One of the most compelling moments of the 2016 campaign was also one of its most predictable.
On Tuesday evening, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos interrupted a Donald Trump news conference in Dubuque, Iowa, stepping out of turn to press the presidential candidate on his controversial immigration policies.
“Mr. Trump, I have a question,” said Ramos, one of the country’s most recognizable Mexican-Americans, as he stood up in the front row of journalists.
“Excuse me,” Trump retorted. “Sit down. You weren’t called. Sit down.”
“I’m a reporter, an immigrant, a senior citizen,” Ramos said calmly. “I have the right to ask a question.”
“Go back to Univision,” Trump said, talking over the TV anchor and motioning for a bodyguard to remove Ramos from the room.
Ramos was later allowed back into the room to ask Trump about his plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, deny “anchor babies” U.S. citizenship and build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
“Here’s the problem with your immigration plan,” Ramos began once more. “It’s full of empty promises.”
The mano-a-mano media showdown made for gripping entertainment — something both men know plenty about. It pitted a TV host turned presidential candidate against (another) one of the most widely watched men in America, all on live television.
Ramos isn’t just another political reporter, however. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he has become an increasingly vocal supporter of immigration reform. It’s a role that has helped him cross over into English-language news, but also blurred the line between journalist and activist.
Ever since Trump launched his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers,” he and Ramos have been on a collision course. Trump has allegedly rebuffed Ramos’s repeated requests for an interview, so the journalist has taken to stalking the pol online like a hunter on safari, firing off Twitter salvos after each Trump appearance.
Ramos has admitted recently to taking “personal” offense at Trump’s immigration plan. But Tuesday’s tête-à-Trump was something deeper still.
It was a clash of conflict junkies.
Though their styles and backgrounds could hardly be more different, both men are surprisingly similar in one key way. They are notoriously adversarial by nature.
And both view argument as a form of public combat. Trump is crass and scattershot, like a scathing verbal shotgun: capable of hitting anyone and everyone in an expletive-laden fury. By contrast, Ramos is tightly focused — usually on immigration — but no less dangerous, like a sniper rifle.
“My only weapon is the question,” the anchor told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
By now, Trump’s combative personality is familiar to most Americans. He is, in the words of The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, “pure political id” — “a car-accident candidate, the middle finger of the Republican base.”
But for many Americans, especially non-Hispanics, Tuesday’s news conference clash would have been the first time encountering Jorge Ramos.
Unlike Trump, who was born into wealth and seems to have assumed his brash attitude as a business strategy or simply by osmosis via the borough of Queens, Ramos appears to have developed the instinct as a survival mechanism.
For Ramos, conflict has become a career.
Ramos was born in 1958 near Mexico City. Like many Mexican families at the time, his struggled to make ends meet. A steak dinner on Sunday at his grandmother’s house was “a real luxury in those days for a family with its belt as tightened as ours,” he wrote in his memoir, “No Borders: A Journalist’s Search for Home.”
His parents were able to send Ramos to university, where he studied journalism. But his father did not approve of his chosen career, hoping instead that his first-born son would become a doctor, architect or engineer.
“He said, ‘What are you going to do with that?'” Ramos recounted to the LA Times. “I told him, ‘You’ll see.'”
After college, Ramos went to work for a Mexican TV station, only to quit after his bosses told him to water down a segment critical of the government, according to the Los Angeles Times.
So he sold his Volkswagen Beetle and used the proceeds to buy a plane ticket to Los Angeles, where he took journalism classes and quickly landed a gig with a Spanish-language TV station. It was a budget operation headquartered in a dilapidated house on Melrose Avenue, but the job allowed Ramos to do what he loved: Ask people tough questions.
“To me it was a palace,” he told the LA Times. “The United States gave me opportunities that my country of origin could not: freedom of the press and complete freedom of expression.”
For the past 30 years, Ramos has used that freedom of expression to interrogate celebrities and politicians, often about immigration. But it is only in the past dozen years that Ramos has allowed himself to become an advocate on the issue.
In 2002, he published a collection of immigrant stories called “The Other Face of America.” In his autobiography, written shortly afterward, he wrote that he “suddenly and unintentionally became an advocate for immigrants, for the use of the Spanish language in the United States and for Latinos in general.”
“After so many years of anchoring the news and not being allowed to give my opinion, I have loads of things stuck in my throat,” he wrote in “No Borders.” By coming to the defense of his fellow immigrants, “I am trying to … find inner peace.”
By allowing himself to become an advocate for immigration reform, Ramos has boosted his profile among non-Hispanics in America. In 2008, he even moderated a debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In 2012, Washington Monthly called him the broadcaster who would most determine that year’s election.
He is fond of saying that no president can win the White House without Latino support, and Ramos is practically a pacemaker for the pulse of that constituency.
