In the basement of the Mexican restaurant Anejo TriBeCa last December, with rain pouring down on the streets of Lower Manhattan, Nicolle Wallace was addressing the staff of her new MSNBC show, “Deadline: White House.”
They had gathered for their first holiday party since the show’s debut in May. Ms. Wallace, a former communications director under George W. Bush and a campaign strategist for John McCain’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2008, thanked the roughly 20 people in the room for their hard work and noted the implausibility of the moment.
“None of you are supposed to be here,” she said. “I’m not supposed to be the anchor of the 4 p.m. hour. I’m not.”
Indeed. It’s been a surprising career trajectory for Ms. Wallace, who — after four years as a regular panelist on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and a yearlong (and not entirely successful) stint on “The View” — now anchors a prime spot on MSNBC’s afternoon lineup, acting as a lead-in for Chuck Todd’s “MTP Daily,” and going up against Jake Tapper on CNN and Neil Cavuto on Fox News.
And while plenty of former White House aides or campaign strategists appear as pundits-for-hire on the cable and network news shows — David Axelrod and Josh Earnest (Barack Obama), Paul Begala (Bill Clinton), and Karl Rove (George W. Bush), among them — Ms. Wallace is the first former White House aide since George Stephanopoulos (ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”), to be named solo anchor of a network news program. Dana Perino, a former press secretary for George W. Bush, has now followed both with “The Daily Briefing,” which airs daily at 2 p.m. on Fox News.
Further, Ms. Wallace, 45, now occupies a key spot within the network’s afternoon lineup, leading the daily transition from hard news reports to the opinion and analysis programs that define its prime time, including “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.”
“Four o’clock is the gateway drug to prime time,” said Jonathan Wald, who came to MSNBC as the senior vice president for programming and development last February from CNN and was instrumental in creating the format for “Deadline: White House.” “The morning has its own rhythm, but 4 p.m. is a tough time because it really is the beginning of all the analysis.”
The timing of Ms. Wallace’s show coincides with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, which this week marks its one-year anniversary. And it is that president who has been Ms. Wallace’s most frequent on-air foil since her show began. Before that, she had been an outspoken critic of his campaign, calling out the candidate for what she saw as his xenophobic and racist views, going back to his role in the “birther” movement that questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama.
That antipathy has not ebbed since the 2016 election. “What a disgrace this White House is,” she tweeted in November, reacting to reports that Mr. Trump had made critical comments about the presidencies of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. “New low. Appalled for my former colleagues from the 43 White House.” On her program in January, she said Mr. Trump “is like a 12-year-old commander in chief.”
Her eagerness to take on the president, especially from the vantage point of someone who long played a key role in the political party he now heads (and thus offered the perspective of a former insider) apparently appealed to her MSNBC bosses.
“We were talking about a lot of things,” said Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, about the network’s discussions with Ms. Wallace after the 2016 campaign. “I saw an opportunity in the late afternoon and we needed help there.”
He added, “She thrived there from day one.”
Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News, who returned to run the news divisions of NBC and MSNBC after falling ratings and the suspension and then removal of Brian Williams from the Nightly News program, acknowledged that Ms. Wallace’s political bona fides were part of her appeal as he looked for ways to remake MSNBC’s afternoon lineup. “Clearly she brought some diversity in terms of her ideology and background,” Mr. Lack said. “It was important to me and remains important to me.”
But, he added, Ms. Wallace had something else going for her. “She’s got sources,” he said. “She’s a real reporter and gets information and perspective you wouldn’t find otherwise. And for NBC, that’s an asset. That adds real strength to our schedule.”
And so far, so good. According to Nielsen data, in the period beginning with its debut on May 9 until the end of 2017, “Deadline: White House” averaged 1.1 million viewers. During the same time frame, “The Lead With Jake Tapper” averaged a little more than 1 million, while “Your World With Neil Cavuto” led with almost 1.6 million. In the same period in 2016, the show that Ms. Wallace replaced, “MSNBC Live With Steve Kornacki,” averaged 727,000 viewers.
From Jeb Bush to Sarah Palin
Nicolle Devenish was born in Orange County, Calif., the eldest of four children, and raised in Orinda, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where her father was an antiques dealer and her mother a third-grade teacher. She received her undergraduate degree in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School.
She worked briefly as an on-air reporter in California, before switching to politics, working for the Republican Caucus of the California State Assembly.
In 1999, she moved to Florida to be the press secretary for the newly elected governor, Jeb Bush, and later worked on the recount effort for his brother, George W. Bush, in the contentious 2000 presidential race. It was while working on the recount that she met her future husband, Mark Wallace, then the general counsel for the Bush campaign in Florida. (The two married in 2005 and have a 6-year-old son, Liam.)
