Tales from the CNN Trump-Era Green Room

Photo by Stephen Morton/Getty Images
CNN stage
Julia Ioffe
November 4, 2021

About five years ago, I went to a conference called the Faith Angle Forum, hosted by the Faith & Policy Center, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank. The Forum is a nice little getaway where journalists and faith leaders and scholars can meet and learn from each other. I was massively skeptical, as this is very much not my jam, but my very close friend, the New York Times Magazine political reporter Robert Draper, insisted that I attend. It’ll be interesting, he said. 

And it was. I remember being transfixed by Albert Raboteau, who taught religion at Princeton, delivering a lecture about how enslaved people in America flipped the power dynamic on its head by forgiving their tormentors, even when they had not asked for forgiveness. In extending forgiveness, they, who had nothing, had the power to bestow something important and other-worldly, thereby shifting the relationship between enslaved and enslaver, if only for a moment. 

It was a moving lecture, but I guess I’m just an Old Testament kind of girl. I’m an extremely secular person, but I was raised in a religious tradition where the transgressor has to ask for forgiveness—and then never do that thing again—to be forgiven. And having celebrated Passover more than a few times, I’m pretty sure that my people still haven’t forgiven the Egyptians for enslaving us thousands of years ago. I couldn’t imagine forgiving my torturer for something as horrific as slavery in America ever, let alone in the moment of suffering. Anyway, I found the lecture—and Raboteau’s almost hypnotic delivery—fascinating.


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Robert found the conference interesting, too, but for other reasons. It was where he met Kirsten Powers, who was then the lone liberal voice on Fox News, and is now a political analyst on CNN—and is now Robert’s partner. Through Robert, Kirsten and I also became good friends, and I often felt pride seeing Kirsten go viral for throwing death-ray side-eye at Trump enablers on live national TV during the chaotic years of the Trump administration. Those years were difficult for her, as they were for many of us. It was hard to be a journalist when the administration and its allies were constantly kicking you in the teeth and generally acting like a wrecking ball. It was hard not to lose your cool on Twitter, and then not be embarrassed (or worse) by the consequences. 

But Kirsten, who is Christian and deeply connected to her faith, grappled with it differently than I did. (I’m not even sure how I grappled with it, but that’s not really the point.) The result is Kirsten’s new book, Saving Grace, about how extending grace (in the Christian sense) to one’s political enemies is a powerful way not only to lower the temperature of our political debate, but also to preserve one’s sanity. Grace, Kirsten writes, “is what we most love to receive, but often the last thing most of us want to offer.” I’m still not sure I agree with Kirsten on everything in the book, but it challenged me and my assumptions in profound ways. And I got goosebumps reading the chapter called “When Grace Runs Out,” about what’s come to be called “cancel culture” and how perpetrators of injustice abuse the concept of grace by demanding it of the people they harm.

Anyway, here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity. I hope you enjoy Kirsten’s book as much as I did. 


Julia Ioffe: Before we get into all the questions I have for you about this book, could you please summarize what you mean by grace? 

Kirsten Powers: I use the Christian paradigm of grace, which is unmerited favor, meaning there’s nothing you can do to earn it. It is something that you just deserve just because you exist. But the book is meant for everybody, and I think it’s accessible to people of all faiths—and no faith. I think in the United States, we think that everybody has to earn things. They have to in some way do something to deserve my favor. 

When I started writing the book, people said to me, Well, yeah, I can give grace to people who basically think like me, and maybe they make a mistake. I can give them grace, but I’m not going to have grace for those other people. Well, that’s not really grace, because you just gave me a reason that you’re giving it to them. It has to be something that they didn’t do something to deserve. That said, it can be a very triggering word because of the way that I think it’s been weaponized. 


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You talked in the book about how you went searching for this because of what you call “the fight-club arena of American politics and media,” in which you’re a star player. You pull the curtain back on what it’s like to be there, at CNN, after the cameras go off and you’re in the elevator and the Trump defenders tell you, Oh, I have to do this because he can’t tolerate any criticism. Or when Rick Santorum tells you in the green room that he thinks women accuse men of sexual assault to get rich.

