ElectionLine’s View From Abroad: Emily Maitlis & Jon Sopel On Why The Big Question Facing America Is What Happens If Trump Loses: “You Cannot Unknow What He Was Prepared To Do Last Time”

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Welcome to ElectionLine’s A View From Abroad series, in which we speak with media figures who don’t live in America but keep a close eye on its politics. Every few weeks, these smart observers will provide a unique perspective on what promises to be a fraught and unpredictable campaign for the White House. This week, our interview is with Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel, the former BBC presenters who now host podcast The News Agents – USA.

Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel beat the UK’s major news networks in gaining access to Mar-a-Lago on Super Tuesday. They entered Donald Trump’s Florida estate with a simple ambition to test the mood inside the ex-president’s camp, but ended up being told to “f*** off” by one of his most fanatical supporters.

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Maitlis, the former BBC journalist immortalized by Gillian Anderson in Netflix’s Scoop, was probing Marjorie Taylor Greene on her suggestion that Jewish space lasers were responsible for wildfires. A not unreasonable question for a congresswoman who is openly entertaining talk of being Trump’s vice-presidential running mate. “Why don’t you f*** off? How about that?” came the reply.

The exchange blew up on social media almost instantly. For many, it symbolized Team MAGA’s disdain for journalism and the coarsening of American political rhetoric. For Maitlis, she recalls simply trying to keep her cool. “Thanks, thank you very much,” she told Greene, turning to the camera with half a smile. It was a deeply British response to an expletive-laden order to leave the building. If access to Mar-a-Lago was hard-won, Maitlis jokes that they “might not get in again.”

Maitlis and Sopel, the BBC’s former North America editor, are enjoying life in the trenches of U.S. political warfare. Once veteran footsoldiers in the BBC’s “great land army,” Sopel says they now consider themselves a “small guerrilla fighting unit” with their two Global-owned podcasts: daily show The News Agents (co-hosted by Lewis Goodall); and The News Agents – USA, which drops weekly.

Both presenters have had memorable encounters with Trump. Maitlis made a documentary on the billionaire in 2010, a time when he was boasting about the size of his ballrooms rather than the crowds at his inauguration. Sopel was on the sharp end of a Trump-lashing during a White House press conference in 2017. “Here’s another beauty,” Trump withered after learning Sopel worked for the BBC.

The News Agents – USA is an exercise in looking past this bluster and unpicking what’s really going on in the minds of America’s top political figures. Sopel sees this as the antithesis of the U.S. network news he was surrounded by during his seven years stationed in Washington D.C. “The problem with some American television, at the anti-Trump end of the scale, is the [temptation to say], ‘You’ll never guess what he’s done now.’ That sense of outrage the whole time is rather wearying for an audience. We’re trying to keep people informed in a calm way about why he might be doing this, because often there is a rationale,” he explains.

Sopel acknowledges that it is easy to become perpetual spectators at the Trump circus because that’s where the “comedy and ridiculousness” is. The News Agents – USA is no stranger to pulling up a ringside seat, but the hosts are keen to spotlight policy and more esoteric issues for a largely UK audience. They point to last week’s episode, in which Maitlis and Sopel led on why Trump is treading a careful line with his position on abortion rights, as opposed to the Truth Social saga or the $59.99 Trump bible.

During the same episode, the duo interviewed Senator Chris Coons about Joe Biden’s campaign, Israel’s conflict in Gaza, and the potential of a Taylor Swift endorsement for the Democrats. Past interviews have included an exclusive sit down with Jeff Zucker, the former CNN chief who has been spearheading a bid to buy The Daily Telegraph. It’s the sort of access that some may find surprising for a podcast that is an insurgent presence in the UK’s traditional mainstream media. Maitlis and Sopel say their reputations, contact books, and the show’s format have been invaluable for guest booking. “It’s always hard to get the people in power that you want, but it’s been no harder here than in the BBC,” Maitlis says. “We’ve been able to offer a format which is a bit more generous. It gives you more time, it’s more talky.”

On their list of dream interviews are Mitch McConnell and Melania Trump. In other words, they think more insight can be gleaned from those around Trump than from the man himself. The News Agents would not turn down the former president, but Sopel says chasing Trump would be like “the dog that catches the car and then doesn’t know what to do.” It’s an articulation of the Trump problem facing some American media, with networks like CNN dancing between embracing and eschewing the former president. This played out vividly last month when NBC News hired and then fired Ronna McDaniel, the election-denying former RNC chair.

Notorious interview.
Emily Maitlis interviews Prince Andrew for Newsnight,

Maitlis knows a thing or two about the power of an interview. Her encounter with Prince Andrew in 2019 was accountability in action, with the British royal subjected to a forensic examination over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. She does not believe that Trump can be held accountable in the same way because of the brazenness of his lies and willingness to change his narrative whenever it suits him. “I wouldn’t say it’s futile because you always get aspects of character or understanding. Any good interview hopefully illuminates in some way. But if you’re talking about accountability, no,” she adds.

Maitlis believes that everything Trump says must be seen through the prism of his lies about the 2020 vote. “The question everyone is asking about 2023 is: what happens if Trump wins? The bigger question is: what happens if he loses? We’ve seen what he looks like when he loses, and it’s not pretty. You cannot unknow what he was prepared to do last time around, and that has to inform everything. We’re not talking about a normal candidate.”

Sopel says Trump is better organized this time and a great deal of thought is going into how his administration would operate in 2025. He witnessed the Trump and Biden regimes up close and says they could not have been more different. Sopel recalls being able to knock on the West Wing door of Trump’s chief of staff, whereas Biden has reinstated discipline. “I bumped into this European diplomat just after Biden had taken over. I asked: ‘How is it?’ He said: ‘It’s amazing… we’ve got process, a chain of command, [and] there’s order, there’s discipline, there’s a way of doing things. I said: ‘Great, what’s the downside?’ He said: “There’s process, there’s a chain of command, and there’s a way of doing things.’ You realize the extent to which the Trump era was the wild West.”

The anecdote seems to serve a dual purpose for Maitlis and Sopel, who argue that there is less process at Global than at the BBC, where they enjoyed decades-long careers on British screens. Sopel says he’s glad to be free of “clever sods in London, sitting around the table and thinking that they know the story better than you do.” Maitlis argues that Global understands the value of deploying her on shoe leather reporting trips, such as her tour of southern swing states late last year. “The company just said: we’re going to trust you on this one,” she explains. “It genuinely informed my understanding of America in a way that reading an autocue outside Congress wouldn’t have done.”

Jon Sopel reporting for the BBC
Jon Sopel reporting for the BBC

Sopel is less certain that leaving the BBC has allowed him to express his views more forthrightly. It is not uncommon for ex-BBC presenters to speak of being freed from the broadcaster’s strict impartiality rules (Global colleague Andrew Marr spoke memorably of his desire to “get my own voice back” in 2021), but Sopel thinks he had enough latitude. “I never felt the constraints over covering U.S. politics [like] you do when you’re covering UK politics. Broadly speaking, Donald Trump is not going to ring up the [BBC] director general, whereas the prime minister will. And so that’s a huge difference.”

The commercial world has its own expectations, not least “brutal metrics” around attracting audience and advertising. Luckily, Global says The News Agents – USA has grown its ratings by 62% in the past three months to more than 500,000 monthly downloads. Britain’s fascination with what Sopel describes as its “big, handsome, smarter older brother” shows no sign of slowing — and Maitlis is optimistic that the media is doing a better job of covering America’s “irrational or unexpected” political tumult. Responding with grace to being told to “f*** off” is perhaps just one measure of this.

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