This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.
Olivia Nuzzi was only 23 when Donald Trump was elected president; by then, she was already a reporter at the Daily Beast with a growing ability to get under Trump World’s skin. She’s since moved to New York magazine, where she’s become a wily institution of her own, well sourced in and out of the White House. Earlier this month, we spoke about coming of age as a political reporter under Donald Trump, her regrets, her accidental trips to the Oval Office, and one way the Trump administration was actually friendly to journalists. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: When was the first time you started to think about Trump running for president?
Olivia Nuzzi: I grew up in Jersey, so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Donald Trump. He was a tabloid villain for my whole childhood. My dad worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation, so he would always bring home the New York Daily News and the New York Post. And The Apprentice came out when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, so I remember kids telling each other “You’re fired!” on the playground.
When I started at the Daily Beast, I covered Chris Christie and Bridgegate, so I was paying attention to what ultimately became the Republican primary field—Trump, Rand Paul, Rick Perry a little bit—and I look back at that time and I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I didn’t know what I was doing at all.” I saw the coverage Trump was getting on birtherism and was aware of him appealing to right-wing extremists and racists disguising their beliefs in the Tea Party like they were concerned about the debt or whatever. I interviewed Trump for the first time in November 2014 for a piece about Chris Christie and casinos in Atlantic City. I was on the phone and in a cab taking really haphazard notes when it happened: At the end of that interview with him, I got the sense that he was waiting for me to ask him if he was thinking about running for president. It felt like he anticipated that I would ask that, so I asked it, and he gave me some kind of long-winded answer about how he was looking at it and that, if nobody else stepped up, he would have to seriously consider it. I remember calling my editor and being like, “Oh, by the way, I asked him about this, do you care?” She said something like, “Oh yeah, I guess we should write it up.”
The piece I ended up writing was very much like, “Trump is ‘speaking about running again,’ ” and the whole context for it was every couple of years he pretends to, then he never does, and grain of salt, whatever. I remember pitching a profile of him and saying, “I really want to revisit him psychologically, like Mark Singer had in 1997.” I felt like he hadn’t really been revisited in a serious way since he took up birtherism. The Daily Beast did not want me to do that for obvious reasons at the time. When he said he was going to make an announcement on June 16, 2015, I distinctly remember my editor calling me and assigning me to it and saying—this is obviously not verbatim, but she said, “It’s just this one day, and we’re not going to ask you to cover him again.” I was excited to do it. I thought it was a great story. The prevailing wisdom internally and on cable news was: “Don’t take him seriously. Don’t let him make fools of us. Wait till he files the paperwork.” Nobody wanted to cover him, because the hot tickets for candidates were Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. It was not an attractive assignment to more-established reporters initially. So I was happy to do it.
There was a time where the casual house style at the Daily Beast was to mockingly refer to Donald Trump during the primary as “future president Donald Trump.” That didn’t age well—or actually, it did, just not the way that we thought it would.
How long did it take for you or the people around you to start taking him seriously as a candidate?
People close to Trump didn’t believe in it. So it’s not as though there were people whom I wrote off like they were Kool-Aid-drinking idiots. There was really nobody whom I was talking to in his campaign or who was advising him—or even pundits—who thought that this was going to work. I noticed that Hillary had fairly small contained events in a high school gymnasium somewhere compared with these Trump rallies at monster truck arenas. The Daily Beast was for a long time actually banned by the Trump campaign, so when I would go to events, I would often go in with the crowd instead of going in with the press and hope I wouldn’t get recognized by any of Trump’s campaign people. Around June 2016, I remember feeling in my gut that he was going to pull it off. I wasn’t going to report like, “Well, according to my female intuition, this seems like it’s going to happen.” I remember talking to two different friends of mine who are in politics media (but are not reporters) who felt the same way.
On election night, I was calling it the “victory party” in scare quotes until around 10 p.m., once the New York Times needle flipped. All of a sudden, every reporter there was, like, chain-smoking on the balcony of the Hilton. I remember this one reporter stress-eating candy. She didn’t smoke. Everything just suddenly went like: “Oh, shit. We were prepared for something totally different.” And I remember the week before the election having a conversation with my editor on figuring out how I want to approach coverage of Clinton. I remember when he came out to speak and he looked like, “What are we going to do now?” He had this like “Oh, shit” look on his face.
As Trump has left the office, have you thought back at all on anything you would have done differently then?
In retrospect, I have all these general regrets. Some of the policy pieces I did were missing obvious context. I’d write about the chief of staff and the senior adviser fighting, and it’s eating up all their time and derailing messaging. I regret not including what people with their title would ordinarily be busy with if they weren’t insane people working for Donald Trump. I wish I had invested more time in understanding and explaining how things ordinarily ought to be operating. I remember being overwhelmed in trying to make sense of it all. We had these embarrassment of riches, in terms of characters and people whom I could focus on or profile, and so much information every fucking day. And I felt like every time I got ahold of something, in terms of my understanding of it, there would be a whole new onslaught of information with some new twists and drama. It was just a very weird way to learn about the White House or the federal government and cover it for the first time. There were some positive aspects of greeting it with fresh eyes, but there were also obviously drawbacks to my lack of institutional knowledge and context.
