Politics

“They Don’t Even Know What’s Coming at Them”

Katy Tur on the moment she knew everyone underestimated Trump—and when she realized it might get violent.

Katy Tur
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo by MSNBC PR.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

Katy Tur was one of the first reporters on the Trump beat when he declared his candidacy for president in 2015, and it was not entirely on purpose. The NBC News star just happened to be in New York when she got the assignment to cover the announcement at Trump Tower, and it began a five-year tenure on what she calls “the most important story out of many of our lifetimes.” Just before Donald Trump left office, we talked on the phone about when she knew Trump was for real, how she assesses her own coverage now, and what Trump will do next. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: Do you remember the specific point when you thought Trump might really be elected?

Katy Tur: The moment where I started thinking that this was not an anomaly was when he went after John McCain. I was at a rally in Mobile, Alabama, in 2015, where there were 20,000 people, maybe even more than that. It was the biggest rally that any politician had seen since Obama, certainly bigger than any Republican. And I remember asking the folks in the crowd if they cared that he was going after John McCain, who was a war hero. Nobody cared. They sided with Trump over John McCain. And I remember thinking to myself, he is not going anywhere. For my story, I did an interview with someone an the RNC who said there was no way Trump would survive after the McCain thing. The public would never stand for that. I had just been speaking to people in the crowd, so I thought, “They don’t even know what’s coming at them.”

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How did you end up on the Trump beat?

I was typically based in London as a foreign correspondent, but I was in New York on vacation. I was saying hi to my friends, reminding the New York office that I still existed, and I happened to be in the Nightly News room right around when Trump had announced his campaign for president. They needed someone to cover it. So they assigned me to it because they weren’t going to put one of those political reporters on it. They were already assigned to real-deal candidates. And Donald Trump wasn’t somebody to take seriously. So they assigned me. A day story turned into a two-day story turned into three. And then they thought, “This guy, he’s not going anywhere. Let’s have someone on him just, just in case.” And they sent me to my first—it’s hard to call it a “rally.” It was only a couple hundred people over in the backyard pool. A few days after that first assignment, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m supposed to be on a plane to London. Do I really want to do this?” Then, “You’re just going to cover him for the summer. Don’t worry. I’ll be back home in no time.” But there was something about Trump that kept me there. And so I went. I struggled for a moment, thinking to myself, “They really don’t take me seriously if they’re sending me to cover Trump.”

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In hindsight, do you think that was good luck or bad luck?

Journalistically, I think it was great luck. Because you get into this business to cover big stories. It ended up becoming the most important story out of many of our lifetimes.

You’re one of the journalists who got a special Trump nickname.

The first rally I covered, he called me out and accused me of not paying attention to him. I actually was just tweeting what he was saying. He got more antagonistic after my first interview with him, which was soon after, in 2015. I was thinking, “Well, if he wants to be president, I am going to have to treat him like a man running for president.” I asked him some tough questions, and he didn’t like it one bit. At the end of the interview, he said that he was going to release the full footage of the interview, that I stumbled, and that I could never be president. Like, what a weird thing to say!

Sometimes he was really happy to see me. Other times he was really angry to see me. As we got deeper into the campaign, toward the end of 2015, he decided he didn’t like me, and started calling me names. A third-rate reporter. Little Katy. The first time he called me Little Katy was at a rally in South Carolina. Not pleasant. This was the day he announced he wanted to ban all Muslims from coming into the United States. He was angry with me because a few days earlier I had reported on how organized protesters disrupted his rally enough to cut it short. To him, I think it implied that he was too weak to stand up to the protesters. He was furious. He called me out on Twitter, and then at this rally he pointed me out in the back and he said “Little Katy, she’s back there.” The place turned around and looked at me, and people were angry. I remember thinking that the bicycle rack surrounding the press pen was pretty flimsy and we don’t have security. There is Secret Service, but they’re not here to protect me. All those things crossed through my mind in a second. And then you’re like, I’m going to do my job. So you focus on your job, but you also compartmentalize the danger. And so that’s what I did. What was I going to do? Run outside and cry?

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How did you feel after it was called for Trump?

