The first message popped up in early July this year – “Trump is ready to do an interview. How soon can you get a US visa?” The sender: Shalabh “Shailly” Kumar, the brash Indian-American businessman who emerged as an early supporter and funder in Donald Trump’s political career.
In a flash, the message took me back to 2016, when Kumar, a relatively unknown Chicago-based manufacturer of electronic components, appeared out of the blue, persuading the then candidate Trump, who had just announced his Presidential bid, to address an Indian-American rally in New Jersey. I was amongst the reporters from a handful of Indian TV channels who, courtesy Kumar, were able to briefly interview Trump backstage before the rally.
But after Trump went to the White House, Kumar and he appeared to have parted ways. We too lost contact – hence my surprise when Kumar’s message flashed on my phone screen six years later. When we spoke on the phone, Kumar explained that Trump had reached out to him as he considered running again in the 2024 Presidential elections.
For Kumar, who founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, a lobby group meant to mobilise the vote of what Kumar pointedly called “Hindu Americans”, the interview would set up an important photo-op of a Trump-Kumar reunion. For us, it would mean landing an interview with a powerful, if controversial public figure – a former US President set to run again.
The date was set at mid-July at Mar A Lago, Trump’s luxury property in Florida. But days before we were to leave, a last-minute hitch – Trump had called off the interview seemingly because he was upset at the death of former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe, shot and killed about a week prior to our proposed meeting.
A month later, Kumar messaged again. This time it was on, no snags. The venue had shifted to a Trump golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, about an hour west of New York. (Whether the shift was linked to the FBI raids at Mar a Lago was unclear). In addition to the interview, Kumar and his associates said we would be shown around the resort and likely be able to conduct interviews with members of team Trump.
On the appointed day, we drove into the expansive grounds of the Bedminster resort at 1 pm for the promised walkthrough, four hours before the interview (set for 5 pm). But Trump’s media team, led by the young Taylor Budowich, had no information about a tour of the property. Confusion reigned, calls were made. The outcome was inconclusive. “You have me to show you around,” quipped the irrepressible Kumar, saying he had been to Bedminster several times to meet Trump over the years and was familiar with the grounds. So off we went, camera in tow, filming the elegant colonial-style main clubhouse where sepia-tinted golf memories were interspersed with glowing testimonies of Trump’s stint as the host of The Apprentice, the business-skills reality TV show that propelled him to stardom, paving the way for his political debut.
One framed image from the trade magazine Variety showed The Apprentice as the top-ranked TV show of 2004. Another featured a list of the “most famous TV quotes and catchphrases of all time”, in which Trump’s “You’re Fired” line, which he used to dismiss the show’s unsuccessful contestants, was ranked at number 3.
Behind the bar hung a portrait of the Apprentice-era Trump, his face contorted into the signature “You’re fired” expression.
We then filmed inside the club’s souvenir shop, where the top-selling item turned out to be Trump’s signature red MAGA (Make America Great Again) baseball cap, selling at $32 apiece. About 20 were sold daily, we were told.
One final destination remained – the resting place of Ivana Trump, the former President’s ex-wife who died in June this year in New York. Her burial in the grounds of the Bedminster resort had piqued media and public curiosity, with some media outlets reporting the choice of this final resting place may be linked to getting tax breaks for the Trump property.
Escorted by a grounds man, we rode in golf buggies to the burial site. Without a guide, we would easily have missed it. The grave, covered with clumps of grassy divots, was near invisible, blending into the green of the fairway. There was no signage or fence around it. A simple marble headstone pressed into the ground at the head of the grave was the only indication that this was the final resting place of the late former Mrs Trump, a stark and unsettling contrast to the opulence all around.
As we filmed, a VIP cavalcade drove past, with likely members of the Trump family (perhaps Trump himself), pausing briefly to observe us. In a matter of minutes, secret services agents pulled up in a buggy, asking us to stop filming and return to the main building. Kumar attempted to argue with them, saying he had been permitted to film around the property, but to no avail. The agents claimed they were acting under instructions from team Trump. Clearly, our filming of the gravesite had touched a nerve.
We returned to the clubhouse and my camerapersons Xavier Thomas and Ethan Blum set up for the interview. At about 5:15 pm, Trump walked in, flanked by his media advisors, and the interview began.
Midway through the interview, as we dwelt on the raids, the so-called stolen election theory and the Capitol insurrection, Trump seemed discomfited, repeatedly asking for me to move to the “next question”. Even so, we managed to cover considerable ground in the brief time available, from Trump- Modi equations to Russia, Afghanistan and more.
Soon after it ended, we were ushered out. It was conveyed to me that Trump was not happy with the interview. I was somewhat nonplussed. If anything, the shortage of time and his clear impatience made no room for the kind of detailed pushback that, in my view, was required for interviewing a figure like Trump, prone to making wildly exaggerated claims.
As he walked out, however, Trump bore no signs of annoyance, agreeing to my request to pose for a photo for social media. Ever image conscious, he asked to review it, and, not satisfied with the lighting, asked for it to be taken again. See you at the White House, he quipped, as he walked away.
PS: Knowing Trump’s propensity for exaggeration, if not outright falsehoods, we inserted fact-checks into the final version of the interview, an editorial device that got picked up by the American late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. In his now-viral clip, Kimmel played on the words Delhi/deli, joking that Trump may have agreed to being interviewed by New Delhi Television under the mistaken impression that he is getting a pastrami sandwich, a tasty staple of New York’s delicatessens, or delis for short. If there is a next time, we, on our part, may not be able to promise Mr Trump a pastrami sandwich, but as always, he will get a fair interview.
(Sreenivasan Jain is Group Editor, NDTV)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.