When George W. Bush moved into the White House, Ms. Wallace joined his staff as director of media affairs, and was named communications director in 2005, the start of his second term. Ms. Wallace maintained an easy relationship with the White House press corps, even as the Iraq War became an increasingly divisive issue and the administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis was widely criticized.
Though Ms. Wallace still reveres the Bush family, and says that George W. Bush respected the “traditions and norms” of the presidency (unlike, she implies, you-know-who), she frequently reminds people that she knows what it is like to work for an unpopular president.
In 2006, President Bush appointed her husband as ambassador to the United Nations, and the couple moved to New York, where Ms. Wallace was signed on as a political analyst for CBS News.
As the 2008 elections approached, a call came from Steve Schmidt, then in charge of the fledgling presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, whose candor and accessibility aboard the Straight Talk Express in 2000 Ms. Wallace greatly admired. The Wallaces signed up to work on Mr. McCain’s 2008 presidential race. And that’s when Ms. Wallace met Sarah Palin, who was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Alaska governorship to be Mr. McCain’s running mate.
The experience with Ms. Palin’ was searing. First came the blowup over the $150,000 spent on Ms. Palin’s campaign wardrobe, then the disastrous interview with Katie Couric, a friend and former CBS colleague of Ms. Wallace. “Our relationship really erupted and exploded, and was irreparably damaged after the Katie Couric interview, in which she had thought I had set her up for failure,” Ms. Wallace said of Ms. Palin years later on “The View.” (Sarah Paulson played Ms. Wallace in the HBO movie about that election, “Game Change.”)
That campaign marked the end of Ms. Wallace’s life in active politics.
Ms. Wallace has thought a lot about the phenomenon of that vice-presidential pick. Looking back, she said, it served as the “canary in the coal mine” of what was to come.
“The Palin campaign is where it belongs — in the past,” Ms. Wallace said. “But it did inform me where the party was going. The way the crowds reacted to her — they were so energized by her in a way they weren’t by McCain. She made comments that weren’t politically correct and the party not only tolerated it, but was excited by it. She was probably more important than we realized at the time in signaling where the party was going.”
After 2008, Ms. Wallace, who has acknowledged not voting in that race and then voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, explored career alternatives. She began writing a series of three well-received novels, the first of which, “Eighteen Acres,” told the story of the first female president and her controversial and polarizing running mate, also a woman. (From the book: “She was loud, tacky, and rude. She seemed to calculate the least presidential approach to every situation and pursue it with vigor.”) More important, in 2013 she signed on as a regular contributor to “Morning Joe.”
Early on, Ms. Wallace seemed an awkward fit, especially compared with her voluble and more experienced colleagues. The show’s co-host Mika Brzezinski, who watched Ms. Wallace’s growth, said she felt that “over the course of the time that she was on ‘Morning Joe’ what I saw was Nicolle learning to have fun being on TV.”
Ms. Wallace doesn’t recall having growing pains as a panelist — “I have never engaged in any self-examination as it pertains to television,” she said — but she does acknowledge that her very first appearance on the show, as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign, had the potential to be contentious.
“That was certainly an awkward job to have, to be speaking for Palin who was internally at war with me,” she said. “So, when I first showed up on that show, it was often to spar with all of the other guests about Sarah Palin and McCain. But I always felt welcome and comfortable on that show. And one of the hallmarks of that show is that everyone is given all the space and time and latitude to be themselves.”
Soon after being added to “Morning Joe” as a regular panelist, Ms. Wallace added another TV job to her résumé, joining “The View” in 2014 to replace the combative Elisabeth Hasselbeck as the resident Republican. It was not a success.
Ms. Wallace said that ABC executives let her go for “not being Republican enough” and that she learned of her dismissal from her fellow sacked colleague, Rosie Perez, who read about it in Variety. (The producers of the show reportedly offered her the chance to return as an occasional contributor, but she declined.)
Though Ms. Wallace had worked with ABC News on special events, she made sure that her “View” contract let her keep a place as a contributor to “Morning Joe.” After her dismissal, NBC and MSNBC offered her a job, and within a month she was filing the first of her reports for “Today.”
Over the course of the 2016 campaign, executives, including her now-executive producer Patrick Burkey, raised her on-air profile. She conducted candid, hourlong interviews with Jeb Bush, her former boss, and Chris Christie, then the New Jersey governor, after both had left the race. In the latter interview, Gov. Christie acknowledged that he hoped to be picked as Mr. Trump’s running mate, a spot that ultimately went to Mike Pence. “I’m a competitive person, so I’m not going to say it won’t bother me if I’m not selected,” Mr. Christie told Ms. Wallace. “Of course it bothers you a little bit, because if you’re a competitive person like I am and you’re used to winning like I am, again, you don’t like coming in second. Ever.”
