The January 6 committee began its public hearings on June 9 amid Republican grumbling about a lack of due process and representation on the committee, even if it was by their own choice. It seems to me that these current Washington spectacles contain endless redundancies—people disputing things that have been proved time and again, making objections that often seem irrelevant if not fatuous. How many times do we have to prove that the 2020 election was not compromised?
Various people have testified both publicly and behind closed doors. One of them is Alex Holder, a 33-year-old British filmmaker, and the director of the documentary series Unprecedented. His last interview with Trump was filmed in the White House, and features a problematic water glass that, like the 2020 election, never seems quite right to Donald Trump.
Holder’s raw footage was subpoenaed and freely turned over to the January 6 committee, which sought in it some evidence that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong. Why does this matter? There’s concern that Trump could successfully defend himself against charges which could be brought against him for fomenting sedition on and before January 6 by arguing that he truly believed the election was stolen.
ERROL MORRIS: Your series Unprecedented goes on television right in the middle of the January 6 committee hearings—in the middle of craziness.
ALEX HOLDER: What do you think of all the craziness that’s been going on?
MORRIS: I have no idea what I think about anything anymore. At least, I try to react to it with unending horror. This does not seem a time for equanimity.
HOLDER: The last couple of weeks have been extraordinary because we’ve only recently finished the series. And it’s coinciding with probably the biggest political investigation since Watergate.
MORRIS: I watch commentators just falling over themselves trying to resolve this question of whether or not Trump knows he’s lying.
HOLDER: Yes, yes.
MORRIS: I don’t know if I should call it a conundrum, or what I should call it, but no one can resolve the issue. After all, who can get inside of anyone’s head, let alone Trump’s head?
HOLDER: Do you think it’s a good question?
MORRIS: It’s an essential question. It’s a question about how Trump sees the world. Whether it’s answerable is something else altogether.
HOLDER: I’m not making a moral equivalence here. Pick a totalitarian dictator. Say, Hitler. No one really accuses Hitler of lying about these things—you know, me and my family are vermin for being Jewish. He’s attacked for being an evil man who commits war crimes. He was obviously delusional in his positions, but he’s still ultimately responsible for the horrific atrocities he caused. So I don’t really understand why whether [Trump] knows he’s lying takes away any culpability.
MORRIS: I agree. But it gets complicated, particularly when psychiatric terms enter the discussion. You hear unendingly that Donald Trump is a pathological narcissist, whatever that means. You will hear that he is a sociopath or a psychopath, whatever that means.
There’s a scene in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove where the world is on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is reading a message from Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), which ends with a reference to “the purity and essence of our natural fluids.” Turgidson tells President Muffley (Peter Sellers), “We’re still trying to figure out the meaning of that last phrase, sir.” Muffley says, “There’s nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic.”
It’s obvious! Because of this man, the world is about to end. I guess the question [with Trump] is: Is it obvious? Is anything so obvious that it’s obvious? Why have so few commentators been willing to offer their opinion? You did. Paraphrasing what you have said. Forgive me. “He really believes that he won the election. He’s not lying to us. He is a true believer in his own fraudulent story.”
HOLDER: The reason I come to that conclusion is that he just isn’t a rational player. Have you met him before?
MORRIS: I have.
HOLDER: What’s your impression of him?
MORRIS: Do you want to hear the story?
“It’s an essential question. It’s a question about how Trump sees the world. Whether it’s answerable is something else altogether.”
MORRIS: I’m supposed to be interviewing you. [Laughter.] I was asked to do a film to run at the beginning of the 2002 Academy Awards. There was going to be a lot of sound bites cut together of people talking about their favorite movies. And so in the greenroom in New York, at one time, I had—if you can believe this—Iggy Pop, Jessye Norman, Walter Cronkite, Donald Trump, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
HOLDER: Citizen Kane, right?
MORRIS: Not at first. He said, “King Kong. King Kong came and conquered New York. I can identify with that.” Then I asked him about Citizen Kane. I asked him, did he have any advice for Charles Foster Kane? He said, “Yes, get yourself a different woman.” Whether Orson Welles had intended this to be the main takeaway from his film, I’m not sure. But I have a feeling that he thought it was about something more than a poor marriage choice. In retrospect, I find it interesting that Trump identified with monsters.
