When we sit down for this interview over Zoom, it’s been two weeks since insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, and Mitchell is still, as she puts it, “shattered.” The perils of a fragile democratic government, the weakness built into its foundations that bad actors can expose and exploit—that’s what she covers in other countries. It’s not that she thinks the United States is above reproach. It’s more that holding leaders to account has instilled real reverence in her for the responsibilities that government has. To see it desecrated? It shook her. “Congress is the third branch of government, and it’s just stunning that it was assaulted for the first time since 1814,” she says. “And it happened in front of our eyes. And it was completely preventable. And it was all based on a lie.
“We have had lies told from the briefing room podium in the White House, from the State Department, from other institutions,” she says. “There’s always been political spin but, in my experience going back 50 years of reporting and more than 40 years in Washington, officials in most cases don’t lie. They try to present the facts as favorably as they can for their principals, but they don’t lie flat out and just twist reality. And what has happened in the last four years has completely destroyed that. And it creeps on you little by little. People have been warning, but what we saw at the Capitol was the culmination of all of that. Now it can either shock the system and shock us all into awareness so that we can try to reorder it, or it can, as many people are now doing in the debate, drive people to keep arguing false realities.”
Mitchell understands the temptation—perhaps found in some parts of the Biden administration—to declare it a new morning in America and to put the ugliness of the recent past behind us, but journalists do not as a group tend to leave things be, Mitchell least of all.
Kristen Welker—who was named the chief White House correspondent for NBC News at the same time Mitchell was awarded her new title—remembers how Mitchell “helped me find my sea legs” in Washington when she arrived, without ever lowering the bar of her own expectations. When the two both covered the 2016 presidential election, Welker would hear whispers ripple through the press corps when Mitchell attended an event. It was not so much awe as a little competitive frustration. Mitchell was known to race to the candidate as soon as their remarks ended to squeeze a question in, leaving the others behind. “She is someone who is so passionate, and she perseveres, and she doesn’t back down. She is still the one to beat,” Welker says. “The other reporters would be like, ‘Oh, God, Andrea’s here, I have got to get to the rope line.’”
But like a true endurance athlete, Mitchell is most focused on beating her own best time. In 2012, George Clooney was about to be arrested at a protest. Mitchell and her staff were glued to their monitors. “She looks at me and goes, ‘That’s 10 minutes down the road. I can make it,’” Andrea Mitchell Reports executive producer Michelle Perry recalls. “I said, ‘It’s happening too fast.’ And she is like, ‘Wanna bet?’ We’re all still watching on TV and at the exact moment Clooney is cuffed, we see this blonde head poke out of the bushes. There is a crush of people and somehow she presses up against them and gets the interview. She’s a warrior; I don’t know how else to put it.”