I hit a wall, basically. I would say it happened towards the end of 2018, after the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I just was miserable and I was physically unwell. I had chronic fatigue. I had chronic pain, I had clinical anxiety. I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw too hard. I was just utterly miserable and I realized, this just isn’t sustainable. I realized that basically the soundtrack in my head about other people, the way I was talking about other people, the way I was sometimes behaving, particularly on social media, was not aligned with my values. It wasn’t really who I said I was. I’m a Christian. I believe in loving your neighbor and even loving your enemies. And I was so far removed from that. And if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t even want to do it. I asked myself, who do I want to be? Because this isn’t it. 

During the Trump era, there were often viral clips of you going around social media, with liberal commentary, like, Yeah, she just totally destroyed Rick Santorum or Jason Miller! It was interesting to see you reveal what was happening beneath that façade where you looked so cool and collected while methodically disemboweling these people on the air. What did that feel like in the moment?

Even though I looked completely calm, I was feeling rage. When I left the set, I was feeling rage. One of the things I identified was that I had some unintegrated trauma, and that the trauma that I experienced growing up actually made it possible for me to do what you just described because I lived in a very chaotic family. There was a lot of arguing and there was a lot of aggressive behavior, and I had to learn how to stay calm and clear in those situations. I had to. The way that I now understand that I did it, it was dissociation. I would dissociate where I’m not feeling really much, so I’m able to be very clear about just thinking. It led to me being very successful in high-pressure environments, like when I was at Fox and on set with Bill O’Reilly. He’s going crazy and I’m just answering the questions. But then when I would leave, the feelings would come. The feelings of rage or contempt would come. I’d be shaking. Because after I left the set, it was safe for me to feel it.

That’s so interesting, because I’ve often experienced the opposite when I’ve been on the air. You’re in this heated discussion or debate, and then the cameras turn off and everybody just looks at their phones or kind of gives you a wink and a nod because, hey it’s just business! And in the green room, everybody’s buddy-buddy and then they go on set and yell at each other. It felt surreal to me that they could just turn it on and turn it off, that none of it was real for them.


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Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I used to have this with O’Reilly. We would be going at it and sometimes I would raise my voice and start to get agitated. And then the camera would turn off, and he’d say, Great job, that was perfect. I’m just not that kind of person. It’s not a performance for me. When I’m sitting there on set and listening to Michael Caputo suggest that women who don’t come forward with allegations of sexual assault immediately after it happens are lying—this isn’t an academic exercise for me. Not only has it happened to me, it’s happened to many women that I know. And it happens to women all the time. So I’m just actually not capable of being that disconnected. But I often won’t feel it until the segment is over. Or maybe I’m feeling it, but it’s so squashed down that it’s not the dominant feeling and it doesn’t interfere with my ability to just do the very clear cold analysis.

One of the examples of grace in the political sphere that you used in the book was the famous friendship between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia. You called theirs “a political oddball friendship.” I think people who don’t live here don’t realize how many of those friendships there are in Washington, though I think the Trump era has made it a lot harder. Because how can you be friends with someone if you disagree on, say, fundamental human rights, right?

Grace for other people doesn’t mean you have to be friends with them. And one of the biggest tools for practicing grace is boundaries, and being very clear about what kind of relationship you want to have with them. What type of conversations you’re willing to have. It’s not a lack of grace to say, I don’t want to be friends with somebody. It’s a lack of grace to say, this person is rotten to the core and irredeemable because they believe something I don’t believe. When you start demonizing and dehumanizing people, that’s not just a preference. But one of the reasons I’m a little conflicted about it is, I think the things that Scalia and Ginsburg were disagreeing about were some pretty fundamental things that actually did involve humanity. I think the things that [North Carolina Republican] Mark Meadows and [the late Maryland Democrat] Elijah Cummings were disagreeing about were fundamental. Mark Meadows was a Trump supporter and went to work for Trump.

And he perpetuated the racist birther conspiracy. And he helped foment the attack on the Capitol, etc.

