Politics

“I’ll Tell You What Was Weird About It”

Mehdi Hasan on covering the Trump years as a Muslim, as a new American, and as a guy who doesn’t shut up.

Mehdi Hassan.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo provided by Peacock.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

I’d hate to be interviewed by Mehdi Hasan, so I’m interviewing him instead. In audio or on camera, he asks blunt questions and then slowly and methodically shuts down any attempt to deflect in response—a skill that proved particularly useful with Trumpworld figures. His work Al Jazeera and the Intercept in the past four years helped launch his career in the U.S. after successful stints in a variety of jobs in the U.K., and he’s now hosting an hourlong daily news show called The Mehdi Hasan Show on NBC’s Peacock. He also, last fall, became a naturalized American, a process he pursued under a government he relentlessly interrogated. On the phone, we talked about our shared struggles covering the Trump years as Muslims, the biggest media mistake in the Trump era, and what news shows like his will do now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did Trump start looking like a viable candidate to you?

Mehdi Hasan: I’ll be honest with you. I never thought he was a viable candidate. I was working at Al Jazeera English, in their D.C. bureau, at the time. We actually made a video on the show I presented then, it was called UpFront, about why he wouldn’t win, why Hillary Clinton would win, and why the polls suggested she would. She did win the popular vote by 3 million. But I didn’t see the Electoral College outcome, and him winning that way, so I’ll be honest. I never really saw him as a viable candidate, and that was, of course, part of the problem.

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Do you have any idea why virtually every journalist made that mistake?

If you remember, HuffPost, which is another former employer of mine, had put him in the entertainment section. Such was the ridicule he had received. And there’s that famous clip that’s played, of Keith Ellison, on ABC, with Stephanopoulos and Maggie Haberman. They all laugh at him in 2015 when he says, “Trump could be the candidate.” And there was that sense of hilarity, that’s this guy’s a joke. I was talking tonight, actually, about the Muslim ban. I just did a segment on the Peacock show about how, back in the day, I remember thinking when he did the Muslim ban statement in December 2015, I kind of laughed it off. It was ridiculous. It was bigoted, but it wasn’t serious. You can’t ban a quarter of humanity. Plus, he’s not going to win, so why do we care? And those were obviously mistakes. The problem was, a lot of journalists covered Hillary Clinton as the presumptive president in waiting. So there was a kind of weightiness and seriousness given to even her minor scandals, even the email nonsense and the Benghazi diversions. Whereas Trump’s much bigger scandals—Trump University, accusations of sexual assault and harassment, obviously the Access Hollywood tape—they were not treated in the same way simply because there was an assumption that he’s not going to win.

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Did being a journalist who grew up British and Muslim have anything to do with the way you saw Trump early on?

Maybe not early on, but definitely once he was president. I took very seriously, from Day One, the threat he posed. I may have been one of those people who got wrong whether he would win or not, but once he did win, I wasn’t one of those people who said, “It’ll all be fine. Institutions will save us.” And maybe it’s the outsider perspective, having a slightly global sense, because in 2016, you already have Modi in power. You have Netanyahu in power. You have Putin in power. You have Erdogan in power. You had Brexit, if you remember, which Trump called himself Mr. Brexit. You had a few things on the international scale that suggested this was not a one-off, this was not just limited to America. There was something bubbling below the surface. And yeah, I was one of those people who talked very early on about, “This is not just ‘populism,’ quote, unquote, this is authoritarianism. This could be fascism.” And by the end of the presidency, I believe it was fascism. People said, “Oh, you’re being melodramatic. Oh, it’s the Muslim in you that’s worried about the targeting of Muslims.” A lot of white liberals, and not just white conservatives, did take it for granted that institutions would protect us. They said, “Trump won’t be as bad as you think he is.”

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What do you think is the single biggest mistake that American media made in its coverage of Trump?

It’s hard for me to choose because the media made a lot of mistakes. Jeff Zucker, the CNN president, later owned up to letting Trump have free coverage because he was good for ratings. I used to call him a fiscal stimulus for the U.S. media, in terms of ratings, the ads, and hiring people to cover him. There wasn’t the focusing on his scandals because he wasn’t taken seriously as a candidate. I was part of that mistake as well.

