It was hot in the packed room. No air conditioning. Helsinki doesn’t handle summer heat well, but the joint press conference last July went on.
Jonathan Lemire was already sweating. And then he raised the temperature.
Lemire, the Associated Press’s White House reporter, rose and asked President Donald Trump an airtight question heard 'round the world.
“Who do you believe?” asked Lemire, wanting to know if Trump believed U.S. intelligence officials’ assertions that Russia interfered in the 2016 election or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials. “Would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?”
He also asked Putin if the Russians had “any compromising material on President Trump or his family.”
Both men bobbed and weaved with their answers, but Lemire knew he had done his job. He even got a cold stare from Putin.
“I sat down, and I knew things had changed for me,” the Lowell native told a packed house in O’Leary 222 recently.
For Lemire, his visit to campus was a sort of homecoming. His mother, Susan, is the retired coordinator of advisory services for the university's Centers for Learning and is a member of the curriculum committee for the UMass Lowell Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA).
His “On the Road with #45” was the opening talk in LIRA’s Winter Intersession series. His “very proud” mom introduced him. (His father, Robert, a retired Chelmsford High School teacher, also sat in the second row.)
“I was so happy to have them there today,” Lemire wrote in an e-mail following his appearance.
Growing up in Lowell, Lemire’s passions were history, writing and current events. The 39-year-old recalled his youth in Pawtucketville, when he was a rabid River Hawks hockey fan and a dedicated member of the hockey team’s youth fan club, the Young Stars.
His first writing gig was at age 6, when he wrote and illustrated his own He-Man book.
“I still have it at home,” his mother said. “But I promised not to bring it.”
Lemire described how the city of Lowell, rich in history and diversity, informed his writing and continues to shape the stories he tells.
He went to Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, where he excelled in track, setting several records. He earned a B.A. in history from Columbia University in 2001.
Lemire worked for the New York Daily News before joining the AP’s New York City bureau in 2013. In that job, he first covered businessman Donald Trump. (He offered this bit of Trump trivia: “Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue is listed at 68 stories tall. It is really 58 stories,” he said. “He just made it up because he thought it would look better as 68.”)
Lemire said there has “never been a presidency like this.”
Covering the president involves working at a “breakneck pace, and it’s everything from exhausting to exhilarating,” he said. “But if you’re in this business, this is the brass ring.”
As an “enemy of the people,” there’s no shortage of hate mail in his inbox, but he also gets grief from the left, so he figures he’s doing his job fairly.
Even Trump once called him a “sleazebag,” after Lemire asked questions the president didn’t want to answer. “He never particularly liked me,” said Lemire of the president.
In 2016, Lemire and Jill Colvin split AP’s coverage of the presidential race. He had already been covering Trump’s early campaign from New York.
“In September and October, you could see it,” he said. “There was something there, something about the candidate that spoke to disenfranchised. The energy in the rooms was undeniable.”
He called an AP colleague covering a Hilary Clinton rally in Florida one night and asked about the crowd.
“Pretty good,” came the answer, “about 300 people.”
Lemire, also in Florida, looked around. He saw a crowd of at least 15,000.
“I was one of the few on the Trump plane to predict he would win,” he said.
He’s covered the president’s treks to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Europe and Asia. On this beat, things never get predictable.
“No matter how many times you covered him, he could still surprise you,” said Lemire.
Since September 2017, Lemire has also been a commentator for MSNBC. He loves his seat in “the front row of history,” and takes it seriously.
“In an age of unprecedented disinformation and fake news and attacks on the media, that task has never been more important,” he said.
Marie Sweeney ’64, a former Lowell High School teacher and current board member at Community Teamwork, Inc., says LIRA talks like Lemire’s “show how the university is engaged with the community. The people who come to these may be retired but are still young enough to believe in lifelong learning. These are people who could command good money as speakers, and we see them for free at the university.”
LIRA is a partnership with UML’s Office of Alumni Relations and Office of Community Relations. It offers college-level educational opportunities for the retired and semiretired, including the weekly series of speakers, running through Feb. 27 and covering topics ranging from climate change and labor history to book discussions. For information, visit www.uml.edu/community/LIRA
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