Mehdi Hasan: ‘Most people ask the question and move on. I don’t’

The political interviewer on how he made it in the US and his anger at the deference the media has for Donald Trump which could cost lives during the pandemic

‘We all know that the president is a pathological liar,” Mehdi Hasan says from his office in Washington DC. “But the lies he’s been telling about the coronavirus – they’re no joke; they cost American lives. The US media’s failure to call Donald Trump out on those lies in real time makes part of the media, I’m sorry to say, partly complicit in those deaths, too.” Hasan, who moved from the UK to the US in 2015, is that rare species of TV interviewer: not in it to make friends, to network or to gain access. His passion for grilling his subjects is only matched by his frustration at his peers who do not do the same.

When the White House press corps turned on the comedian Michelle Wolf after the 2018 White House correspondents’ dinner and defended Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it was the last straw for him. In that moment, he realised that the US media is almost “irredeemable”.

“If not now, when?” he asks. “If they’re not going to stand up against this administration’s secretary, then who?” A credulous New York Times headline in the wake of the 2019 El Paso shooting, “Trump Urges Unity vs Racism”, was, to him, just another stitch in the pattern of this submission. “The American press doesn’t want to rock the boat, and so things are just reported straight.”

Such forthrightness has served Hasan well. Not only have his hard-hitting political interviews become regular viral hits, he has also become a fixture on the high-profile US cable news circuit. Rumours are beginning to circulate on the east coast about offers to host his own show on a US network. On such approaches he is coyly amused when I ask him, maintaining only that he very much loves his job at the moment.

As an interviewer, he is relentless, a quality that boosted his profile after Trump came to office and the US media seemed unable to land a glove on the new president or his surrogates. As a columnist for the online magazine the Intercept and the host of UpFront and Head to Head on Al Jazeera English, Hasan has developed a reputation for somehow managing to nail dissimulating politicians by being forensic and refusing to move on until his point is made. His technique is simple. “Most people ask the question and move on whether they get an answer or not,” he says. “I don’t.”

Hasan, 40, was already a successful journalist in the UK when he moved to the US to host an interview show for Al Jazeera English. An established pundit and political analyst with a diverse journalistic background, he has worked in TV at Sky News and Channel 4, co-authored a book about Ed Miliband, and served stints as the political editor of the New Statesman and political director of the Huffington Post UK. For all that it seems like a charmed career, Hasan describes it as “random”. He started out on the bottom rung as a freelance news assistant at ITN and puts his success down to those “willing to take a chance” on him.

But it was in the US where he really began to cut through. Clips of his Al Jazeera English interviews began to catch fire online. A clash with the Trump adviser and Fox News regular Steven Rogers in November 2018 heralded Hasan’s arrival in the mainstream. In it, he questions Rogers on Trump’s lies on birth right citizenship, among other falsehoods. Rogers starts out with bluster before quickly squirming and deflating under Hasan’s barrage.

Mehdi Hasan interviews Steven Rogers on Al Jazeera English
Mehdi Hasan interviews Steven Rogers on Al Jazeera English. Photograph: Al Jazeera

To date, a clip of the interview in which Hasan pummels Rogers has had almost 8m views on Twitter alone. It brought him to the attention of Seth Myers, who, when interviewing Hasan, called the Rogers interrogation “the template for talking to people within the Trump-sphere”. Hasan has recently also developed a following among Hollywood stars with an activist bent. Mark Ruffalo tweeted the Rogers interview saying: “There is such thing as the truth, even today. This is how a journalist does their job to uncover it.”

Hasan seems an unlikely figure to break America. And he has done it thanks to online word of mouth; shares, clicks and endorsements from high-profile figures. He is a practising Muslim and unabashedly leftwing. He is abrasive and pugilistic, with an endless appetite for Twitter beef that is often beneath him. He sees these “outsider” qualities, as he calls them, not as weaknesses but as strengths that enable him to transcend the pitfalls of a US news media paralysed by an old-fashioned courteousness towards those in political office.

