MIAMI – Last week, when Donald Trump was arraigned on 37 criminal charges of retaining secret documents at his Mar-A-Lago home, hundreds of his backers turned up to support him at the federal courthouse when he arrived. There were more journalists than protesters, but their shouts of indignation were loud.
Miami’s city police and government made the decision to not separate protesters from journalists with metal barriers or officers. The idea, Mayor Francis Suarez said, was to avoid limiting freedom of expression for everyone. That meant Trump supporters could harass the reporters, wave signs saying “Fake News” or “Trump 2024” and even use megaphones to insult reporters, their perceived enemies, before TV cameras for the whole world to see.
The result was to be expected: It turned into a jungle.
They had the right to protest. But journalists like me have the right and the duty to inform and tell the truth. And that often puts us on opposite sides. No matter.
Our two obligations as journalists are to question those in power and to report reality, just as it is. And the reality is that for the first time in history, there is a former president and presidential hopeful who stands accused of breaking the law by keeping dozens of boxes of classified documents on nuclear and military issues. He claims he had the right to take the documents, and that the charges against him amount to “electoral interference.” What’s more, Trump faces New York state charges of falsifying documents in order to hide an affair with an actress, which he denies. And recently he was found “responsible” for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll in the fitting room of a New York store. He claims he doesn’t know her.
Those are facts.
But there’s more. Trump made racist comments in 2015, when he branded Mexican migrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” When he was president, he cruelly separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. And he lied or made false statements 30,573 times while serving as president, according to a tally kept by the Washington Post.
That is information that journalists cannot hide. In fact we have the obligation to repeat it, again and again, every time we report on Trump. For example, when the former president, after he was arrested, released and left the courthouse in Miami, went to a campaign event at the famed Versaille restaurant in Little Havana.
Many TV stations, including the one where I work, broadcast live that campaign stop by the presidential candidate before he headed to the airport. But it would have been a grave journalistic mistake to broadcast only his claims of innocence and not the fact that he had just been charged with criminal felonies in a federal court. And that he has a long history of facing accusations and investigations. It’s not enough to report that he did not taste the explosive Cuban coffee.
Trump is not a normal candidate or former president.
That’s why every time he claims he won the last presidential election but lost because of fraud, it is necessary to report that’s not true and that he clearly lost the electoral college vote as well as the popular vote. A large majority of Republicans continue to believe Trump’s “Big Lie.” And they can continue to believe whatever they want. But journalists must report that Trump is lying and that those lies can put U.S. democracy at risk. We cannot repeat our mistakes during the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, when the news media gave Trump too many hours and pages of coverage without challenging what he said.
Trump is not easy to deal with. He projects an aura of supreme power and normally responds to criticism with insults and a show of force. When I confronted him at a news conference in Dubuque, Iowa in 2015, he had his bodyguards remove me from the room instead of answering my questions about immigration. He cannot stand to be challenged. And his worst fear is encountering someone who does not respond to his intimidation. That’s why journalists have no choice but to face off against him.
And that’s why the recent Trump town hall on CNN was a bust. The mistake was not just filling the audience with Trump supporters. The format put the host in an impossible position and gave Trump all the advantages. The lion got lose. Looking back, it’s clear he should have been stopped, interrupted and corrected every time he said something false – even if he became angry, even if the audience roared, even if it threatened to leave, even if the broadcast had to be interrupted. That is what journalists do.
“Truth is not neutral,” journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame told CNN in 2021. “Donald Trump is a serial liar, like I called him awhile back. And I hope it doesn’t look like I am prejudiced, because that’s how he’s viewed by the majority of Republicans in the Senate. We have to do a better job explaining to our readers and our audience what we do and why we do it.”
I have tried here to explain why I question Trump so much. And why we have to continue doing this, with determination and discipline. We have to report on him. After all, he is an influential former president, leads the polls on Republican presidential hopefuls and could return to the White House. But we cannot allow him to impose his agenda over our obligation to ask him uncomfortable questions.
If, in the end, despite everything we know about Trump, he wins the next presidential election, we will have to respect the result and the decision of the majority. But our job as journalists is to question him constantly, so that people and voters see Trump as he is, not like he wants us to see him.