On Dec. 7, 2020, Alex Holder found himself face-to-face with President Donald Trump at a watershed moment in U.S. history. Trump had clearly lost his bid for re-election; dozens of lawsuits challenging the results in critical swing states had been swiftly 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 had worked for years in British documentary circles, had never interviewed an American politician before. He had never even directed a documentary before. 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 as Trump fumed about Republican officials in Georgia, particularly Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who he decried as cowards. “They’re not even running the state,” Trump said, according to Holder. “The state’s being run by Stacey Abrams.”
As Trump continued his rant, Holder remembered being struck by the mood in the room. “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.”
Eighteen months later, Holder, 33, finds himself once again at the center of the political universe. All three parts of Unprecedented, his documentary on the Trumps, will premiere on Discovery Plus 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. At one point, Holder traveled to the U.S. to meet with Jason Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew who was an attorney for the Trump Organization and who Trump later appointed his envoy for Middle East Peace. Greenblatt, along with Kushner, had helped to shepherd the Abraham Accords, a U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and Gulf Arab states including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“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. The discussion continued for a few months before Greenblatt pitched the idea to the president and his children. “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 says he believes the timing of the request played a big role in Trump agreeing to it. The country was reeling from the pandemic and the 2020 campaign was ramping up. Trump and his team, he said, thought they were agreeing to be filmed as he beat Joe Biden. Imagine a Trumpian version of The War Room, the legendary documentary that captured the Clinton campaign team’s quest to win the 1992 election. Instead, Holder ended up bearing witness to an American president unwilling 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. So why not 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 says his method of interviewing Trump was to avoid being 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.”
The strategy worked. Holder ultimately landed three interviews with Trump for the documentary. Only the first one, at the White House on Dec. 7, 2020, was while Trump was still President. 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 is reluctant to share too much of what Trump told him in those interviews; he says he wants people to watch the film, which has dominated the last two years of his life, to find out.
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. He says he has not heard from the Department of Justice, which is also investigating the Capitol riot. He declined to say whether Trump or any of his associates have contacted him recently.
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. Holder says those reactions have confused him. “It was absurd,” he says, “because we were so visible.”
He recalls an instance at one 2020 campaign rally when his director of photography was on the stage with Ivanka Trump while she was speaking. CNN called the campaign up to complain he was a hindrance to 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.”
Following around the president and his children on the campaign trail, and in the days and weeks after the election, led Holder to suspect that something ominous would ensue.
He recalls being in Washington on Jan. 5. The film crew was preparing to capture Trump at a nearby rally on the Ellipse the following day. 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. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”
Holder and his crew were in the crowd that day with the insurrectionists. They heard some chant “Hang Mike Pence” while breaching the Capitol grounds. As the Jan. 6 committee unveiled in one of its hearings, the mob was as close as 40 feet away from Pence at one point when the Secret Service evacuated him to a secure location. 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.
Just six days later, Holder was face to face with Pence, who agreed to an interview but with one 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.
It was hard to ignore, however. 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.) A little more than a week later, Biden was inaugurated, with Pence in attendance. Trump refused to show.
The largest thematic undercurrent of Unprecedented, Holder says, is a look at the Trump family’s dynamics. The British filmmaker says Trump sees his political project as a fundamentally dynastic exercise.
In one compelling sequence, Holder hands Trump his iPad to watch clips of his kids on the campaign trail. 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 him about Jan. 6 in 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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