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Camerota tried to explain free press to Trump

CNN's Alisyn Camerota met with then-candidate Donald Trump in May of 2016 at Trump Tower and tried to explain the role of the free press. It didn't work.

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 10:59 AM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 11:19 AM

In May of 2016, I went to Trump Tower to meet with then-candidate Donald Trump. The meeting came about after he'd canceled a couple of appearances on "New Day" and I got the impression he was avoiding doing interviews with me. I called his office hoping his longtime personal assistant could shed some light on whether Mr. Trump was upset about something. She told me to give her a week or so to try to figure it out. She called back 20 minutes later. "Mr. Trump would like to see you tomorrow. How's 3 p.m.?"

A few years earlier I'd been regularly interviewing Donald Trump. Back then, I was the host of a morning show on FOX News Channel and Donald Trump was a real estate mogul and reality TV star. FOX producers had given Trump a standing slot every week to come on "FOX & Friends" and broadcast his opinion, usually on how politicians were screwing things up. At the time, Trump claimed to be toying with a presidential run, though few of us thought he'd really do it.

Because Donald Trump wasn't a politician, he seemed unburdened by party messaging, "political correctness" or talking points. He appeared unwedded to any particular ideology, as he borrowed positions from across the political spectrum, cobbling together a platform that was neither Republican nor Democratic, but rather Trumpian.

His segments always drew high ratings, often the highest of the morning. A circular pattern took hold: the producers would book Trump, the ratings would spike, they'd book Trump again. These were not hard-hitting interviews. Because Trump was not a politician -- and because my then-boss Roger Ailes had little interest in holding any Republican's feet to the fire -- we treated Trump as a pundit, letting him pontificate without fact-checking his claims. I tried to challenge his positions, particularly his extreme birther statements, but my challenges didn't stop him from continuing to make outrageous claims, or stop the producers from continuing to book him.

By May of 2016, everything was different. By then, I was the anchor of CNN's morning news program, "New Day," and Donald Trump was a presidential candidate. At CNN, we didn't let candidates' claims go unchecked. So, for example, in an interview with me, when Trump claimed he had never expressed disapproval about the United States going into Afghanistan, I had to correct him. He had called the US invasion into Afghanistan a mistake. On the air, I read his own words to him, verbatim. He claimed, despite my having the transcript, that he'd never said it.

On the afternoon I arrived at Trump Tower for our meeting, I didn't know why Donald Trump was no longer agreeing to be interviewed by me. I thought, perhaps, there had been a misunderstanding. I wanted to know what was keeping him from coming on our program and, if possible, resolve it.

I was greeted by his receptionist, who told me Mr. Trump was in the middle of something, and it might be awhile. No sooner did I take a seat in the waiting area than his assistant appeared at my side and said, "He's ready for you now."

I entered Mr. Trump's big corner office to find him in the middle of lunch at his desk. He got up to greet me, extended his arms and offered a hug, the same greeting he'd given me several times at FOX. He told me that he'd been tempted to make me wait in the lobby while he finished his lunch, but then thought, "What the hell? It's just Alisyn."

We exchanged pleasantries, mostly about his surprise at how handily he was vanquishing the GOP field. Then he got to the point. He told me that he'd been very happy for me when I got the job at CNN. "So proud of you," was how he put it. But now he felt I was "being mean" to him. "How so?" I wanted to know. "You just say mean things about me all the time," he claimed. "And I think to myself, what happened to her? It's like you bait people to say mean things about me," he said.

"How? When?" I wanted to know. He could offer no examples. He just felt that way.

That's when I realized a tutorial on the free press might be necessary. I explained to him that the rules had changed. He was now a presidential candidate and I was now the anchor of a news program at a news network, rather than simply a morning show host who didn't have to follow journalistic standards.

"Now it is my job to point out the hypocrisy of elected officials and/or candidates. I'm tasked with highlighting discrepancies in the public statements and promises of candidates." I leaned forward across his desk to try to impress my points on him. "It's the duty of journalists to be watchdogs of government, not lapdogs. That's our job. I understand you may prefer a fluffy feature piece, but this is the big leagues and the ballgame has changed."

I paused, hoping my words had sunk in. "But you're so mean to me now," he repeated. At that point, his phone rang and he put his son on speakerphone, telling him to say hi to me. I took it as my cue to wrap up.

Our meeting ended with Mr. Trump taking my cellphone number, promising to call me when he had time for an on-camera interview. But I knew that was not likely. I knew that as long as I stuck to the rules of journalism, my access to the future president would evaporate.

I've thought a lot about that meeting this past week. I thought of Mr. Trump feeling wounded by words he considered mean, even as I listened to him again insult CNN, even after our mailroom had received an explosive device, allegedly from one of his unhinged supporters. And when, at a political rally, Mr. Trump again reveled in nasty chants from the crowd about Hillary Clinton, even after she'd been the target of a pipe bomb.

I could never have predicted at that Trump Tower meeting that we'd find ourselves here, with the President of the United States blaming the press, while taking no responsibility for the toxic tone of the rhetoric. I could never have predicted that at the end of a bloody and tragic week, a US President would claim that hurtful words matter only when he's on the receiving end, not when he delivers them. I would never have believed that the most powerful man in the world would think his own words have no power.

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