The incident unfolded as Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination in 2024, was speaking to a small group of reporters aboard his plane after his March 25 campaign rally in Waco, Tex.
The week before, Trump had predicted that he would soon be arrested in the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal investigation into hush money payments to an adult-film actress during the 2016 presidential campaign. On social media, Trump called on his supporters to protest, and kept up a steady stream of attacks against the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. The former president was ultimately indicted March 30 and arraigned April 4, when he pleaded not guilty to 34 felony criminal charges of falsifying business records.
At the outset of the March 25 gaggle, however, Trump was primarily focused on the rally he had just held in Waco, asking reporters whether they had enjoyed the event and boasting of a crowd size of “25,000-plus people.” (The San Antonio Express-News reported that the crowd was closer to 15,000 people.)
“You know, there’s never been anything like it in history. If Ronald Reagan came back from the dead — which would be very nice, actually — or a popular politician, you would have 300, 400 people?” Trump said, before dinging his potential 2024 rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “Ron DeSanctimonious had 179. So far, that’s been his biggest crowd in Iowa.”
The journalists traveling on the plane with Trump included Vaughn Hillyard of NBC, Brian Glenn of Right Side Broadcasting Network, Sophia Cai of Axios, Rob Crilly of the Daily Mail, and Evan Vucci, a photographer with the Associated Press, according to photographs taken on board the plane and audio recordings of the gaggle.
After Trump lamented the treatment of those who were jailed in Washington on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Crilly can be heard asking Trump to comment on the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation.
“They have no evidence, they have no anything,” Trump said, dismissing the case at length.
Later, Hillyard asked Trump about payments from his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump waved the payments off as evidence that Cohen “wanted to ingratiate himself to me, to show me what a hotshot he was.”
After a few minutes, Hillyard noted that Trump had “seemed frustrated” by the investigation over the past couple of days, ostensibly referring to his social media posts lashing out at Bragg.
“I’m not frustrated by anything. What am I, frustrated? — I just did a speech for two hours,” Trump said, cutting Hillyard off. “I’m not frustrated by it. It’s a fake investigation. We did nothing wrong — I told you that. … It’s the exact opposite. This is fake news, and NBC is one of the worst at it. Don’t ask me any more questions.”
Trump continued bashing the case to the reporters for a few minutes, answering follow-up questions from Glenn and Crilly, who asked to clarify whether Trump felt “distracted” rather than frustrated.
“I’m not distracted, no. I did nothing wrong,” Trump said. “I don’t do it that way. I did nothing wrong. I have a lot of confidence.”
At one point, Trump told Hillyard, unprompted, “I heard you’re a nice guy from NBC, but you’re not.” Hillyard later noted that Trump had played footage from the Jan. 6 attack at his Waco rally, and that he had warned of “potential death & destruction” in a Truth Social post if he was indicted.
“My question to you: Would potentially violence be justifiable? Was Jan. 6 justifiable?” Hillyard asked.
“I’m not for violence at all. But a lot of people are upset,” Trump said, before repeating his baseless claims of widespread election fraud in the 2020 election that cost him the presidency. “I’m not in favor of violence.”
Nearly 20 minutes into the gaggle, Hillyard can be heard trying to ask one more question about the Manhattan criminal investigation.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Trump said. “You’re not a nice guy.”
When Hillyard presses on, Trump is heard demanding, “Let’s go, get him outta here. Outta here! Outta here!” and then asking if a phone on the table is Hillyard’s.
“Whose is this?” Trump asked.
“That one’s mine, too,” Hillyard said, referring to another phone.
In the audio, a soft thud can be heard as Trump tossed the phones to the side. The journalists were ushered away from Trump, who remained seated at the table, according to a person on the flight who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the exchange.
Hillyard and representatives for the Trump campaign and for NBC did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Trump has long had a contentious relationship with the media. Throughout his first campaign, he regularly lashed out at the press, singling out news outlets as being “dishonest” and at one point barring The Washington Post from covering his events. During his time in office, he dubbed the press “the enemy of the American People!” and often declared that coverage he disliked was “fake news.”
In addition to the Manhattan criminal case, Trump is mired in numerous other legal battles, including an investigation led by the New York attorney general into alleged fraud at his family business, a lawsuit from author E. Jean Carroll who accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s, and an investigation into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
Federal prosecutors also are investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election and classified documents taken to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida home and private club. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate the former president.