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Why Howard Schultz’s Campaign Adviser Stormed Off His Own Podcast

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15.02.2019

The Words Matter podcast had become one of my favorites. It’s founded by a couple of Never Trumpers—the journalist Elise Jordan and Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s campaign in 2008. Their producer, Adam Levine, served as assistant White House press secretary and director of TV news for George W. Bush.

Together, they would invite on a guest and talk about the world from, I guess you could say, the center-right perspective. It was a perspective generally different from my own, but with an adherence to fact and the belief that, in fact, that words matter.

But on a recent episode, Levine asked Schmidt about the details of his gig advising 2020 hopeful Howard Schultz. And it wasn’t just because that posed a possible conflict of interest for the political podcast—Levine says his regular listeners wanted answers on the guy who, in their eyes, could get enough votes to cause another Trump victory.

Last week, the Words Matter podcast, at least as we know it, ceased to exist when Schmidt stormed off after he was a guest on his own podcast and didn’t like the questions Levine asked. I asked Levine to tell me about what happened this week on The Gist, the daily podcast I host for Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.

Below, you’ll find a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Click the play button to hear the full discussion, and get The Gist for free every day via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your shows.

Mike Pesca: I listen. I love the show, and I think Steve Schmidt is an extremely compelling presence, a great talker. He took a job with the Howard Schultz campaign, so you thought you needed to talk about it. Is this right?

Adam Levine: Correct. And just a little bit of backstory on it: Steve had expressed to both Elise and I that he was going to be involved in an effort that was funded by Howard Schultz but would be looking at it as a third party—as a third way. There was talk that, if in November of 2019 there was interest, that Howard might be interested, but it was never positioned to either one of us as a presidential campaign, and it wasn’t positioned like that to his colleagues at NBC. When Howard did announce this exploratory effort on 60 Minutes, it kind of was a shock to everyone involved—including his followers and people who, like you, listen to him and believe in him.

Pesca: Sorry, in the 60 Minutes interview, Schultz doesn’t say he’s running for president—

Levine: He says, “I’m seriously considering,” and today, in 2019, when a guy who has somewhere between $2.9 billion and $3.3 billion goes on 60 Minutes and says he’s seriously considering running for president of the United States, that’s important. And that’s big. That’s a huge announcement, and it was treated as such.

Pesca: Right. So, you say to yourself, OK, one of the hosts of my show is now a presidential campaign adviser. This may affect how people listen to our podcast, perhaps compromise it. This is something that the audience needs to be able to get their head around, so that they understand what the show is going forward. How did you make the choice that you would be interviewing Steve?

Levine: For our listener, Howard Schultz running was sort of a seminal event to them, or the possibility of such. So, this was serious—I joked that if Steve had been on the other side and had been looking at this, he would have described that launch as a nationwide organ rejection.
There was a lot of angst. People were saying things like, How can he risk the chance that Donald Trump could get four more years, with a theory that, we’d like to say it’s untested, but it has been tested several times and failed.

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© Slate