HOLDER: He’s not somebody that you can debate and persuade and compromise with. He’s really only interested in surrounding himself with people who agree with his position.
Mar-a-Lago is the second interview I did with Trump. We were in this room, which is the room where he does all his interviews. And it’s got this portrait of Trump as a 30-year-old man dressed in tennis whites.
[Artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan painted The Visionary, as it’s called, in 1989. “Nobody ever dislikes my portraits,” Cowan says. “I know how to make them ‘healthy’ is the way I put it.” Town & Country said in 2016, “Cowan will likely go down in history as the last of a breed—the painter of kings.” Though I don’t really see him as competition for Holbein, Ingres, or Velázquez. —E.M.]
Anyway, he walks in and I go, “Hello, Mr. President.” He ignores my greeting, and all he can say is “Look at this floor. Isn’t this the most beautiful flooring you’ve ever seen?” I was taken aback. Of all the things in that room, the floor was the least impressive. It was quite scuffed and scratched. It just looked like any other wooden flooring in that kind of building.
MORRIS: Was it a parquet floor?
HOLDER: Possibly. But there was absolutely nothing interesting about it.
MORRIS: At least it shows his enthusiasm for something. I guess you aren’t a true connoisseur of parquet flooring. [Laughter.]
[It turns out that the flooring wasn’t parquet even though the architect had a particular fondness for intricate flooring designs. —E.M.]
HOLDER: It was a very odd thing to say.
Coming back to the first interaction with him, five or so days after his own attorney general had given a public statement to the Associated Press that he had found no evidence whatsoever that supported the claims of election fraud. We’re in the White House, in the Diplomatic Reception Room, with all the apparatus of the presidency surrounding him and me. The Secret Service, the guy with the nuclear football, all of these elements that illustrate the power of what it means to be the president of the United States of America.
And [Trump is] sitting across from me saying how the next president of the United States is, in fact, illegitimate. How [Biden] didn’t get anywhere near 80 million votes, and how it’s just completely wrong. Then he starts going into the details about Georgia, talking about signature verifications, and that the reason why [the effort to overturn the election is] not working is because there aren’t brave enough judges.
This is the president of the United States talking to me—someone he’s never heard of before—and he’s literally undermining the fabric of democracy. It’s a moment that people will re-watch in the future. It’s such an unusual, terrifying moment to witness. I was wondering whether his own people were actually scared of him. I concluded that they were. At the end of the interview, there was an awkward silence, and then this awkward laughter …
MORRIS: But you came into the interview believing—
HOLDER: That he didn’t believe what he was saying. That he knew he was lying. I just felt, at some point, he would give up. After interviewing him, I was shell-shocked. He gave this deranged account of the fact that he was right and everybody else was wrong.
You can throw all the evidence you want at this guy. There’s copious amounts. It’s almost crazy that there’s even a need to. The guy is saying the sky is green. At that point, there isn’t really much of a conversation anymore. He has a completely irrational point of view. The idea that he was in charge during that period of time was very, very, very scary. That’s been echoed by others who spent much more time with him. Bill Barr, in his deposition, said that [Trump] was detached from reality. Which is the feeling I got as well.
I think he’s insane.
MORRIS: I don’t think it takes an expert to come to this conclusion. I really don’t. If you had 100,000 psychiatrists examining him, would that make it more conclusive? For me, no. But you said going into the interview, you felt he didn’t really believe that he had won the election. Why?
HOLDER: Because the idea that he really believed it was unimaginable. I just didn’t see how he could have maintained his conviction in this insanity. But so many people have joined in the chorus and supported it, and you need someone who believes it to be able to garner that support.
I’m not saying that he has forced himself to believe. I think he believes it because he needs to. He can’t conceptualize the idea that he lost. And lost to President Biden as well. But the idea that he genuinely believes this? Prior to having met him, it couldn’t make sense to me that that would be the case.
Because, at the end of the day, the one thing that holds up democracy is free and fair elections. The moment you start attacking the process that underpins the whole system, everything starts falling apart.
MORRIS: I’m sorry to agree, but yes.