I was in Donald Trump’s victory party at the Hilton in New York. I was on the riser. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my God, he did it.” I remember being told he’s going to keep doing rallies. And at that point, it just felt like my world was spinning. I thought I had done my last rally that very morning. The idea of living out of my suitcase for any longer was just hard to take—not in a partisan way, but because the man had been such an assault on truth and had put so many good reporters’ lives in danger. It was just like, wow, this isn’t over. We’re gonna be living with this now for the next four years.

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Was there anything that you regret in the way you covered Trump?

I mean, that’s a hard question. I think this is a discussion that we’re going to be having for years. I don’t think we’re really going to know what we did right or what we did wrong until we have some distance between us and the moment we’re in. We’re still covering it every single day. It’s hard to see through this fog for what we should have done better. That being said, I know we will look back and think we should have done X, Y, or Z better. Or we should have pulled back here or pushed forward here as we always do with everything, not just in this business. The amount of coverage he got during 2016 has been a big point of criticism, and I think it was corrected to a degree in the subsequent four years. I’m not sure if it was totally right, but I do think we will figure out what went wrong and what went right when we have some more space from it.

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Listen, we’re not perfect. We’re all trying to cover something that is unlike anything else. The guy and his administration weren’t truthful with us since the beginning. And it’s hard to figure out how to deal with, and be fair with, that.

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Did you see this crescendo at the end of Trump’s presidency coming? The violence, the GOP turning on him, getting impeached twice, as someone who followed his rise closely, did you see this coming?

I didn’t see a Capitol riot coming. I did think that there was going to be something violent after he lost the election, and I’ll tell you why. It’s been a slow burn since the very beginning. He came out swinging at immigrants in 2015. At the rallies, he would encourage his supporters to beat up protesters. He told some that he would pay their legal bills for punching protesters. He used very inflammatory language. Some folks would say not to take him literally, that we should just take him seriously. That’s a bunch of baloney. His supporters took him literally. And we saw it at the rallies. We saw the anger in the crowds. It’s been building because he has painted himself the victim now for five years, saying, “Everybody is out to get me. And they are out to get you.” He fueled the anger and this desire to fight back. And it was going to culminate into something. Donald Trump was telling his supporters that the only way he can lose is if he’s cheated. And if you truly believe that your democracy has been stolen from you, if you truly believe it, there are people out there who are willing to fight for that.

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I went to a rally in Pennsylvania, a small rally, and I stayed with these supporters who were outside. I asked them, “Can Donald Trump lose?” To a T, every single person said the only way he could lose was if there’s fraud. So I’d ask what we should do about it, and everybody said, “We’ll protest,” or “It’s not going to happen.” But there was one guy on a motorcycle. He looked like he was a veteran. He said to me, “I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.” I asked, “What does that mean? He’s said, “It means whatever it takes.” I asked him if he thinks it could get violent. He said, “Whatever it takes.” I asked if it was just him. He’s said, “No, I’ve been talking to my friends about it.” He said this to me on camera. I remember sending out flares, saying this was a big deal. And postelection, the anger was there, the rhetoric was hot, but nothing had spilled over. There was a sense of relief. And then we got Jan. 6.

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When you wrote Unbelievable, your book about your experience, did you learn anything about yourself as a reporter when you sat down and collected all that?

Oh yeah. The campaign was a test of endurance, and looking back on it, I was impressed with all of the campaign reporters who survived it. You really do have to surrender yourself and your life to it completely. And it happens every four years. It’s a trial. And I learned that I could be very stubborn when I was challenged.

Given all of what you’ve learned from covering Trump the past five years, what do you expect him to do now?

I don’t know. Losing his Twitter is quite a big deal. That’s where he posted every thought that he had. That’s where he really riled people up. That and rallies—I don’t know if he’ll continue doing rallies. Will he go on Fox News every day and spin people up? I don’t know. It just depends on how he chooses to express his anger. It depends on how he chooses to make himself visible. Without his Twitter account, what form is that going to take? I talked to one of his advisers, and asked him if Trump was going to follow through with running for reelection in 2024. And they said that before Jan. 6, he had been very seriously talking about it. Now? I don’t know.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

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