A month after the 2020 Presidential election, I was in the White House, waiting to interview Donald Trump. He hadn’t given any interviews throughout November, so I wasn’t feeling particularly anxious because I didn’t think he was going to turn up. Then, as we were setting up, we heard a Secret Service agent in the corridor say, “Mogul on the move,” which was Trump’s code name. I was like, “Oh my God, he’s actually coming.”
I filmed a documentary on the Trump family from the end of August 2020 until the summer of 2021. We set out to understand who the Trumps were and what they wanted to achieve, through interviews with the family and staff. But what I love about documentaries is that you never know what’s going to happen next. Our filming coincided with the 2020 election campaign, as well as the subsequent events of January 6, so that became the spine of the project.
I experienced things that most people would never get a chance to experience—from traveling in the motorcade with the President to flying on Air Force One. The whole experience was insane.
Since we finished filming, life has continued to feel surreal. I was subpoenaed by the Congressional House Select Committee to discuss what we covered in our documentary. I’ve also been subpoenaed for the Grand Jury investigation in Georgia into whether or not President Trump did anything criminal in the Georgia elections.
As a 33-year-old British documentary-maker, I never thought I’d end up being a witness in the potential prosecution of a former President of the United States of America. It’s quite remarkable.
Interviewing Donald Trump after election defeat
The most memorable moment of the documentary was the interview with Trump in the White House, following his election defeat. It was the last interview he gave as President in the White House and he maintained his position on the election.
He wasn’t just saying that the election was rigged, he was also coming up with “remedies” such as signature verification, saying the state legislature in Georgia needed to reopen all these ballots. He also said we needed to find “a judge that has courage,” who would support his view. It was staggering. In the room where we filmed, you’ve got the portrait of George Washington looking down at the 45th President of the United States of America, who was arguably undermining democracy in the most profound way.
To me, Donald Trump came across as somebody who was totally detached from reality. However, I chose not to intercept or challenge his views. I wanted to know what was going on inside his mind. I didn’t want to change his mind—and I also didn’t think I would be able to do so.
Besides, I’m not the story. I’m just the person behind the camera who’s recording these moments. Letting Trump say what he wanted to say was absolutely vital, so people both now and in the future can see what was going on at this time. The historic nature of what I was witnessing was not lost on me.
How Trump acted off-camera
You learn more about Trump from his unguarded moments than you do when he’s actually speaking. One of his quirks was that he requested a clean thoroughfare to get to the chair for his interview in the White House. We had set up in a small area of the room, so we had to move some objects for him to be able to make his way through.
Then, when he sat down, he spent a minute and a half moving the water glass around on the table. That clip has since done the rounds online. It was another moment where I thought: what on earth is happening here?
My take is that Donald Trump is a showman. I believe he cares about one thing above all else, which is Trump—both himself, as Donald Trump, but also Trump the brand. To me, it seems that everything else is secondary to the ultimate goal of ensuring that the Trump brand is only associated with wealth, success and power.
For example, in the interview two months after Trump had left the White House, we had a little small talk as the cameras were being set up. I said, “Mr. President, the last time I saw you was in the White House a few months ago,” and his response was, “Oh yes, but this place, Mar-a-Lago, is much more beautiful than the White House.” I got the impression that Trump believes that everything he has, everything he owns, everything he touches is better than anything else.
That’s why I think he has to believe that he won the election and that it was stolen from him. It seems to me that the idea of losing is not compatible with his view of himself—that he is always a winner.
Filming the events of January 6
The night before January 6, I was in an elevator with Michael Crommett, our director of photography, and I said, “You know Trump’s going to get them all to march on the Capitol tomorrow.” In my mind it was so clear that it was going to happen, that he had invited all his supporters to come in this last-ditch effort for him to stay in charge as the President.
We had witnessed the rhetoric and belligerence all the way through the election campaign. After the election itself, the rhetoric was on another level. It was so clear to me that this was going to lead to something dangerous.
On the day itself, Michael was at the Capitol and I was down below. I was supposed to meet him with the extra filming equipment, but once things kicked off it was impossible to do anything or get anywhere. My car was surrounded by protesters.
It was a total warzone. Michael filmed one of Trump’s supporters dying on the steps of the Capitol. We saw people bleeding, people being tear gassed, and sound grenades exploding. It was absolute chaos. People were screaming, “We need to kill Mike Pence,” and shouting about Nancy Pelosi. It felt like these people genuinely believed that they had to do what they were doing. There was an almost religious fervor.
I’ve been to dangerous places before—including Gaza and various places in the Middle East—but I’ve rarely felt scared or experienced that “flight or fight” sensation. Yet on January 6, there were two moments where I was very scared. One was at Trump’s rally, where he talked about the “fake news media” and thousands of his supporters looked at the little press tent, where there were 40 of us, and screamed in our direction. The second moment was seeing what was happening on the Capitol steps, where Michael was, and not being able to get through to him. That was terrifying.
I asked Trump about January 6 in my interview with him at Mar-a-Lago. This could have been an opportunity for him to dilute his role in it, or maintain the conspiracy theory that the people who went into the Capitol weren’t Trump supporters. But he didn’t. Instead, he admitted that his supporters went to the Capitol and that they were “smart” because they believed the election was stolen. That was a pretty shocking moment.
Aftermath of the documentary
Since the documentary aired in July, 2022, and since I’ve been subpoenaed twice, I’ve become part of the world of conspiracy theories. People have said I’m an undercover MI6 or FBI agent who’s trying to destroy Trump. I wasn’t expecting that level of animosity.
I’ve even received death threats. I’ve got armed security guards who now look after me 24/7. It’s been prudent to be careful, as I am slightly concerned for my safety.
Even with this response, I’m very pleased with the end result of our documentary. It did exactly what it was meant to do: it tells the story of this fascinating, controversial and complicated family, while also taking people on the journey of the most consequential election in American history. I’m very proud of that.
Alex Holder is a documentary film-maker from the UK who currently resides in Los Angeles. His documentary, Unprecedented, is available to stream on Discovery+.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Katie Russell.