HOLDER: After the interview, I remember, a photographer took some photos and then [Trump] left. I took a moment just to think about what had happened. Then I said, “I can’t do this now.” When I got back home, I still couldn’t really believe that he had said what he said. There were so many things going through my mind. I was trying to grapple with all of this. It was just extraordinary.
So, to answer your question, it’s just the idea that he believed in this insane notion, something that was so damaging and so dangerous. I couldn’t believe that could be the case when I left. And I realized, actually, I was wrong. He really did. And I felt that this isn’t going to end well.
MORRIS: Well, it’s not ending well.
“This is the president of the United States talking to me—someone he’s never heard of before—and he’s literally undermining the fabric of democracy.”
HOLDER: No, it’s not. January 6 isn’t just one moment. Even now, the politics in America—trying to make voting more difficult in certain states—it’s all a result of this. And it’s really, really dangerous, and obviously makes divisions more significant between both sides. People start arguing about what facts are. It makes the whole discourse impossibly charged. It’s very sad.
MORRIS: One might even say horrific.
HOLDER: Yes, I agree. It is a horrific situation.
MORRIS: Trump can be utterly delusional. But what’s even more frightening is the fact that so many people have participated in this mass delusion, mass psychosis. I used to say that, as a Jew, when I wanted to read about Fascism, I had to read about Germany in the 30s. Now I just have to turn on the news.
HOLDER: In the series, we go to CPAC in Orlando. I went outside for a cigarette. And I started hearing the most absolutely horrific language. As a Jewish person from the U.K., I’ve experienced anti-Semitism growing up. In America I had never witnessed it.
But when I was in Orlando, I started hearing the most vicious, vile anti-Semitism outside CPAC. They were denigrating [Jared Kushner] and then going on about Jewish control. I was very taken aback by that. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. I don’t know.
MORRIS: The rallies provide a different picture of Trump.
HOLDER: It’s very, very different to the way he presents on TV. In the series, we’re trying to evoke the sense of what it’s like to be in his presence, hearing the reaction of the crowds.
He does have this animalistic quality of being able to tap into a person’s base instincts. He can see the reaction of the crowd when he’s making a particular point. And if it doesn’t get the adoration that he needs—his drug—he’ll move to another point, even if it makes no sense.
MORRIS: What is your explanation for why a rich guy from Manhattan is able to attract the attention of lower-class or lower-middle-class America, in the heartlands?
HOLDER: He just says out loud the things these people have been thinking. He gives voice to very racist and unpleasant views, which then allows other people to say the same thing. Like a typical populist. Everything’s easy. I’m going to fix all your problems. The answer to everything is yes, he can do it. There’s no substance. There are no real answers. He’s just saying, You’re right and everyone else is wrong. You’ve never been looked after, and I’m going to look after you.
But look at the end result and you see carnage.
MORRIS: Years and years and years ago, I used to be a door-to-door salesman. To be a good salesman, it helps if you believe in what you’re selling.
MORRIS: It creates less of a strain. The one thing that I do know about human beings—it’s what makes us such an extraordinarily rotten species—our capacity for unlimited credulity. You give humans something absurd to believe, something ridiculous, something utterly irredeemably stupid, they’ll go for it. The last decade of American history is certainly proof of this: the proof is in the rotten pudding. Maybe not absolute proof, but it certainly doesn’t disconfirm the hypothesis.
HOLDER: But the fact that there are investigations, and there is due process still—I believe that shows that the foundations are still strong, or at least strong enough to withstand these attacks. Obviously, there are still people trying to chip away at this foundation. This is something that should be a wake-up call. [Trump] isn’t gone.
MORRIS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but who did you have to convince to get this access?
HOLDER: I was introduced to [the Trumps] by somebody who had worked for them for a very long time.
MORRIS: So you were introduced to the family, or to him?
HOLDER: I was introduced, originally, to Jared. He was certainly for it. Ivanka wanted us to go on the campaign trail with her, because we had shown her a couple of clips that we had recorded of her brother. She was like, Oh, I want that. There’s a lot of rivalry between the three children.
At the end of the day, the reason they did it is because they were utterly convinced that they would win. And their 2016 surprise reinforced that. We proved them all wrong in 2016. The fact that the polls are still against us now just proves we’re right, and that we’re going to prove them all wrong again, and we’re going to win.
Unprecedented is available for streaming on Discovery+
Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL