Kathie Lee Gifford Says She's Still Close with Matt Lauer: 'That's What Friendship Means to Me'

"I've been through very, very hard times in my life and I saw my friends drop away because they weren't my friends," she says

Kathie Lee Gifford is getting candid about her friendship with Matt Lauer, one year after he was fired from the Today show over allegations of sexual misconduct.

“I was texting him last week and praying for him this morning. That’s what a friendship means to me,” Gifford says in the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. “I’ve been through very, very hard times in my life and I saw my friends drop away because they weren’t my friends. Times like that test the mettle of friendships. The Matt I love is the Matt I still do.”

In the year since the scandal, Lauer has retreated from the spotlight, lying low at the Hamptons compound he shares with his family, as he and his wife Annette Roque work out the terms of a reported $20 million divorce.

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“He made mistakes and he paid dearly for them. But I believe in second, third and 100 chances,” Gifford says. “I believe in redemption because Jesus did. And it’s not for me to judge any choices he made. That’s between him, his wife and his God. My job is to be his friend and be there for him. He’s found out who his real friends are.”

As the Today show dealt with the aftermath of the scandal in 2017, Gifford made the decision to delay her planned departure from the show.

“It was a really calculated decision two years ago when I first gave my notice to my bosses here at NBC and said, ‘you guys I have to go. It’s time,'” Gifford recalls. With a desire to write and produce Christian movies and films, “I realized, there are dreams that I’ve had since I was a little girl, and the worst thing that could happen is if I wake up and I go, ‘I ran out of time,'” she says. “Because we all do.”

But when Lauer abruptly left the show, and Gifford’s 10 o’clock hour co-host Hoda Kotb was promoted to co-anchor, Gifford agreed to stay on an extra year while juggling her projects in development.

Kathie Lee Gifford. Brian Doben

“The executive producer came to me and said, ‘Kathie, because of what had happened with our friend Matt, would you mind staying? Reconsider, stay,'” she recalls. “And so I said, ‘you know what? Yes, of course I will. I want to help you guys.'”

“We’d had a lot of turmoil here,” Gifford continues. “I wanted the transition to be smooth and I wanted to show the business how you can do it. I didn’t leave anybody in the lurch.”

  • For more from Kathie Lee Gifford, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Perry Hagopian

“Kathie Lee is an incredible team player and she is one of the most loyal people ever,” says Kotb. “She stayed during the hugely tumultuous time. But she loves this place. She stayed for all the right reasons.”

With veteran Today contributor (and former first daughter) Jenna Bush Hager, 37, set to step in alongside Kotb as co-host of the fourth hour, Gifford says she’s pleased the transition has been so smooth. And she’s confident her successor will do well in the hot seat. “We’ve watched her grow,” Gifford says of Hager. “And Hoda and I both have been just in awe of how she has learned to trust her instincts.”

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