Katy Tur is a reporter who covered the Trump campaign for NBC News. On the campaign trail, Tur's reporting was often criticized by Trump at his rallies. As she discusses in the interview below, "He doesn't take perceived slights well ... If he feels like he's being treated unfairly, he will try to discredit the person who is criticizing him or has pushed back on him. And he'll do it with personal insults. He'll call you names, call you third rate, call you a liar."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 9, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
I started covering the campaign on June 28. It was a few days after he officially announced. I happened to be in town on home leave, because they had just moved me to London to be a foreign correspondent. I was literally standing in the newsroom, talking to a producer about life, and somebody said, "Donald Trump's getting dropped by Macy's and other corporations because of comments he said when he announced. Katy, do you mind covering this for us since you're here?" And I said, "Sure, no problem."
The next day, they asked me to do it again. And on day three, I had a call from the president of the news division saying, "We're going to put you on the Donald Trump campaign." At the time it was a joke. I mean, to most people it was a joke. It was not a serious campaign. He wasn't a serious contender. I wasn't a part of the political planning for 2016. After all, they had just moved me to London to be a foreign correspondent. But international news was going through a bit of a slow moment, so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Wrong place at the wrong time, some might say.
And from there, from this idea that this was a moon shot candidate who probably would only last six weeks, through the summer, it became a complete upending of not only my life, but the political norms and atmosphere of this country.
... Early on, they were kind of these rally speeches were a bit rambling and all over the place, to the point where even the people who were excited to see, they'd start walking out towards the end because they would sometimes go on for an hour-and-a-half. And there would be no real point; he'd just talk in circles.
As he went on, he started to really hone his message. And he started to remember what lines worked. I believe he introduced "bomb the hell out of ISIS" at a New Hampshire rally early last fall. And it just got a huge, unbelievable roar from the crowd. And you could see he noted it. And he continued to do it from there going forward.
I mean, there were times where he'd say things like, "Bowe Bergdahl should be executed for abandoning his platoon or his troops." And I remember thinking, this is a presidential candidate who's advocating for a service member to be executed. I mean, I can't believe that I'm hearing this. This is not something that I thought I would see in 2015, 2016. And have an entire crowd of people cheer this idea of somebody getting killed. But they did. And he kept going with it.
None of these extraordinary statements or normally out-of-bounds statements seemed to hurt him. And the crowds fed off his energy. They loved that he wasn't politically correct. They loved that he was telling it like it is, saying what they say maybe at the dinner table or under their breath to their friends when nobody's around. They were really chafing. The public was really chafing at going to work and having to bite your tongue all the time, and having to watch what you say, and worry that you might lose your job because of something you posted on your personal Facebook page. And Trump came out and proved that you don't need to worry. You just don't need to apologize.
I think the ugly stuff did develop a norm. Not at every rally, but it wasn't unusual. To the point where we didn't cover it every day because it became something that we saw so much, it didn't feel as newsy on a day-to-day basis because we kept seeing it over and over again. We'd tweet about it, certainly. And those tweets would take it off and you'd see it in print here and there, but it wouldn't make the network news on a daily basis.
The crowds were big from the start. I should say that. And we were just seeing a lot of people who were really angry. And some of those people would come in, not all of them, but some would come in with Confederate flags. Some would come in wearing Confederate flags on their t-shirts. Others would come in with their homemade anti-Hillary shirts. "Hillary for Prison" was what we started seeing pretty early on.
And then these street vendors started catching on, that people wanted these very in-your-face, mean towards Hillary Clinton shirts. So we saw, "Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica." We saw "Hitlery." I saw a man wearing his own homemade shirt that said "I wish Hillary married OJ," which implies that he wishes that she was murdered.
The anger was there from the beginning, and it only increased as it got farther along. It became completely acceptable. It became OK to come to a Trump rally and wear a shirt that says Hillary Clinton is a c***, and stand there next to your seven-year-old son. It became OK to sit in an auditorium of a high school and have your 10-year-old son scream, "Trump that B" towards Hillary Clinton, and the mother will look at you, look at her son approvingly and pat him on the back.
This was unbelievable. There's no way to describe it other than you never expected it. It was extraordinary. And it's something that I would wonder if we'd ever see again.
I don't think it was the exception. And I think to say that it's the norm would maybe painting it with slightly too broad a brush. But these were things that we didn't see infrequently. And they were not people who were condemned by the crowd. They were embraced.
“I remember thinking, this is a presidential candidate who’s advocating for a service member to be executed. I mean, I can’t believe that I’m hearing this.”
