Jenna Johnson spent the last 14 months of her life traveling around the country with Donald Trump as The Post's lead reporter covering his presidential campaign. In the wake of Trump's stunning victory on Tuesday night, I reached out to Jenna to talk about her experiences on the campaign trail and what she's learned about the man who will be our 45th president. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited, is below.
FIX: You’ve spent the last two years of your life (almost) traveling with Donald Trump. Describe what it was like to see him win the presidency Tuesday night — and whether it was even conceivable to you (or anyone else covering his campaign) when this all started.
Johnson: While it felt like two years, it was only 14 months! When Donald Trump announced he was running for president in June 2015, I never thought he would make it through the primaries. But about three months later, I started covering him full-time and my opinion changed. He would host these rallies and thousands of people would show up — and hardly any of them mentioned "The Apprentice" when I asked why they liked him. He understood Republican voters in a way his party did not, seizing on issues like illegal immigration and fear of Muslims.
I was not at all surprised that Trump won the Republican nomination. Early in the summer, I thought he had a shot at the presidency. But then he attacked a federal judge for having Mexican parents, he criticized a Gold Star family, he continued a feud with a beauty queen he thought got too fat, he initially shrugged off pro-sexual-assault comments captured on a hot mic in 2005 and he threatened to sue women who accused him of sexual assault. On top of all that, he never pivoted from his primary message to a general-election one. It was like he was still trying to prove he deserved to be the Republican nominee instead of going after independents and moderates.
I simply didn't think he could pull it off, and the poll numbers backed that up. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump changed. He ignored bait floated by the Clinton campaign and focused on jobs, trade and national security. He upped his rally count and attracted huge, excited crowds at nearly every stop. But it seemed too late.
On election night, I was sitting in a bar in southwest Pennsylvania with a bunch of regulars who loved Trump but didn't think he could pull it off. As the results came in, they were stunned — and so was I. It seemed like even Trump himself was stunned by what happened.
FIX: On election day — and the days leading up to it — what was the mood of the Trump operation? Did they have any sense that this sort of upset was possible? And what about the candidate himself?
Johnson: When FBI Director James Comey sent lawmakers that letter saying that new emails had been discovered and would be examined, Trump and his team saw a huge opening that they desperately needed. Trump made his first remarks on the letter at a rally in New Hampshire, carefully reading each word from a statement and clearly not wanting to blow this unexpected opportunity. But by that point, early voting was already underway, and it seemed like it was too late. Every losing campaign is optimistic that they will eke out a win, and Trump's staff had that optimism in the final days. But I don't think they expected the map on election night would be quite so red.
FIX: Trump has a famously combative relationship with the press. Do you expect that to change at all now that he is president? Why or why not?
Johnson: I hope that it changes. I hope that Trump realizes he is becoming the president of the United States and that he owes it to the voters who put him there to provide basic transparency, which includes giving reporters access.
FIX: For people who don’t know anything about Trump other than what they have seen on TV: What is he really like? Is there a private Trump that exists? Or something different than what we see publicly?
Johnson: For three months this summer, Trump banned The Washington Post from formally covering his events, and I had to attend as a member of the public, waiting in line for hours and hours. In chatting with the Trump supporters standing in line with me, one of the first questions was always: What is he like? These are his fans and even they felt like the guy they saw on the rally stage or television was not the genuine person. One on one, Trump is kind and gracious. Twice I was called backstage so he could gush about how much he liked an article I had written about his supporters and a photo I had tweeted of his massive rally crowd. For a candidate who stands on stage every night and tells the crowd that reporters are disgusting, dishonest and terrible people, he seems to struggle to confront those people face-to-face, instead opting for flattery and charm.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “The key to understanding Donald Trump’s appeal is ________________.” Now, explain.
Johnson: His rally crowds. From the beginning, Trump chose rally locations in struggling industrial towns with low median wage averages, low rates of homeownership and growing minority populations. He attracted thousands of white, working-class Americans without college degrees who felt like no one was looking out for them anymore, that their country was changing without them. In the primaries, exit polls showed that the demographics of Trump supporters were about the same as the Republican Party, but in the general election, these white working-class men and women were the ones who helped Trump win. They are the movement.