Politics

Five Years on the Trump Beat

A rally with all eyes on you. An editor playing down Trump’s birther references. An unexpected trip inside the Oval Office. How reporters experienced the Trump era day by day—and what they regret the most now.

US President Donald Trump points to journalist Jim Acosta(Center L) from CNN during a post-election press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2018.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

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

Until Nov. 8, 2016, few reporters believed Donald Trump would ever be president. Even after he clinched the Republican nomination, his chances were institutionally disregarded, scandal by scandal, poll by poll. Like most other journalists, I was caught off guard when he won, and stuck without a plan for how to cover him that night—and for the next four, maybe eight years.

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In one way, the story of Trump’s campaign and his administration is the story of how reporters and outlets scrambled to cover him, sometimes fearlessly, sometimes with disastrous results. With Trump out of the White House, I spoke to six writers and journalists—some who were there for his announcement in 2015 and others who had been covering him for far longer—on what they got right, what they got wrong, how Trump forever changed the way they do their jobs, and what they’d do differently if they had the chance to cover a Trump campaign or White House again. At least one of them told me she’s not so sure she will never have that chance again.

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Astead Herndon.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo provided by Astead Herndon.

Astead W. Herndon, national political reporter, the New York Times

“I don’t see the last four years as this journalistic anomaly that will never be replicated again. I think that it is one piece of what is a larger conflict in America. And I think that a risk is that a Biden administration that is better at norms, that is better at the kind of baseline stuff that people have come to get outraged about, will blind people to the forces that led to Trump in the first place.” Read the full interview here.

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Olivia Nuzzi
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo provided by Olivia Nuzzi.

Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent, New York magazine

“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.” Read the full interview here.

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

Katy Tur, NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor

“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.” Read the full interview here.

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Mehdi Hasan
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo provided by Mehdi Hassan.

Mehdi Hasan, interviewer and host, The Mehdi Hasan Show

“There was always a reset. It was, ‘Today, he became president.’ ‘It’s a new tone.’ ‘He’s learned his lessons.’ All those phrases, they were burned into my mind and will be till the day I die.

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I think it was out of good intentions, maybe, by many White House reporters wanting to believe that this guy can be restrained by the office, that he will realize the weight that’s on his shoulders, that there will be elders in the Republican Party who will take him to one side and get him to behave normally. And it never happened. August 2017—that is the real moment for me where there was no going back.” Read the full interview here.

Kurt Anderson
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo by Olivier Douliery/AbacaPress.com

Kurt Anderson, longtime Trump observer and author, Fantasyland

“I think that writers like us who have contempt for him and mock him gave him his contempt for the media and the elite, even for a rich guy living in New York. And I think that, yes, his political base saw that and understood. Then again, in terms of the media responsibility, there’s a sense of “We shouldn’t have mocked him, or been contemptuous of him. Because that’s what inflamed his rebellion.’ Is that part of it, 100 percent? I don’t know. Back then, that’s what he was, so what can you do?” Read the full interview here.

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Nowicki in profile, wearing a baseball cap
Photo illustration by Jim Cooke and Slate. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images.

Dan Nowicki, national politics editor for the Arizona Republic

“Arizona has been a pretty important state the last couple elections, so of course we see the D.C. reporters parachuting in when they do their story, dateline Phoenix or dateline Scottsdale or wherever. And they’re usually pretty much the same story. I don’t necessarily think that any of that ever really gets to the heart of what’s going on here on the ground.” Read the full interview here.

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

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