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Lester Holt Abandoned His Speech at NBC Party to Cover Historic Trump Indictment: ‘They Thought I Was Joking’

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When former President Donald Trump announced on Thursday evening that a federal grand jury had indicted him for allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House, journalists everywhere paused what they were doing to report on the bombshell news.

For NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt — who was at a star-studded party honoring 75 years of the network’s evening news broadcast — that meant scrapping the celebratory speech he was about to give and abruptly alerting partygoers that he had to hurry back to the studio.

“We had been braced and postured for news of a potential indictment all day, but for it to come literally seconds before I was about to take the podium to welcome this huge crowd was not something I expected,” Holt tells PEOPLE.

Before returning to work to dig into the specifics of the indictment, Holt stepped on stage and apologized for the early departure, telling the crowd of about 150 people, “I had some remarks prepared and not to be hyperbolic, but there is some pretty major breaking news that’s going to take me away.”

He briefly acknowledged his pride for all that the Nightly News crew accomplishes in “making sure that we continue to deliver what the American people expect” — and then he did just that, preparing a special report on the indictment to keep his viewers informed.

Reflecting on the sudden change of plans, Holt says, “The most bizarre moment of the night was when I informed everyone that there was breaking news and that I had to leave, people laughed. They thought I was joking!”

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He adds: “My first feeling was one of regret for abandoning my guests so abruptly and not being the perfect host. But then of course I realized for the crowd to witness me and my team bolting for the exits to cover a historic moment in this country’s history, spoke more about who we are and what we do than any remarks I could have given.”

What Holt, and the world, quickly learned Thursday night is that Trump had been indicted on multiple counts related to violating the Espionage Act and obstructing justice — the first former or sitting president to face federal criminal charges. (In March, Trump became the first president to face any criminal charges, when a Manhattan grand jury indicted him in an alleged hush money scheme involving Stormy Daniels.)

On Friday afternoon, the 49-page, 38-count indictment was unsealed, detailing several charges and allegations against both Trump and his personal aide Walt Nauta. Zoomed out, the indictment tells a story of Trump and “co-conspirator” Nauta scheming to conceal classified White House documents.

Each of the charges against the former president carry potential prison sentences if he were convicted. Special counsel Jack Smith, who led the classified documents investigation, broke his silence Friday to say that he will seek a “speedy trial” — and to remind the public that Trump is innocent until proven guilty.

While Holt’s Nightly News celebration took on a more serious tone as the evening progressed, he has more to look forward to this weekend when he co-hosts NBCU News Group’s third annual multi-platform primetime special, Inspiring America: The Inspiration List.

The special airs on NBC Saturday, June 10, at 8 p.m. ET, honoring 10 noteworthy people who have made a positive mark on the world. This year’s honorees include Reba McEntire, Eva Longoria, LeBron James and Jane Goodall.

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