I look at that and I think, it exists out there. I don’t have friendships like that. I do have friendships with people who have beliefs that are very, very different from mine, but I think that probably would not be the kind of friendship that I would enter into. These friendships aren’t for everybody. But I also think Elijah Cummings was practicing grace at a much higher level than I’m capable of doing, even after having written this book. It’s not something that I feel like I can necessarily achieve, but it is my guiding light. It’s not about becoming saints, it’s not about becoming Mother Teresa. It’s about trying to do a little bit better and making an effort to look at people and say, you’re more than this thing. And I think that’s probably what Elijah Cummings would have said. I think he would have said, I know him as a person, and this is what I believe about him.


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Do you think, though, that there is something about Washington that is conducive to these kinds of friendships as a function of political expediency and cynicism rather than grace?

I do think that the way things operate here—especially if you work on the Hill—puts you in close proximity to people who are very different than you. Because you’re forced to work with them, and then you do start to see, Oh, wow, they’re not pure evil. You’re an actual person I disagree with. It gets a little more complicated. 

When social scientists ask people to think of their opponent, whomever that may be—a Democrat or a Republican or vice versa—when they think about the group in the abstract, they’ll say things like, they’re evil. When they ask them to think of someone they know in their life who is part of the opposing side—someone they play basketball with or a neighbor down the street—they immediately de-polarize because it becomes a person. So I think that there are more of those kinds of relationships in Washington just because people are forced into working with people that are very different from them and, unlike people in the rest of the country where, yeah, people have their political opinions, but here, it’s their livelihood.

And it’s a very small town, both literally and metaphorically.

Yes.


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You talk in your book about “cancel culture,” and how it is the mirror of the criminal justice system. That it’s ironic when the people who are called out and held to account—or “canceled”—demand grace of the people canceling them, but that these communities have had no grace shown to them for generations. Their communities have been ravaged by the criminal justice system, which, as you write, is the ultimate absence of grace. How did you come to that analogy?

I think the turning point for me was when I heard the story about that white teenage girl who had said the N-word and she’d been accepted to college and then she was told she couldn’t come. And when the story came out, I talked to three of my Black girlfriends about it, who are all very different people. But they all said the same thing. They weren’t happy that something happened to this white girl, but they were like, But when is this going to stop?

As you explain in your book, the reason that Black teenager published the video of the white teenager using the N-word was that he and other Black students at that school had been complaining to school administrators for a long time that white students, white teachers, white parents kept using the N-word. And the school administrators were doing nothing about it. That this was a last resort.

Yes. One of my friends said, It’s just got to stop. We just can’t hear anymore about how white people don’t know that they’re not supposed to be saying that. That’s when I realized, At some point, when you take advantage of people’s grace for too long, there’s going to come a point when they run out of grace for you. 

As the cancel culture debate was happening, I started to think about how these marginalized communities, who had been bottomless wells of grace for generations, had no grace shown to them. Black communities were scapegoated during the war on drugs and were ravaged by the criminal justice system, which is just the epitome of un-grace. It’s where you do not see the whole person. You see them as the thing they did. They aren’t a person who committed a crime, they’re a criminal. They’re not a person who committed murder, they’re a murderer. And then people say about those people in the criminal justice system, Oh, we’re just holding them accountable. But you’re not holding them accountable. You’re annihilating them. You’re annihilating an entire person’s life and their whole family’s lives, over and over, often for things that aren’t even that important and aren’t even that big of a deal. And rather than having an appropriate, proportionate response—because I do think accountability is a grace when it’s proportionate and it’s humane—we just canceled people’s lives. We just act like they’re disposable. I think that we have to be alert when that kind of thinking is seeping into the broader culture, which I think it is. Cancel culture is a reflection of the ungrace of the criminal justice system and I think we’re emulating that a lot of times.