“Remember what L.B.J. said, ‘When you lose Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the war’?” Matthew Dowd, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, told the New York Times earlier this year. Mr. Ramos is “not only a journalist, he’s become the voice of the Latino constituency,” Mr. Dowd said. “And that’s where Republicans have to worry — you don’t want to lose Jorge Ramos.”
“Spanish-language news has almost the same pull as the priest in the pulpit,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) told the Los Angeles Times. “And Jorge Ramos is the pope, he’s the big kahuna.”
But by owning the issue of immigration, Ramos has also blurred the line between journalist and activist.
“We do have this antique notion that a newsman will be disinterested and stay above the fray but Ramos reports like he is a lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza or a Democratic pundit,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative watchdog group, Media Research Center, told the L.A. Times.
“There’s no question that he’s important and that he has a lot of influence, but I think that people now have sort of recognized that he’s more of an advocate than a journalist,” Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican Party, told the New York Times.
“Our position is clearly pro-Latino or pro-immigrant,” Ramos has said of Univision. “We are simply being the voice of those who don’t have a voice.”
As on Tuesday, that voice is increasingly hard to ignore. Although usually calm and polite, Ramos’s modus operandi is to assertively ambush any politician who won’t agree to an interview.
When House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t meet with Ramos last summer, the anchor went to him, querying the congressman at a news conference why Boehner wouldn’t allow the House to vote on a bipartisan immigration bill that had already cleared the Senate.
Ramos has also proved a pain in the side of Democrats, particularly the president. When Obama didn’t keep his 2008 campaign promise to pass immigration reform, Ramos grilled him about it on live television four years later.
“A promise is a promise,” Ramos told an uncomfortable looking Obama. “And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”
In an interview with the New York Times in January, however, Ramos said his focus had shifted.
“Now is the turn of Republicans,” he said.
With the rise of The Donald, Ramos is now living up to his threat.
When Trump first suggested that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” during his campaign kick-off speech, Ramos immediately took to the airwaves to call him out.
“Trump’s characterization of undocumented immigrants is, of course, absurd. Not only do the facts, well, trump his assertions, but his prejudiced views demonstrate a deep ignorance about Mexican immigrants in the United States,” he said.
And when The Donald debuted his official immigration plan — mass deportations, big wall, no “anchor babies” — earlier this month, Ramos again lambasted him.
On Monday, the Univision anchor rehearsed for Tuesday’s tussle by going on CNN to ridicule Trump.
“What he’s trying to sell to the American public simply doesn’t work. It’s impossible. He cannot deport 11 million people from this country,” Ramos said “Can you imagine the human rights violations that would create? And then the expense … is he willing to spend $137 billion to deport 11 million from this country? That’s just one problem. He can’t build an 1,900-mile border [fence] between Mexico and the United States. It’s absurd.”
“When you say immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists, isn’t that spreading hate?” Ramos continued. “When you call U.S. citizens anchor babies, isn’t that spreading hate? When you call 11 million people in this country ‘illegals’ — and no human being is ‘illegal’ — isn’t that spreading hate?
“This is not politics for us. This is personal. When he’s talking about immigrants, he’s talking about me. He’s talking about half of the Latino population in this country that is 18 years or older that was born in another country. So the things that he considers just ‘blunt talk’ is clearly offensive.”
The stage was set for Tuesday’s showdown, even if Trump didn’t know it. (He claimed Tuesday not to know who Ramos was, but called him “obviously a very emotional person” after the journalist was forcibly removed from the room.)
When the full confrontation of the two conflict junkies finally occurred, it was electric.
After accusing Trump of making “empty promises,” Ramos said it would be unconstitutional to deny citizenship to what Trump calls “anchor babies.” Trump began shaking his head and saying “no.”
“A lot of people think that’s not right, that an act of Congress can do it,” Trump said, rejecting the view that a constitutional amendment would be required.
“A woman’s getting ready to have a baby,” Trump continued, talking over Ramos’s objections. “She crosses the border for one day, has the baby, all of a sudden for the next 80 years — we have to take care of” the child.
When Ramos asked how Trump would build a 1,900-mile wall, The Donald defended himself.
“It’s very easy,” he said. “I’m a builder. . . .What’s more complicated is building a building that’s 95 stories tall.”
And when Ramos said deporting 11 million people would lead to human rights violations, Trump parried once more.
“I have a bigger heart than you do,” he told Ramos. “We’re going to do [deportations] in a very humane fashion.”
Like a boxing match between two heavyweights, however, the bout couldn’t last all night. Ultimately, Trump interrupted the anchor to remind him that he is suing Univision for an alleged breach of contract after the network dumped Trump and his Miss Universe pageant over this Mexico comments.
“How much am I suing Univision for right now?” Trump teased. “Do you know the number? I know you’re part of the lawsuit.”
“I’m a reporter,” Ramos said.
“Five hundred million dollars,” Trump replied. “And they’re very concerned about it, by the way. I’m very good at this.”
The legal bickering was the last word between the two for the night, but hinted at a larger truth.
This conflict isn’t going away anytime soon.