With Donald Trump now the clear frontrunner to be the Republican presidential nominee, I reached out to Jenna Johnson, the Post's lead reporter covering The Donald, to see if I could pick her brain about her experiences on the trail. She agreed. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below. Make sure to follow Jenna on Twitter for the best on-the-ground reporting on Trump!
FIX: Over the weekend, NBC’s Katy Tur tweeted about how Trump’s rhetoric during his speeches is leading to some very aggressive responses from his supporters to the media covering him. Have you experienced anything like that? And have you noticed a ramping-up of either Trump’s anti-media rhetoric or the reactions it causes among his backers?
Johnson: It varies from rally to rally, state to state. And, honestly, for several weeks it seemed to be getting better. Part of the reason is that we were spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the rally crowds were often smaller and less rowdy. And Trump seemed to have dialed back his comments about reporters -- he still calls us scum, dishonest and the worst people he has ever met, but he stopped singling out specific reporters at rallies and instructing his crowds to not trust those specific people. In the past week, we are once again spending more time at huge rallies, often in southern states, where it's easier for someone to shout something nasty and then disappear into the crowd.
It's important to note that even when reporters face offensive blow-back from rally goers, it's often a small number of people in a huge crowd. I have met so many kind, helpful, dedicated Trump supporters who understand that I'm simply doing my job -- and they seem eager to explain themselves, their positions and their candidate to the readers of the Washington Post. I cannot even count the number of times that Trump supporters have gone above and beyond to help me do my job, from opening up about their own personal financial problems or views on race to suggesting some really great local lunch spots.
But all of those positive interactions can be easily forgotten when a reporter is verbally attacked at a rally or on Twitter, as is often the case. The few bad experiences that I have had pale in comparison to what several of my fellow reporters have experienced. Television reporters like Tur and Sara Murray from CNN are some of the most visible Trump reporters and that has made them the easiest targets. Last month, Sopan Deb from CBS was accosted by a Trump supporter at a rally in Reno who accused Deb of working for Islamic State terrorists.
There are about a dozen reporters who regularly follow Trump and have been doing so for months. We rarely sleep in our own beds and usually get only a few hours of sleep per night. We rarely see our relatives, friends or significant others and have missed so many birthday parties, weekend brunches and special milestones in the lives of the people we love. We struggle to not gain weight as we piece together meals at arena concession stands, airport food courts and gas stations. We work hard to accurately and fairly cover Trump's candidacy. And while we all have thick skin, it's not easy to be attacked for simply doing our jobs -- especially when comments focus on our looks and not our work.
Luckily, the attacks thus far have been verbal or written, not physical. I was relieved when Trump received U.S. Secret Service protection in November. There was a particularly chilling moment in late December when Trump responded to criticism of his embrace of Putin, who has been accused of ordering the deaths of journalists, and jokingly debated aloud if he would ever do the same. Although Trump made clear that he's anti-killing journalists, it was unsettling to hear the roaring laughter and cheers from the crowd that day, followed by the small number of Trump's fans who began to mirror his language in tweets and messages to reporters.
FIX: Does Trump treat the press corps any differently off camera than he does on camera? Or does he still not interact with you at all — or very little?
Johnson: We have very little interaction with him on a daily basis, but we occasionally get close. The Donald Trump you see in a small setting -- a visit to a campaign office, a quick interview backstage, a lunch stop -- is a different person than the bellowing, insult-throwing candidate you see on the rally stage. In one-on-one settings, he's charming, softer spoken and rather relatable. While his nasty, mean comments get the most attention, he's also capable of being overwhelmingly kind, almost to the point of being uncomfortably kind. I've interviewed a number of people who have spent a little bit of time with Trump -- big-name endorsers, dedicated volunteers, police officers assigned to protect him -- and all remark on how he somehow made them feel like the most important person in the world.
FIX: You’ve been covering Trump since the beginning. What’s the biggest change in him — if any — you’ve noticed?
Johnson: We've seen proof that he's human. For years, Trump has branded himself as this indefatigable super hero. While many men his age have lost their hair and retired, Trump is married to a former super model with whom he has a son who is in grade school. Trump, 69, boasts about only sleeping a few hours a night and promises to never take vacation if he's elected. Despite eating a diet of mostly fast food and soda, Trump claims to be exceptionally healthy. He has mocked former Florida governor Jeb Bush, 63, for being "low energy" and said that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, 68, is exhausted and lacking the strength and stamina needed for the job.
In December, Trump seemed to lose his voice after a marathon of campaign stops. Leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Trump at times seemed lethargic and tired. The day of the New Hampshire primary, Trump pledged to do as many as half-a-dozen campaign stops but then just briefly stopped by a couple polling locations in between television interviews. The night before the South Carolina primary, his voice was hoarse and he only spoke at his big primary-eve rally for about 30 minutes.
FIX: Who is in Trump’s inner circle. I notice his wife, sons and Ivanka seem to be out on the trail more with him of late. Is it a family-first operation? Or are there others he is traveling with, consulting with and relying on day to day?
Johnson: After months of being solo on the trail, we are seeing much more of Trump's family. His wife is briefly speaking at a few events, and his two oldest sons regularly do television interviews and hold campaign events, often with a hunting focus. Ivanka Trump -- who is due to have her third child soon -- also made appearances in early-voting states. In addition to providing personal support, Trump's family humanizes him. His defense to questions of his Christianity or morality is often to point to the family he helped raise.
While most campaigns keep their top officials holed up at the headquarters, Trump is nearly always accompanied by his campaign manager and spokeswoman, along with political director Michael Glassner. He has recently started hiring policy advisors and building out a kitchen cabinet. But it's important to remember that Trump is mostly a one-man show who largely makes decisions on his own with minimal input from others.
FIX: Finish this sentence: The single most important thing about Donald Trump that you wouldn’t pick up from just watching him on TV is ________________. Now, explain.
Johnson: He is very calculated and purposeful in what he says. Trump can seem all over the place, especially when he doesn't seem to be answering the question he was just asked in a television interview. He's purposely not answering that question, pivoting to another topic and talking over any follow-up questions from the host until he or she gives up trying to get an answer and moves on to the next question.