“Who do you believe?”
It was the defining moment of the US-Russia summit in Helsinki: President Donald Trump stood side-by-side with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and appeared to side with Russian denials when asked whether Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
The crystal-clear question came from AP White House reporter Jonathan Lemire, who asked Trump to choose between Putin and his own intelligence agencies.
The exchange, and an equally bold couple of questions to Putin, was the capstone of a grueling weeklong reporting effort by Lemire and fellow White House reporter Jill Colvin as they chronicled Trump’s tumultuous travels across Europe. The two, working in cooperation with colleagues in Europe and Russia, delivered smart spot reporting and strong enterprise at every stop on the president’s jaw-dropping trip.
For their exhaustive and highly impactful work, they win Beat of the Week.
As Lemire took his seat at the closing press conference in Helsinki, Colvin was at her keyboard, ready to file off the leaders’ remarks. Lemire explains that he was not sure ahead of time that he would even get to pose a question, though he’d been aggressively lobbying the White House, knowing what a defining moment of the presidency it could be. He’d made the request several times, but he didn’t know for sure until press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called his name.
“Before any presidential press conference, I always prepare a list of questions just in case,” he says. “Nothing worse than getting caught flat-footed. I knew immediately want I wanted to ask: though certainly there were other weighty matters being discussed (Syria, etc.) I knew that, with the chance to have Trump and Putin in the room together, the question had to be about election interference.”
Lemire had to adjust his question on the fly, when Jeff Mason from Reuters was called on first and touched upon the same idea. Taking notes as Trump answered Mason, Lemire wrote, in all caps: WHO DO YOU BELIEVE? “And that’s what I wanted to ask, who do you believe, Mr. President, Russia or your own intelligence agencies? And will you use this moment to issue a public rebuke and warning to Putin? Of course, he did neither.”
Lemire followed up with a double-barreled question to Putin, about Crimea, and then about whether the Russian government had compromising material on Trump or his family. “Again, I felt like I had but one choice,” he says. “We've been buzzing for two years about whether Russia had compromising material on Trump and this was our chance, since Putin does not take questions from American journalists often. I will admit that it was a little disquieting when Putin called me ‘distinguished colleague’ and did not break eye contact once during his answer. But I did my best to meet his stare. And note that he did say no.”
Earlier, Colvin had put Trump on the spot.
Earlier in the trip, it was a Colvin question that made Trump squirm during a photo op with British Prime Minister Theresa May. When Colvin asked Trump whether he regretted making remarks praising May rival Boris Johnson, the president delivered an exaggerated head-shake while May executed an eye-roll that quickly took off in video circulated on the Internet.
As for that final question to Trump in Helsinki, the response was overwhelming. It dominated summit coverage worldwide, and it brought AP and Lemire plaudits from free-press advocates. Most rewarding, he says, were the hundreds of emails he received from regular people thanking him for asking a fair and tough question.
There is one other reaction to Lemire’s question worth noting: that of Trump himself. The Washington Post reported that on the way home from the summit, Trump complained to his staff, asking why Lemire had been called on, when perhaps another reporter might have asked “an easier question.”
“Trump further grumbled about the tough question he was asked by Jonathan Lemire ... wondering why that reporter had been called on rather than someone who might have asked an easier question.”
The Washington Post, July 21, 2018
For bravely asking the tough questions that need to be asked, Lemire and Colvin win this week’s Beat of the Week award.