Knowing what you know now, how would you have changed your coverage?
I wish that I could go back with my understanding of things now. I wish I had managed to convey better why the palace-intrigue stuff mattered to the policy. Sometimes there was this totally understandable impulse to eye-roll about yet another piece where people are attacking each other on background and leaking this or that. But that stuff really mattered in terms of the White House’s ability to do anything at all. They were devoting so much time to try to fuck each other over, and when someone like Stephen Miller managed to survive, there were implications for that with policy. So looking back, I don’t think I utterly failed. I just wish that I had done a better job of explaining how it all tied together in terms of what the administration is doing and how it was operating and who was making decisions, and why they were failing to get anything done.
As a reporter, I’m always worried about how not to be a useful idiot for these guys, reporting on things because they want us to. Did you ever have to grapple with that?
Totally. There’s one really tidy example of this. I got a leak. It was an absolute hit job dump on a White House official named Raj Shah. He was getting out there more, doing more TV spinning for the president, and it turned out that, during the election, he was at the RNC not just shit-talking Trump but actively plotting against Trump within the RNC. It was a clean hit in that it was true, and I had been given receipts of these conversations that I confirmed were legitimate, but I remember as I was doing it feeling like, “They’re gonna take this guy out, and they’re using me to do it.” I know that I’m advancing this internal stab. I’m helping one side kill off someone on the other side—it also just happened to be true. It’s not like it wasn’t a legitimate story. I realized I was being a useful idiot, becoming part of this palace intrigue, but it just so happened that it was news in that case. I thought that outweighed any concerns about helping them achieve something. That’s just one example. He did end up leaving. I know that my piece had gotten on the president’s desk because of the various people who wanted it there. I didn’t think the story was unfair. It was true that he had done this and that there was documentation of it, but I remember as I was going about reporting that piece just feeling deeply—not uncomfortable about it, but just like it was very different than my typical type of story, which involved me calling a thousand people.
Do you think there is anything to the idea that the media did exactly what Trump wanted them to do?
Some people think of Trump as some kind of a genius mastermind. Like, “Oh, I want to distract from this, I’m going to pick a fight with Jim Acosta today, and that’ll help me.” I think he’s much more instinctual that that. It has always felt like, “Oh, my God, he’s turning this into theater and we are all a part of it and doing the dance exactly how he wants us to.” It sometimes felt like he’s pressing play on this choreography that ends up unfurling exactly as he thought it would.
Can you talk about your one-on-one interview in the Oval Office with Trump?
The easiest way to get that White House engaged on something was to send an email and be like: “Somebody said this about Jared Kushner. Do you guys have a response to these allegations?” Then everybody suddenly would come out of the woodwork to try and help you with a story. I remember, in that case, I’d been working on a story for like two weeks or something. I emailed Peter Navarro or someone that I didn’t have a relationship with at the time. He replied by cc’ing the entire press shop saying, “I won’t be speaking for this article.” Then some other press people started asking about what I was working on. So I ended up doing interviews at the White House, and I had to assume whatever I said was going to be immediately repeated to a whole group of other people that I didn’t intend to talk to. I was speaking to an official on background, someone very senior, and I expressed to them that I was so sick of dealing with all the fucking crazy people who come out of the woodwork to try and make me insane when I’m writing a story.
After that interview, I went to leave the White House and stopped to have a cigarette and talk to a photographer I knew. And then I looked down and saw I had a missed call from Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ secretary. When I called back, Sarah asked me if I was still there and if I could come back to her office. She sounded kind of weird, I thought—I detected fear in her voice. So I was like, “Oh, god, OK. I’ll come back there,” expecting her to yell at me or something. After she saw me, she told me to put my things in her office. It took me a minute to realize that we were going to the Oval. I turned on my recorder because previously when I interviewed Trump, he had been immediately weird to me when I walked in without my recorder already running.
