BBC North America editor Jon Sopel on the White House ‘circus’ and being snubbed by Donald Trump: ‘I'm frustrated – I want to do the interview’

"Donald Trump has just tweeted," announces Jon Sopel, whose daily routine as the BBC's North America editor involves fulfilling an unenviable public service on licence fee payers’ behalf – staying glued to the maverick president's Twitter feed.

Saturday, 14th September 2019, 07:00 am
Updated Monday, 16th September 2019, 12:30 pm
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media prior to a departure from the White House in Washington, DC, in September 2019. Picture: Getty Images

His latest social media dispatch - fired off as Sopel speaks on the phone from London ahead of a visit to Sheffield linked to his new book - criticises the European Central Bank for depreciating the single currency 'against the VERY strong dollar, hurting US exports'.

"There we are, that's today's subject du jour," says Sopel wryly. Or maybe it isn't - hours later a congressional committee votes to press ahead with an impeachment inquiry into Trump, causing the president to vent his fury again online, deploying his usual brand of blunt diplomacy.

"It's the first thing I look at on my phone, I've got an alert whenever Donald Trump tweets," Sopel says, adding with smooth understatement: "It's not the way business has ever been transacted before."

Jon Sopel.

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Sopel has worked in Washington, DC since 2014, having progressed from local radio to report from France as the BBC's Paris correspondent as well as hosting The Politics Show and being a go-to presenter for the corporation's news channel.

He enjoyed cordial relations with the Obama administration before watching a hotel magnate and reality TV star rise to power in the extraordinary 2016 election campaign. Trump whipped up crowds to call for Democrat rival Hillary Clinton's imprisonment with cries of 'lock her up', railed against the press for peddling 'fake news', pledged to build a wall on the Mexican border and somehow managed to survive serious allegations of sexual assault sparked by the infamous Hollywood Direct recording in which he bragged about groping women and boasted: "When you're a star...you can do anything."

And this was just the beginning. Sopel's book, A Year At The Circus, is his second on Trump's America and takes readers on a virtual tour of the White House, summing up what has been the most helter-skelter of presidencies, from the sacking of FBI director James Comey to dealings with North Korea, the resignation of Britain's ambassador Kim Darroch and the Mueller Inquiry into claims of collusion with Russia.

But what on earth is Trump's plan - or does he even have one?

"I think he has a vague idea of what he thinks is wrong, and what needs to happen to put it right," says Sopel. "But do I think he is a chess player, who strategises every move? Absolutely not. He throws something up in the air and he has no idea how it's going to land."

He cites America's trade war with China as an example. "Has Donald Trump got it clear in his mind what victory looks like? What I don't think he anticipated was that this would turn really ugly, be really protracted and be very complicated. He started this thing without knowing how it will end. He ricochets around."

For his part, Sopel appreciated the chance to take stock of events so far.

"There is so much that is coming at you so often, that to try and get a sense of it you do need to stand back a bit. Which is difficult, because everything is moving at such an incredible pace. The other thing I felt was there is so much that happens that just falls by the wayside because the attention is on the president so much."

Amid the melee, readers would be forgiven for forgetting Anthony Scaramucci, the colourful Italian-American financier who lasted just 10 days as White House director of communications. His brief tenure - which ended with an ill-advised sweary phone call to a journalist on The New Yorker - roughly coincided with the sacking of Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus, the appointment of his successor John F. Kelly and the departure of strategist Steve Bannon.

"It was the most crash-bang-wallop period of politics in the White House," says Sopel. "You couldn't take your eyes off it, it was mesmerising."

One of his favourite characters is physician Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, who previously treated George W Bush and Barack Obama before giving Trump a glowing bill of health. The gleeful president responded by making Jackson head of the Veterans Affairs department, the second-biggest federal Government budget in America.

"They did no background checks whatsoever, so this guy's life is suddenly transported from anonymity to the headlines," Sopel says. "It turns out he'd got a reputation for being a bit of a bully, he had the nickname 'Candy Man' because he gave out drugs so readily... I thought it was a morality tale of being in the Trump orbit. Suddenly he was propelled into the limelight and trashed - roadkill within a matter of weeks."

Sackings invariably happen on Twitter. Comey, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and - days ago - the national security advisor John Bolton all learned they had been dropped by Trump via a tweet.

The irony, Sopel says, is that despite delivering the catchphrase 'You're fired' on 14 seasons of The Apprentice's US version, 'actually he hates face-to-face confrontation'.

