Donald Trump has made this “the most challenging time to be a journalist in America,” Jon Sopel tells me.
As the BBC’s North America Editor covering the 45th President, Sopel walks the most precarious of tightropes and thinks he is doing it well. But other journalists, he fears, are doing exactly what the media-hating president wants.
He didn’t baulk when it was his turn to be the reporter the president was berating. “Here’s another beauty,” Trump sneered from the podium of a remarkable February press conference, after hearing where Sopel worked.
Sopel smiled, congratulated him on a “good line” and, after more bizarre back and forth, asked Trump whether his chaotic order to ban citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the US reflected “the smooth running of government” his one-month-old presidency had supposedly ushered in.
Sopel calls this his “very British” way to “firmly stand my ground”. It epitomised the approach he advocates for covering Trump. He says the president’s erratic aggression and falsehoods challenge journalists, but thinks many of his rivals are responding the wrong way.
Sopel singles out how CNN covered Trump’s Phoenix rally last month, in which the president famously spent more time talking about his mistreatment by the media than condemning white supremacists over the deadly Charlottesville protests.
Trump also used the rally to blame the media for being “dishonest” about his comments in the wake of the violence, by reading out what he claimed to have said about neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the time. But in doing so he notably omitted the phrase “on many sides,” which he used to describe groups inciting violence in Charlottesville.
Cut to CNN host Don Lemon. “I’m just gonna speak right from the heart,” the anchor said, accusing the “unhinged” president of “lying directly to the American people” with a “total eclipse of the facts”. The clip promptly went viral.
“I laughed,” Sopel says of Lemon’s diatribe before pausing. “And I thought ‘that’s terrible’... It’s not our purpose to have a view on (whether) someone’s unhinged or not...
“As soon as you’ve got one of the news anchors from a supposedly impartial news organisation saying ‘he’s unhinged. He’s a national embarrassment’, you’re taking a view.
“I don’t think any good comes of that.”
Trump defines the media as his opposition and “would love” them to think of themselves that way, Sopel says, warning some outlets already are.
“We are not the opposition. We are journalists holding power to account, talking truth to power, however you want to phrase it. I think some of the American networks have tipped into thinking they are the opposition to Donald Trump and I think that’s wrong. We should be polite and if Trump wants to shout at us and call us liars, that’s fine. I’m not going to take offence at that.”
This is not what Sopel was expecting. The 58-year-old moved to Washington in 2014 with his wife to take up one of the BBC’s most prestigious postings, after covering British politics and working as the Paris correspondent.
“To say politics is different now is an understatement”
He expected to be covering Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush in the 2016 election: two dynasties that have dominated American politics for decades clashing again for its ultimate prize.
In the more conventional days of 2015, Sopel scored a big win when he interviewed Barack Obama. After protracted negotiation, Sopel sat down with the 44th president in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, the Secret Service accommodating his and his film crew’s every need. Afterwards, Obama invited Sopel into the Rose Garden and asked his team to have a group photo.
Sopel contrasts “charming, gracious” Obama, who was “a delight to deal with”, with the confrontational relationship that exists between the Trump White House and the press.
“To say politics is different now is an understatement,” he adds, as we sit at Caffe Nero outside Broadcasting House, headquarters of the world’s largest broadcaster.
Sopel first wanted to write the book as he saw the rising anger during the presidential primaries. Bush burned out early and the man no one expected to even run was now the Republican frontrunner. Sopel secured his book deal on June 23, 2016 and boarded a flight to accompany then-candidate Trump to Scotland.
When he took off, David Cameron was prime minister, Sterling was strong against the Dollar and bookies were 90% sure Britain had just voted to remain in the EU. He turned his phone on after landing in Glasgow to find all that had changed.
There followed a press conference where Trump took question after question, his hatred of the press temporarily diminished. Sopel thinks it a was “lightbulb” moment for the future president.
“He thought: ‘If conservative, stayed, stolid Britain could do something as extraordinary as vote for Brexit, surely the American people can vote for me’,” he says.
Sopel is briefly in Britain to promote If Only They Didn’t Speak English. The title is something the BBC’s Washington bureau chief said - our common language makes it harder to explain how foreign America actually is. The book sets out the ways Americans are different, from their partisan media diet to their perpetual, energetic patriotism.
The dust jacket has a glowing quote from Bill Bryson and the now infamous “another beauty” jeer from Trump. “I don’t think he much loves the BBC,” Sopel says, possibly stating the obvious.
“It’s exhausting. It’s 24/7, it’s non-stop... Every day there’s a new sacking, a new controversy”
Sopel’s first direct contact with Trump was when he doorstepped him in Dallas in his campaign’s opening weeks. He reported how a rally there defied the wide expectation the Trump Train would fizzle out.
At that infamous February press conference, Sopel watched Trump rave, make outlandish claims and cut journalists off. “I thought if he comes at me, I’m not going to ignore it,” Sopel says. Trump mostly jeered as Sopel tried to speak, comparing the BBC to his much-hated CNN. It was Sopel who eventually dismissed the “banter back and forth” to get his question out, which sent Trump on another rant.
Sopel joked he’d put “another beauty” on his business card. Someone started selling t-shirts to commemorate the event.
Seven months later, Sopel has not yet won a sit-down interview with Trump. Their only direct interaction since February was when Sopel asked the Nato Secretary-General about European members spending more on defence. “I like that question,” Trump said. “I’m here to help,” Sopel joked before continuing with a question on Syria.