So I walked in, and it was just Sarah and Bill Shine, who was there sitting in front of the Resolute Desk. And then Trump made, like, a grand entrance. We all live with him as a constant, shrieking presence in our lives and on our televisions and in our phones all day long. So there’s this sense like I’ve fallen through the television and I’m sitting with this character, you know? I just remember wanting to make sure that I got the most time possible, so I tried to manage when and how I interjected, and when I would challenge him. I remember there was one point in the interview, when I was transcribing it, where it’s just six minutes of him nonstop rambling and at no point could I have found a place to interject. There were no pauses. In the moment, I remember thinking, “I’m sure that they’re also recording this,” or like, “Some nefarious foreign government is probably recording this somehow, so don’t sound like a fucking idiot.” I was trying to be someone stern and serious but not needlessly antagonistic. It’s not a very comfortable place to have an interview: being across from the president at the Resolute Desk, with a bunch of random members of his administration streaming in. It’s not like we were like hanging out, having Diet Cokes, and casually shooting the shit. So I was just trying to get information and get him comfortable enough to be somewhat forthcoming. I didn’t expect him to be like, “Oh yeah, it’s all bullshit, Olivia. Let me tell you about my big scheme here,” but I was trying to get some level of comfort with him. I remember at one point Mike Pence came in the room, and there were no chairs left for him, so he was weirdly standing over my shoulder with his arms stiffly at his side. I noticed that my hand was really dramatically shaking, because I think I was so nervous but also calm because of adrenaline or something—I don’t know how the human body works. But my hand was really rattling in an embarrassing way, and I remember looking up and seeing Mike Pence look at my hand shaking, and just kind of sitting on my hands.
That sounds like a nightmare.
I remember when I left being like, “What the fuck was that?” I called my editor and I was like, “Hey, sorry I haven’t filed my piece yet.” I slowly took him through my morning and then ended with that. I was like: “Can I send you the audio for you to confirm it happened like I remember it happening? Because I feel like they just hallucinated.”
How did you even begin to process that?
We decided to publish it almost like a one-act play. It was written like a transcript. It wasn’t in Q&A format, but we decided it made the most sense to publish as much of him and how he spoke as possible. That was the only way that made sense. There were other outlets, like Bloomberg, that’d had an interview earlier that week that they chopped up, and they ran like 10 different stories from what Trump said during the interview. That’s a) not the type of reporter that I am, I wouldn’t even know how to do that, but also b) I felt like there was no way to explain what Trump said, and the best way was to have as much context for what he said as humanly possible because the way that he speaks is so strange, and he contradicts himself so often in speech. I could report that he said this one thing about tax policy, but he might have contradicted it 10 minutes later in a different part of the conversation. Trump was very happy with that piece—which, ordinarily, I’d be like, “Oh, god, I really fucked up because Trump’s really happy with my piece.” But I can see with the strange way that he speaks—and the strange and sarcastic and weird tone that he has sometimes—how he can say something that he doesn’t think is definitive, and it could be reported literally as if he did, and how he could think that that is not a fair representation of what he said. It’s because he speaks in such a bizarre way. So I came away thinking I would rather read for myself the six minutes of tape than have it conveyed to me by a reporter.
Are there any reporters or outlets you think captured Trump well?
The actual reporting on the administration has been incredible. I don’t want to give the administration credit—they were constantly lying—but it’s true that they were more accessible than most politicians. That doesn’t mean that they are transparent, but they are accidentally transparent about how stupid they are all the time. I think the press has done a great job of reporting on him. But I think the punditry has often been abysmal, and I think that those things get conflated a lot. I see why when people are talking about the media, if they see a pundit on MSNBC saying something overwrought or whatever—why it’s hard to separate that from NBC’s reporting. I’m just using them as an example. I think a lot of the commentary has been ridiculous and unhelpful, but the reporting itself and a lot of the analysis—and a lot of the punditry too—has actually been good. It’s a mixed bag. The fact that he was out there tweeting constantly about what he thinks in the stream-of-consciousness way provided everyone with the clear headline each morning. He primed the day. Journalists would turn his tweets into headlines, you know? You don’t have to be like, “What’s the White House thinking?” We all get the alert on our own every morning. The press made mistakes, but I think that the reporting was actually very good, separate from what op-ed pages or what the talking heads were doing.
Do you think the media bear any responsibility for losing the faith of its readers, as survey after survey suggests they have?
I feel like there was a real reluctance on the part of the media during the Trump administration to give an inch and admit any fault because of Trump. Let’s say you issue a correction on a story and you’re a member of the mainstream press—it’s not like they’re going to be like, “Thank you so much for doing that and handling that responsibility.” Even if it wasn’t about the Trump administration, they’re going to be like, “Aha! Look here. The media admits to being fake news!” That happened all the time, right? Any admission of error on the part of the press was weaponized by the right and by the administration. So I totally understand why mainstream reporters—by which I mean networks or big papers—feel like they have to be objective robots. But I found, anecdotally, that while talking to Trump’s supporters who are skeptical of the press, it’s always led to a better conversation if, when they ask if I work for a liberal outlet, I say, “Yeah, totally.” Then they’re like, “Oh, OK. Yeah, you admit it. All right.” And then we can have a conversation. But if you work for a network, you can’t say, “Oh, yeah, it’s probably true that most people in the newsroom tend to be a part of liberal elite institutions and they all have Ivy League degrees and they’re from the East Coast.” I feel like it’s just done us no favors to dig our heels in and collectively say we’ve always gotten it right, and we never fuck up, and we’re totally objective, because it’s just not true.
This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.