ignore everything except that? I think it's a hard question, every day.

If you had a sit-down with Trump, what's the first question you would ask him?

I do not want to give that away because I am hoping to be able to interview Trump.

How does Maddow get an interview with Trump?

I thought that I had an interview with him during the primaries. I spoke with him, and the people who supposedly speak for him told me it was a go. The problem with dealing with this administration internally as well as the way they talk to the country is that there is no reason to believe anything they say.

So you haven't had a conversation with him since then?

Since the election, no, I have not spoken with him. Although I fully expect to. He likes cable news, he likes mixing it up with people whom he has differences of opinions with, he likes making examples of people whom he sees as bad for the country. He's got every reason to talk to me, don't you think?

You did get his attention by revealing his 2005 tax return on TV. They said you were "desperate" for ratings.

Do you know the funny little backstory about that? That line in the statement, the "desperate for ratings" line, was not in the statement that they gave us. So they gave us the statement, we read the whole statement on the air, and then they subsequently put out that statement, plus the "desperate for ratings" line. And then told everybody that we were too afraid to use that line in the statement, which they had not given us until after we had already released the statement that they gave us. I was like, "That is some junior high stuff."

You endured some criticism for the way you handled the build-up and the preamble to the tax return. Stephen Colbert did a widely shared parody of it on Late Show. Any regrets?

I think the Colbert thing was spectacular. Corey [Gnazzo, Maddow's executive producer] came in and was like, "I have to show you something." He was very worried. So we pulled it up and watched it and I immediately responded [on Twitter]. I thought it was freaking spectacular! I was like, "Who told you this was bad news? That means he has watched the show, you guys!"

People who know you say you're a perfectionist. In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

No. And I recognize that people don't like the way I did it or don't like the way I do TV generally. But I have been doing the same thing all this time. We've always had that mantra: Try to increase the amount of useful information in the world. I'm not reading the news, I'm explaining the news — and that means explaining what's important about it, what's not important about it, where it comes from, how you ought to see it in light of other news that's being discussed. I'm not the leader of the resistance. I'm not the opposition party. I am a person who is trying to increase the amount of useful information in the world.

Roger Ailes wrote a blurb for your 2012 book, Drift. Have you spoken to him recently?

I tried to reach him around Christmastime. I just tried to reach out just to reconnect and was not able to get in touch. But Roger, if you're reading this and you want to have a conversation, I'll buy you breakfast.

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NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: In this handout photo provided by FOX News, FOX News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes is photographed November 13, 2015 at the networks Manhattan headquarters New York City. (Photo by Wesley Mann/FOX News via Getty Images)
Bill O'Reilly, tv columnist, at left, shown here with Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of FOX tv at the Radio & TV Correspondents annual dinner held at the Washington Hilton. (Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
SLUG: ST/AILES DATE: 3/23/99 NP PHOTOG: Helayne Seidman/FTWP multi use LOCATION: Fox News, 1211 6th Ave. NYC SUMMARY: Roger Ailes, president of Fox TV CAPTION: Roger Ailes, president of Fox TV, in the Fox TV control room. Original Filename: npsent.JPG ORG XMIT: ; 29
385602 07: Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, right, testifies during a hearing on election night 2000 coverage by the networks before the House committee on energy and commerce February 14, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. Heads of major news organizations have converged on Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, explaining the mistaken calls made on Election Night and promising changes to prevent further errors. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 25: Chairman and CEO of the Fox News Network Roger Ailes participates in the 'America's Best Leaders: How do they lead? Where are they taking us?' National Issues Briefing hosted by U.S. News and World Report October 25, 2005 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The talk was held in collaboration with the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images for U.S. News and World Report)
NEW YORK - JUNE 26: (L-R) Variety Editor Peter Bart and Producer Roger Ailes attend a cocktail party hosted by Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Miramax Books to celebrate Peter Bart's new book ''BOFFO'' on June 26, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JULY 24: Chairman & CEO, FOX News Roger Ailes from 'Fox News' speaks onstage during the 2006 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour for the FOX Broadcasting Company at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel on July 24, 2006 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 08: Roger Ailes, president of FOX News, poses with his wife Elizabeth on the red carpet upon arrival at a salute to FOX News Channel's Brit Hume on January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. Hume was honored for his 35 years in journalism. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: Fox News President Roger Ailes attends the Hollywood Reporter celebrates 'The 35 Most Powerful People in Media' at the Four Season Grill Room on April 11, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 21: Copies of the new book The Loudest Voice in the Room are displayed at a Books Inc. bookstore on January 21, 2014 in San Francisco, United States. The unauthorized biography of FOX News president Roger Ailes written by New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman hit bookstore shelves on January 14. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: In this handout photo provided by FOX News, FOX News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes is photographed November 13, 2015 at the networks Manhattan headquarters New York City. (Photo by Wesley Mann/FOX News via Getty Images)
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A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


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