I had the honor once of being kicked out of a Donald Trump news conference. I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer and a security guard threw me out. It happened on Aug. 25, 2015, in Dubuque, Iowa, during Mr. Trump's first presidential campaign.
The news conference revealed with astonishing clarity who Mr. Trump really was: a dangerous populist, an anti-immigrant bully, and a threat to democracy and the free press.
But few were paying attention. As Mr. Trump’s core base of support grew, journalists and politicians began paving his way to the White House. Ignoring that early warning sign in Iowa cost the United States dearly.
My tussle with the president in Iowa can be traced back to the announcement of his presidential campaign a couple months earlier in June, when he called Mexican immigrants criminals and "rapists." Those racist comments were simply unacceptable. So, like any sensible journalist, I wrote to the new candidate and asked him for an interview. However, instead of answering my letter, he posted it on Instagram along with my phone number. As a result, I received hundreds of calls and texts — none of them from Mr. Trump — and I had to change my number.
What I didn't change was my determination to challenge his views on immigration, which led to our clash at the news conference.
Here’s how it all went down in Dubuque. I waited for a pause in Mr. Trump's comments, raised my hand, said I had a question about immigration and stood up to start speaking. Mr. Trump pretended he didn’t see me and pointed to another journalist. But I kept talking. “Sit down!” he ordered me four times. I ignored him. "You haven't been called," Mr. Trump said, "go back to Univision." It was the Trumpian version of the racial slur: "Go back to your country."
Mr. Trump then gestured at a nearby security guard, who walked over to confront me. The guard started pushing me back from Mr. Trump, and eventually I was forced out of the room. As he pushed me out, I told him not to touch me and that I had the right to ask a question. Outside the conference room, one of Mr. Trump's supporters told me to "get out of my country,” not knowing that I was a United States citizen. Hate is contagious.
Of all the reporters who were there, only MSNBC's Kasie Hunt and ABC News's Tom Llamas defended me against Mr. Trump. I was soon allowed to return to the room, where I was finally able to ask Mr. Trump some questions. David Gergen, a longtime presidential adviser, told The New York Times soon after the news conference that my exchange with Mr. Trump was going to be "one of the lasting memories of this campaign.”
After my confrontation with Mr. Trump, several journalists expressed their solidarity with me. And yet, strangely and dangerously, the incident failed to shift the media’s obsessive coverage of Mr. Trump, which over time normalized his rude, abusive and xenophobic behavior. Some members of the press seemed fascinated by the Trump phenomenon; others wrongly thought that he would soon change his ways. The prevailing attitude was something along the lines of "that's just the way Trump is, and we have to cover him no matter what he says.”
Unfortunately, the things that Mr. Trump kept saying were fundamentally against the idea of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He insisted that he would build a border wall between Mexico and the United States — and that Mexico would pay for it. He said he would consider closing mosques in the United States to fight the Islamic State. None of these odious comments, and many others like them, should have been surprising given that the same candidate, back in 2011, falsely claimed on a radio program that then-President Barack Obama "doesn't have a birth certificate.”
Despite Mr. Trump’s behavior, journalists sought constant access to the candidate during the campaign, and the media aired — sometimes without any criticism or context — many of his most mind-boggling comments.
All of which contributed to Mr. Trump’s surprise, poll-defying victory in the 2016 election. And yet the attitudes and behaviors that came to define Mr. Trump as president were already visible in 2015. Several journalists — especially those of us who had worked in Latin America — saw this dynamic clearly and denounced Mr. Trump. Sadly, in Latin America we're used to strongmen and their abuses of power. But it wasn't enough. They didn't listen to us.
At the time, I believed as I still do that the new normal established by Mr. Trump was great for ratings, but not for civility or democracy — and I made this clear publicly. In a 2015 CNN interview, I said that Mr. Trump was "spreading hate." And in a conversation with Terry Gross on NPR that year, I told her that my ejection from Mr. Trump’s news conference was "an attack on the freedom of the press in the United States." If Mr. Trump could attack me, he could attack other journalists. And that’s exactly what he did as president, by calling certain media organizations "the enemy of the people."
In Mr. Trump's convulsive, chaotic four years in the White House, he separated thousands of children from their parents at the border while failing to condemn white supremacy. At the same time, he was able to fill three vacant seats on the Supreme Court with conservative justices, extending his influence over America’s judicial system for many years to come.
But ultimately his presidency was overshadowed by a terrible tragedy: more than 270,000 people dead in the United States and roughly 14 million infected, partly as a result of his irresponsible and erratic handling of the coronavirus.
The United States will never fall prey to tyranny. The nation’s balance of powers has survived quite well for nearly two and a half centuries. And yet the celebrations I saw in the streets of Washington and other American cities after President Trump's defeat last month reminded me so much of what I experienced in Nicaragua in the 1990s after the fall of Sandinismo and in Mexico in the 2000s after the fall of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s "perfect dictatorship," which had lasted 71 years. All were celebrations of unburdening, of something close to revenge — the bully who had dominated public life for so long had finally been forced out. A huge weight had suddenly been lifted from everyone’s shoulders.
We journalists should have been tougher on Mr. Trump, questioning his every lie and insult. We should not have let him get away with his racism and xenophobia. We should never again allow someone to create an alternative reality in order to seize the presidency.
Perhaps it was the pandemic that was most responsible for putting an end to Mr. Trump's divisive and contentious presidency. But the entire debacle might have been avoided if we had simply paid greater attention — and offered more resistance — to the words and gestures of the orange-skinned candidate who descended the golden escalator of Trump Tower in 2015.