Journalist Jon Sopel is unafraid to stand up to Donald Trump’s administration - but admits the president has been the “gift that keeps on giving” for the media. Chris Burn reports.
As the BBC’s North America editor for the past five years and someone who prides himself on calling stories as he sees them, Jon Sopel is honest enough to admit that the extraordinary presidency of Donald Trump has been good for business.
Talking over the phone from London as he prepares for the launch of his second book about Trump and his impact on America ahead of a speaking tour around the UK, including a date in Sheffield this week, Sopel says the unique and unpredictable nature of the president has been beneficial for his career.
“If Hillary Clinton had won the election I would still have been on television but I have just written a second book in five years and they want a third book,” he says. “He is the gift that keeps on giving journalistically. On the one hand you have the abuse and the ‘fake news’ accusations but on the other you have the best story ever. It would have been very predictable if Hillary Clinton was the president and I don’t think I would have written a book.”
Sopel says despite his frequent condemnation of the media, Trump has helped the industry to a large extent in America because the interest in him is increasing demand for news.
“He has revitalised the news media. Journalism is going through a purple patch,” he says
“There will be a feeling if he lost in 2020 of ‘What are we going to do?’ In American news teams, there will be lay-offs. There is such fascination with him.”
Sopel was appointed as North America editor in 2014, having previously been Paris correspondent and hosted Newsnight and The Politics Show. He freely admits he did not anticipate the rise of Trump when he began his tenure in Washington DC.
“If I had gone for the job interview in 2014 and said I think Donald Trump is going to be the next president, I would not have got the job,” he says, adding that it was a development almost no one saw coming.
Trump, who had previously floated the idea of running for president to widespread mockery, infamously launched his election campaign in June 2015 by declaring that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the US and promising to build a wall between the two countries that Mexico would pay for.
Sopel says it did not take him long to understand that Trump was a serious contender for the presidency after attending one of his rallies a few months later.
“I think the realisation came for me was after he launched his campaign in June 2015, in August 2015 I went to a rally he was giving in Dallas, Texas in a huge basketball stadium which seats about 18,000 to 20,000 people,” Sopel recalls.
“It was packed 16 months before an election. There were people wearing uniforms and costumes with Trump insignia. I thought, holy moly, what is going on here? I would go to Hillary Clinton rallies and there would be next to nobody selling t-shirts, banners or scarves. But at the Trump events there was a roaring trade.
“There was no enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton but there was massive enthusiasm for Donald Trump.”
He says that as things stand now, with the US economy performing well, “you would have to be a mad person to bet against Donald Trump winning re-election” in 2020.
But Sopel adds that such an outcome is by no means definite, especially given his margin of victory in the key swing states in the last election.
“A lot of the people who were saying he couldn’t win in 2016 now say he can’t lose in 2020. But they were wrong in 2016 and could be wrong in 2020. Trump’s path to victory is tight. If you get a Democrat who can turn around the Rust Belt states, it could very easily be the case that he will lose.
“But at the moment, America is at peace, troops are coming back and with the way the economy is going, there is every chance he will win.”
He says attending Trump rallies as a journalist can be an intense experience, with the President regularly taking the opportunity to lambast the media - resulting in his supporters chanting and jeering the journalists in attendance. In February, a BBC cameraman called Ron Skeans was violently pushed and shoved by a Trump supporter while filming at a rally in El Paso.
Sopel says: “All he was doing was filming the President speaking.”
He says that security is now required for the media at Trump rallies as the President riles up his supporters.
“For the most part, it is good humoured. It is almost part of his greatest hits - if Donald Trump didn’t turn around and have a go at the press and say ‘fake news’, ‘liars’ and ‘they make it all up’, the crowd would be disappointed.
“But occasionally we have been jostled and spat at and that’s horrible. The last one I went to in Orlando, they didn’t let the media out while the public were still leaving because they thought we might get attacked.”
Sopel adds: “I have never felt in my life that journalism was so challenging but so important. It is simultaneously both. Many people are willing to believe anything and you have to be quite bold in your journalism today. If somebody says something is x and you know it is y, you have got to say so.”
In a recent example of exactly that, Sopel found himself arguing with Melania Trump’s communications director Stephanie Grisham after he reported that the president had inaccurately claimed he had predicted the Brexit result during a visit to Scotland when in fact he had arrived in the UK on the day after the vote, when the outcome was already known. He was able to prove his report was accurate by digging out the presidential flight schedule and a tweet from Trump from June 24 2016, saying he’d just arrived in Scotland.
But Sopel adds that he is also unafraid to praise the president - citing his decision to pursue talks with North Korea that have reduced tensions between the two nations.
“That was a bold move and I said so on television. It is your job to call it as you see it.”
He says that the BBC’s commitment to impartiality is an advantage in America, where news channels tend to take clear political stances.
“It is a fantastic opportunity for us. He is often presented as either an angel or a devil and there is no much in-between the two.”
Sopel did interview Barack Obama when he was president and says while Trump is less likely to give one-to-one interviews, he does still engage with the press.
“It is different. The only sit down interview with a non-American he has done is with Piers Morgan because they were mates. You don’t get formal news conferences but he loves being on TV and he stops and answers a hell of a lot of questions.”
Sopel won’t get drawn on whether he personally thinks Trump has been positive for America. “It is not for me to say if he is good or bad.”
But he gives an indication of the political divide in the US by citing a recent talk he gave on an ocean liner in front of about 1,200 guests with around one-third of the audience being American. He says when he asked for a show of hands, the audience was fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democratic voters - and not one from either side regretted the way they had voted in 2016.
He says there is now a similarly hardening divide in the UK over Brexit as both sides becoming increasingly entrenched. But he says there is a greater level of the unanticipated when it comes to covering Trump, such as his recent attempt to buy Greenland and the bizarre row over whether Hurricane Dorian was threatening Alabama where the president had displayed a map of its course altered with a marker pen to back up his disputed claims.
“It is just the ridiculousness of it all, there isn’t the same ridiculousness with Brexit. Brexit is a single issue that is tearing people apart and people are now defining themselves by whether they are pro or anti-Brexit.
“America is quite insular because it is so vast and so much happens - there is so much violent weather and so much gun violence that they are the staples of American news.
“So many times Americans come up to me and say ‘You must think our politics is so dysfunctional’ and I ask if they have seen what is happening in the UK. America and the US seem to be locked in a battle for the craziest politics of the moment and it is anyone’s guess who will come out on top.”
Sopel says the public fascination with Trump is because he is “out of the mould”.
“In 2016, everybody thought the presidency would change Donald Trump, instead he has changed the presidency. He is unpredictable and that is fantastic in the news business because you don’t know what is going to happen next. He does things that by conventional political standards would be considered extraordinary.”
He adds that despite the challenges of reporting on the volatile world leader, it has been a privilege to follow the story of his time in office.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
How Obama spared Jon’s blushes
Sopel says despite his extensive experience as a journalist, asking questions of a president can be daunting.
“I have got nervous energy. If you are asking the President something, you want to ask the right question, an intelligent question and you don’t want to mess it up.
“When I interviewed Obama, I asked the first question at about 400 miles an hour. I said ‘Can we do it again?’ and Obama said ‘Let’s take a breath as I have got something in my eye’. He didn’t have anything in his eye but he spared my blushes.”
Jon Sopel’s A Year at the Circus: Inside Trump’s White House (BBC Books, £20) is out now. He will be at Sheffield City Hall on Thursday September 19 from 7:30pm. Tickets from penguin.co.uk/events.