An Endeavor to Take Trump Seriously
What happens when a reporter tries to take the GOP’s man of the moment seriously?
National Journal | August 1, 2015
A few weeks ago, two of my editors ambushed me in the newsroom. Grinning mischievously, they said they had an urgent assignment for me: a story on Donald Trump. The magazine had planned to take the high road and ignore his presidential campaign, they explained, but the frenzy he had created and his strong standing in the polls were making the silent approach seem less noble than clueless. We had to say something fresh, something insightful about Trump—but what, and how?
Newsrooms everywhere appeared to be pondering the same question, with responses running the gamut from schizophrenic to cheeky to despairing. Earlier this year, CNN president Jeff Zucker instructed his producers to ignore Trump’s antics as he publicly flirted yet again with the idea of running for president—but from the moment in mid-June when the billionaire officially jumped into the race, the network has covered his campaign as if it were a disappeared Malaysia Airlines flight. At Fox News, Rupert Murdoch was reportedly feuding with chairman and CEO Roger Ailes over the network’s wall-to-wall Trump-tracking. By contrast, another leading voice of the Right, Glenn Beck’s radio show, decided to become a Trump-free zone. “I just can’t do another show about it,” producer and guest host Stu Burguiere told listeners.
Other outlets have tried more creative approaches. My former employer Mother Jones asked a kindergarten teacher to offer the other GOP contenders advice on dealing with a “Trump tantrum.” The Huffington Post responded to Trump’s campaign-as-publicity-stunt with a stunt of its own, announcing that it would cover him under the “Entertainment” banner, rather than in the political section. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” editorial director Danny Shea and Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim told their readers. “We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
Here at National Journal magazine, we chased several different ideas before eventually settling on arguably the craziest of them all: If Trump wants us to take him seriously as a potential next president of the United States, well, then, we would endeavor to do just that. My task was to find out—if humanly possible—what Trump actually had in mind for the presidency. Who did he plan to listen to on policy, for instance, and how would he work with Congress? What did he hope to leave as a legacy after a term or two in the White House, beyond sealing up the border as tight as Tupperware?
For all the nonstop coverage his candidacy had attracted in its uproarious first weeks, those kinds of basic questions—basic, at least, for anyone seeking the presidency—had hardly even been asked, much less answered. But surely, we imagined, Trump had given them some thought, since he’d been regularly eyeing a run for higher office—president? governor of New York?—for decades. He had been, in a sense, the dog forever chasing the fire truck down the street. Now it seemed appropriate to ask: What actually happens if the dog catches the truck?
BEFORE WE'D FIGURED out which angle to focus on, I set out to secure an audience with Trump. I grabbed a name and phone number from a press release on the Trump Organization’s website (“DONALD TRUMP UNVEILS PHIL MICKELSON VILLA AT TRUMP NATIONAL DORAL”). A woman with a gentle voice named Hope Hicks answered. “I’m probably talking to the wrong person,” I explained, “but I’m writing about Mr. Trump’s presidential run and was trying to reach a spokesperson for his campaign.”
“That’s me,” Hicks replied. “I can help you.”
This seemed odd, but I pressed on and pitched an idea: I wanted to pose a series of straight-up questions to the man about what he plans to do as president. No B.S., no gotchas, no questions about the outrage of the day: These would be substantive queries about Trump’s plans for the presidency. Hicks said she’d gauge Mr. Trump’s interest and get back to me soon. For a brief moment I imagined myself sitting across from Trump under the now-iconic Trump Tower escalator, wearing my choicest off-the-rack Macy’s suit. I thought maybe I’d buy a Donald J. Trump Signature Collection necktie for the occasion, if only to break the ice.
Days passed with no response. The 24/7 drumbeat of Trump “news” continued apace: Sen. John McCain had angered Trump, which led to Trump insulting McCain, which led to Sen. Lindsey Graham calling Trump a “jackass,” which led to Trump giving out Graham’s personal cell-phone number at a campaign rally carried live on national TV. The afternoon that happened, I reached Hicks again to ask about my interview request. With Twitter, TV, and the blogs all ablaze over the Trump-Graham-McCain feud, I noted that she was surely being besieged with calls and emails. “I feel great,” she told me. “I just woke up from a nap.”
