Jonathan Lemire Interview: The Long Game of Trump's Big Lie
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Jonathan Lemire is the host of the morning news show Way Too Early on MSNBC and a regular on Morning Joe, as well as a frequent guest on Deadline White House with Nicolle Wallace and The 11th Hour with Brian Williams. He is also the White House bureau chief for Politico.
Lemire’s first book, The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020, releases July 26, 2022. It is a probing and illuminating analysis of the current state of American politics, focusing on Donald Trump’s lie about election fraud. The big lie, as it’s been named, isn’t just about the 2020 election. It has become a political philosophy that has only further divided the two parties, and this is the first book to examine this unprecedented and tenuous moment in our nation’s politics.
"We’re a nation right now that can’t agree on the same set of facts. We’re a nation that is really siloed in different media environments."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jonathan, The Big Lie is a great read and a look back on an important time in history. For those who don’t know, explain what the big lie is and why it was so important to write about it now.
Jonathan Lemire: Appreciate that, and thanks for having me. The big lie has become the name for former president Trump’s false assertion of election fraud pertaining to the 2020 presidential election and his basic claim that he, in fact, had won as opposed to Joe Biden. That, of course, was not true. There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud, but it is a myth he perpetuated in the days after the elction.
What this book examines is that Trump actually planted the seeds years and years before. In fact, I trace it to an otherwise nondescript campaign rally he held in August of 2016, in preparation for had he lost that Fall, which of course, he did not. What the book traces is how he hijacked the Republican Party and the conservative media to go along with that big lie, which he then, of course, accelerated after election day in 2020. It, in many ways, culminated in what we saw in the insurrection of the Capitol on January 6th. But that doesn’t end the story, and the book continues and shows how that big lie, how that claim of voter fraud, still defines our politics today up until here we are in the middle of 2022.
So the book traces all that and shows how both parties, Republicans and Democrats, are dealing with it. It was time for me to write it now because Donald Trump very much is still part of our political hubris making noise about declaring a candidacy for president again in 2024. But even short of that, candidates who endorsed the big lie are running for office this year. There are Republican state legislators who are trying to rig the system to make it easier to pick their favorite candidates and defy the will of the people perhaps in elections, and this is something the Biden White House is dealing with as well in its fight, to this point in its unsuccessful fight, to preserve voting rights on a federal level.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The big lie is not to be confused with the thousands of lies told during the Trump administration. As a journalist, did you ever get used to the falsehoods?
Jonathan Lemire: We all had to adjust. The book shows that the thousands of lies, and you’re right, there were thousands of lies that he told, big and small, were sometimes over nonsense just to cover a mistake as silly as an erroneous tweet about a hurricane that was threatening the Gulf Coast that would soften the ground for the big one. He got people to go along with it. He convinced his supporters to not trust the media or institutions and rather only to believe him, saying they were all out to get him.
So that’s why it’s so important to tell the story of some other lies leading up to the big one. But as a journalist, it was difficult. We all had to adjust. We’re used to, of course, being skeptical receivers of messages from elected officials from government. But there’s always the belief that even if they’re trying to spin you, it has an element of fact to it normally, and that was not always the case here.
We learned, and I worked the Associated Press for a long time before moving over to Politico and this encompasses my time at MSNBS as well, that you couldn’t just take official government statements at face value. You couldn’t just repeat what the president of the United States says without providing the necessary context to call it out as a lie when it was.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I remember the hurricane controversy when Donald Trump mentioned the states that would likely be impacted by the storm, and he incorrectly included Alabama.
Jonathan Lemire: Yes, you are right. That’s what it was. He had made a mistake in a tweet saying that the hurricane was going to threaten Alabama, and that was not the case. He drew with a sharpie a little thing on a map. But more dangerously, the government agencies went back and revised it. They almost reverse engineered it to prove that he was right. So that’s another reason why, on one hand, it seems like a relatively harmless lie, but it actually was foreboding in terms of how he would use the levers of government to try and back up what he was asserting.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did you feel when Donald Trump called you a sleazebag?
Jonathan Lemire: It was in the aftermath of the release of the Access Hollywood tapes in which he is caught on tape boasting about committing sexual assault. So this was October of 2016, and for that first weekend, there was some real talk that he might drop out of the race. Then you’ll recall, it was the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton that he pulled that stunt of showing up with the four women who had accused either Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct or Hillary Clinton of attacking them.
It was the most startling moment of a shocking campaign, and it sort of changed the conversation and allowed Trump to regain his footing. In that time, he refused to have any sort of small events where reporters could ask questions. It was a solid week or so later before he finally did. We were in Florida, and I took it upon myself when he was done with his little event to try and ask if indeed he had ever kissed or touched a woman without their consent. He refused to answer. The Secret Service tossed me out of the room. He could be heard plainly saying and calling me a “sleazebag.” I suppose, in some ways, it’s a badge of honor. A lot of my colleagues in the Washington press corps were called similar, if not worse.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, and Donald Trump labeled the media “the enemy of the people.” Did you or your colleagues receive personal threats during that time?
