My Confrontation with Trump Made Me Feel Like a Stranger in My Own Country
At a press conference in 2015, Jorge Ramos was told by a Trump supporter to "get out of my country" after having an argument with the future president.
The author just before being removed from a Trump press conference. Photo by Charlie Neibergall via AP
"Get out of my country.”
I can still hear that sentence with absolute clarity, as if it occupies a specific place in my mind. It’s a scar. Deep within. It happened some time ago, yet it still rings in my ears as if it were yesterday. I don’t even know the name of the man who said it to me. But I have his face and his hatred etched in my eyes and all over my skin.
When somebody hates you, you feel it across your entire body. It’s usually just words. But the shrillness of words laden with hatred works its way under your fingernails, into your hair, around your eyelids. Of course, it also enters through your ears. Eventually, everything seems to be welling up somewhere between the throat and the stomach, to the point where you feel as if you’re drowning. If the feeling builds up over a long enough period of time, something could burst.
The man who said “Get out of my country” was a Trump supporter. I know this because he was wearing a pin identifying the then candidate on one of his lapels. But most of all, I know this because of the way he said it to me. He looked me straight in the eyes, pointed a finger at me, and shouted. Time and again I’ve gone back to watch video of the incident, which took place in August 2015, and I still don’t know how I was able to remain calm. I remember the tone of his voice caught me by surprise. Trump, with the brutal and cowardly help of a bodyguard, had just ejected me from a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa.
Jorge Ramos's confrontation with Trump in August, 2015
I had just started thinking about how to respond when suddenly I heard a madman shouting and pointing his finger. I looked up, and—instead of simply ignoring his rudeness, as I would have preferred—I settled myself and simply replied, “I’m also a U.S. citizen.” His response made me laugh. “Whatever,” he said, sounding like a teenager. A police officer who overheard the exchange outside the press conference stepped between us, and that was where it ended. But the hatred stuck. Hatred is contagious. And Trump is infectious.
I am convinced that if Trump had treated me differently, his supporter would not have spoken to me as he had. But Trump had just thrown me out of a press conference, and that, somehow, had given this man permission to direct his hatred toward me. In over three decades as a journalist, such a thing has happened to me only once before. It was 1991, during the first Ibero-American Summit, in Guadalajara, Mexico. One of Fidel Castro’s bodyguards shoved me and threw me aside as I was questioning the Cuban dictator about the lack of basic freedoms on the island. Trump also used a bodyguard to prevent me from asking a question. He and Fidel used the same tactics of physical force—via their bodyguards—to handle an uncomfortable encounter with the press.
My problems with Trump began in New York on June 16, 2015, the day he launched his presidential campaign. It was there that he made the following statement: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best... They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people... It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America...”
These are racist comments. Period.
He lumped all Mexican and Latin American immigrants in the same bag. He made a sweeping generalization. He lacked the intellectual honesty to say that only some immigrants commit crimes, not the majority of them. Later, several of Trump’s supporters swore that he was referring only to a specific type of undocumented immigrant—the most violent ones—not all who come across the southern border. Perhaps. We will never know for sure. But regardless, that is not what he said. What I do know is that when Trump launched his campaign, he accused all Mexican immigrants of being criminals, drug traffickers, and rapists.
He and Fidel used the same tactics of physical force—via their bodyguards—to handle an uncomfortable encounter with the press.
What he said is absolutely false. All the studies I have read—especially the one conducted by the American Immigration Council—have come to the same conclusion: namely, that “immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime.” Trump started his path to the White House with a massive lie.
His first statements as a candidate took me by surprise. They bothered me deeply. For days and even weeks later, I felt very unsettled. I wasn’t sure how to respond. As a reporter, as a Latino, and as an immigrant, I had to do something. I just didn’t know exactly what. It would have to be a well-calibrated answer, not the diplomatic and aseptic response of a politician. Nor could it be an insulting jab.
