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.
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 listeners, 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.
Nicole Wallace said it best on her show: People are scared. And so we decided we had to make the decision of how we dealt with that. We had discussed with Steve—that given the response, it was probably best if we made it Words Matter with Elise Jordan for the time being. We’d discussed that before.
Pesca: OK, so that was decided before Steve stormed out? I did not know that.
Levine: It wasn’t a permanent thing, it was an, OK, let’s take a pause here.
Pesca: Mmm hmm. But it was decided that Steve would be stepping away from the show before he sat down for that interview?
Levine: Yes. Yes.
Pesca: Do you think it was legitimate for the audience to have those concerns? Because you talk about the perception.
Levine: Absolutely. We weren’t convinced. We’d seen him on Nicole’s show, we’d seen the answers. And we didn’t get it either.
Pesca: Beyond what you think, did he express reluctance to do this interview? Did he express eagerness? What did you know about what his attitude was going into the interview?
Levine: He initially expressed eagerness. Steve would have advised any client or any candidate that he was working for to have done a similar thing, if he could have that platform to do it. I think as the days wore on and the criticism and the reaction was unabated, I think that probably caused him to be a little frustrated.
Pesca: The criticism of Schultz, and therefore the criticism of him and his involvement with Schultz.
Levine: It was both. Look, this was not simply a case of people going after his potential candidate. It was going after him, personally, and he was as much the story in our world.
Pesca: We’re not going to play the entire interview. It was exactly a lot of the back and forth that you described, and it was what we would expect from someone who is advising Howard Schultz. But this is then the ultimate question that set Steve off from the Words Matter podcast:
Levine: Steve, you say [Schultz] wants to have an “adult conversation.” Last week he called a 70 percent tax on incomes over $10 million “ridiculous,” from a United States [senator] who happened to have been elected to something. Now I know you’re a guy of words, Steve, and “ridiculous” means “deserving or inviting derision or mockery, absurd.” Synonyms: Comical, hilarious—we could go on—farcical. Does he really mean that a tax on incomes over $10 million at 70 percent, which is widely popular with the American people, is ridiculous? Is that an adult conversation?
Steve Schmidt: Yeah, I think he thinks it’s ridiculous and it’s confiscatory in that it’s anti-growth. That would be his point.
Levine: Will Derek Jeter or another athlete not hit another home run because they’re gonna get taxed at 70 percent? What’s the economic behavior that he thinks it’s anti-growth? Other than his own pocket.
Schmidt: Adam, this is bullshit. I’m not doing this.
Levine: Steve, you’ve gotta answer the question.
Schmidt: I’m not.
Levine: You’ve got to, Steve.
Schmidt: I’m not.
Pesca: What I heard there was a massive overreaction to a pointed question that was more or less fair. You definitely should be able to answer that question and know that question is coming. And it’s not like you were browbeating him with seven versions of the question ’cause you didn’t like his answer. That was, by far, legitimate questioning.
Levine: I don’t know why he got up. You’d have to ask Steve. But I can tell you what the tension was—we were diving deeper into a policy issue than Steve had had to do for a very long time in his analyst career. In a way that was not necessarily an environment the way we’d set it up, if you’ve listened to the beginning, that was just for idle discourse.
Mike: Right—you weren’t gonna let him get away with platitudes.
Levine: Correct. I wanted to put it into a context where people understand what taxation of 70 percent on the $10 millionth and more dollar was. One of the frustrations that I’d had watching Howard Schultz the first week was that he kept saying 70 percent marginal tax rates. Yes, that’s technically accurate. There are 3,755 people, according to Social Security, who make over $10 million a year. That’s it. Again, according to their calculations.*
Levine: Well, there you go. Howard had been substantively dishonest when he had stated that the Democrats or whoever at that point, he was talking about had proposed taxes that were marginally 70 percent, and then immediately followed that by talking about working people. It suggested to people who are in whatever income category that that was a possibility. And I wanted to clarify specifically that, yes, this was a 70-percent tax, but on a level of income that is one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent.
Pesca: I would say there are good answers to the question that you asked. Are you saying that Steve didn’t have those good answers, and that maybe is one of the reasons why his tactic was to storm out?
Levin: I got the sense from both watching Howard and then sitting with Steve that they had not prepared beyond that level. It was the first level, which is It’s ridiculous, and then the second level, if you asked them, they didn’t really have a good answer. It showed the audience that he didn’t have a response. I mean, Steve Schmidt has never been known to not answer a question in my 15 years of friendship with him.
Pesca: Do you think too much is being placed on the reaction to Schultz? Let’s imagine a world where there was an audience for Schultz being in the race. Would Steve be punished as much in the minds of the listeners?
Levine: I don’t know that, but I do know there’s not a place for somebody who’s being paid by a political campaign to be a host of Words Matter.