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Then there was when he came to office, there was this issue with not taking him seriously, and normalizing the abnormal. The inability to call racism racism. The inability to call lying lying. And we slightly started to fix those issues in the run-up to the election, but I think it should have been done much sooner. There was always a reset. It was, “Today, he became president.” “It’s a new tone.” “He’s learned his lessons.” All those phrases, they were burned into my mind and will be till the day I die. I think it was out of good intentions, maybe, by many White House reporters wanting to believe that this guy can be restrained by the office, that he will realize the weight that’s on his shoulders, that there will be elders in the Republican Party who will take him to one side and get him to behave normally. And it never happened. August 2017, when you have Charlottesville—that is the real moment for me where there was no going back. This is pure white nationalist policymaking. This was unprecedented. And I think that, for me, there was no going back.

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Why do you think it took many writers and pundits, on TV or otherwise, so long to shed that posture toward Trump? 

There was always a classic moment where Trump would say something outrageous, a Republican would come on TV and say, “He didn’t mean that. He meant this.” And the next day, Trump would say, “No, no. I meant that,” and throw his own defenders under the bus. Again, we should have learned those lessons much quicker. In defense of the media, it was very hard to cover a president like Trump. There has never been a person like this in any Western democracy in my lifetime, for sure probably in modern history. No one who lies as openly and regularly as him and his acolytes. No one in that high of office who was so openly in bed with white nationalists and neo-Nazis as he was. No one who so openly declared war on the media in the same way. People were bewildered. So I’m on the fence. When someone is flooding the zone with, quote, unquote, “shit,” to quote Steve Bannon, what do you do in that scenario? I’ve been on air since October on Peacock, a nightly show, Monday to Friday, hourlong. Quite a lot of time. It’s a grueling schedule, especially during the election campaign. We couldn’t cover all the stories and scandals that we wanted to cover. You find yourself going, “Oh, we haven’t got time for COVID today.” You haven’t got time for COVID? Thousands of people are dying, and we’re fighting to try and get COVID into the news because there’s 17 other political scandals ahead of it? In that sense, the overwhelming nature of the Trump controversies and scandals, that just genuinely made it hard with bandwidth, and for people at home to just absorb.

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Does the fact that we both as Muslim journalists see the news differently, does that give us an advantage or a disadvantage? Because I often hear versions of the argument that, for us to be considered unbiased, we can’t get too close to the news. Is there any merit to that?

No. There’s no merit to that argument, and there’s a whole, separate, long debate we can have. What does it mean to be a neutral journalist? What does it mean to be a person of color or Muslim covering a story, versus a white journalist covering the story? We were very close to the story, and justifiably so. I was on a green card at the time of the Muslim ban. And some of us were worried, “How am I going to get back in the country and see my wife and kids?” Now I’m a citizen, but at the time, it was worrying for a lot of us. In the end, they pulled it down to whatever Muslim-majority countries they picked.

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The broader point is that people of color were calling out Trump’s fascism and racism and threat to democracy long before most of our white peers. And some of us paid the price. Look at Jemele Hill. She called him a “white supremacist,” and [ultimately left ESPN]. Plenty of Black journalists were calling out Trump in a way that their white counterparts weren’t, and paid for it, and I think there needs to be a long reflection upon that by some of our white colleagues and white editors. Should people of color be relegated to race beats, or religion beats, or community beats? Should we have had more diversity in the White House press corps, and on television, and elsewhere, to reflect that sense in minority communities that we recognized this guy for who he was long before everyone else?

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Do you want to talk at all about what it was like to become an American citizen under the Trump administration?

It was weird. I talked about becoming a citizen on my show. And I’ll tell you what was weird about it, a couple of things: No. 1, it was the pandemic, so everything was done socially distanced. My family couldn’t be there with me. And then there was a wonderful letter every new citizen gets from the president. And it said all the right things. I think I posted a picture of it on Twitter, it’s about welcoming immigrants, and this is a country built on immigration. I was like, “He didn’t write this. This was written by some lackey, who understands what needs to be done on ceremonial occasions like this.” But it’s interesting. For me, it was an act of defiance. It was: I deserve to be here. I’m married into this society. My kids are dual nationals. I see my future here. And crucially, for me, the right to vote is one of the most important rights of all, so I wanted to get registered to vote. And I literally met the cutoff, I think I met it by matter of hours. And I’ll be honest, it does affect media coverage. Because now, I’ve got a prime-time show, I’m talking to millions of Americans, and I’m talking to them as a fellow American. I have skin in the game. It’s not Piers Morgan lecturing on gun control, or “Oh, it’s the British guy on CNN.” I’m speaking as an American journalist. But also as an American journalist with that outside perspective, as you mentioned a moment ago.