Univision, the company I’ve been working for since January 1984, had made the courageous decision to break off its business relationship with Trump and not broadcast the Miss USA beauty pageant—which was owned in part by the businessman—on Spanish-language television for “insulting remarks about Mexican immigrants.” This would mark the beginning of a lengthy legal battle. Despite all that, I felt Trump had to be confronted on a journalistic level as well. This was not simply a business matter. So on the same day that Univision announced the end of its working relationship with Trump, I sent him a handwritten letter requesting an interview. That letter, dated June 25, 2015, read as follows:
I want to write you personally to request an interview.
But so far your team has declined.
I am sure you have a lot of things to say... and I have a lot of things to ask. I’ll go to New York or wherever you would like.
If you would like to talk first over the phone, my personal cell is 305-794-1212.
I know this is an important issue for you as it is for me.
All the best, Jorge Ramos
I sealed it inside a FedEx Express envelope and sent it to his New York offices. The next day, out of nowhere, I began receiving hundreds of calls and text messages, some more insulting than others. I didn’t understand what was happening until a coworker of mine came into my office and said, “Trump just posted your cell phone number online.”
These were some of the hundreds of texts I received:
Jorge Ramos- Donald Trump placed your personal letter online and has your number written on it. I’m sorry about what he did.
Go F yourself George Porgie!
Please take the anti-U.S. Univision back to the corrupt 3rd world country Mexico and you can go with it. Thx and have a great trip back.
#Trump2016. Build those walls to stop illegals from crossing our borders.
You’re a racist dirtbag. Nobody wants your illegal cousins in this country.
Trump was right... Latinos need to stay off the ‘I’m offended’ bandwaggon. It’s embarrassing... You don’t speak for all Latinos!
Trump 2016! Come to this country legally or leave! Illegal is illegal!!!!
In fact, Trump had answered me via Instagram. He wrote, “@Univision said they don’t like Trump yet Jorge Ramos and their other anchors are begging me for interviews.” Along with that brief message, he included a photograph of the letter I had written to him, without having redacted my phone number.
In addition to these messages loaded with hatred and rage, I received a lot of support. There were others, too, looking to take advantage of the situation and ask me for a job, offer me advice... even people looking for help publishing books or recording songs. It was clear Trump did not want to grant me an interview. However, there were other ways to confront him. Trump had just launched his presidential campaign, and one of its benefits was that he would constantly be talking to the press. That was our opportunity.
We spent nearly two months thinking about what to do. Then, one fine day, Dax Tejera—executive producer of America with Jorge Ramos, the program I hosted for the Fusion television network—had a great idea. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but we have to go to Iowa,” he said as he walked into my office and plopped down on the only sofa I have. There were many important matters to discuss, but he just sat there, waiting for my reaction. “Iowa?” I asked. “Why do we have to go to Iowa?”
As always, Dax had done his homework. He had studied all the press conferences Trump had scheduled for the coming weeks, and the one in Iowa represented the best opportunity to meet him face-to-face. Appearances in places such as New York City would be packed with reporters, but not many news organizations would be sending their teams to cover an event in Dubuque, Iowa. Once again, Dax was right.
We contacted Trump’s campaign, presented our credentials to attend the press conference in Dubuque on August 26, 2015, and though we feared the worst, nobody prohibited us from attending. Around that same time we received a call from William Finnegan, a correspondent for The New Yorker, who wanted to do an article about my exchange with Trump. I invited him to join us in Iowa, and he immediately agreed. I didn’t know what was going to happen there, but my intent was not to leave without confronting Trump one way or another.
I was well equipped with questions.
Trump’s immigration policy would result in one of the largest mass deportations in modern history. How was he planning on deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants? If he could amend the Constitution to strip citizenship from the children of undocumented parents, where would he be sending infants and children who had neither a country nor a passport? Why build the largest wall on earth between two countries—1,954 miles long—if more than 40 percent of undocumented people either come by plane or overstay their visas? Wouldn’t this be a monumental waste of time, money, and effort?
The first thing I decided was that I would ask my questions while standing, not seated. Body language would be vital here. I didn’t want Trump to have any advantages over me.
