But for both stars, the change is bittersweet: Kotb, 53, is filling the seat left by former colleague and friend Matt Lauer, 59, who was fired by NBC in November after the network received a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior.”
Women have also accused him of sexual harassment and assault in reports published by Variety and The New York Times. In a statement, Lauer — who had been co-anchor for a decade and worked at NBC for 25 years — said, “There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions.”
And on the morning of Nov. 29, it was Guthrie and Kotb, both visibly shaken, tasked with sharing the news with the world.
“I think you could see from the moment that the news happened that our hearts were broken, and in lots of ways, they still are,” Guthrie, 46, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “That feeling was shared through our whole newsroom and our whole Today show staff, because it sounds like cliché or a promo line, but it happens to be true: We are family, and we do love each other, and families do go through hard times, and when that happens in good families, you just get closer. You pull together and you focus on the foundation and what keeps you together. I think that’s what we’ve all been trying to do. And for me, I just am trying to get comfortable with how complicated the feelings around all of it are, and it is complicated. And just trying to have love and compassion for everyone concerned.”
And she’s grateful to have had Kotb —who will continue to host the program’s popular fourth hour with Kathie Lee Gifford — by her side.
“I remember reading something later that said I had grabbed Hoda’s hand, and of course that’s not something you plan,” she says. “That’s just something you do because you have a real friend, and you need to hold her hand.”
Before going on air, Kotb visited her dressing room, where, Guthrie says, “We said a prayer.”
“I won’t forget it. I said to Savannah after that prayer, ‘We’re gonna make it through this together,’ ” Kotb says. “We just sort of sat there and I was sort of on autopilot, I don’t really remember a lot of it, but I do remember just sort of holding onto Savannah and saying it just wasn’t in our hands anymore, it was in God’s hands.”
Now, Kotb says, she feels “a responsibility” to their “incredible staff.”
“We ask how they’re doing, we want them to feel good, we give them hugs,” she says. “Just so they remember this is bigger than one person, it’s bigger than Matt, it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than Savannah, it’s bigger than all of us. So I think Savannah said it right, we just shore up, we get together and we get stronger.”
For more on Hoda and Savannah, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
Despite her promotion, Kotb says she’s not in a celebratory mood.
“I actually have zero of that in me,” she explains. “What I do feel is like I’ve been part of ‘us’ even before today, before it all came to be. I felt really integral to our family and I was part of the group. My chair may be changed, but I feel like I felt before. Part of a strong family.”
As for Lauer?
“We know he’s working on his family, we know that for sure. Of course our hearts go out to the brave women who have told their stories,” Guthrie says. “What we are experiencing and processing now is how to honor and remain a true friend to someone even in spite of learning things that are deeply disturbing. And we are trying to navigate that path with integrity.”