In a subsequent call, Hicks said, “The campaign won’t be participating.” Next, I tried to speak to people close to Trump and glean some insight that way. My first call was to Michael Cohen. A lifelong Democrat who’s an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, Cohen has been described as Trump’s “pit bull” and likened to the character Tom Hagen, the consigliere to mafioso Vito Corleone in the Godfather movies. (Asked about the comparison, Cohen told ABC News in 2011: “It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit. If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.” This past Tuesday, Cohen publicly apologized for defending his boss against a decades-old rape allegation from a divorce proceeding by claiming that legally “you cannot rape your spouse.”)
I told Cohen that I wanted to understand what Trump would set out to accomplish as commander-in-chief and how he’d adjust to the very different life a president leads as compared with, say, a bon vivant business mogul. Cohen began to answer the latter question—“He’s gonna have to downsize and move to the White House”—then caught himself and insisted that the rest of our conversation stay off the record. But he told me to send him some questions and he would pass them along to Mr. Trump.
Spit-balling with my editors, we came up with six seemingly foolproof queries, each simple and easily answerable but designed to elicit something meaningful about Trump’s plans and ambitions for the office he seeks.
For the record, here’s exactly what I asked:
“What qualities would you look for in a vice president?”
“Some people say the current president has not done a good job of outreach to Congress. How would you build relationships with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle?”
“Aside from immigration, if you were to put your name on one piece of domestic-policy legislation, what would it be?”
“What would be the challenges of adapting to the presidential lifestyle?”
“Who would run your business empire while you are in the White House?”
“Your slogan is ‘Make America Great Again!’ What era do you think was the greatest in American history?”
The day I emailed those questions to Cohen, the campaign announced that Trump was traveling to Laredo, Texas, to eyeball the U.S.-Mexico border firsthand. Trump, of course, had caused an international uproar when, in his campaign rollout speech, he claimed Mexico was sending drug dealers and rapists over the border. I still wasn’t sure which of my possible angles I was pursuing, but I booked a flight to Laredo anyway and copied the border coordinates provided by the Trump campaign into Google Maps. The pin landed in a vast, unfamiliar expanse of gray. As I zoomed out, the coordinates revealed themselves to be slightly off—they had sent me to within a few dozen miles of the border between China and Myanmar.
THE VERY NEXT morning, Thursday, July 23, I stepped off a plane at Laredo International Airport, where the TV monitors were set to CNN: “TRUMP THREATENS GOP WITH THIRD-PARTY RUN,” the Chyron graphics blared. “TRUMP: RNC ‘NOT SUPPORTIVE’ OF MY 2016 RUN.” The candidate wasn’t due to land for a few hours, so I grabbed breakfast at the airport and got to talking with a pair of British reporters from major U.K. publications. The younger one was a dapper-dressing, Los Angeles–based roving news reporter; the elder, a New York-based editor, had been in America since the early 1990s, when his newspaper had dispatched him across the Atlantic to cover Gennifer Flowers, the model and former Bill Clinton mistress. “Are you Trumping, too?” he asked as we introduced ourselves.
I was curious what the Brits made of this whole Trump phenomenon. “I sit back and chortle,” the younger, hipper one said. “It’s George W. Bush all over again, innit? He hits a button with people. But do you really want him in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
The League of United Latin American Citizens had promised to muster “over a thousand protesters” to confront Trump at the airport, according to The Guardian, but we found a few dozen at most, clustered under the shade of a solitary tree and separated by a parking lot from the private terminal where Trump would be landing. The Brits applied their sunblock as the protesters took turns venting about Trump to the swelling ranks of reporters and cameramen. A guy from Univision staged a mini-demonstration with six of the protesters, asking them to chant, “Trump no! Raza sí!” into his microphone.