Sopel interviewed Obama but still hasn't sat down for a one-on-one encounter with Trump.

"I'd very much like to," he admits. "The only British broadcast interview he does is with Piers Morgan. I think we came very close on the occasion of the State visit, and I know there were a lot of people in the White House advocating that he should sit down with me, but the president - as is his right - chose to be interviewed by Piers Morgan."

How does he feel about that?

"It's up to him. I think Piers got some really good news lines out of him. The easy phrase would be to say he chose a warm bath over a cold shower. Piers is a mate, he's very supportive on a lot of things, but equally I'm frustrated. I'm competitive, I want to do the interview. It's hard, because I think he's got locked into his mind what he thinks the BBC is. I'm not decrying Piers, it's just very frustrating."

He's had a run-in with Trump though, at a press conference where the president called him 'another beauty' and remarked 'I know who you are'.

As a member of the White House Press Corps, Sopel has a 'hard pass' giving him access to the grounds at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I can walk through the doors of the press briefing room and speak to whoever I like, then I can walk actually into the West Wing itself to knock on the door of the director of communications. Her office is probably about 10 paces away from the Oval Office. In that sense you get incredible access, much better than in the UK. But obviously, we're a foreign broadcaster. Ultimately I'm no-votes television. They're much more focused on doing interviews for American media. Would I like more? Show me a journalist who doesn't. We always want as much access as possible, that's natural and exactly how it should be."

Sopel, 60, was born in Stepney in London, and once described his parents as 'pillars of the East End Jewish community'. He went to Christ's College in Finchley and then studied at Southampton University before joining the BBC at Radio Solent, staying at the corporation ever since and becoming one of its highest-paid presenters.

"On one level it's the world's most boring career," he says. "On the other hand, I've reported from all over the world and seen some of the most spectacular events unfold - the Mandela funeral, the death of a Pope, natural disasters, wars... You name it, I've been there. If I was bored, I'd have left, and there were opportunities where people have knocked on my door and said 'Come and work for us'. If someone comes along and offers me a fortune to go and do something different, I'd probably take it. But I've loved my time at the BBC."

He says the state broadcaster is 'not a perfect organisation, far from it'.

"But it's pretty good. And I think journalism has never been more important, when there is such a challenge to what is truth and what you can believe."

There are times, Sopel confides, when he can feel 'a bit jaded and tired'. "And then you hear John Bolton's gone and you think 'Great story, fantastic', and the adrenaline still flows. Travelling around America can be a bit wearing, there is no glamour whatsoever. But I think the beat is interesting. What is more important than what the leader of the free world is deciding to do? I think it matters."

Sopel has a home in Georgetown, Washington, where he lives with his wife Linda. Their two grown-up children live in London and Australia.

He expects to cover the 2020 election, which - unless anything unexpected happens - he thinks Trump may well win.

"America is at peace and large numbers of soldiers are not being killed in foreign fields, the economy is doing very well, the stock market is up hugely, unemployment is at record lows, people are spending more money and feeling better about things. In 2016 people said he couldn't win and they were wrong. In 2020 people are starting to say he cannot lose, and that is equally wrong. There is a very narrow path to victory for him."

As for Sopel, he says he has 'no idea what comes next' after his US exploits.

"The best piece of career advice I ever had was 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him you've got a plan'. Maybe I'll get an allotment and grow perfect potatoes and asparagus. I still love what I do, I still feel like I'm a square peg in a square hole."

Jon Sopel appears at Sheffield City Hall in the Memorial Hall on Thursday, September 17. See www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk to book. A Year At The Circus: Inside Trump's White House is out now, published by BBC Books and priced £20 in hardback.

‘Journalists should never be the opposition’

Jon Sopel says the US media have 'got it wrong' when covering Donald Trump by acting as 'the opposition' to his presidency.

"The American media has tended to take things literally from Donald Trump, and not divide it by 10 which is what you need to do," he says. "There are endless stories of him saying things which are completely untrue. Broadly speaking there is a truth in what he says, it's just not the absolute truth. So the American public think 'We know he's a playboy, we know he's dodgy with his taxes', and they kind of forgive all of that. Whereas the media would try to show his unsuitability for office because of those things. And the public are going 'Oh, give him a break, we know all this, who cares'."

Television, in particular, is now 'very polarised', he says.

"I think that's where the media have got it wrong. I don't think our job should ever be to be the opposition to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Emannuel Macron, whoever it happens to be. Our job is to hold them to account."