But despite the rough edges, he is a public school boy, and he admits that the confidence his private schooling and Oxford education (he studied that favourite of future prime ministers, Politics, Philosophy and Economics), has been invaluable in compensating for the fact that there are very few people like him in the British or US media. The “outsiderness” was from being a Muslim and the son of immigrants.

He describes the household he grew up in as, although conventional, “disputatious”. And Hasan certainly enjoys sparring, but one gets the sense that it is not just this that holds the key to his interviewing technique. It is a lack of respect for power, for default authority, that animates him. “When I used to watch American TV religiously during the Bush and Obama years,” says Hasan, “I would joke about if you parachuted in a John Humphrys or a [Jeremy] Paxman, what would happen? The British press, the British media, for all its flaws, does not have this culture of deference when it comes to interviewing a person in power. I am amazed that the press stands up when the president enters the room. They don’t do that for Boris Johnson.”

Even in the US, he says, the interviews that create a buzz are those by British interviewers: Emily Maitliss talking to Sean Spicer, or Andrew Neil to rightwing controversialist Ben Shapiro. “Shapiro lives on US TV, not just on Fox, on CNN, on Bill Maher and all sorts of shows. Why did it take Andrew Neil to come along and poke holes in the complete facade of Ben Shapiro? There’s a culture of deference not just to people in power, it’s the politeness. You have to get in people’s faces.”

It is something he advises British journalists to do with Johnson, for whom Hasan interned at the Spectator, when the now prime minister was the magazine’s editor. He recalls a genial and polite Johnson, but remembers how the “untucking of the shirt and the ruffling of the hair” was clearly a deliberate act before meetings. While he does not believe that Johnson is as bad as Trump (who he says is “unique’ in his pathologies), he sees the danger of Johnson’s populism and the media’s complicity in both creating him and continuing to be soft on him. “I use the L-word, ‘lie’, I use the R-word, ‘racism’. In the Trump era, you have to be able to use these words. In the Brexit era, you have to be able to use these words. And there’s still a real shyness and reluctance for journalists to do that.”

Mehdi Hasan being interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018

The tables are turned … Hasan being interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Hasan’s righteousness is infectious, but it has not always served him well. A zealous address he made over a decade ago to a Muslim congregation in the UK has cast a long shadow. The remarks are recycled and used against him by his opponents on a regular basis. His observations, caught on camera, on non-Muslims (“cattle”), homosexuals and atheists, are hard to style out. He has addressed these comments often, most recently on Twitter, where he said: “Like a lot of journos (humans?) I’ve said things years ago that I now deeply regret.”

When I ask him about this, he is prepared. “Dumb comments,” he says. But his contrition is laced with a defiance, because he believes that non-Muslims are not held to account in the same way. “Boris Johnson’s comments haven’t stopped him from being prime minister, ones he hasn’t even disowned. Why?” he asks. “Because I’m Muslim; there’s no debate about that.”

His argument is borne out by an incident last July when Marco Rubio posted a clip of a 2018 Hasan interview with Ilhan Omar, aggressively edited to make her appear racist against white people. “It increases abuse and death threats to her, and to me. I wish I could switch off,” he says. The political climate in the US is one of constant threat to public figures such Omar and himself.

Despite the prejudice and scrutiny that he says he and other Muslims and minorities in the public eye face, he sees a counterintuitive solidarity with Muslims developing in the US. Trump has been so nakedly Islamophobic and xenophobic that it has pushed “many people off the fence”, he thinks. The “silver lining” is that the open season on Muslims and immigrants has created a group of Trump’s opponents that is happy to support them. Hasan’s American experience is of a country that is becoming less Islamophobic and less anti-immigration, even as Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric intensifies. He maintains that he has been embraced warmly by many in the US media, and is often asked for interview tips.

