How Covering Rev. Al Sharpton’s Presidential Run Prepared ABC’s Tom Llamas to Cover Trump

By Chris Ariens 

ABC’s 20/20 has been working on episode on the American racial divide for most of the year, but the show was fast-tracked to tonight following the events of Charlottesville.

ABC World News Tonight weekend anchor Tom Llamas spoke with the leaders of two far right movements, Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, following them to their rallies and events. Tonight’s story also features organizations from the far left.

We talked to Llamas about the report, and about his career in TV news which has included covering the improbable presidential runs of two New York celebrities: the Rev. Al Sharpton in 2004. And last year, Donald Trump‘s campaign, a run that ended not so improbably. We began by talking about one of the powerful moments from tonight’s show, which brought the leaders from each side together to meet face to face.


TVNewser: How were you able to get these two sides together?

Llamas: We spent several months with both groups. Our team got to know some of the leaders and we pitched the idea to them. I had sat down with them for several in-depth interviews, and we covered many of their rallies all over the country. The senior producer on this hour Miguel Sancho came up with the idea to get leaders from both sides to meet. We’ve seen what happens in the streets, so we wanted to get them together without weapons, tear gas, or bullhorns.  As soon as these leaders sat down they had a platform for a sobering debate.

TVNewser: This is 6 months in the making, but with major breaking news about this topic this week, I imagine editing is down to the wire?

One of the great parts about working on a “20/20” story is that you get to work with the “20/20” team. Senior Executive Producer David Sloan has put together an elite team of photographers, producers and editors who know how to tell amazing stories. These are stealth journalists. Are we down to the wire? Of course. But the reason why is we have so much important material from the six months leading into Charlottesville. We’ve embedded with both sides: from the far right documenting secret meetings in the mountains of Kentucky where neo-Nazis gather to meet before a major rally to following Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who is a member of Antifa, who walks right into a white supremacist rally videotaping and taking photos of people he will later “doxx” (document/identify) on the internet as who he believes are racists. The violence in Virginia last weekend was just the most recent and most tragic battle in a combustible political conflict that’s been roiling the country for more than a year. The core issues here are racism, freedom of speech, and the battle to shut the other side down. We’ll also show how the president, his campaign, and his words played a major role in how extremists on both sides started getting more active.

TVNewser: As a child of immigrants what did you take away from your reporting?

The far right are white nationalists who want an “ethno state” where only white people live. That’s their real goal-that’s what they’re fighting for. During the end of one of our interviews with a far right leader I asked if I, a Hispanic, could live in their homeland. I was curious since we had a lengthy interview including some very pointed questions on race.  He told me something like “you look pretty white to me,” which was sort of a cop out. This is someone who told me minutes earlier he admired Adolph Hitler. Something viewers will learn from our story is that the far right, these white nationalists, are very media savvy.  To their members they spew hate, while during interviews they tend to tone it down, but we are there for everything so you really get the full picture.

TVNewser: You were on the road last year covering the Trump campaign. In fact he called you a “sleaze” at one point. What was your biggest media takeaway of the 2016 election?

That’s a loaded question! Too many takeaways.  My biggest is this: In my lifetime, there has never been a person, place, or weather system that has generated as much news as Donald Trump.

TVNewser: You got your start on air as an NBC News embed during the 2004 campaign, covering, among others the Rev. Al Sharpton. How important was that experience to prepare you for what happened last year?

I think covering Rev Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign was probably the best preparation for covering President Trump’s campaign. My first assignment in politics was covering Sharpton who was a one-man campaign, a walking sound bite, completely unafraid, no respect for his party, and ready to tangle with reporters at every turn. Sound familiar? I remember telling ABC News producer John Santucci, our embed assigned to Donald Trump, that I covered the fringe candidate in 2004. It’s going to be one hell of a ride I told him. We both had no idea how right that was going to be.