Trump has changed Sopel’s working life. Before, he would leave Washington several days a week to cover stories. After the Charlottesville tragedy last month, he went to Leesburg, Virginia to report on its controversial Confederate statue.
Besides one trip to Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago estate, it was Sopel’s first time travelling elsewhere in America for a story since the inauguration in January.
“The BBC don’t want me to leave Washington because you need to be where the president is... because God knows what might happen next,” Sopel says.
“That thing of travelling to middle America and going to Youngstown or wherever, it just wasn’t possible.” This is quite an irony: The people who felt ignored by the establishment and helped put Trump in the White House are now less of a focus for the BBC because of it.
When Obama used to go on holiday, Sopel would think: “This is a time to recharge my batteries.” He thought the same when Trump went holiday in July but then the president hired Anthony Scaramucci and “it all went crazy”.
Scaramucci got a job at the White House, told the world his colleague Steve Bannon was “trying to suck his own cock” and got fired, all within 10 days in July. “It’s exhausting. It’s 24/7, it’s non-stop... Every day there’s a new sacking, a new controversy,” Sopel says, adding his work-life balance is now “chaotic”.
American cable news has taken to fact-checking his statements live as as he made them to avoid implying his more obvious falsehoods were true.
As a BBC reporter, Sopel is under more scrutiny than other British broadcasters who are obliged to be impartial. But he says the BBC has also “changed its game” on covering Trump.
Sopel was among the reporters called to the White House to be condemned by Press Secretary Sean Spicer for saying that the crowds on inauguration day were not the largest ever. Sopel thought about his choice of words, checked with his colleague, the bureau chief, and did a piece to camera saying Spicer’s claim was “demonstrably untrue”.
“There was a very conscious decision taken by me and the bureau chief. If we saw untruth, we were going to say ‘no, that is not true’... We’re going to lose the trust of our audience if we start excusing things... That becomes the new normal...
“To Pro-Trump people, it looks like we’re being anti-Trump. I don’t believe it is.”
Sopel adds he “will hold up”. “If Trump says that three million people voted illegally or that Barack Obama has wiretapped Trump Tower or that he had the biggest crowd on inauguration day that anyone has ever had, I think we must point out: That’s not right...
“It’s too easy for us to report politics as ‘on the one hand, and on the other’...
“I think there is a time when that is cowardice. It’s like we don’t want to see what’s before our very eyes and I think, if we are cowards about it and weak, that doesn’t serve democracy.”
“I find it difficult enough to do my job, without starting trying to diagnose mental health conditions about the president of the United States”
Another thing he says is wrong is the growing temptation among commentators to attribute Trump’s behaviour to mental health problems. Some publications have done this with gusto. Sopel angrily dismisses doctors who have got in touch saying he must speculate about this in his reporting.
“I’ve written back and very politely and said: ‘I’m a journalist. I find it difficult enough to do my job, without starting trying to diagnose mental health conditions about the president of the United States’.
“I hate all that stuff about people saying ‘he’s this or he’s that’. Wrong. Not our job.”
What Sopel does think a one-on-one interview with Trump would be like? “Extraordinary,” he says. He recounts how a newspaper colleague did one that was chaos. No one knew it would happen until the last minute or whether it was on the record.
When it went ahead, 30 people were in the room, including all the senior figures up to the chief of staff. “That’s not an efficient use of manpower,” Sopel says. “Everyone wants to be in the room with the president so that they have his ear.”
For all the noble talk of broadcasters’ role in holding Trump to account, some feel they should shoulder the blame for, however unintentionally, amplifying his message. Sopel calls this “one of the great ironies”.
The president hates CNN and MSNBC but their coverage “made him”, Sopel says, adding Trump turned normally stale events like primary debates into “huge cash cows” for broadcasters because he was so unpredictable.
But what is the BBC’s defence given it has no commercial incentive for doing that? “There were days when he was in a spat with the pope. Which candidates in any other election have a spat with the pope?” Sopel exclaims.
Sopel dismisses how some Washington insiders have urged him not take Trump’s words “too seriously”. “Words matter... When you’re in Government you’re firing with live ammunition,” he adds.
He lists the turmoil of the White House and Trump’s statements: warning North Korea of “fire and fury” and casually suggesting police officers rough up suspects. “I look at the drama of the past four weeks and everything that’s happened I think - how could you not cover it?”
But, I ask, how do you do that without amplifying and helping Trump? “It’s not our job to think of it in those terms because that’s the path to becoming the opposition or a cheerleader.”
“Words matter... When you’re in Government you’re firing with live ammunition”
Sopel thinks a whole book could be written about the summer Trump just had. But it isn’t this book: It happened past his copy deadline. The comic absurdity of Scaramucci and dark fallout from Charlottesville aren’t in If Only They Didn’t Speak English.
Since finishing it, he has rushed to make changes when things happened he had to include. He says writing a book about Trump is like “trying to service a car that was moving at 40mph”.
I ask when he will revisit the subject. He suggests the subsequent paperback edition could be a time to update and reflect on all the crazy things that will no doubt happen in the next few months. For now, he’s focussing on covering Trump for his day job, promoting the book as is and resisting any temptation to update it after every latest thing.
“Otherwise, you would go mad.”
If Only They Didn’t Speak English - Notes from Trump’s America, published by BBC Books, is out now