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You write that white conservatives cancel people all the time for offending them. Colin Kaepernick is a great example. And you say, I think accurately, that it’s rarely deemed ‘cancel culture’ when white conservatives get people fired. And I wonder if you think that it’s just because they’re enforcing their sincere beliefs. For example, maybe they do think offending their Christian sensibility is an offense that should be punished, but that saying the N-word is not that big of a deal—or groping a woman is not that big of a deal. Do you think it’s not a matter of tactics, but of belief?

You’re probably right, but that’s highly problematic. Think about the energy that conservatives spend—especially on Twitter, but also in the National Review or the Federalist—on expressing outrage that a person who has caused harm is harmed in return. Even when they would admit a harm has occurred. Somebody, say, said a racial slur. They may even respond, Well, you shouldn’t have said this, but then they follow with, look at how this poor person is being treated. The compassion and empathy and the grace is always for the person who caused the harm. And the person who is complaining about being harmed gets no rights, or they’re not complaining the right way, or they’re not doing it in the right place. 

That’s the upside-down nature of this so-called “cancel culture”: it turns the perpetrator into the victim and the victim into the perpetrator. And I’m not saying that sometimes things do happen where people have their lives annihilated in a way that doesn’t really look like accountability. Sometimes that does happen. But I do think that a lot of times the things that get called “cancel culture” are things where—and I use examples in the book where I really went in and looked and read everything I could about some of the really high-profile cases—where, you know, some people were given opportunities to apologize and they wouldn’t.

You also have a chapter about how people are not disposable and about the importance of “calling people in” and trying to get them to see things differently. But I have to say, it sounds like a lot of work. And yes, you have all the caveats that it’s not for everyone and it should be the leaders of these movements that do it. But it does sound like a lot of work, and I wonder, at what point do people not deserve grace anymore? Do they deserve grace if they hold racist or misogynistic beliefs?

It depends on how you define grace. The way I think about grace is, it’s unmerited favor. It really is for the person that you find almost repulsive. That’s the point. Those are the people that it’s for. The question is, what does grace look like in that situation? Sometimes grace is accountability. Sometimes grace is using a boundary and saying, I don’t want to be in a relationship with you or I don’t want to work with you. It’s about not going that next step of the judging, shaming, labeling, demonizing, dehumanizing. It doesn’t mean that you are endorsing their behavior or that or that you’re going to have a relationship with them. It’s just seeing that they are a full person who doesn’t know better. 

I think there is a difference between somebody who wants to do better but messed up, and a person who just has no interest in doing better. In the book I use the verse from the Bible: “Don’t throw your pearls before swine.” Meaning a pig can’t tell the difference between a string of pearls and a pile of dirt. Recognize when you’re trying to give something to somebody and they can’t receive it. And it’s fine for you to say this, that you don’t think they have the capacity even to receive what I’m saying to them, so I’m not going to spend my time talking to them about it. It’s a gift to be a bridge builder and those are the people that are doing that work, but not everybody’s called to that. Especially for people who are marginalized, they’re exhausted. They shouldn’t have to do it. That’s the idea of being an ally, to be able to step in.

Do you feel that there’s a tension between extending grace and demanding change—and getting change?

No, because the most graceful people are the ones who made such massive changes in the world, like the civil rights icons. The fact that they believed in loving their enemies and having grace for people and nonviolence and not dehumanizing people—all these things didn’t inhibit their ability to cause massive change in our society. It only becomes an impediment if people misunderstand it, if people think it means enabling and excusing behavior, because that’s not what it means. It just means, what is your inner orientation towards other people?

I think that that is where a lot of people go right away. That’s where I went right away when I first started the book. Then I realized that that’s not what it means and that this really is intended to protect myself. I interviewed Ruby Sales, who is a civil rights legend, and that was the point that she kept making over and over. It’s why M.L.K. said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Because we bear it, it’s not the other people that bear it. We bear it. We take all of that inside our hearts. And I said to Sales, “What do you say to somebody who says, ‘I can’t not hate Donald Trump’?” And she said, “Once you go down the road of hating Donald Trump, you have allowed him to invade your inner light and you will become just as he is.” These are self-preservation tactics. They may benefit other people, but you really are the main beneficiary.

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