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Do you think journalists, generally speaking, engaged with fringe ideas enough? Because there is an argument to be made that, by talking about the fringe, you’re breathing oxygen into it. People say that ISIS used Obama’s clip of him condemning it as a recruitment tool. And people are starting to say the same things about QAnon and the Proud Boys. How do you think journalists did in that sense?

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It’s a really important question. It’s one I struggled with for many years, when I was at Al Jazeera English, and now at NBC at Peacock. It’s the same question. What do we do? Do you put Marjorie Taylor Greene on air, the QAnon congresswoman? No. I wouldn’t. But what do you do about these ideas that exist on the fringes? Here’s where I draw the line. I remember when I was with Al Jazeera, it was very hard to book pro-Trump guests because you don’t want a gaslighter on air, that rules out many of them. You don’t want an open racist. That rules out a whole bunch of others. But you do want someone to come on and defend Trump. So there’s a hygiene test that you apply to any guest. And what Trump did is he muddied the water so much, that on the one hand, OK, this person may be QAnon, this person may have links to neo-Nazis. I can name to you three different Trump officials who all fulfilled those descriptions. Do you have them on? No, you don’t want to indulge those ideas or mainstream them. On the other hand, that person may be senior adviser in the White House. They may be a Sebastian Gorka. What do you do, in a two-party political system, when one of the two major political parties has been taken over by conspiracy theorists, and racists, and far-right freaks? It’s a tricky one. There’s no right answer.

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How are you thinking about all of this as you prepare to switch gears to covering the Biden administration?

That’s a great question. We need to treat our viewers with respect and not hide behind euphemisms. And one thing I would say is, clearly the Biden administration is not going to lie like the Trump administration. No one can lie like the Trump administration: 30,000 lies, minimum, according to the Washington Post fact checkers, at the end of his presidency. But just because they’re not going to lie like the Trump administration doesn’t mean they’re not going to lie. Governments lie. Politicians will lie. And we need to be ready for that. They will mislead us. They will issue false denials about stories. And we need to be ready to call them out when they do. Just as we shouldn’t have graded Trump on a curve, we shouldn’t just measure the Biden administration in relation to the Trump administration. So it shouldn’t be a kind of, “Oh, well, at least they’re not Trump. At least they’re not Kayleigh McEnany.” Great. But that’s not my benchmark as a journalist.

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Trump liked to joke about how he keeps media people employed, and that after he’s gone, we’ll have nothing. Is he kind of right?

Yes. He is kind of right, in the sense that we can’t—the last four years have been the most news-filled years of my lifetime, possibly of anyone’s lifetime. A lot of that is because of Trump. It’s all horrible news, including 400,000 people dead on his watch. And I think that is a reality. That’s part of the reason he got away with so much for so long. He entertained people. He provided ratings. There’s no debate about that. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to ratings on TV channels, cable channels, our own channel, across the board, come February, March, April. But you know what? We’re not just journalists. We’re also human beings, and I think we’re all emotionally exhausted. Some of us are burned out from covering Trump, Trump, Trump for four years. When Trump said that line in one of his rallies, “People are going to be bored,” I don’t know why he thought that was not a selling point. A lot of people, I think, want to be bored. They want to be able to just take a break. Trump being off Twitter was one of the great advantages. He doesn’t have that bullhorn, with which to invade our every waking and even sleeping moment. He doesn’t have that constant ability to try and set the news agenda from morning till night, and doesn’t have the ability to, as I say, flood the zone with shit. A lot of substantive stories have gone below the radar because of our focus on Trump for the last few years. We do need to talk about climate change. We do need to talk about the refugee crisis. We do need to talk about the poverty crisis in this country. That’s what I hope to do on my show, and I hope people will continue to tune in, to talk about these important issues. Important issues haven’t gone away. Donald Trump has gone away.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

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