The Post's Jenna Johnson has spent the past year-plus on the road covering Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. I've reached out to her from time to time to catch a glimpse of what her life with The Donald is like. I sought Jenna out again on Monday — in the wake of Trump's decidedly odd (even for him) event in Manheim, Pa., over the weekend, in which he impersonated Hillary Clinton's stumble at a Sept. 11 memorial service and accused her of being unfaithful to her husband, Bill. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited, is below.
FIX: You’ve been with Trump since (almost) the beginning. Have you noticed any change in how he acts/speaks/behaves at his rallies over the past month or so as the general election gets closer and closer? If so, what?
Johnson: Compared with a year ago, he is showing much more control at (most) rallies. Since August, he has been reading scripted speeches off a teleprompter, and he has stopped using words that I have to dash out in stories. These speeches tend to contain more policy details [and] more direct attacks on Hillary Clinton instead of just insults, and a more logical flow. For months and months, those close to him have been urging him to do these things, but it wasn't until he fell in the polls this summer that he listened to them. Some of his speeches are even, dare I say this, a little boring. But Trump is Trump, and when he feels like he has been wronged or attacked or misunderstood, he punches back — as we saw at the first debate last week and at the rally on Saturday night.
FIX: On Saturday night in Manheim, Pa., Trump went way, way off script. Describe that event for us and what you were thinking covering it?
Johnson: This was the final rally of a very long, exhausting week. So I was ready to watch his comments, file a quick story and then sleep on the plane back to New York. Maybe even have a glass of wine. The campaign sent an excerpt from the speech — nine sentences attacking Clinton for comments that she made months ago about some of Bernie Sanders's millennial supporters, which surfaced the night before and generated a lot of Twitter buzz. I figured that would be the headline out of the night, and I pre-wrote a story that I could publish as soon as he read the statement.
Reporters got to the rally about an hour early, and I went through the crowd talking with people, including a wrestler-turned-stand-up-comic, a guy who grilled me on media coverage of Trump and many people who drove in from the Philly suburbs, waited for an hour or two in the rain and were so pumped to be there.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Trump was more than an hour and 40 minutes late because of the heavy fog — and I knew that he would likely be frustrated when he took the stage. When you spend most of your waking hours following a candidate, you learn so much about that person that you can often predict how he might act. I knew he was already frustrated by everything that had happened that week — the debate with a problematic mic, the critical pundits, the feud with a former Miss Universe, the late-night tweeting, the controversy over the "sex tape," the nasty column from Maureen Dowd — and that this delay would add to that frustration. At that point, I didn't know the New York Times was about to publish an explosive piece about Trump's 1995 tax return.
Sure enough, Trump took the stage frustrated and ready to lash out. He started reading that statement about Clinton's comments on millennials but he kept going off on tangents. It took him nearly 25 minutes to get through all nine sentences, and he sounded like the Trump I got to know a year ago, saying one outlandish thing after another. At one point, Ben Jacobs from the Guardian asked if I had seen the New York Times story that just went up about Trump's taxes. I pulled it up and started reading, while continuing to listen to Trump.
Before the speech ended, I deleted the original story that I wrote. That was no longer the headline. I quickly wrote two posts: One about Trump urging his vastly white audience to go to "certain areas" on Election Day and "watch." And another about his attacks on Clinton, including mimicking her stumbling to her van during a bout of pneumonia last month and accusing her of not being "loyal" to her husband.
I knew this speech would become one of Trump's most memorable, and I wanted to capture this moment in history that I had just watched. So on the bus to the airport, the plane to New York and another bus to the hotel, I started transcribing quotes. Back at the hotel, I pulled up video from the rally and re-watched the entire speech. Suddenly it was after 4 a.m. I filed the story and went to bed, setting my alarm for 8 a.m. so that I could get up and watch the Sunday morning news shows.
FIX: What is the overall mood of Trumpworld these days? They — and he — insist all is well. But reports of internal turmoil are everywhere. Which is right?
Johnson: It seems to change day to day as they boomerang between small victories and frustrating controversy. For staffers who have been with Trump for a long time, none of this is new, but for those who are newer to the campaign, I have to think that it's endlessly aggravating to spend so much time setting the candidate up for success, only to hear him make not-so-well-worded comments in interviews or watch him lash out on Twitter. I think a lot of people are waiting to see how the next debate goes. And remember how back in August many pundits said that he was done and had no chance to win? We have five weeks to go, and those who believe in him believe that he can win.
FIX: Trump hasn’t held a news conference of any sort since July 27. Is there any explanation for that? And what’s his general interaction with his traveling press — if any?
Johnson: The only interaction that we have with him is when he stands on the rally stage and accuses us of being dishonest, prompting his crowds to boo and heckle us. There is no full explanation for why he is not holding press conferences anymore — especially after spending so many months slamming Clinton for not holding press conferences. He has also greatly reduced the number of interviews that he does, mostly limiting himself to Fox News and local television stations. And he has refused to travel on the same plane as the press, as is the tradition for presidential nominees. My guess for why this is: He and his staff don't want to be exposed to questions that he doesn't want to answer.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “Donald Trump is happiest in this campaign when _______________.” Now, explain.
Johnson: "... he's standing before a massive rally crowd and everyone is chanting his name." Like any good showman, Trump takes his cues from the crowd and feeds off their energy. These crowds savor every word that he says and egg him on to say controversial things. I think the audience is one of the reasons that he struggled during the first debate — he was playing to a crowd of Republicans and Democrats who had been asked to not clap, cheer or respond to what was happening on stage.