“If I'd have said that Donald Trump would be the next president, they would have put me in a room with only soft furnishings,” says Jon Sopel. Not that he would have. The BBC's North America correspondent, tasked with interpreting for a British audience the vast outpouring of unfiltered babbling coming from the now president's mouth, quickly accrued a huge amount of news- solid, hard facts- from his time reporting from Washington. What he learned out there, though, was that facts didn't matter to the Trump administration- making Mr. Sopel's time covering this presidency totally unique to any other assignment he'd ever been given.
It's Wednesday 18th September, and we're in Manchester's Dance House Theatre for the launch of A Year at the Circus: Inside Trump's White House. Interviewing him is BBC's political editor Jim Hancock.
“If Hillary had won,” claims Mr. Sopel, “My golf swing would be better. I never have time now. Every time I got away, Trump would do something batshit crazy, and I'd get called back to DC.” He goes on to reel off some of Trump's falsehoods- claiming he'd predicted the outcome of Brexit while at a golf course with Sopel himself, when the plane's flight manifesto clearly showed him landing the day after the result, for example. There were plenty more. Some you'll remember from the news, some may have passed you by.
The discussion, including questions from the audience, covers Trump's child-like sharpie drawings tracking Hurricane Dorian, his paying off of Stormy Daniels (“Our job is not to normalise really weird behaviour,”) Melania's cluster of secret service agents filling an entire corner of a restaurant (That Mr Sopel found himself in) just days after the Stormy Daniels story broke (“the atmosphere was not great. Trump was sat like he was on the naughty step. I couldn't help but gawk”) and much, much more. Say what you like about Trump's politics, but his presidency is never dull.
If Mr Sopel had been American, he claims, the book could have been more damning. Americans are protected by the 1st Amendment, which prevents the government from making laws which abridge the freedom of speech, or the freedom of the press. Given Trump has sued (UK news outlets) The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, Mr Sopel didn't want to take any chances. What remains in the book- at least what's discussed a the event- is still riveting. Mr Sopel has read the Mueller report (“He didn't conspire. But most reports are dull. The Mueller report is a page-turner”).
Mr. Sopel and his team had to discuss the precedent of dropping the F-Bomb on TV. (Trump, after hearing the guts of the aforementioned expose, had allegedly uttered, “It's the end of my presidency. I'm fucked.”) Mr Sopel describes the blatant difference between this presidency and any other in US history: “'Pussy,' 'shithole countries,' 'we're fucked...' The language I've used on the BBC...” He brings a fist to his head and expands his grip: mind-blowing.
After some skilled questioning from Mr. Hancock, we go over to the audience for questions. First off the bat: Who does Mr Sopel back in the 2020 elections?
“It's Trump. Due to the economy, employment, stocks. Biden makes a lot of mistakes. Elizabeth Warren, she's possible.”
Are you surprised there's been no assassination attempt?
“No- the people with the guns like him, and the Secret Service do an incredible job.”
Do you think when he ran it was a publicity stunt?
“He's having the time of his life. It was a branding exercise when he attacked John McCain, who was was praised as a PoW. Trump trashed him and everyone loved it. The original plan was to be in for 6 weeks and throw it to Chris Christie.”
If there's a US-UK trade deal, should we worry about the NHS?
“No. Johnson couldn't trade with the USA. He knows it would be devastating. The NHS is like a live rail: touch it at your peril.”
Trump encourages violence towards journalists- have you experienced it?
“Hell yeah. My cameraman was pushed over, and he's a heavy-set guy. I've been jostled, spat at. Secret Service were guarding the journalists. We weren't allowed out of the rallies until about an hour after they'd finished. Someone asked (then Press Secretary) Sarah Sanders how she copes, and straight off the bat she replied, 'bourbon.'”
Is Mike Pence dangerous or anti-women? And why is Trump orange?
“I'm mesmerised by Pence. When Trump is speaking...” Mr Sopel breaks off in impression, staring, statically fawningly at an imagined Trump. “Like a taxidermist had been there. Pence introduced Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limits gay rights and abortion. Legislation changed, but public opinion didn't. Why is he orange? I took a photo in the (White House) Rose Garden and I knew that there was something wrong. He looked like he'd been tangoed.”
Can we have free and fair elections given the Facebook misinformation campaigns?
“I bloody hope so. It's never been more challenging. Social Media has a huge responsibility, and they're fumbling and groping towards that. We need swift mechanisms put in place now.”
Mr Hancock asks, will Russia try again?
“Yes,” predicts Mr Sopel. “Trump retweeted a video of a woman dancing, claiming it was a celebration on 9/11. It was total fake news.” It's this ease of manipulation, he suggests, that makes Trump and his social media use the perfect target for political hackers.
What do you think the plans are for the Trump family?
“There was a TV series called Succession, about a media empire ran by a man with children, where we're always wondering which child will take over. Donald Trump Jr is like his dad. US viewers loved the Bush family, now they love the Trumps.”
Given Trump's narcissistic tendencies, will he try for 3 terms?
“The republican party will not overturn the Constitution. Trump would be 83. People would push back.”
Does the Trump media circus take attention away from Mitch McConnell and others who are dangerous?
“They'll see diminishing returns on attacks. And what else is there to say? Mitch will be played hard. The Dems will broaden their attacks to other Republicans.”
To what extent is Jared Kushner behind this?
“Jared was tasked with bringing peace to the Middle East...”
There are a few laughs from the audience. Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State), Mr Sopel claims, is the biggest influence.
In your travels around the world, has Trump's presidency damaged how others view America?
“Yes, but Americans don't give a damn. It's collateral damage of Donald Trump doing his job. But he has lost influence abroad.”
Are the Dems doing the right thing by not impeaching?
“When Bill Clinton was impeached he saw a huge surge in popularity.”
You come across as liberal and level-headed- are you ever drawn into Trump's appeal?
“I love his Twitter. With the Mayor Saddiq Khan or Boris Johnson, you know 16 people wrote it. Trump's spelling mistakes tell you, 'This is real.'”
As depressing as the geo-political sphere may be right now, the evening has been anything but.
The book tour was produced by Penguin Live.