Inside, the private-terminal lobby was crammed with reporters, photographers, and producers, all jostling to get out to the tarmac for Trump’s arrival. A lone private-security agent stood in between the media horde and the doorway leading outside; a cacophony of voices was shouting out affiliations (“Washington Post! Excélsior in Mexico!”), begging to be let through. Hope Hicks, the Trump spokesperson, sparked a mini-stampede when she appeared with a box of campaign-issued press passes—admission tickets for the two coach buses the campaign had hired to carry reporters to the various stops on Trump’s schedule.
Ten minutes early, Trump’s $100 million red-white-and-blue 757-200 plane taxied to a gentle stop. A phalanx of Escalades massed at the base of its stairs. Emerging from the rear of the plane, Trump waved and beamed broadly as he descended to the tarmac, looking as if the presidency were already his. His trademark bouffant lay hidden under a white baseball cap bearing his campaign slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
Inside the terminal waiting room, the candidate briefly addressed the media scrum. Trump had originally been invited to Laredo by the local chapter of the Border Patrol union, but the group had rescinded its invitation at the last minute. The campaign had subsequently issued a statement saying that Trump was proceeding with the border visit anyway, despite the “great danger” he faced in doing so. A reporter called out: Did he really think visiting Laredo and the border was dangerous? “Well, they say it’s a great danger, but I have to do it,” Trump replied. He later elaborated: “People are saying, ‘It’s so dangerous what you’re doing, Mr. Trump, it’s so dangerous what you’re doing.’ I have to do it. I have to do it.” Another reporter tried a different tack, asking: “Why is it dangerous?” Trump ignored the question and headed for his Escalade. We sprinted for the buses.
The motorcade pulled out onto Interstate 35, headed for the border. It was a procession with all the trappings of a presidential visit: a cluster of blacked-out Escalades flanked by police cars with lights flashing, cops on motorcycles blocking traffic at intersections and on-ramps, and media bringing up the rear. Trump’s original plan had him appearing alongside Border Patrol agents south of Laredo, about 10 miles from the Rio Grande River. But with the local union having backed out, the caravan would make its first stop at Laredo’s World Trade Bridge, a major port of entry over the Rio Grande for semi-trucks shuttling goods between the United States and Mexico.
As Trump toured the checkpoint, two busloads of reporters clustered under a small makeshift canopy pitched in a parking lot next to the border crossing. We fanned ourselves in the stifling heat, checked in by phone with our editors (“It’s just a bit of a bun fight,” I overheard one of the Brits saying. “Every man and his dog here”), and waited to hear what Trump might say.
WHEN HE'D FINISHED his visit to the checkpoint, Trump was ferried to the media tent in a black SUV. In his white hat, blue blazer, khaki pants,and white-leather golf shoes, he looked as if he’d just emerged from the clubhouse at the Mar-a-Lago. After a few introductory comments from Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, the candidate proceeded to deliver perhaps the strangest set of “prepared” remarks of the entire 2016 campaign (so far). Here was a candidate, mind you, who had distinguished himself from the rest of the Republican pack by savaging undocumented immigrants and accusing the Mexican government of sending rapists and other criminal miscreants over the border. And here is Trump’s statement at the border, verbatim and in full:
“Thank you. Well, thank you very much for being here. It’s been an amazing experience. Mexico is booming, absolutely booming. And Jesus [Olivares], the city manager, and Pete have done an amazing job right here. But a lot of what’s happening here is because of the fact that Mexico is doing so well. Just doing beyond what anybody ever thought. And I don’t know if that’s good for the United States, but it’s good for Mexico. Anybody have any questions?”
I peered around the tent. No one knew quite how to react. Nothing about the statement computed at all: Trump had come to the border to praise Mexico? Had the weather gotten to him? Had he succumbed to heatstroke? Had we?
The ensuing question-and-answer session was no less surreal. Reporters tried hard to extract something of substance, peppering Trump with questions about his views on immigration and immigrants and border security, and what exactly he proposed to do about any of it. It was futile at best, infuriating at worst. To wit:
Reporter: “What do you say to the people I’ve spoken to this morning in Laredo who called you a racist?”