By then, Ms. Wallace had all but officially left the political party she had been an active member of for decades. Her public breaking point came after Mr. Trump’s strident and often angry acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in Cleveland. On air with Tom Brokaw and the NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt after the speech, Ms. Wallace said, “The Republican Party that I worked for for 20 years died in this room tonight.”
‘I Can’t Explain Why They All Talk’
“The idea for the show was very much mine,” Ms. Wallace said of her initial pitch to Mr. Griffin. What she wanted most, she told him, was a show revolving around “a round-table conversation and always having a boisterous conversation with very, very little script.”
That comes across in the freewheeling nature of “Deadline,” aired live every weekday from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Ms. Wallace will raise her voice in reaction to clips, and doesn’t withhold her indignation. She often puts on her reading glasses when looking down at the sheets of paper on her desk, only to take them off when she stares up to talk to one of her guests. She laughs easily and strikes a tone between sarcasm and outrage over the actions of the institution she once served. Her guests joke with one another. In a recent episode, Mr. Schmidt, her former colleague and now a frequent guest, compared the journey of the Trump delegation to Davos to the two-part “Brady Bunch” episode in which the family decamps to Hawaii.
Ms. Wallace says her on-camera personality is one that anyone who knew her before “Deadline: White House” would instantly recognize.
“I am the same on TV as a guest as I am as a host, as I was a White House communications director, as I was Jeb Bush’s spokesperson,” she said. “I don’t speak any differently. I don’t hold any different views ideologically. I don’t hold back.”
Said Mr. Schmidt: “I think who you see is the real Nicolle.”
Ms. Wallace begins each day by calling some of the several staff members she knows in the current White House — looking for dish, for insight, for a talking point she can bring up with her guests later that day.
But why, given the stance she’s taken toward Mr. Trump, who she feels “debases the presidency to the last cell of my body,” do they open up?
“Sometimes they’re there to talk about how they’ve made things better,” she said. “But I don’t know why. I can’t explain why they all talk.”
Ms. Wallace frequently mentions to her guests and her viewers that she has worked in G.O.P. politics for a good part of her adult life, and that she now despairs for its future under the current leadership, beginning with the occupant of the White House.
“I think she’s suffering,” said her husband, Mark, who is the chief executive of two nonprofit groups, United Against a Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project. “She’s concerned about the office. She understands the gravity and importance of the office of the president.”
On air and on Twitter — she has 195,000 followers at last count — it’s clear Ms. Wallace has embraced the role as the public scold of the Republican Party. A flash point came in the recent Alabama senatorial campaign, when the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct involving girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s. “The men and women in the U.S. Senate, that would be Roy’s Senate colleagues on the Republican side, have largely stuck with a line that goes like this: ‘If these allegations are true, then I think he should step aside,’” said, staring directly into the camera. “Here’s a less polite decision for them: Republicans need to decide if it’s worse to have a Democrat in the Senate, or a pedophile.”
More recently, she lashed out at House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who called Mr. Trump’s profanity-laced comments about Haiti and African nations “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful” and spoke highly of “great friends from Africa” who are “incredible citizens.”
“Oh, my God, did you say that?” Ms. Wallace said after showing the clip to her round table. “An ice storm is unfortunate — and we have friends from Africa? That’s like 20, 40 years ago when people would say, ‘I have a friend that’s a lesbian.’”
She went on to say of Mr. Ryan: “He’s like the incredible shrinking man. It’s like his spine has been removed and he’s trying to diminish himself as a moral human being, as a leader, by the hour, by the day.”
And then there is Mr. Trump, whom Ms. Wallace’s parents voted for, and who holds the office once occupied by one boss and unsuccessfully sought by another.
Mr. Trump posted tweets last June attacking Ms. Brzezinski’s appearance at a social event at Mar-a-Lago, saying that she had approached him and was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”
Ms. Wallace responded by calling out women in high posts at the White House for remaining silent and warned that “the party will be permanently associated with misogyny if leaders don’t stand up and demand a retraction.”
“I was shaking,” Ms. Brzezinski said when she heard Ms. Wallace’s soliloquy. “And, really, the tweets didn’t bother me until I watched Nicolle, and then I was like, ‘You know what? Yes.’”
Earlier this month, reacting to those profane comments by Mr. Trump, Ms. Wallace, without hesitation, nearly screamed, “This is so abnormal! This is a freak show!”
For the foreseeable future, it will be Ms. Wallace’s freak show to oversee. “This White House,” she said, “is the most extraordinary political story of my lifetime.”