Before President Donald Trump‘s infamous 76-minute press conference on February 16, Jake Turx was a relatively unknown Washington reporter for Ami magazine.
But that changed dramatically when Turx, who is visibly Jewish but describes himself as a “post-labellist millennial”, stood up after Trump pointed to him, seeking a “friendly reporter”.
Turx, who covered both the Trump campaign and that of his opponent Hillary Clinton, was well known to the president.
“I’ve always felt that we had this mutual understanding,” Turx, 30, told Al Jazeera. “That he trusted me.”
That included post-debate interviews in the so-called “spin room” where candidates talk to reporters. Trump, Turx points out, was always very generous with his time for the young reporter.
So when the president – who had already faced a barrage of questions about his ties to Russia, the resignation of his national security adviser and his self-perceived mistreatment by the media – scanned the room full of reporters, he spotted Turx, whose Twitter handle @JakeTurx was on his kippah.
“Watch how friendly he is,” Trump told everyone, hoping to get a softball question. And, he did.
Turx says he prefers not to ask questions about anti-Semitism, because it’s simply too obvious, but the story of threats against Jewish Community Centres (JCC) in the US wasn’t getting the coverage he had hoped.
“People weren’t talking about it and I’d gotten a lot of requests and private messages from teachers and faculty members at various JCCs around the country begging me to bring up the issue,” Turx says.
There were reports of 48 threats against Jewish community centres across the country in January alone. The New York City Police Department reported a doubling in the same month of hate crimes against Jewish citizens.
So Turx identified himself, then started with a statement:
“Despite what some of my colleagues have been reporting, I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone else, anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic,” he said politely.
And then, the statement that changed everything:
“However, what we are concerned about and what we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.”
After mentioning reports of bomb threats, Trump had heard enough.
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“You see, he said he was going to ask a simple easy question. And it’s not,” the president huffed.
Turx was baffled. “I was trying to figure out, ‘What did I do wrong?'” he explains now. “Did I say the wrong word?”
Apparently, he did. Trump told him to sit down.
“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” he said.
Turx tried to interject in an attempt to clarify that had not meant to accuse the president of anti-Semitism.
“Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” Trump told him. “See? He lied about. He was going to get up and ask a straight, simple question.”
Turx sat down, puzzled by the exchange. But his place in history was now firmly cemented.
The messages of support and hatred poured in. His Twitter feed lit up, earning 10,000 more followers.
The back-and-forth played across the world on social media and fed into a perception that, rightly or wrongly, already existed: Trump wasn’t taking the threats seriously.
In January, the White House faced condemnation for failing to mention, in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the six million Jews who died.
Five days after his moment with Turx, Trump finally addressed the issue during a visit to the National Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centres are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” he said.
The next day, Vice-President Mike Pence visited a Jewish cemetery in St Louis that had been vandalised and helped clean it up.
“There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice, or acts of violence, or anti-Semitism,” he said.
Turx shrugs off the role he played in sparking all of this. The father of three who grew up in both Los Angeles and New York would rather be talking about the budget or school vouchers, but he’s fully aware that sometimes you just have to go there.
“If you’re a dentist and you have to pull out the tooth of a child, you just pull out that tooth,” he says of his memorable moment with the commander-in-chief. “You do your job and stay honest to the people you are out there working on behalf of.”