Lemon – who is billed by CNN as a straight-news host – was a guest on the “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” podcast on Monday night. He explained that his editorial freedom is both a “blessing and a curse,” and also offered steamy details of his personal life during the first half of the 56-minute podcast.
Hill, who famously called Trump a white supremacist when she worked at ESPN, played Lemon an audio clip of what she called the “signature moment” of his low-rated CNN show.
“The president of the United States is racist,” Lemon said in Jan. 2018.
“We have standards and practices, so everything goes by, but that was something that I definitely wanted to say," Lemon told Hill. "I kept saying to, this is one of those conversations that we have in the news department among producers, ‘why do we keep saying misinformation? The president misstated this… why don’t we just say what they’re doing? They’re lying. So, I was one of the first people to say on CNN, ‘No the president lied.’”
Lemon told Hill that it was “tough to say,” but it was the impetus for the “CNN Tonight” host to express his feelings on other Trump-related issues.
“I had asked him in a number of interviews if he was racist,” Lemon said. ” [Trump] would say ‘no,’ and then we started getting to the point where, ‘If he’s not racist then he’s certainly racist adjacent, right?’”
“OK, he’s trafficking in racism,” Lemon said. “I said, ‘How much longer are we going to continue to sort of soft-peddle this?’ If you look at the evidence… so I present it to my producers at the network, the evidence, and they’re like, ‘well… what can you say?’”
Lemon said that if anyone at CNN could call President Trump a flat-out racist, he was the anchor up for the task and he didn’t care about any backlash.
“If I’m not gonna say it, who is gonna say it? So we opened the show that way,” Lemon said. “I’m very comfortable with that.”
Hill told Lemon that she is “really proud” that he used his platform to call Trump a racist.
“Obviously, it relates to me because when I called him a white supremacist, I honestly did not think that was news,” Hill said.
Trump has mocked Lemon and regularly refers to CNN as “fake news,” but the anchor told Hill that he knows why.
“I know people like him. Everything he does is projection. So if he calls someone dumb, that means he’s dumb. If he says someone is doing something crooked, that means he’s doing something crooked. If he says someone is lying about something, that means he’s lying about it. If he calls someone a racist, that means he’s a racist,” Lemon said. “He is the definition of someone who projects.”
Hill then compared Trump to an ex-boyfriend who would always wanted to know her whereabouts but was actually cheating.
In September 2017, Hill tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” Hill also called Trump a “bigot” and “unqualified and unfit to be president.” She added, “If he were not white, he never would have been elected.”
Hill’s anti-Trump comments caught the attention of the White House and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who said she considered the rhetoric a “fireable offense.” Trump even got involved himself, mocking Hill and ESPN’s lackluster ratings.
ESPN initially declined to punish her for the tweet but then sidelined her for two weeks in October 2017, after she violated the company’s social media guidelines again. The second violation occurred when she called on fans to boycott the Dallas Cowboys’ advertisers after owner Jerry Jones told players they would be benched if they did not stand up during the national anthem.
Not long after returning from her suspension, ESPN reassigned Hill from its flagship “SportsCenter” to a role at The Undefeated, the company’s site that covers the intersections of sports and race. She eventually left the company and is now a staff writer for The Atlantic.