Pesca: When he said, “Adam, I’ve had enough of this.” And he used your name, I said to myself, “Maybe there’s some backstory there.” Did you and Steve get along for the length of the show?
Levine: Oh, absolutely. Steve Schmidt’s one of my closest friends. I love him. He’s a great guy, he’s a smart guy. And the only tension, I think, is that from the time we learned on 60 Minutes to the time of that interview, and Steve is a relentless advocate for his positions, that he hadn’t convinced me. I wasn’t buying it. It didn’t ring true to me. I probed a little, I asked if they’d ever polled Howard Schultz’s name. The answer is no. I asked if they knew if he could win the 12 electoral votes for the state of Washington. He didn’t know.
Pesca: By the way, there is a better answer to that, which is, Well, we’d have to win… And you’d name two very purple states, and then here’s our strategy. That would, perhaps, in some people who had an open enough mindset, make them say, OK, more plausible than I thought.
Levine: Give me a path. Exactly. I don’t care what those two purple states are.
But then there is the potential candidate himself. In the first five days he uses the phrase “un-American“ four times. He uses—twice in written, and in the 60 Minutes interview—“silent majority,” which is a loaded term written by Pat Buchanan, another former McLaughlin Group guy, in 1968 for Richard Nixon. He uses both sides, something Donald Trump had said. He calls a woman of color, a United States senator, “un-American,” or says that’s not American—Kamala Harris, Congresswoman [Alexandria Ocasio-]Cortez—after Steve properly denounced birtherism and all the connotations. That alone is disqualifying. Forget if he could even stand a chance against Trump or who he takes votes from, if we care about Words Matter, and Steve Schmidt absolutely does or did, how can you let your candidate or your potential candidate or your name be associated with somebody who calls somebody un-American in that context? I think that’s—I personally, when I take off my trying to look down the center of the field … that’s outrageous.
Pesca: In the couple of weeks that Steve’s been working for the Schultz quasi-campaign, do you think he’s been paid more than in his long association with Words Matter Media?
Pesca: Do you think that might have factored into his decision?
Levine: I try not to go to motivations like that, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have matched that—what Mr. Schultz is paying.
Pesca: Do you think if this was a show that was more based on an established, entrenched ideology, it would have been easier to weather this situation?
Levine: I guess so. I mean, it depends on what the situation was. If Steve had—if we were the center-right and he had gone to work for Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren—
Pesca: I’m thinking of like a Pod Save America host leaves the show because he signed onto the [Minnesota Sen. Amy] Klobuchar campaign or something. It seems like they would just go on without skipping a beat.
Levine: And that’s probably right. And I think that’s probably right, and I don’t think that any listener to Pod Save America would not understand why any host of Pod Save America would go work for Sen. Klobuchar.
Pesca: This is interesting. I think maybe Steve thought of what he was doing as a centrist enterprise or an independent enterprise—and he thinks of Schultz, essentially, as that—and therefore, what’s the big disconnect? Maybe he understands Fine I’m running a campaign, I can’t be hosting the show. But it’s pretty much in keeping with the ethos of the ideals behind it. But you don’t agree?
Levine: No. What I agree with is if Steve had set out to do what he had told us he was going to do, which was explore that third way, not only would that not have been antithetical, as I’ve said, to the mission, it would have been right in line with the mission. I don’t even have a problem getting paid for him to do that, because we all have to get paid in the things that we do.
For me and Elise and for us at Words Matter, it was really an issue that this is a candidacy. There was a desire by some people to, at least initially, sort of just forget about it, put it behind us, and go on.
Pesca: You always wanted to put it out there.
Levine: I never wavered … I wanted to do that, and once I did that and listened to it, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that we had to do it.
I reached out to Steve Schmidt and Elise Jordan. Schmidt said what happened on Words Matter “was more a business dispute than anything else.” He added: “People didn’t hear an evasion. They heard a business dispute break out under the guise of an interview.”
Schmidt also told me that he was surprised to hear that Words Matter Media was Adam Levine’s, and, based on my conversation with Schmidt and Jordan, I will say that they dispute the title I read for Levine, which I just took from the website—founder and CEO of Words Matter Media, and executive producer of the Words Matter podcast.
One last thing: That part where I asked Levine if there was any animosity between he and Schmidt, he said “no, Steve’s one of my closest friends,” I’m not sure the feeling is mutual. That’s me talking. Just the impression I got from Schmidt and Jordan, who say that they will be coming on The Gist soon to talk about this, but really all manner of politics. And it is my intention—we will bring you that interview as soon as we can.
*Correction, Feb. 16, 2019: This article originally misstated the number of Americans earning $10 million a year or more. There are 3,755, not 3,475.