With these questions in hand, I left for Iowa. We arrived on-site about two hours before the press conference was scheduled to begin. We registered and set up two cameras; I sat at one end of the front row so that nothing would obstruct our view of one another, and I was wired with a microphone so that the exchange would be clearly recorded. Technically speaking, we were ready. Television doesn’t just happen. You have to create it. But it was also important to have a plan for Trump. The first thing I decided was that I would ask my questions while standing, not seated. Body language would be vital here. I didn’t want Trump to have any advantages over me. It had to be an equal exchange between the two of us. If I stood up to ask my questions, it would be that much harder for him to ignore me.
We also knew of Trump’s tendency to interrupt reporters before they finish asking their questions. So I decided that I would just keep talking, refusing to be cut off, until I was through. At least with the first one. I was ready. I had my microphone in hand and a plan to face Trump. All of a sudden, a door opened in the back of the conference room and the security team entered, followed by Trump himself. The place fell into an unusual state of silence. The candidate greeted everyone rather unenthusiastically, barely audible, even, and then scanned the room with his eyes, as if he were taking an X-ray.
I know that kind of person. Street-smart, as you say in English. After years of interacting with people at public events, they have developed a special intuition they can use to detect both threats and opportunities. In a matter of seconds, Trump was able to identify the cameras and the reporters who were there to cover him. He walked slowly, took his place behind the podium, gave a terse, formulaic speech, and pointed at a Fox News reporter to ask the first question. There was a single person in charge of this situation, and that person was Donald Trump.
The reporter, having been identified, asked his question. The candidate responded. And there, in that rhythm that seeks to establish itself from the outset, I detected a pause, however brief. Trump’s last words were hanging in the air, and none of the other reporters were willing to jump across that void. Trump could give someone permission to speak, and he could take it away. I suppose it was something of a rite that had been established between the candidate and the elite group that had been covering his campaign for a little over two months now. Nobody wanted to shake up the rules of the game that benefited both candidate and journalists alike.
But I was new to this group. I wasn’t privy to their rhythms and rituals. Plus, I had participated in hundreds of press conferences throughout my career, and I knew that you don’t always have to wait for someone else to cede the floor to you. It’s important to understand the pauses that inevitably arise in any exchange between people and strike quickly. Of course, my intention coming in was to confront Trump, and it would be too risky to wait until the end of the press conference to ask my questions. We didn’t know how much time Trump would give us, but it was clear that there were thousands of people waiting to see him at a campaign rally. So when I saw my opportunity, I took it.
I raised my hand, stood up from my seat, and said I had a question about immigration. I was expecting some sort of reaction, but at first nobody said anything. Not even the candidate. It was as if everyone in the room had been caught off guard. The strategy, I thought, was working, and I went ahead with my question. But I didn’t simply want to ask a question. I wanted to let Trump know that many Latinos and other immigrants were offended by his racist comments and that his own immigration proposals were based on falsehoods. After all, that’s why we had gone all the way to Iowa.
But Trump is an old dog. He noticed two of the first words out of my mouth were “empty promises,” and not much good was going to come after that. So without recognizing me or even looking in my direction, he scanned the hundreds of journalists in front of him, looking for someone to call on. To Trump, I didn’t even exist. In Spanish, we have a word that perfectly describes this attitude of contempt: ningunear. The people in power scorn,
snub, or completely disregard the others. The intention is to literally turn someone into no one. And that’s what Trump was trying to do with me. He didn’t want to hear me or even see me.
He could have let me ask my question and given a quick, terse answer, thus disarming me. But his pride prevented him from doing that. He wouldn’t be satisfied with simply denying me the opportunity to ask a question: he wanted to humiliate me, to make me an example to other reporters going forward. But I was mentally prepared for Trump. I ignored him and continued to ask my lengthy question. I admit, it wasn’t a short, simple one. I wanted to get his lies on the record first and then proceed with the questions.
Visibly upset, Trump then made a mistake. He simply couldn’t allow a reporter to challenge him instead of following orders. It was then that he decided to resort to the use of force. What follows is my first exchange with Trump:
“Mr. Trump, I have a question about immigration.”
“Okay, who is next?.. Yes, please, please.” Trump was avoiding making eye contact with me while he looked for someone else to call on.
“Your immigration plan is full of empty promises.”
“Excuse me. Sit down! You weren’t called. Sit down! Sit down!” The strategy of standing up to ask the question seemed to be working. He wanted me to take a seat, but I was not about to do so.