Mehdi Hasan on UpFront
Hasan on UpFront … ‘You have to get in people’s faces.’ Photograph: Al Jazeera

When talking about this welcome, an earnestness and warmth creeps into his voice. Hasan has clearly been on a journey over the past few years, and when he talks about what really drives him, the professional interlocutor tenor, which sometimes feels like a hammer dropping relentlessly on an anvil, changes to a softer tone. “Fundamentally it’s about one thing, it’s about avoiding the dehumanisation of other people,” he says. “The No 1 issue in my lifetime right now is tribalism. I’m going to be there for human rights and civil rights. When I see the stuff I said in my 20s, across the board should I have been more careful? Yes. Because you cannot speak about people in sweeping terms. That is the No 1 lesson of life.”

That, however, doesn’t mean he holds back on sweeping terms when criticising the rest of the US media. Despite his success, Hasan’s style of journalism is in the minority. The media “gave Trump a free pass in 2015”, he frets, and Trump’s ongoing bigotry is still treated with “both sides” equivocation. “My biggest worry, frustration, regret, annoyance, is that they don’t seem to have learned many lessons and we seem to be going down the same path for 2020.”

The media’s handling of Trump during the Covid-19 pandemic has given Hasan little reassurance. “When the president turns up at the White House briefing room and falsely claims there’ll be 5m tests within a month or that Google will be involved in the testing or that people are being tested at airports coming into the country, isn’t it shameful that even now, no reporter stands up and says: ‘Mr President, why should we believe a damn word you say?’”

In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos

Three decades ago, Donald J. Trump waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become Mr. Trump’s third Atlantic City casino. Executives at Mr. Trump’s company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil Mr. Trump fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, Mr. Trump has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, Mr. Trump has

  • insulted adversaries,
  • undermined his aides,
  • repeatedly changed course,
  • extolled his primacy as a negotiator and
  • induced chaos.

He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for Mr. Trump in the 1980s and wrote a book about it. “And it’s only people who have been around him through the years who realize that.”

..Mr. Trump was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception Mr. Trump could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business. People who worked with him during those years say they see multiple parallels between Mr. Trump the businessman and Mr. Trump the steward of the country’s longest government shutdown.

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed Mr. Trump’s business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning. Even after his televised proposal on Saturday to break the deadlock, Mr. Trump has no progress to show.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be an autobiography of Mr. Trump, who was 41 at the time. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of Mr. Trump as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched Mr. Trump seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, Mr. Trump’s “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used

  • a hammer,
  • deceit,
  • relentlessness and
  • an absence of conscience

as a formula for getting what he wanted.”

In a brief telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Trump was not specific in defending his tactics, but he described himself as successful in his chosen fields of real estate, entertainment and finally politics. “I ran for office once and I won,” Mr. Trump said.

The president’s supporters say he gets an unfair rap as a poor negotiator, saying that his style and unusual approach — and unwillingness to accept defeat even in the worst situations — have often had positive results. And in a Washington that doesn’t like outsiders, he has clearly forced his adversaries out of their comfort zones.

“President Trump’s success in business has translated into success as president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said. “He’s

  • ignited a booming economy with
  • rising wages and
  • historically low unemployment,
  • negotiated better trade deals,
  • persuaded our allies to contribute their fair share to NATO, and
  • secured the release of American hostages around the world.”

.. The bank eventually settled with Mr. Trump, saving him from having to pay the $40 million. Mr. Trump expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill. “He left me with some costs,” said the lawyer, Steven Schlesinger.

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, Mr. Trump left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued Mr. Trump for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. Mr. Trump recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them.

Mr. Trump has also embraced his business practice of giving the most latitude and trust to family members, no matter their prior experience.

He put his first wife, Ivana, a model, in charge of an Atlantic City casino and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. He put his younger brother, Robert, who had some background in corporate finance, in senior positions at the casinos. Not long after three of his children graduated from college, he vested authority in them over golf courses, hotels and licensing deals.

.. In the White House, Mr. Trump has increasingly leaned on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for guidance on dealing with Congress amid the current stalemate. Mr. Kushner, who like Mr. Trump is the son of a wealthy real estate developer, has not always impressed old hands on Capitol Hill.

