“I always thought there was a mutually respectful relationship you had with Donald Trump,” Lemon’s CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer told him Tuesday night on “The Situation Room.”
“Yeah,” Lemon said, and he immediately brought up one of his first interviews with Trump — on May 1, 2011, when Trump was a reality TV star flirting with a run for the presidency.
“We had a pretty good row about the birther issue,” Lemon recalled.
At the time, Trump had been spreading a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, was not an American citizen and had secretly been born in Kenya.
Trump would renounce this theory years later, but he tried to avoid the subject when Lemon confronted him about it on CNN that spring.
“I really have to go,” Trump finally said. “But I want to tell you I am the least racist. I am a wonderful person as far as you would be concerned as to race. And I think everybody that knows me knows that.”
Lemon did not agree. He reminded Trump that he had also referred to black people as “the blacks” and had questioned Obama’s education.
“The stereotypes that take place in America about African Americans — one is that they are not as smart as whites,” Lemon said.
Trump gave no ground. “The word ‘racism’ has never entered, at any time, any sentence with respect to me, and I’m very proud of that,” he told Lemon, before thanking him and concluding the interview.
“He vowed he’d never come back and do an interview with me because I was racist,” he said.
“That you’re a racist?” CNN’s Dana Bash asked Lemon, incredulous.
“That I was racist because of the way that I challenged him,” Lemon replied. “He thought, you know, I somehow can’t be unbiased about an issue because of race . . . because I’m African American.”
A CNN representative did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for more detail about Trump’s alleged remark or whether it was documented anywhere. The White House has not replied either.
On Tuesday’s show, Lemon compared the alleged remark to racial attacks by Trump years later when he falsely claimed that a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against him was a biased “Mexican.”
Lemon noted that Trump did not appear on his show again for years after the 2011 interview — until, he said, “my producers intervened and we talked.”
Trump gave Lemon a one-on-one interview in July 2015, about two weeks after he finally announced that he would run for president. Lemon used the opportunity to press Trump on campaign speeches in which he claimed “rapists” were emigrating from Mexico.
And while the anchor didn’t mention race, the transcript suggests it was on Trump’s mind.
“Why did you have to say that they’re ‘rapists,’ though, Donald?” Lemon asked.
“Who’s racist?” Trump asked.
“No, no, no. Not racist,” Lemon said. “Why did you have to say they were rapists?”
In the end, Trump seemed satisfied with Lemon’s journalism, and returned to speak with him repeatedly throughout his campaign.
“He said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re really good, I respect you,’ ” the anchor recalled Tuesday.
Through the early campaign, Lemon would occasionally press Trump on accusations of racism, and the candidate would always deny them, and always come back.
“I am the least racist person,” Trump said in December 2015 — reprising his line from years ago.
And then the two fell out again.
The last interview between them that The Washington Post could locate occurred in March 2016 — a few weeks before Trump secured the Republican nomination for president.
Race never came up, but Lemon asked Trump whether his violent rhetoric might be causing fights at his rallies, and Trump accused CNN of portraying his campaign unfairly.
As Election Day approached, the interviews ceased, and the two began trading insults on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Lemon presented a somewhat neater timeline of the disintegration — claiming that Trump turned against him after he won the election.
“Once he became president of the United States and you have to hold his feet to the fire, all of a sudden he doesn’t like what I’m doing,” Lemon said.
Regardless, the two men were openly and publicly hostile to each other by the time Trump took office. When reports emerged last winter that Trump had called several African and Central American nations “shithole countries,” Lemon simply called Trump a “racist,” sans interview.
Lemon repeated the accusation again this week — at length — after Trump called him and LeBron James, a black basketball player, two of the stupidest people on television.