This interview was conducted as part of Matt Kass’ weekly political column “Left, Right and Center”
This past week at his first solo press conference as president, Donald Trump generated headlines of a slightly different nature. Among the most memorable encounters Trump had at the press conference was with Jake Turx, a journalist for the conservative Jewish magazine Ami.
Turx, who uses a pen name when he writes for the magazine, was given a talking-to by the president in an exchange that was rebroadcast worldwide. For this week’s column, I interviewed Turx by phone to get his side of the encounter. Here’s what he said about his question, the exchange and what he thinks about the future of the White House press pool.
Matt Kass: You’re a credentialed reporter from Ami Magazine. Was this your first big credentialed event as a news magazine?
Jake Turx: No, not exactly. It was the first solo press conference that the president did as president. So technically it was the first time I was called on by the president at a press conference. That’s what that was. But I have been covering the white house for the past few weeks.
MK: When you were called on to ask the question, the purpose of your question was not to attack the administration or the president – it was to ask about the response to a problem you saw arising in the Jewish Community?
JT: Correct, and it was problem that was actually trending on Twitter earlier that day. There had been 48 bomb threats made against Jewish community centers. And so that was a specific incident, or rather a specific set of instances, and it wasn’t just a general question. I was asking him to address that, and I made it clear that nobody was charging him with being anti-Semitic, and he isn’t anti-Semitic. We know this. [Sometimes] people don’t personally know that anti-Semitism and Trump do not have any correlation. I believed I had made that clear, but it is a large room. The east room is the largest room in the White House, and sometimes the words don’t carry over very well.
MK: Were you caught off-guard by the response you got from the president when you asked your question?
JT: Our objective is not to show any emotion or attachment to any of the subjects that we cover, so I didn’t really feel surprised or shocked or anything because I try very hard not to, like I said, draw any kind of emotional attachment. But it was definitely a feeling that I’d never felt before and it was very strange. It was a very strange feeling being told to sit down for something that had clearly not been intended.
MK: Were you surprised when you got home, looked at the news and Twitter and saw that you were a trending topic?
JT: Let me put it to you this way: I was not surprised because what actually happened was I spent the entire night that night, and I didn’t sleep that night, I was giving interviews to Israeli and European outlets, a lot of them were very curious about what the Trump administration’s policy would be moving forward about anti-Semitism. As you know, there are many problems in Europe and in Britain with anti-Semitism as well, which by the way can in no way be traced to President Trump. Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere, and to blame it on one individual would be entirely unfair. So these are concerns that need to be addressed and I’m very happy that they are being addressed right now, and I hope that they are adequately addressed in the future.
MK: For me and for others looking at the White House, there’s a certain sense of uneasiness in some circles when it comes to Steve Bannon, and the rhetoric he used while at Breitbart. What are your thoughts on that matter?
JT: Here’s the thing about Bannon: where does this notion that he’s anti-Semitic come from? As far as we know, it comes from a messy divorce he had with his ex-wife, and she was the one who claimed that. We don’t necessarily take statements from an angry ex- very seriously too often. Having said that, we’ve interviewed people who worked for him for many years, including Joel Pollak and Ben Shapiro. They’re Jewish and they’ve worked for him for many years, and they’ve said that he’s absolutely not anti-Semitic, and he’s a very big supporter of Israel. It is so easy to destroy a person’s character and until I see actual evidence that he’s anti-Semitic, I have absolutely no reason to either accept that he is or be concerned that he is.
MK: If at some point, the White House calls and says that they saw the gist of your question, they’re sorry and they want to make it up to you, would you attempt to ask for a solo, sit-down interview or something like that?
JT: One of the perks of working in the White House and being a White House correspondent is that my work station is just a couple of yards away from the Oval Office and the upper and lower press offices. I know many administration officials personally, and I was able to immediately reach out to them and to clarify the intent of my question, and we had everything settled within a matter of hours. As for whether or not the president wants to do an interview, I don’t think that’s necessary. He’s been very forthcoming and very gracious. He granted us two interviews while he was running for president. Right now, my bigger concern is that they honor their commitment that administration officials and community leaders will get together and see what it is that we can do to address this really pressing issue [of anti-Semitism].
MK: Do you have hope that other journalists in the future will be able to have this ease of access to the president?
JT: The way the White House is set up is that the president has no way of revoking access or credentials. It goes through an independent organization, and the reason they set it up that way is journalists should feel a certain freedom when it comes to challenging the president as necessary. And what I’ve said is that if I feel this issue isn’t being addressed, I would definitely consider asking this question again if necessary, but I’m actually very confident that this will not be an issue. As for other journalists, my colleagues at the White House are the best of the best. They’re very professional and they don’t get intimidated. Two examples I can give you would be Jim Acosta from CNN and April Ryan from Urban Radio. They’ve been shouted down before and they still keep coming back and doing their jobs. So I’m not concerned [about future presidential access] at all.
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