Alex Holder on Documenting Trump in ‘Unprecedented’
OOn December 7, 2020, Alex Holder met President Donald Trump face to face at an historic moment in American history. Trump’s bid for reelection was clearly over. Hundreds of lawsuits challenging results in crucial swing states were quickly rejected. But he was refusing to concede, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis and, in a month’s time, a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Holder, who was a veteran of British documentary circles for decades, hadn’t interviewed an American politician before. His first documentary was not his. Nevertheless, he was the one with a camera pointed at the President in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, beating out scores of more experienced documentarians and other journalists for the opportunity.
Holder watched in horror as Trump blasted Georgia Republican officials, especially Gov. Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger (Secretary of State) were both decried by Holder as cowards. “They’re not even running the state,” Trump said, according to Holder. “The state’s being run by Stacey Abrams.”
Holder recalled being struck by Trump’s rant as he continued to rant. “There was a very awkward silence when the interview finished,” he tells TIME. “A very uncomfortable atmosphere. There was a feeling of people being scared.”
Holder, now 33 years old, is once more at the centre of the political universe, 18 months later. The three sections of Unprecedented,Discovery Plus will air his documentary about the Trumps on Sunday. The series has drawn intense interest over the last month, after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack interviewed Holder and subpoenaed him for all of the footage he took of Trump and the former president’s associates in the days and weeks leading up to the Capitol riot. The list includes Trump’s children, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Vice President Mike Pence.
“Those interviews are obviously very important for the chronology and for what was going on in people’s minds at those specific times,” Holder says.
Perhaps as unusual as an American president granting a filmmaker—any filmmaker—such close access to him and his family at such a fraught moment, is the way in which Holder, a little-known filmmaker with no directing credits on his resume, got the job in the first place.
It’s a story that goes back to early 2020. After a few years helping produce other’s documentaries, Holder embarked on his first directorial project: a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says the film, which is now in post production, sought to probe “why there is such fascination” with the intractable more-than-a-century-long imbroglio. Holder visited the U.S. once to visit Jason Greenblatt. Greenblatt was an Orthodox Jew and an attorney for Trump Organization. Trump then appointed Greenblatt as his Middle East Peace Envoy. Kushner and Greenblatt were part of the U.S.-brokered agreement for normalization between Israel and the Gulf Arab countries, which included the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
“We discussed this crazy idea of making a documentary about the Trump family and obviously President Trump himself,” Holder says of his conversation with Greenblatt. After a while, Greenblatt presented the idea to Trump and his family. “They’d been complaining so much about how the media is misrepresenting them. And no one really knows who they are,” Holder says. “They had a really cynical view of the media. So I said that I just wanted them to tell me who they were.” Greenblatt declined to comment for this report.
Holder believes that Trump’s timing was a major factor in his acceptance of it. The 2020 campaign was gaining steam as the country was still recovering from the pandemic. Trump said that Trump’s team thought they agreed to being filmed while he defeated Joe Biden. Think of a Trumpian version The War Room, the legendary documentary that captured the Clinton campaign team’s quest to win the 1992 election. Holder, however, was forced to bear witness to an American president who refused to accept defeat.
Along with Trump’s firm belief that he would win re-election, Holder says the fact that he was a British filmmaker not part of the American mainstream media also helped him secure the coveted gig.
“Hubris was probably the main reason why they cooperated,” Holder says, “because here’s a guy who doesn’t really have any skin in the game. He’s not American, and he’s there to film us win the election. You should indulge. That’s sort of how it all kind of came about.”
“There were no tricks in this,” he adds. “I’m very straightforward.”
Holder said that Trump’s interview was conducted in an approach to which was not confrontational. “My approach was being really open and transparent and very soft,” he says. “I didn’t push. I sort of took what I could get from them.”
It worked. Holder managed to get three interviews for Trump’s documentary. The first interview, which was held at Trump’s White House Dec. 7, 2020 was the only one. The other two were at Mar-a-Lago in March 2021 and at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey in May 2021. Holder hesitates to reveal too many details of Trump’s interviews with Holder. Instead, he said that he wanted people to view the film which has been his mainstay for two years.