Trump: “We just landed and there were a lot of people at the airport, and they were all waving American flags, and they were all in favor of Trump and what I’m doing. Virtually everyone that we saw, there was such a great, warm—I was actually surprised—but there was such great warmth at the airport with all of those people that were there. So we’re very, very honored.”
Reporter: “There were plenty chanting against you.”
Trump: “They were chanting for me.”
Reporter: “They were chanting against you.”
Trump: “I didn’t see that.”
With growing desperation, the reporters turned to policy questions:
Reporter: “What would you actually do to change the illegal immigration?”
Trump: “Well, the one thing you have to do, and as Jesus was saying and as the mayor was saying, there is a huge problem with the illegals coming through. And in this section, it’s a problem; in some sections, it’s a massive problem. And you have to create, you have to make the people that come in, they have to be legal. Very simple.”
Reporter: “What would you do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here?”
Trump: “The first thing we have to do is strengthen our borders, and after that, we’re gonna have plenty of time to talk about it.”
After just ten minutes under the tent, Trump thanked us, turned on his white-leather heel, climbed back into an Escalade, and sailed away to the next stop on his magical border tour.
The final event was a brief address to a few dozen Laredoans at a local reception hall. Flanked on both sides by refrigerator-sized security guards in tieless dark suits and earpieces, Trump explained why he’d come to Laredo—sort of: “This is about you, not about me,” he said. “I heard you were here and I wanted to come.” He sang the praises of the intrepid reporters who had braved the dangers of Laredo to tell the world about Trump’s day on the border. “The press has been amazing,” he said. “I really appreciate it. The turnout of press has been incredible.”
Moments later, he was back to haranguing the media, after MSNBC host José Díaz-Balart shouted out a question about Trump’s “rapists” comment. “You know what, that’s a typical case of the press with misinterpretation,” Trump said. The Laredoans roared their approval; here was the guy they’d come to see! Díaz-Balart tried to ask his question again, but the candidate cut him off. “No, you’re finished,” he said, to another round of applause.
Trump was soon finished as well. As his SUV pulled out of the reception-hall parking lot, he lowered his window and waved to the onlookers. A few people rushed the car for high fives and handshakes. Trump triumphant.
Soon we were back where we’d started, at the Laredo airport. Trump greeted the reporters and seemed willing to take more questions, but when he was asked about Rupert Murdoch calling him “embarrassing,” he said a quick thank you to us all and was gone. Less than four hours after he’d descended on Laredo, Trump was headed home to New York—leaving a bunch of dazed-looking journalists behind to shake their heads and wonder: What the hell am I supposed to report about that?
I FEEL DIRTY,” I told the Brits as we headed back to the non-private part of the Laredo airport. Used. Chewed up. I couldn’t help thinking about how my tweets and photos—my mere presence in Laredo—had helped to feed the insatiable hunger for attention and controversy that keeps Trump in the news. Or how, in return, he’d given me—us—absolutely nothing beyond a few hours of cable news-style entertainment.
I decided to spend the night in the terminal before catching an early connection the next morning. The younger Brit and I ordered dinner at the airport restaurant. He ate while racing to file his story before his 5:30 p.m. departure, and I picked at my brisket and eavesdropped on the conversation between him and his editor. It was a telling exchange. Each time the Brit tried to explain how useless Trump’s visit had been, how little had been said or done, a long pause followed. No, I could almost hear the editor saying, we need some news. “I guess he did say that Latinos actually like him,” the Brit finally conceded. “Suppose we could go with that.” A story describing what had actually gone on—“Trump briefly visits border, says nothing”— was apparently unthinkable.
