Chris Wallace on Interviewing Putin, and Why He Isn’t Afraid to Visit Russia
Posted July 22, 2018 5:43 p.m. EDT
He confronted President Vladimir Putin of Russia about meddling in U.S. elections, presented him with a copy of the special counsel’s indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence agents and, to Putin’s clear displeasure, asked why so many of his political opponents ended up dead.
So Chris Wallace, after wrapping up his contentious interview with the Russian leader in Helsinki last week, did the logical next thing: He took a vacation.
“I had a few doubts,” the Fox News anchor said by phone the other day from St. Petersburg, where he and his wife, Lorraine, were preparing for an evening at the Mariinsky Ballet. “But I figured, Why not?”
Well, one could think of a few reasons. Putin, after all, does not take kindly to being challenged. But besides being recognized on the street a few times — “Is that the fellow who interviewed President Putin?” — Wallace said his travels (and his hotel rooms) had gone undisturbed: “There’s been no sign of any trouble or anything at all.”
Unflappability is a useful trait for the veteran broadcaster, who moderated a presidential debate in 2016 and has been grilling guests on “Fox News Sunday” for the past 15 years. Wallace, 70, interviewed Putin in 2005, but their meeting last Monday, the only interview the Russian president granted to a U.S. news outlet after his summit with President Donald Trump, carried higher stakes.
Under Wallace’s questioning, Putin tap danced around the subject of election hacking. He claimed to have no compromising materials on Trump, who, he said, “was of no interest for us” before he ran for president. And he bristled when Wallace asked about the deaths of political rivals, saying, essentially, that U.S. politicians had been assassinated, too.
Audiences were riveted. The 34-minute interview drew 3.2 million viewers when it aired last Monday, a rare instance of ratings for a 6 p.m. news segment hitting prime-time levels. Even rival anchors were impressed; on MSNBC, Brian Williams said Wallace asked questions that Trump had sidestepped.
The encounter almost never happened.
Wallace said he had spent months pursuing an interview with Putin that would take place during the World Cup, only to have the Kremlin say no. But after the Helsinki summit was announced, Putin’s people re-engaged. Their only condition was that the interview be aired in full.
“It became clear to me that he wanted to get across to Western viewers, and American viewers, in particular, that we can do business,” Wallace said.
Security was swarming the site of the interview, the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, when Wallace arrived. “Some of these guys, I got to say, were as big as a house,” the anchor said. The Fox News team had to wait hours before Putin made his entrance, which they interpreted as an attempt to psych them out.
But Wallace had his own surprise in store. Knowing that Putin would try to dismiss the special counsel’s indictment of Russian intelligence officers, the anchor confronted the Russian president with a printed copy of the document. “You could almost feel an intake of breath in the room for that second or two,” Wallace said. “From that moment on, I had his undivided attention.”
Putin refused to touch the document, instructing his interlocutor to leave it on a side table. His mood darkened further when Wallace asked why so many Putin rivals “end up dead, or close to it.”
Afterward, though, Wallace said the Russian president did not appear angry. The men shook hands, and Wallace volunteered the itinerary of his upcoming Russian vacation.
“He said, ‘How much time in each city?'” Wallace said. “I was a little worried about that. Why does he want to know?”
As it turned out, Putin, a native of St. Petersburg (which he refers to by its Soviet-era name of Leningrad), was pleased to hear that Wallace planned to spend more time there than in Moscow.
The aggressive approach by Wallace, who belongs to Fox News’ reportorial side and is viewed as a more moderate, contrarian voice of the network, stood in contrast with other Fox News interviewers in Helsinki. The pundits Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, in successive sit-downs with Trump, came off as sympathetic at best and sycophantic at worst.
Asked if he was irritated that Trump has given so many interviews to Fox News pundits — and, since the inauguration, none to “Fox News Sunday” — Wallace took a cue from Putin and deflected.
“'Irritation’ I don’t think is the right word,” Wallace said. “Would I like to sit down with the president? Absolutely. But the White House decides its communications strategy.”
“I don’t think sitting down with him right after a summit is the right circumstance,” he added. “If and when I do get an opportunity to sit down with the president, I’d like to be doing it by myself, not as one of several interviews, and at a time when the events of the day aren’t so overwhelming.”
Plus, the Putin interview may provide Wallace with some ammunition for his next entreaty to the White House.
“Am I going to perhaps point out that Vladimir Putin sat down with me, so why doesn’t the president?” Wallace said with a laugh. “Yeah, I’m going to make that argument.”