Holder has already sat for a roughly two-hour interview with the Jan. 6 committee’s investigators. On July 12, he will answer questions from officials in Fulton County, Georgia, for their probe into Trump’s efforts to subvert the state’s 2020 election results. The Department of Justice is still investigating the Capitol Riot, he said. Trump, or his associates, declined to comment on whether he had contacted him in recent months.
Alex Holder interviews Ivanka Trump, right, for “Unprecedented”
Since details of Holder’s project have become better known in recent weeks, members of Trump World and the U.S. media have expressed shock at the access his crew was able to gain. These reactions are what Holder describes as confusing. “It was absurd,” he says, “because we were so visible.”
He mentions a time at a 2020 rally where his director of photography was present on stage while Ivanka was speaking. CNN called his campaign to complain that he was hindering their shot. “They were like, ‘Who is this random dude on stage? He’s blocking our live feed. Get him off.’
“We were literally on the stage with them,” Holder continues. “And you can’t get into the White House, which is probably the most secure building in the world, without being known, especially with huge amounts of equipment.”
Holder began to feel a gloomy after following around the president’s children and grandchildren on their campaign trail.
His memory of being present at the White House Jan. 5 is vivid. He was at the White House on Jan. 5. Holder says he told his cinematographer, “He’s going to tell them to barge the Capitol tomorrow.”
Sure enough, Trump would infamously tell his supporters in that address to go to the Capitol that day—when Congress was set to officially certify Joe Biden’s election victory—and “fight like hell” or else they would lose their country.
Interest in the speech and the events surrounding it spiked last week after a former White House staffer, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified to the Jan. 6 panel that Trump was angry there weren’t more people in the rally space. The reason, the Secret Service told him, was because many of his supporters were heavily armed and didn’t want to go through the metal detectors.
“I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” Trump said, according to Hutchinson. “Take the effing mags away. My people are welcome. They can march to the Capitol from here.”
Holder was there that day along with his team. They heard some chant “Hang Mike Pence” while breaching the Capitol grounds. The Jan. 6th committee revealed the details in one of their hearings. At one point, Pence was only 40 yards from the mob. The Secret Service then evacuated him to safety. Hours later, when law enforcement assets were able to safeguard the Capitol and restore order, Congress completed its work, with Pence certifying Biden’s win at around three in the morning.
Holder met Pence six days later. Pence agreed to an interview, but with a notable caveat. “They reached out and wanted to do an interview, but they made it really clear that they didn’t want to talk about the events of Jan. 6,” Holder says.
But it was impossible to ignore. As they were about to get started, a Pence aide showed the vice president an email that Holder says was Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s formal request for him to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. (Pence told CNN he was actually reviewing the letter he sent back to Pelosi saying he wouldn’t convene the Cabinet to declare Trump unfit to serve as President.) Pence attended the ceremony a little over a week later. Trump declined to attend.
This is the largest undercurrent in terms of themes Unprecedented, Holder says, is a look at the Trump family’s dynamics. British filmmaker Holder says Trump regards his political venture as a fundamentally patriarchal exercise.
Holder presents Trump with his iPad so that he can watch video clips from his campaign trail kids. Trump says, “They have a great political base, but it’s my base,” according to Holder. “Which is fascinating, right?” Holder continues. “Like a father trying to take away from his kids’ accomplishments and saying they actually come from him.”
Still, the stain of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election is inescapable. Holder asked Holder about January 6 during their second interview at Mar-a-Lago. He showed no remorse, Holder says, instead complaining about the Supreme Court, which had thrown out Trump’s claims of election fraud a month earlier.
“It was a sad day, but it was a day when there was great anger in our country,” Trump told him. “People went to Washington primarily because they were angry with an election that they think was rigged.”
To Holder, Trump’s answer came with a searing irony. “He admits that the reason they went into the Capitol was because they believe the election was stolen,” he says, “but who told them that the election was stolen other than him?”
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