A jolt went through Washington when the news broke just before noon on Jan. 26 that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer would retire at the end of the current term. But there was little surprise when it was revealed who had the scoop: NBC News correspondent Pete Williams.
Since joining the network in 1993, the Justice Department and Supreme Court reporter has distinguished himself as one of the best on the beat, lending deep inside sourcing and a steady on-camera presence to the coverage of some of the most momentous legal developments in recent history – such as the court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act in 2012.
After nearly three decades at the network, Williams, 70, has decided to retire at the end of July, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim announced to employees Thursday morning.
His departure will mark the end of an unusual Washington career trajectory. Williams, a former local TV news reporter, first came to national prominence as a Pentagon spokesman under President George H.W. Bush – the rare journalist to join the administration and then return to hard-news reporting.
The move was a little controversial at the time: Some journalists had criticized him for the Pentagon’s limitations on press access to cover the Gulf War. “Can we count on Pete Williams of NBC News to have a similar dedication to the truth?” journalism professor Jacqueline Sharkey asked in a 1993 opinion piece published in The Washington Post. “His past performance is not encouraging.”
He ended up proving skeptics wrong. “I think Pete Williams has had one of the greatest careers at NBC News and one of the greatest careers in broadcast journalism in the past several decades,” Oppenheim told The Washington Post. “There is no way we can ever fill Pete’s shoes, certainly not with any particular reporter.”
NBC did not make Williams available for an interview for this story.
Andrea Mitchell, an NBC News colleague and close friend, met Williams while covering the Pentagon on pool duty. She and her husband often socialize with Williams and his partner, David, when they’re off-the-clock. “He is simply superb, as a human being, as a journalist, as a friend, and as a colleague,” she said. “He combines a wonderful sense of humor and a great sense of humanity with tireless, careful, fact-perfect journalism.”
Mitchell also praised Williams as “down-the-middle” and said that even his close friends don’t know what his politics are. “If you call people at the Court or the F.B.I. or the D.O.J., in Republican and Democratic administrations, they would all say he is the most fair and the most honest and reliable and genuinely nice person,” she said.
While Oppenheim praised Williams as “dispassionate” in his reporting, his personal closeness to some of the judges on the highest court in the land has lent a personal resonance to his coverage. In September 2020, Williams choked up when reporting on the funeral for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon.
He is also close with Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican, dating back to their roots in Wyoming, where Williams was born and Barrasso is the senior senator. While Williams worked for a local television station in Wyoming after college, he encouraged Barrasso, then working as an orthopedic surgeon, to contribute to health reports on the station, KTWO-TV. They’ve been friends ever since, though Barrasso said “he is a news reporter first.”
“This guy was a mature, experienced, trusted voice for news in Wyoming when he was still in his 20s,” Barrasso said in an interview. “He could have been the governor. He could have been the senator. He was capable of doing anything he would have wanted, and he was very, very well-liked.”
Williams left Wyoming for Washington in 1986 to take a job working for Dick Cheney, then Wyoming’s representative in the House of Representatives. When Cheney became Bush’s secretary of defense, Williams followed him to the Pentagon, where the New York Times noted “his ability to glide in and out of tough questions,” while dinging him for “[defending] restrictions on journalists” covering the war. In 1991, journalist and gay rights advocate Michelangelo Signorile published a story outing Williams as gay, to highlight the hypocrisy of the military’s then-ban on gay service members. Williams and his superiors brushed it off. “I refuse to give it more credit than it deserves,” he said in 1993.
In a statement this week, Cheney called Williams “a dear friend” and added that, “While he will be missed on air, I wish him well as he heads into retirement and thank him for being an example to all journalists on how to do the job fairly and responsibly.”
At NBC, Williams covered major breaking news stories, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and was praised for his caution in identifying the perpetrators – “clear, careful, accurate reporting in a sea of media confusion,” the Atlantic noted.
Oppenheim said NBC News would love to get three more decades of work from Williams. But “after 30 years of being the best in class, Pete has more than earned the right to spend the next chapter doing whatever brings him joy.”
That will include more uninterrupted time hiking in the Teton Range mountains in Wyoming, where Mitchell said he could always be “instantly” reached by colleagues for a quick interpretation of a news development and necessary context. “I will miss Pete more than anything,” she said, “He’s going to have a really great time having more flexibility and not having to cancel vacations.”
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