Jonathan Lemire: It’s a dangerous statement. To be clear, all presidents complain about their media coverage, but none of them had ever put us at the center of his campaign and attack lines before. To call us the “enemy of the people” suggests that we were not Americans and suggests that at times the way we were treated was very serious and dangerous. There were colleagues of mine who had to travel with security.
I and a number of other White House reporters received some really nasty threats. At one point, the FBI had to be involved in one case that I was dealing with. You were always at risk of being attacked online. If nothing else, you and your family could be doxed. Certainly, I know people, even colleagues and friends of mine, who received suspicious packages and had to hire security for their offices and homes. So it was a new and scary place for all of us who were just trying to do our jobs.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How is the big lie now impacting the Biden administration?
Jonathan Lemire: Because of what Trump did, a lot of Republicans in states who had already tried to restrict access to the ballot saw Trump’s claims of voter fraud as an excuse and reason to do so. Polling suggests that a lot of Republicans thought that there was voter fraud. A majority of Republicans felt that Joe Biden was not duly elected. So it’s this cloud of mistrust that Trump had created. A lot of these states decided to use that moment to enact new legislation that tightened access to the ballot and predominantly, it was people of color, the elderly, the very young. The voters who frankly tend to vote democratic are the ones who would now be cut out of the process and would have a harder time voting in the future. Georgia was the first of these states to do so, but plenty of others did as well.
Therefore, there’s a lot, in these midterms of 2022 and certainly in the presidential election of 2024, of real questions by Democrats as to whether these elections will be fair and whether their votes will be accurately counted. The Biden administration, I think, came under some criticism for being slow to act on this. They had a strong push right in the very beginning of 2022, for federal legislation to protect the vote, but it didn’t go anywhere. A couple of senators and the president’s own party refused to touch the filibuster in order to do so. So that measure went down in defeat, and there are real concerns about the sanctity of the ballot going forward.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How has the Biden administration handled the coronavirus crisis considering the mismanagement and denial of the former administration?
Jonathan Lemire: Certainly, the Biden administration tackled the problem in a far more head-on fashion than the Trump administration did. We know Trump kept trying to downplay the severity of the virus, kept trying to suggest the nation was rounding the corner and that things would go back to normal soon. To be truly fair and give credit where credit is due, the Covid vaccines were developed under the Trump administration, and federal funding had a large part to do with that.
The Biden administration does deserve credit for not just passing a Covid relief bill at the beginning of 2021 but also a vaccine distribution program where, within a few months, basically any American adult who wanted a shot could get one. Now, we just had the July 4th holiday, and we reflect back to a year ago when on July 4th, President Biden said that it was about time the nation declare its independence from the pandemic, and that turned out not to be the case because the Delta wave showed up a few weeks later with Omicron that winter. Certainly, we’re in a different phase of the pandemic now than we were a year ago or a year and a half ago, but certainly, it hasn’t been all success for the Biden administration either even though they certainly made far more progress than the Trump administration did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are your comments on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Jonathan Lemire: Those were extraordinary moments to take away a right that had been enshrined for nearly 50 years. It was something, of course, a lot of conservatives have been wanting for a really long time and had laid the groundwork on the state level in the judiciary to build toward that. A lot of Democrats would express real frustration that five of the six justices who voted to back the Mississippi law were appointed by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote, George W. Bush and then Donald Trump.
So it is seismic, and this is something the Biden administration is trying to grapple with now. There’s only so much, though, he can do with executive power. Certainly, abortion rights along with inflation, along with the fallout of the January 6 committee, along with the battle for voting rights are some of the major issues that will barrel into the midterms this November.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What issues do you expect the Supreme Court might tackle next?
Jonathan Lemire: Well, we heard from Justice Thomas in the writings that were released along with this decision where he said the court should take a look at some of these other rights including same-sex marriage, contraception, things people have in the privacy of their own homes. I traveled with President Biden covering his trip to Europe earlier in the month. While in Madrid, he said that he would support changing the filibuster rules to codify Roe v. Wade. But moreover, he said he was deeply concerned that the court would then turn its attention to other matters of privacy and those rights. They haven’t taken one of those cases yet, but they certainly could in the month and years ahead.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I want to talk about your schedule, Jonathan. From Way Too Early to Morning Joe and beyond, how do you get it all done?