.. With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump also has a new set of adversaries, and other old habits from his years in business have re-emerged.

Through his Twitter feed, he has verbally pummeled Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and tried to drive a wedge between Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

.. Barbara Res, who said she enjoyed much about working for Mr. Trump as a construction executive in the 1980s and 1990s, sees in Ms. Pelosi a new challenge to Mr. Trump’s lifelong tactics. One blind spot she observed was that Mr. Trump “believes he’s better than anyone who ever lived” and saw even the most capable of women as easy to run over.

“But there was never a woman with power that he ran up against, until Pelosi,” she said. “And he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s totally in a corner.”

In the interview, Mr. Trump described Ms. Res, Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Schwartz as disgruntled workers whom he had shunted aside, who had experience with him for relatively brief periods and who were simply using his name for attention.

During his years in business, Mr. Trump rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But Mr. Trump blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, Mr. Trump has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

Mr. O’Donnell, the casino manager, said long-term consequences never concerned Mr. Trump. He was always willing to pay too much in order to get a deal signed so he could declare victory, he said.

“He just wants to get the deal,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Beware the Furies, President Trump

The three sisters, the “infernal goddesses” of ancient mythology born from the blood shed by Uranus when he was castrated by his son, were known for relentlessly hounding men. But the Furies took vengeance on wicked men who hurt women and swore false oaths.

So I took it as a compliment.

The capital has suddenly been infused with the spirit of the Furies. After many false springs and discouraging backlashes, we are finally experiencing a revolutionary assertion of women’s power that is transforming Congress.

“Kill Bill”-style, the fiery Democratic women keep coming, driven by vengeance against the wicked man in the White House with the history of hurting women and swearing false oaths.

.. Swooping toward 2020, the moment of truth for Donald Trump that is also aptly the centennial of women’s suffrage, the women are gathering force at a giddy speed.

This was not a good week to be a dude in politics.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her girl squad — fellow freshmen lawmakers Katie Hill of California, Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut — tracked Mitch McConnell to petition him to have a vote to reopen the government. The Senate majority leader has been trying to lay doggo as Trump thrashes after pulling the rug out from under McConnell.

It was another jangly A.O.C. media stunt that irritated some of her colleagues but fired up the meme factory. She broadcast the scavenger hunt on Instagram with the hashtag Where’sMitch?

When A.O.C. tweeted that a Getty photo of the women storming the halls of Congress looked like a Spice Girls album cover, Hill tweeted back her own remix of the Britpop girl-power anthem “Wannabe”: “I’ll tell you what I want … What I really really want … 800,000 government employees to be able to pay their bills.”

.. With her taunt that the president could make his State of the Union address in his own office, Pelosi continued the strategy of denying the attention addict attention. With his cancellation of her trip to Afghanistan, Trump simply underscored that Pelosi has been to our war zones many times while Trump has only been to Iraq once after being shamed into it.

Asked if Trump was retaliating after her threat to cancel the State of the Union, Pelosi offered the perfect sly riposte: “I don’t think the president would be that petty, do you?

White House lurches into crisis mode, again

Chief of staff John Kelly was forced to publicly insist he’s remaining in his job as he tried for a fourth day to contain the damage following allegations that a senior aide abused two ex-wives. 

The relentless chaos has prompted some senior officials to leave the administration in recent weeks. The latest is Rachel Brand, the number three official at the Justice Department, who resigned on Friday to join Wal-Mart, telling friends that she was concerned that her association with the Trump administration could hurt her reputation.

“She is very smart, accomplished, and talented, and wants to protect her career,” said one Brand associate.

.. The list largely consisted of portfolio reassignments and title changes, doing little to allay concerns that Kelly has been unable to recruit fresh faces to replace senior officials who have left.

.. Even though he was previously aware of some of the allegations facing his staff secretary, Kelly’s allies say he didn’t fully understand the severity of the issue until he saw photographs of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a bruised eye. White House aides also assert that Kelly and other top officials felt misled by Porter’s own defense against the allegations.