As Election Day arrived this week, I found myself thinking back on all the travel, all the different events, and all the news that I was able to cover in 2016 – up close and personal – in the campaign that ended up electing Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.
People sometimes ask me to name the “best” moment on the campaign trail that I have covered – I don’t know that I have just one, but these were the some of the things that made me smile as I thought back on this campaign.
1. Sweet Home Alabama. Just before Super Tuesday, Donald Trump came to Madison, Alabama, near Huntsville. Thousands and thousands of people were gathered at a high school football stadium on a cool, but gorgeous late February day. The crowd erupted as Trump’s plane flew in to land at the airport nearby. When I left, there was a line of people that stretched for literally a mile, as they waited on the side of the road to see Trump’s bus go by. It had been obvious before that Trump had a lot of support, but this was another piece to that puzzle. And also, when you interview someone from Bug Tussle, Alabama, you know you’ve hit the jackpot.
2. No one to celebrate with. A few hours after that Trump event in Alabama, I was at a McDonald’s down Interstate 65 – both to eat, and to start editing my stories for the next morning. As always, I had written several stories and recorded them just as the Trump rally was ending – you get the neat sound of all the people and the music behind you. Until you listen to the tape, you never know if it was good or not. Well, my first take just happened to start right as they began playing “Sweet Home Alabama” on the loudspeakers, and the crowd erupted. It was like I had edited the sound underneath my report. I was so excited by this perfect piece of luck that I literally jumped up from my seat – but it wasn’t like I could high-five or chest-bump the older couple sitting next to me. Here is what it sounded like:
3. Snow at home and on the road. Before I could even get to Iowa for the Caucus, I had to dig out from a giant snowstorm in my own neighborhood. About 15 hours before my flight, the plows finally got to the main road, so I started digging the 200 feet or so to get there. My neighbor joined in, our kids helped out, our wives arrived, and soon I had a lane to some blacktop. Once in Iowa, I didn’t have any problems with snow until the day that I needed to fly home – and the trek to the airport in Des Moines was a white knuckle ride. Let’s just say, it wasn’t the best driving conditions.
4. Exercising to Ted Cruz. On the day of the Iowa Caucus, I drove about 90 minutes out to the northwest of Des Moines to find Ted Cruz, in the small town of Jefferson, Iowa. He was speaking in the gymnasium of a community center there. A teacher from a local school had brought his class over, so it was a neat little venue. While the gym was occupied, there were still people using the facility to exercise. As you’ll see in this video, while Cruz is taking questions, there is a guy doing laps on the track that’s up above Cruz. Watch the guy’s shadow as he comes around, and then as he walks by a guy who is furiously using the rowing machine. It was just a funny moment to watch that unfold.
5. A visit to Mar-a-Lago. Right before the Florida Primary, I got to spend the morning at Donald Trump’s exclusive club in Palm Beach. It took me a little while to figure out how to get in there, but once I was there, it was pretty sweet. Trump held an event in a ballroom that was too nice for reporters. I was in the far back, by a door that went to the main building – I could hear voices back behind the door, and I quickly realized it was Trump himself. He said he wanted to see what it looked like, how many of us were there. His staff was basically telling him not to open the door, but he did. I pulled my camera out just as the door opened and squeezed off a few shots without looking through the viewfinder. It worked.
When the event ended, Trump sounded like our rich grandfather. “Go outside; we have coffee and drinks,” Trump said to the press. “Enjoy yourselves.” It was a small window into Trump the private citizen, who seemed to enjoy playing the role of host.
6. Donald Trump rallies. I went to a lot of Trump events, and they were certainly amazing to see in person. Usually, a good event for a candidate is a couple of hundred people. Trump would routinely draw thousands, sometimes many thousands. There were always a few protesters here and there who would draw the ire of the crowd. At a stop in Cleveland just before the Ohio Primary, two guys started to square off just to the side of the platform for the news media. As you can see in this video, someone who was anti-Trump starts going at it with a few Trump supporters. Others use their signs to block the press cameras from getting a shot of the dispute. I just happened to be in the right place to get a look.
After the event was over, a number of reporters stayed behind in the quiet IX Center, writing and filing our stories. A Trump supporter came up to me at one point with a camera – I could tell he was rolling video as he was giving a play-by-play. He then stuck the camera in my face and demanded to know if I was a liberal reporter. I remember very clearly saying to myself, “Don’t do anything stupid.” I smiled. I kept typing. I didn’t say a word. And after about a minute, he went away.
7. The Donald Trump house. A couple of weeks before the election, I drove up to Pennsylvania with my colleague Dorey Scheimer for a day of driving around Trump country. The hope was to find some good signs, good visuals, maybe do a few interviews, and come up with a good story. After having a great meal at a diner, a woman chased us down in the parking lot; she had seen us interviewing people inside. Dorey asked her if there was anything else we should see – “the Trump house” was her reply. And boy, was she right.
The woman who ran it had a constant stream of visitors coming by to snap photos in front of both the house, and the giant Trump cutout. When we asked what would happen if Trump lost in November, the woman who owned the place looked like she had been hit on the head with a hammer. She certainly must have been one happy voter this past week.
8. Getting there just in time. I can’t tell you how many times I was driving like crazy to get to some far-flung place for a campaign event – it always seemed like I had no time to spare. Driving to Madison, Alabama and running for almost a mile to get to the press entrance at a Trump rally. Driving at top speed from Columbus to Cleveland for another Trump event. Leaving my hotel at 3:30 in the morning in Miami so I could get to Mar-a-Lago in time to do my morning live shots. Just getting to a Trump rally in South Carolina too late, as they closed the media entrance door in my face. One memorable day was after the GOP debate in Houston, as Marco Rubio was having a rally in downtown Dallas. I drove as fast as I could to get there, found the rally site at a park in the city, and couldn’t believe my luck when there was a parking space literally across the street. I ran over to the rally, plugged in my tape recorder, and Rubio appeared a couple of minutes later. And I smiled.
9. Ted Cruz getting booed at the Republican convention. I have now covered 15 national party conventions, and most of them have been pretty boring affairs. This year’s Republican gathering in Cleveland did feature some party infighting, which frankly we would have forgotten about in due time – but the one moment that will stick with me for a while was the eruption of boos when Cruz told delegates to vote their conscience in November. When they realized he was not going to endorse Trump, they began booing loudly, in a display that I had never seen at a political convention. It wasn’t so much a consequential moment of history, but rather just one of those moments that was something different.
10. The general wild scene of covering a campaign. There are so many stories when you are on the road in the race for the White House. The Australian reporter who bummed a ride with me in the snows of New Hampshire. The many small businesses where we would go for rallies with one candidate or another. The places you might never go, like a Kasich event in Iowa at the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library. Bowling alleys. Small colleges. Big universities. High schools. Elementary school cafeterias. VFW halls and more. And sometimes you take a five minute walk to see something else, like in Davenport, Iowa, when I walked down to the banks of the Mississippi River. Thank you, America. I can’t wait for the next race for President.
11. Blackjack with a top Trump aide. After the final debate in Las Vegas, I got back to my hotel around midnight local time – 3 am Eastern. I was tired. But I also knew I wouldn’t be in a casino anytime soon, so I went down to the blackjack table. As I walked up, there was an empty seat at a $10 table. Who was sitting next to me, but Jason Miller, a top aide on Trump’s campaign. I didn’t say anything; I figured he was tired, and I was too. Finally, I said hello and we had a good chuckle about where we had ended up. After about 20 minutes, he gathered his chips, and headed for the door. “See you on the trail,” he said with a smile.
The 2016 campaign is finally over.