Jonathan Lemire: (laughs) I’ll tell you. I am tired all the time. It’s a great opportunity, but it comes with punishing hours. So yeah, my alarm goes off about 3:15. A lot of the work on Way Too Early is done the night before, but I get in the studio for a lot of last minute edits, talk to the producers and so on. I go to makeup and be in the anchor’s chair before 5:00 AM. Almost every day, I stick around for a bunch of hours of Morning Joe, often all of them. So that’s how my day starts. Then I have other jobs. I certainly participate in other parts of MSNCB’s coverage. But also in my role at Politico, I’m covering the White House sometimes in person, sometimes remotely and get people on the phone. So they are long days, but it’s something I really value. I like having one foot in each world in television as well as print. I think it’s really a unique situation, but it does require me to try and catch up on sleep on the weekends.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But you're married to a journalist, so she understands strange hours.
Jonathan Lemire: Yes. She understands. She gets it, and her help is much appreciated.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Over your journalistic career, what’s that one moment that made you the proudest?
Jonathan Lemire: That’s a good question. I’m very fortunate in many ways to have had the career that I do. I was an intern a few months out of college in New York City when the terror attack of September 11, 2001, happened. So I got to Ground Zero the next day, was working there around the clock and telling the story of the tragedy but also of the city rebuilding itself and how resilient it was. That’s something I’ll always carry with me.
I certainly feel fortunate to have covered a pair of presidential administrations now. I think if there’s one moment that I guess I’m most associated with is probably President Trump’s news conference in Helsinki alongside Vladimir Putin back in July 2018 when I asked Trump, as Putin stood alongside him, who he believed in terms of whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election because it was the conclusion of every intelligence agency that Moscow did that. Of course, Putin was denying it. But I put President Trump on the spot with a global audience, and he sided with Putin. So that, I think, is the moment that people think about with me, and I’m happy to have that. That was an important question that had to get asked at that time, and it was so stunning how he answered it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As I recall, you also asked Vladimir Putin if he had any compromising material on Donald Trump.
Jonathan Lemire: Yeah. I did. You’ll note, if you ever go back and read his answer, Putin kind of chuckles and dismisses it. He said that it would be hard to have compromising material on every prominent American who comes to Russia. But he actually never denies that he did (laughs). Certainly, with the events of this past year, that moment becomes that much more heightened in retrospect of what we know Vladimir Putin would do in the coming years. I will say Putin rarely broke eye contact with me, and it was a little unnerving.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will both Donald Trump and President Biden announce their intentions to run in the election of 2024?
Jonathan Lemire: That is the question in Washington right now. What are both of these men going to do? Trump is certainly sending signals that he’s going to run again. Some aides are suggesting he might even announce this year before the midterms, which would be very early, I think, in an effort maybe to try and deflect from some of the findings of the January 6 commission. Then there’s President Biden who, of course, is still facing his own questions because right at this moment, his poll numbers are pretty poor. He’s the oldest man to be president. He’d be 82 to start a second term. With that said, the White House is sending signals that they’re going to run again, too.
I do think the odds increase if one runs, the other will, too. If somehow, one decides against it, the other maybe will as well. If the election was held today, it depends on what polls you see. There are some polls that have Biden slightly up on Trump and some polls that might have Trump slightly up on Biden. But certainly the prediction I feel confident in making is that if we do end up with that rematch, it will not just be billed as the most important election of our lifetime, I think it would live up to the hype, in terms of that title, and it would probably be about as ugly and smearing a campaign as this nation’s ever seen. Just knowing what we saw in 2020, and how things will probably be much worse four years later.
Smashing interviews Magazine: It will probably be the most important election for the truth also.
Jonathan Lemire: No question. We’re a nation right now that can’t agree on the same set of facts. We’re a nation that is really siloed in different media environments. It’s so easy now, thanks to cable channels and social media, to only deal with likeminded travelers, to only talk to people who you agree with who think like you do. We seem very team red and team blue. We just went through with this pandemic, this sort of almost cataclysmic event.
In the past, when a nation’s dealt with something like that, it tends to bring the country, even temporarily, together. I think we all remember that feeling of unity after September 11. But this one did nothing of the sort. We only got more polarized. We only got more distant and angrier. I do think that if we have this election again with Donald Trump on center stage undoubtedly still spewing the big lie as well as lots of other lies, truth would absolutely be a victim.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I agree. Jonathan, any final words on The Big Lie?
Jonathan Lemire: I want to say thank you again for the opportunity. I would just stress that the book is not just a January 6th book. It’s not just a Donald Trump book. It tells the story of this lie but also about how it’s shaping everything we’re dealing with now and will be going forward. It’s an analysis as well as a book that I hope will stand the test of time, that people will reach back years from now still trying to get explanation of what this was like and how powerful and sinister this lie was. I hope it has some value in that way, and I certainly appreciate your giving me a chance to talk about it.
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