Journalist recounts the moment in the 2016 campaign where Trump took a 'dark turn'

Journalist recounts the moment in the 2016 campaign where Trump took a 'dark turn'
Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: Gage Skidmore
Election '16

In a new book excerpt published by Vanity Fair, ABC reporter Jonathan Karl recounts a moment from December 2015 in which he began to believe Donald Trump's presidential campaign started taking a "dark turn."

It was a few days before Christmas, Karl recounted in "Front Row at the Trump Show," and the candidate was about to appear before thousands at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A Trump aide had insisted in a profanity-laced demand that Karl's upcoming TV interview with the candidate feature a prominent Christmas tree, the book explained.

But just a few minutes into the interview, things went south. Karl says he brought up polls showing that Trump was consistently losing to Hillary Clinton — and he erroneously had missed a couple of polls showing her losing, which Trump pointed out. In response, Trump erupted.

”If you are so sure that Hillary Clinton is going to beat me, you shouldn’t be interviewing me because you are wasting your time," Trump reportedly said, walking away from the interview. "Quote the polls where I win."

A little later, before Trump went on stage before the crowd after he was away from the cameras, he reportedly unleashed a tirade of profanity at the sight of Karl: "Fucking bullshit! Fucking nasty guy! That was fucking bullshit!"

Karl continued:

As I started to walk toward him, Santucci jumped in front of me and said one word: “Don’t.”

I noticed that as Trump continued to scream, George Gigicos and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski were standing between us and Trump, keeping him from coming back to me. Gigicos finally got Trump to turn, and he walked through the black curtain and onto the stage to thunderous applause. And he wasn’t done yet.

Onstage, Trump went after me, but he held back from calling me out by name.

“You know, I was just with somebody from ABC, I won’t mention who,” he told the crowd. “And he said, ‘Oh, the Hillary camp said they’d love to run against Trump.’ Of course they’re gonna say that…Ask Jeb Bush if he enjoys running against me. Seriously. Ask him.”

I had asked much tougher questions of Trump in virtually every other interview I had done with him, but any suggestion that he was, or could be, a loser enraged him. And although he was enraged, he was also fully aware of the cameras. He didn’t rage until he was out of the room and out of their sight.

Trump later joked about how he hates reporters, but unlike Vladimir Putin, he wouldn't want to kill them. Eventually, Trump came back for the rest of the interview, Karl said, and "was once again all smiles, like nothing had happened."

"Trump had insulted and taunted reporters since the early days of his campaign, but there in Grand Rapids, the last rally before Christmas 2015, I sensed he was taking a dark turn," Karl wrote. "He was no longer complaining about unfair coverage or insulting individual reporters, he was crafting a new role for the press in the Trump Show. We were the villains. His crowds loved the attacks on the press, and he was about to give them more of what they wanted."

Now, one could easily quarrel with Karl's claim here. Trump's campaign was already quite dark. He announced his candidacy with a vicious screed claiming Mexico of sending rapists to the United States, and he built his political profile on the racist claim that President Barack Obama had faked his birth certificate. His fascist tendencies were long evident.

But Trump's targeting of the press has been a distinctive feature of both his candidacy and his presidency, and it may be having its worst consequences now. Trump has convinced a wide segment of the public that he is a much more reliable source of information than the media; and now, he has turned his disinformation campaign on to the subject of the coronavirus pandemic. Since he thinks it's in his interest to downplay the seriousness of the threat, the fact that so many people will tune out dissenting voices poses a major danger to the country.

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