“No, I’m a reporter.”
“And as an immigrant and a U.S. citizen I have the right to ask a question. And the question is this.”
“No, you don’t. You haven’t been called.” At least Trump was listening to me now, I thought, so I continued to press ahead.
“No. I have the right to ask a question...”
“Go back to Univision.”
“No, this is the question...”
“Go ahead,” Trump said, addressing the reporter from CBS News instead of me.
“You cannot deport eleven million people. You cannot build a nineteen-hundred-mile wall. You cannot deny citizenship to children in this country...”
“And with those ideas...”
“You weren’t called.”
“I’m a reporter...” I countered.
Trump, first with a strange movement of his mouth, followed by one with his arms, called in one of his bodyguards. The man strode across the room, stopped in front of me, and grabbed me by my left forearm before dragging me out of the room. “Don’t touch me, sir,” I said.
The security officer said I was being “disruptive” and that I should wait my turn to ask a question. But I insisted that as a reporter, I had the right to do so. He asked to see my credentials, and I said that they were with my briefcase next to my seat. I also kept telling him not to touch me, but he didn’t care. He kept on shoving me and didn’t release my forearm until we were out of the room.
“Get out of my country. Get out! This is not about you.”
Just then, one of Trump’s supporters—campaign button and all—followed me out of the conference room and confronted me. “You are very rude. It’s not about you,” he said, jabbing his finger at me. “It’s not about you, either,” I said. My mind was still on the incident with Trump and his security guard. There were many things I could have said, but there, in the moment, I decided not to focus my indignation at this supporter. He, however, was insistent: “Get out of my country. Get out! This is not about you.”
“I’m also a U.S. citizen.”
“Well, whatever. No. Univision, no. It’s not about you.”
“It’s not about you. It’s about the United States.”
A police officer who overheard our conversation stepped in between us. And that was the end of our exchange of words.
My producer, Dax Tejera, and I had to decide what to do next. Trump would have to walk out the same door I exited, and one of my cameramen was ready in case I wanted to approach the candidate a second time. I decided not to leave. I had gone to Iowa to talk to Trump, and I would try again outside the conference room.
After I was forcibly expelled, two other reporters—Kasie Hunt of MSNBC and Tom Llamas of ABC News—came to my defense and challenged Trump hard. Why did he have me kicked out of the press conference? “I don’t know really much about him,” he told them. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met him, except he started screaming. I didn’t escort him out. You have to talk to security; whoever security is has escorted him out. But certainly he was not chosen. I chose you, I chose other people. He just stands up and starts screaming. So, you know, maybe he’s at fault also. I don’t even know where he is. I don’t mind if he comes back, frankly.”
It was quite telling that Trump told the members of the press that he didn’t know who I was. After all, he had published my letter online just two months earlier. Besides, during our exchange in the conference room, he had specifically told me to “go back to Univision.” If he truly didn’t know who I was, how did he know who I worked for? The answer is that Trump was lying.
All of a sudden, his press secretary came out of the room. “Hi, I’m Hope Hicks,” she said, waving to me. She asked if I would like to go back into the conference, and I said yes. But I cautioned her that my one condition was that I be allowed to ask my questions. She agreed and asked me to wait until Trump gave me the floor. I went back into the conference room. I never found out whether it was her decision to let me back in or if she made the move only when she heard what the candidate said after I was escorted out.
I returned to my seat, which was still empty. My briefcase with my press credentials was still there as well. I raised my hand to ask a question, and—as if by following some sort of magical choreography—Trump pointed to me and said, “Yes, good, absolutely. Good to have you back.”
The exchange we then had went unnoticed by most news networks. The headlines around the world would be about how I was forcibly expelled from a press conference by one of his bodyguards, not about our conversation after the fact. Finally, I had my chance to confront Trump. What follows is the central tenet of our conversation, edited so that the exchange can be better understood:
“So here’s the problem with your immigration plan. It’s full of empty promises. You cannot deport eleven million undocumented immigrants. You cannot deny citizenship to the children [of undocumented parents] of this country.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You have to change the Constitution, Mr. Trump.”
