CBS’ Margaret Brennan Wants Viewers to See ‘Interconnectedness’ of Congressional Dysfunction and Foreign Affairs 

“We try to weave all of those together and explain that one affects the other” the “Face The Nation” moderator tells TheWrap

"Face The Nation" Margaret Brennan
"Face The Nation" (CBS)

CBS’ Margaret Brennan is attempting to combat an overwhelming news cycle by “connecting the dots” between domestic and foreign policy as the moderator of “Face The Nation.”

“You’re talking about a period of global instability in the Middle East, in the land war in Europe, with the growing competition with China, and you have back here at home some of the basic functioning of our institutions of democracy being paralyzed,” Brennan told TheWrap.

For “Face the Nation” Brennan said, “We try to weave all of those together and explain that one affects the other.”

But between Brennan’s dual role at the network, as moderator and chief foreign affairs correspondent, there are “a lot of fires in a lot of places right now,” she said.

This week’s edition of “Face The Nation” on Sunday included an interview with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and more. That episode scored 2.9 million total viewers, the show’s best viewership numbers since June, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings. To date, this season of “Face The Nation” ranks No. 1 in total viewers for the fourth consecutive year.

As CBS’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, Brennan’s reporting for the network only starts with “Face The Nation.” In the past week, Brennan hosted a segment on “60 Minutes”, where she was the first journalist to interview American businessman Emad Shargi, who was recently freed in a prisoner deal with Iran. Brennan also appeared on CBS’ Friday primetime special coverage of the Israel-Hamas war and other network programs.

“There is really an immediacy to the moment we are in and the level of seriousness to the challenges our country faces,” Brennan told TheWrap. “To not be direct would be doing a disservice to the viewers, to the people at home because I’m up there asking the questions in many ways for the public.”

Brennan spoke to TheWrap about how her role in Washington journalism prepared her for this overwhelming news cycle, giving her the opportunity to present the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy to her viewers.

This current conflict between Israel and Hamas is one of the more consequential U.S. foreign affairs involvements considering how deep our political ties are to Israel. How has serving as CBS’ chief foreign affairs correspondent prepared you to cover something of this magnitude?
One of the things I love about this role of chief foreign affairs is I’m not the spot reporter in the field. I’m the one who is covering the intelligence, the policymaking, decision-making in Washington that is guiding U.S. foreign policy. We have wonderful colleagues who are chasing some of the first-person stories, the eyewitness accounts. I’m chasing the guts of the decision-making in the capitals and here in Washington. For this story, The fact that I studied the Middle East for a good part of my professional career, but also my academic career, it’s not unfamiliar to me. I know a lot of these decision-makers and have for a while, so that comes in handy when you need to make quick calls to get sources to explain what may be coming around the corner next. With the hostages for example, I’ve done a lot of reporting on hostages and hostage policy, being able to speak to folks who are being able to strategize on how to bring people home, how to communicate effectively on their behalf in a way that doesn’t put their loved ones at risk. I’ve had a lot of experience doing some of that, so it actually fit the story quite well. But I’m doing this from Washington and constantly in contact and sending information out to our folks who are standing in Tel Aviv or standing elsewhere in the Middle East or in Ukraine. That’s the way my role is, in terms of trying to get the most accurate intel from decision-makers.

Can you speak to the current congressional dysfunction manifesting in the House right now? Is the speakership drama potentially hindering U.S. efforts to support Israel and Ukraine?
That’s one of the things that I do love about the perch I have for “Face The Nation” because I get to see all that interconnectedness and engage with it because I’m not just talking to the decision-makers in the foreign capitals or the White House but in terms of the political decision-making that impacts policy. You pointed to the politics around the Middle East in your last question, and it’s a good observation because all domestic politics affects decisions made by leaders no matter what country you’re standing in.

In terms of the congressional package, for example, I sat down last Friday with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is in the minority in the Senate but very much trying to lead on national security for his party at a time when some of the younger, newer members, certainly in the House and some in the Senate, are throwing up their hands and protesting the idea of more aid to Ukraine. Now that it’s being packaged by the White House as tied to aid for Israel, it has a better chance of passage. It’s being bundled in there, at least at this point, with U.S. border security, and aid for China. So to make it politically palatable, bubbling some of those things that are viewed as “must pass” for that party, together had helped the case.

It’s an interesting thing to sit down with Mitch McConnell on Friday to talk to him about his view of the world, which is more establishment, to say that when it comes down to matters of national security for the United States of America, partisanship should be put aside to the extent that it can look at this set of issues as what is most risky for our country and what is the best strategy for our country.

He put it in a succinct way of basically responding to those who aren’t necessarily persuaded, for some reason, by the idea of supporting democracy in Ukraine said, “OK, well you have an army that’s fighting one of America’s largest adversaries and defeating their army in large extent, or at least exhausting it, and at the same time, using up U.S. weapons stockpiles by sending them abroad, meaning we have to rebuild them at home. You’re sending business out to all these states to replace weapons stockpiles.”

There’s your political salesmanship there. It was an interesting way he connected those dots and frankly, he’s in agreement with Joe Biden on this. So it’s a usual moment of bipartisanship on those national security issues. There is the unusual situation, as well though, that there are some fractures within the parties that aren’t as typical, and you do have some of those younger, more far-right members who are throwing up their hands and protesting some of the national security policies.

Can you evaluate the Biden administration’s performance in terms of informing the media and subsequently the general public regarding their stance in support of Israel during this conflict?
The White House has been extremely clear in terms of support for Israel. The criticism for the White House has been by many lawmakers, particularly on the Republican side of the ledger, that the White House hadn’t explained clearly enough to the public the need to continue to support Ukraine. There were critics who said that was part of the feeding into the misunderstanding, perhaps among some members of the public about the the intent, and how it was accounted for, and overseen, and what it was going for. That’s been a very widely criticized thing for the administration and the president had been planning to make more of a public case even before this attack happened in Israel.

Then it happened and that all of a sudden became a moment where in that Oval Office address last week, he leaned into here’s why we need to fund Ukraine. … He framed it as a fight for democracies, describing Israel’s democracy as faced by a similar threat in the form of terrorism. He’s been very vocal and very clear on that and going to Israel in the midst of this, I think really puts an exclamation point on that. It was not without controversy itself, given that while he was on the plane en route to Israel, meetings with some of the surrounding countries, the Arab leaders there, was called off because what was perceived to be support for Israel in a way that wasn’t calling for restraint or protection of human rights.

The fact that he went through with the trip, even against that backdrop, really drives home that U.S. support at least from the Biden administration is unequivocal and public, even if words of caution are issued in private. The president has really not criticized, or only in the most gentle of terms, issued public warnings of caution as he did, comparing Israel to the United States after 9/11 and saying don’t react from a place of rage because you can make choices that will sometimes haunt you. He did it in a very gentle way, issuing a call for restraint without using that word.

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