It seems there were many similar reporter-editor conversations happening that afternoon. After the Brit departed, I settled for the night in a chair across from the ticket counters and began scanning the various accounts of the day’s events. I expected to see stories confirming, perhaps even lamenting, the absurdity and futility of it all. Instead, what I read floored me. We’d all gone to the same events, heard the same remarks, yet the stories tended to describe Trump’s visit in the same terms as a run-of-the-mill presidential campaign event—as if it had been just the kind of performance that a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, say, might have given if they’d scheduled a day at the border. In the clichés and tropes so common to political journalism, Trump was being described by perfectly respectable journalists as “defiant” and showing “flourishes of bravado”; his trip was a “whirlwind” that led to “yet another day of the headline dominance that has made him the summer’s sensation.” (The prize for the gushing-est sentence about Trump’s border tour goes to the NPR reporter who, on the next day’s Morning Edition, described Trump’s jet as a “sumptuous, red-white-and-blue Boeing 757 with his name in huge gold letters that in lowercase mean ‘to surpass,’ ‘to outdo.’ ” Oy.)
Political reporters are programmed to cover presidential candidates in a rigidly specific way. Present them with a purple-state governor or an ambitious young U.S. senator, and they can perform admirably. Drop in an aberration like Donald Trump—a sort of pseudo-candidate who defiantly knows nothing about the very issues he’s running on and who openly mocks the accepted customs and niceties of American campaigns—and they don’t know how to react, how to recalibrate. To be fair, some did attempt to convey the bizarre emptiness of Trump’s rhetoric and the pointlessness of his visit, noting in journo-speak that he’d said “virtually nothing” or that he’d “ducked” questions about fixing the nation’s immigration system.
But if it was headlines Trump wanted—and you know it was—pretty much everyonecomplied. The New York Times: “Donald Trump, at Mexican Border, Claims Close Ties to Hispanics.” Los Angeles Times: “At Texas-Mexico border, Donald Trump cites ‘great danger’ from immigrants.” The Dallas Morning News: “Trump does Texas: At border, he blasts naysayers, predicts victory.” The campaign could hardly have written them better itself.
Meanwhile, I still had a story to write—with the luxury of far more time than the daily reporters but without a single substantive word from Trump, or his colleagues, to put in the thing. The next morning, on a stopover as I flew back east, I called Michael Cohen to ask him about the status of the questions I’d sent—the ones about Trump’s domestic-policy priorities and his ideas for improving relations between the White House and Congress. Cohen scoffed. “These are really kinda silly questions,” he told me. “Where’s Melania gonna put her wardrobe? Who really cares?” Never mind that I hadn’t asked anything about Trump’s wife or her clothes.
Cohen told me to call Hope Hicks, she of the midday nap, and whittle my questions down to one or two. Back in Washington, I did just that. She took my call, put me on hold, brought me back on the line, then said she had to take another important call. “I’ll call you right back,” she said. I never heard from her again.
So this is my story, such as it is. I have zero to report about Trump’s plans for actually being president—except that, from all available evidence, he hasn’t given it a moment’s thought. My brief adventure in Trumping, in fact, left me convinced that the whole point of this campaign—the sum total of all the “there” that is there—is the spectacle itself, the loud, fast-motion visual feast provided by an insatiable yet boxed-in press corps tracking the man’s every odd move and unaccountable utterance.
Becoming president of the United States is, for Trump, beside the point. Sure, he’s ahead in the polls, sometimes by double digits, but at this early date, those numbers are abstract and almost entirely meaningless—a fact that Trump probably understands quite well. There’s no denying that his pugnacious attitude touches something raw in a swath of the American electorate; however, I’d argue that populist support isn’t what fuels Trump, either. He mostly feeds off of us, the media. And we oblige him. Trump didn’t fly to Texas for the Laredoans; he didn’t go to the border to show he could be “presidential.” He flew to Texas for me and the Brits and CNN.
Think of it this way: If Trump’s poll numbers were to completely bottom out next week, but the press was still following his every move, would he continue to campaign? I’d wager that he would keep going, polls be damned, with the same gleeful vigor. But if the opposite happened—soaring poll numbers and no round-the-clock press? I think it’s a safe bet that Trump would pack it in and move on to his next “GREAT” thing. Honestly: If a Trump rally in Cedar Rapids or Spartanburg goes uncovered live by CNN or Fox, did it really even happen?
The media could quit him. The media should quit him. And that—I feel incredibly fortunate to say these words—is the last I’ll write on the subject.
An earlier version of this story misstated the phrase "bun fight."