“Well, a lot of people think that an act of Congress can do it. Now it’s possibly going to have to be tested in courts... [If] a woman is getting ready to have a baby, she crosses the border for one day and has the baby, all of a sudden for the next 80 years we have to take care of the people.”
“The Constitution [says that].”
“No, no, no. I don’t think so. I know some of the television scholars agree with you. But some of the great legal scholars agree that’s not true.”
“You are not answering, Mr. Trump.”
“I am answering... It’s going to be tested, OK?”
“Anyway, the question is, how are you going to build a nineteen-hundred-mile wall?”
“Very easy. I’m a builder. That’s easy. I build buildings that are ninety-four stories. Can I tell you what’s more complicated? What’s more complicated is building a building that’s ninety-five stories tall, OK?”
“But it’s an unnecessary waste of time and money.”
“You think so? Really? I don’t think so...”
“Almost forty percent of the [undocumented] immigrants come by plane, they simply overstay their visas.”
“I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it...”
“Well, they are coming by plane.”
“Well, they are coming by many different ways. But the primary way they’re coming is right through, right past our border patrols.”
“How are you going to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants? By bus? Are you going to bring the army?”
“Let me tell you. We’re going to do it in a very humane fashion. Believe me. I’ve got a bigger heart than you do... The one thing we are going to start with immediately are the gangs and the real bad ones... We have tremendous crime, we have tremendous problems... Those people are out. They’re going to be out so fast your head will spin. Remember you used the word ‘illegal’ immigrant?”
“No, I did not use that word.”
“Well, you should use the word because that’s what the definition is.”
“No human being is illegal.”
“OK, well, when they cross the border, from the legal standpoint, they are illegal immigrants when they don’t have their papers.”
“How do you deport eleven million?”
“You know what it’s called? Management. See, you’re not used to good management because you are always talking about government.”
“Let me just tell you. Wait, wait, wait. Government is incompetent.”
“You are not giving specifics.”
“I’ve given you specifics. I’ve given you specifics. Great management."
But the exchange did not end there. Other reporters asked their questions, and then I raised my hand again. Trump, apparently, was willing to continue the debate. I stood up and began, once more:
“You are not going to win the Latino vote.”
“I think so, because I’m going to bring jobs back.”
“The truth is—I’ve seen the polls—a Univision poll that says seventy-five percent of Latinos—”
Here is where he interrupted me. Instead of acknowledging that several polls indicated that he was losing the Latino vote, he brought up the lawsuit he had filed against Univision. “How much am I suing Univision for right now? Do you know the number? Tell me.”
“The question is—”
“Do you know the number? How much am I suing Univision for?”
“I’m a reporter, Mr. Trump.”
“Five hundred million.”
“I’m a reporter and the question is—”
“And they’re very concerned about it, I have to say.”
“So allow me to ask the question.”
“You’re losing the Latino vote.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Seventy-five percent of Latinos have a negative opinion of you. Gallup considers you the most unpopular candidate of all [Republicans]. Just check social media.”
“Do you know how many Latinos work for me? Do you know how many Hispanics are working for me?”
“Many Latinos detest you and despise you, Mr. Trump.”
“They love me.”
“That is not true. See the polls, Mr. Trump.”
“Do you know how many Hispanics work for me? Thousands.”
“Nationwide, seventy-five percent [of Latinos] have a negative opinion of you. You won’t win the White House without the Latino vote.”
“Here’s what happens. Once I win you’re going to see things happen. You know what they want? They want jobs. That’s what they want.”
“And they want to be treated fairly.”
This conversation was going nowhere. I was citing poll numbers that showed his huge unpopularity among Latino voters, and he was insisting that Latinos loved him and that thousands work for him.
At that time, I was convinced that nobody could win the White House without a significant portion of the Latino vote. Mitt Romney earned only 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, paving the way for Barack Obama’s reelection. And years earlier, in the 2008 presidential election, Senator John McCain also lost to Barack Obama, having garnered only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote.
In his responses, we can see the foundations of the anti-immigrant proposals that he would look to implement once he set foot in the White House.
