Seth Meyers welcomed Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway to Late Night on January 10 for an interview, greeting her with a jovial smile. He extended warm congratulations for her being the first woman to manage a winning presidential campaign. He even conceded that Conway’s distaste for people who say that Trump isn’t their president makes sense — but by his sentence’s end, Meyers made his own position clear with a barbed joke.
“I want to make it clear that [Trump] is my president,” said Meyers and, as Conway nodded happily, continued: “He's my president so much it's keeping me up at night."
And from there, they were off.
The ensuing interview was one of Conway’s more revealing, as Meyers — a well-informed comedian used to thinking on his feet — unpacked her verbal gymnastics in real time.
Seth Meyers has steadily built a show around his wry, even-handed dissection of the news
Meyers, if you haven’t been paying attention to Late Night, was the perfect late-night host to take on the task of interviewing the notoriously slippery Conway. His best moments on the show come from his meticulous digging into political issues of the day, whether in his monologue or extended recurring “Closer Look” segments. His joke delivery is more measured than the spitting fire of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and less gobsmacked than Trevor Noah’s gentle bemusement. Where others seethe, Meyers delivers his biting punchlines with an affable grin.
Since the 2016 election ended with a president-elect whose recent years were spent anchoring a reality show franchise, Trump’s deliberate blurring of the lines between entertainment and politics has proven to be a special problem for late-night hosts and comedians who cover and interview him.
On the one hand, there’s someone like The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, who used his time with Donald Trump: Republican Candidate last September to ask such questions as, “Why would you excel at this job?” and, “Have you ever played the board game Sorry?” Fallon would rather leave politics fully out of his Tonight Show, which he approaches as a feel-good variety show that will take people’s minds off politics — even when he’s interviewing a politician.
On the other hand, there’s someone like Meyers, who walked a line with Conway that was neither fawning nor overly antagonistic. But all the while, he asked substantive questions of her and her own professed views of what Trump has said and done, covering everything from his Cabinet nominees to his approach to Twitter.
Meyers’s interview with Conway worked because he pointed out when she was deviating from the topic at hand
Almost every late-night host has to entertain entertainers, to ask their fair share of softball questions about celebrity family life and backstage shenanigans. But Meyers acknowledged that he was interviewing a politician in Conway — and so he adjusted his interview technique from that he would use with a film star accordingly.
First, Meyers pressed Conway on the late-breaking allegations that Russia may have “compromising personal and financial” information on Trump, specifically whether she could confirm if Trump had seen the briefing. (Trump later tweeted that the story was “FAKE NEWS” and questioned whether the release of the documents was a sign that we’re “living in Nazi Germany.”)
Conway lamented that “[intelligence officials] would rather go tell the press” than speak to Trump himself. Meyers pushed back, saying that the report insisted that he was briefed. (The CNN and NBC reports on this point are conflicting as of press time.) Conway’s answer? “He has said he’s not aware of that.”
“That concerns me,” Meyers replied, smiling a wide, panicked smile.
But the more telling exchange came as Conway turned from Trump’s involvement in and awareness of Russian interference in the election to the idea of Hillary Clinton blaming her loss on Russian hacking. “Vladimir Putin didn't tell Hillary Clinton to ignore Michigan and Wisconsin,” Conway insisted. “She did that all by herself."
Having found her footing on a topic off to the side of Trump’s own culpability, Conway sidestepped having to answer more questions about Russia — a tactic Meyers immediately called out.
Here’s what that looked like:
MEYERS: I'm not going to sit here and argue with you that the Hillary Clinton campaign was a well-run campaign.
CONWAY: Well, or that the Russians interfered in the election successfully, that they interrupted our democracy, which is really what we should all care about. Is that true or not? Nobody has proven it.
MEYERS: I agree that the Russians tried to interfere, whether it affected the outcome of the election or not. ... I sometimes fear that the president-elect has no curiosity as to the amount they tried.
CONWAY: That is completely false. He has enormous curiosity. I'm there every day with him. He has a number of different meetings every day, briefings and otherwise. He was curious enough to figure out America, when many other Republicans did not.
MEYERS: That's a pivot right there, Kellyanne. Nobody does it better.
Conway replied, “No,” as the Late Night audience clapped — but she then threw up both thumbs, did a shimmy, and let out a “Woo!”
In that moment, Meyers made it clear that he was aware of what she was doing, that one sentence didn’t logically follow the other, that she was ending her answer on a deliberate dodge. So Conway couldn’t — and didn’t — really fight it.
And that dodge ultimately worked; the interview moved right along past Russia. But Meyers still steered into questioning Conway on why Trump hadn’t nominated a veterans affairs secretary yet (a pick Trump announced the following day during his press conference). Meyers also pressed her on Trump’s pending appointees and their background checks (Conway: “The better question is ... are they going to get fair hearings?”), why Trump hadn’t held a press conference yet ("The president-elect has been very busy forming his government”), and Trump naming “winners and losers” for businesses through tweets (“No ... he’s laying down incentives”).
Meyers was, in other words, prepared for the task of interviewing a presidential adviser — and one famous for manipulating questions to give more flattering answers, no less — in a way that pushed past the usual late-night pleasantries. He approached the interview with preparation, focus, and a refusal to let glancing answers slide. In a time when politicians and their aides have made verbal pivoting a competitive sport, Meyers proved — with the simple act of challenging Conway to her face — that he came to play.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Meyers’s show as The Late Late Show. It has been updated to reflect that it is Late Night.