Chris Wallace becomes Trump era's 'equal opportunity inquisitor'

Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceKaren Bass: 'I'm not a socialist, I'm not a communist' Trump adviser Jason Miller: Biden running mate pick 'his political living will' Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates MORE was nearing the end of a tense interview last year with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUS 'deeply troubled' by escalating conflict in Libya Clyburn: Trump doesn't plan to leave the White House Russia planning mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign for October MORE in Helsinki, where the “Fox News Sunday” anchor had won the mercurial leader's attention by handing him an indictment implicating Russian agents in U.S. election meddling and engaging him on the country’s nuclear weapons and its role in Syria’s civilian massacres.

"I thought, 'I’ve really got a great interview here now, but I have one great question left.' And I'm thinking, 'Should I ask it or not?’ And I thought to myself, 'What the hell?'" Wallace recalled in an interview with The Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I said, 'Why is it so many of the people who oppose Vladimir Putin end up dead?' And again, it was an audible gasp in the room from the Russians."

But it paid off.

Late last month, Wallace was nominated for an Emmy for his interview with Putin, marking the first-ever nomination for the Fox News Channel at the annual television awards.

The Putin interview is one of several sit-downs Wallace has conducted in the Trump era that have garnered headlines or resulted in viral moments. In an increasingly partisan and siloed news environment, and with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE and other leaders stoking distrust in the media, Wallace has carved out a reputation as a tough but fair interviewer who has gotten the best of members of both parties.

"People come up to me at airports or restaurants or whenever I’m out in public and praise me a lot for being fair," Wallace, 71, said in an interview. "While on the one hand I appreciate it, on the other hand it kind of depresses me because when I started out in the business being fair was the baseline — that you tried to be as fair, as objective, as even-handed as you could be."

ADVERTISEMENT

The son of veteran broadcaster Mike Wallace, Chris is in his fifth decade in the industry. He joined Fox in 2003 and has hosted "Fox News Sunday" for more than 15 years, making him the elder statesman among the Sunday talk shows.

Even with the rise of cable news, the internet, commentators and partisan media outlets, Wallace said he approaches his job the same way he did decades ago. He likened his preparation to that of a cross-examiner trying to predict how a subject might respond to a given question and how to get them off script.

Wallace earned praise for his work as a moderator during the final presidential debate of the 2016 presidential campaign and has had prominent Republican and Democratic officials on “Fox News Sunday” during Trump’s presidency.

"I’ve been called an equal opportunity inquisitor, and I take that very seriously," Wallace said.

In May, Trump chastised Wallace and Fox for giving airtime to Democratic presidential candidate Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegFormer Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan dies How Republicans can embrace environmentalism and win In politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over MORE, tweeting, "I like Mike Wallace better."

But two months later, the president struck a different tone, approvingly quoting Wallace's assessment of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's testimony as a "disaster" for Democrats.

Many of Wallace's most noteworthy moments in recent months have come when he has pinned down White House officials seeking to dodge a question or repeat a misleading talking point.

In January, Wallace stopped then-press secretary Sarah HuckabeeSarah Elizabeth SandersMcEnany stamps her brand on White House press operation Sanders mocks NY Times urging DNC to investigate Biden allegations: 'I thought it was an Onion headline' Donald Trump: The Boomer TV president MORE Sanders as she sought to repeat the claim that thousands of "special interest aliens" have been stopped at the border. He countered that many of them came through airports, not the southern border.

A month later, it was White House senior adviser Stephen MillerStephen MillerWatchdog group accuses Stephen Miller of violating Hatch Act with Biden comments Stephen Miller criticizes Obama for 'shockingly political' remarks at John Lewis funeral GOP senators push for stimulus checks to almost 2M excluded Americans MORE's turn when Wallace pressed him to cite another example of a president invoking national emergency powers to get money denied by Congress, a step Trump had taken days earlier.

Wallace last month had a quick retort when acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyFauci says positive White House task force reports don't always match what he hears on the ground Bottom line White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds MORE told him he was "spending too much time reading between the lines" about Trump's tweets degrading the city of Baltimore as a "rat and rodent infested mess."

"I'm not reading between the lines. I'm reading the lines," Wallace responded.

When Trump sat for an interview in November on "Fox News Sunday," Wallace sought to unpack the president’s barrage of attacks on the media, which Trump had described as the "enemy of the people." When Trump clarified he was not referring to the Fox anchor as "fake news," Wallace interjected.

"It doesn't matter what you call — when you call CNN and The New York Times and we're in solidarity, sir," Wallace said.

The broadcaster told The Hill that he feels Trump has "gone over the line" with his attacks on the press but suggested the proper response would be not to take the bait.

"I think some reporters make a mistake in thinking because he goes over the line that gives them an excuse to push back and go over the line themselves," Wallace said. "And I think that’s exactly the wrong response."

Wallace's employer has faced allegations it is too cozy with the Trump administration. Critics of Fox News say hosts such as Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamWisconsin Republicans raise questions about death of Black Trump supporter Cain given tributes after death from COVID-19 Trump again targets Fox: 'They totally forgot who got them where they are' MORE and Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityHannity selling 'priority access' to new book as Trump fundraiser Hannity's first book in 10 years debuts at No. 1 on Amazon The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Gohmert tests positive; safety fears escalate on Capitol Hill MORE and programs such as "Fox & Friends" echo the president's agenda and offer little in the way of critical coverage.

The Democratic National Committee announced in March it would not allow Fox News to host a presidential primary debate, citing an exposé alleging deep ties between the network and Trump’s inner circle.

Fox News anchors bristled at the decision, suggesting it did a disservice to the news division, candidates and voters.

Bret Baier argued that White House hopefuls would miss out on reaching a sizable audience, while Wallace quipped that some Democrats suffered from "Fox derangement syndrome."

Still, Wallace has found a way to play a role in the 2020 Democratic primary. He has hosted candidate town halls for Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandBiden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (D-N.Y.) and Buttigieg, who has been on "Fox News Sunday" twice in recent months. Wallace this month questioned the South Bend mayor about his lack of support among black voters.

"I think his credibility, his authoritative nature, and his attention to detail and facts make any appearance he makes on Fox News Channel, it makes the cable channel better," said Carl Cameron, a former Fox News reporter who has been critical of the network in recent months.

Cameron noted that Wallace has had public disagreements with opinion hosts at Fox News but that those on the other side of the arguments "have come to realize that messing with Chris Wallace is a losing proposition."

"I don’t want to overstate it, but Chris’s work is vital for Fox," Cameron added.

Wallace said he views his Emmy nomination as recognition of the work of his team ahead of the Putin interview and of the network's news division as a whole.

After he finished his 34-minute sit-down interview with Putin in July 2017, Wallace said he introduced his wife to the Russian president and informed Putin that they would be vacationing in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

"I had wanted to take my wife Lorraine to Russia, which I think is a fascinating country," Wallace said. "My father came from Russia so feel kinship there."

"And he said, 'How long are you spending in each city?'" Wallace said with a laugh. "I wondered about his curiosity, but I proceeded to tell him."