Everything seemed to indicate that the Republican candidate, whoever it might be, would be barely able to reach a third of the Latino vote, which would not be enough to win the presidency. In 2016, there were 27.3 million registered Latino voters, and even though only about half of them were expected to cast ballots, their influence would be definitive. Or so I thought.
After my exchange with Trump at the press conference, the candidate wanted to continue the debate.
“You and I will talk. We’re going to be talking a lot, Jorge Ramos.”
“I hope that we can have that conversation.”
“We will. We will.”
We never spoke again.
The media, both in the United States and internationally, focused its attention on the fact that I was kicked out of the press conference: a direct attack on freedom of expression and an apparently unprecedented event in a U.S. presidential campaign. Everything I had asked Trump was relegated to the background. However, in his responses, we can see the foundations of the anti-immigrant proposals that he would look to implement once he set foot in the White House.
One of the most troubling features of Trump’s personality is that he almost never laughs. I haven’t seen this happen once.
The road proposed by Trump was fraught with danger. I saw it. Many other Latino reporters saw it as well, and together we denounced it. Trump’s words were a real threat to millions of immigrants. And I always took them seriously. To consider him a clown or a madman would be a grave mistake. He’s neither of these things. In fact, one of the most troubling features of Trump’s personality is that he almost never laughs. I haven’t seen this happen once.
As reporters, we would have to be a lot tougher with him in the wake of the announcement of his campaign. His attacks on immigrants were brutal. But by the end of summer 2015, Trump had become a true media phenomenon, and the major television networks were willing to give him nearly all the time he wanted in exchange for ratings.
To be frank, Trump was almost always willing to give interviews and make public statements on multiple issues. The other Republican candidates were not nearly as accessible. And by the time they realized their mistake, it was too late.
But this policy of open access was never extended to the Spanish-language media in general or to Univision in particular. Despite the candidate’s promise that we would speak again, we had, for all intents and purposes, been banned. Despite the fact that Trump had said he would be will- ing to talk with me further and possibly even grant us an interview, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and agenda would no longer allow this to happen. He was operating as the enemy of the undocumented, and his confrontation with me was just one more way of advancing his message.
And what was that message? If Trump was willing to forcibly eject a legal immigrant with a U.S. passport and a nationally broadcast television show from a press conference, he would have no problem expelling the more vulnerable immigrants from the country. Granting an interview or engaging in a dialogue with a Univision journalist—or any other Spanish-language media outlet—just wasn’t suited to his plan to criminalize a defenseless minority.
Trump had defended his position, and so had I. I’ve been accused of being an activist. I’m not. I’m simply a journalist who asks questions. But when there’s a politician such as Donald Trump who consistently lies, who makes racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments, who attacks judges and journalists, and who behaves like a bully during a presidential campaign, you cannot remain neutral. To do so would be to normalize his behavior. And such behavior is not a good example, especially for children. Our primary social duty as journalists is to question those who have and those who seek power.
That’s why I did not sit down and did not shut up at the press conference in Iowa. In one way or another, I had been preparing for that moment my entire career. For more than three decades, I have had the opportunity to work with absolute freedom as a reporter in the United States. Censorship was why I left Mexico in the first place, and I wasn’t about to shut up now.
But the nation that had offered me complete freedom of speech and the promise of equality was changing dramatically. A certain segment of American society, often outside the eyes of mainstream media, was displaying a growing anxiety and resentment against minorities and foreigners. This segment was mistakenly blaming them for their personal misfortunes and the larger problems affecting the nation. This phenomenon was not a new one. It started gaining momentum after Barack Obama first took office, and despite the inherent sense of irrationality, it had been searching for legitimacy and representation among the more conservative groups in the country. Trump wasn’t the leader of that movement, but he read it well and worked it to his electoral advantage.
This is how I gradually became a stranger in the country where I had lived for more than half my life. The land where my two children were born. In the end, I have to admit that when I heard the cry of “Get out of my country,” it took me by surprise. In fact, it still rings in my ears to this very day.
Excerpted from STRANGER by Jorge Ramos. Copyright © 2018 by Jorge Ramos. English translation copyright © 2018 by Ezra E. Fitz. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
STRANGER will be released February 27. Pre-order it here.