Their headquarters [is] still on the fifth floor of Trump Tower. And it was where they used to shoot The Apprentice. So it was this bare bones, industrial space because all of the Apprentice materials and camera equipment and furniture had been ripped out of it. You looked up in the ceiling, it was open piping. ... It was bare bones. And a lot of Trump pictures all over the walls.
... The first interview I did with Donald Trump, the sit-down interview I did, that 30-minute interview, Corey Lewandowski wasn't even there for it. It was just Hope Hicks. And when Trump got up and was angry about it, Hope was taken back. She was fine until her boss was suddenly angry, and then she was angry. She said, "Wait a minute, I'm getting the campaign manager."
Corey Lewandowski comes down and I think to myself, who is this guy? I didn't even know who he was. I have it in my phone, "Corey Lewandowski, campaign manager, question mark, question mark." At the time, he just wasn't a person who was involved, at least on my level, with Donald Trump. And I was giving him 30-minute sit-down for NBC News.
I went in with the expectation that Donald Trump was going to push back at me, because I was from NBC. And it's Donald Trump. He's a combative interview, always, and this is a political interview. I wanted to know why he was running. I wanted to know why he said the things he did about Mexicans. Where was his proof for the comments he made about Mexico sending rapists over? Where was the proof he had for these crime stats that he was talking about on various interviews?
And you know, just basically what he stood for, because no one really knew. He had been a Democrat, and he had gone back and forth. He wasn't a politician. We didn't know where he stood. So I started to ask him a bunch of questions along those lines. And I asked him some pointed questions about his comments about Mexicans. And at one point I said, "Aren't you worried that you're going to piss off world leaders by shooting from the hip they way you do and speaking as loosely as you do?" And it infuriated him, that I used the word "piss off." Infuriated him. He said how dare I use such a crass word in the presence of somebody who was running for president. He just got very angry.
I believe he thought it was going to be a much softer interview, and wasn't expecting there to be somebody pushing back.
We're in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. We're in the belly of a warship. Hours earlier, the campaign sent out an email blast to the reporters with a press release. And the press release said: "Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States." And I read it. And I looked at my producer, and I said, "Is this real? Is this coming from Trump?" And we both re-read it again. And we realized it was real. And then we all start working the phones and getting on the air.
So we knew what he was going to do at this rally beforehand. We got reaction from the people who were waiting in line to get in – what did they think of this concept? And we couldn't find a single person who thought it was a bad idea. So we already knew that this was going to be something to keep your eyes on.
When Trump entered this warship and took the stage, there was a tension in the room. It felt like a box of matches, even before he took the stage. And they were just waiting for Donald Trump to come and light it.
And he walked up and one of the first things out of his mouth was, "I, Donald J. Trump, announce that I intend to ban all Muslims from coming into this country until we figure out what the hell is going on." The room went wild. Wild. Absolute cheers. Absolute confirmation that they believed that this was a good idea and this is what needed to happen. This is in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terror attack. People are scared. They don't know what's going on. They want someone to come out and say "we're going to fix it, don't worry about it." They didn't want a President Obama who's going to be more nuanced in how he talks about it. They didn't want somebody to hold their fire. They wanted someone to come out and say, "No, this is what we're going to need to do. And the problem is Muslims." So they went wild.
A few minutes later, I'm writing on my notepad, and I hear my name. What? It's not the first time he's called me out at a rally, but it was unexpected. I think he pointed me out and said, "She's back there, little Katy, she's such a liar, what a little liar she is."
It took me a second to realize why he was so angry. ... A couple days earlier we were at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was very sick. This was the first time that a group of protestors had coordinated together to interrupt his speech at every chance they could. So it was like 11 separate protest groups, and they interrupted at five-minute intervals, to just really try to disrupt him, knock him off his game, get him to stop talking.
And he finished earlier than he normally did. He abruptly finished after I think the 10th or 11th protest. And he left the stage. And he walked down to shake hands, and he left. And I documented the whole thing on Twitter. Later Rachel Maddow goes on the air with it. He is furious. He tweets about what a liar I am, and he didn't abruptly leave the stage. How dare I do so?
I get an email from Hope Hicks saying, "Mr. Trump thought your tweets were disgraceful, not nice, exclamation point." That was the entire thing. I emailed back, "What dishonest about the tweets?" I never got a response.
So he was angry. And he was stewing. And Gateway Pundit, which is this online outlet, said that Donald Trump never abruptly left the stage, and that I was a liar, even though we had it on camera and we saw him doing it. He took issue with it because he had been railing at the time against Bernie Sanders, because Bernie Sanders lost control of his mic at his podium, because Black Lives Matter protestors came up and took it from him. So he was sensitive to this idea that protestors could stop him from delivering his own speech. That is why I think it got under his skin so much. Also, I think probably because it was me and I tended to get under his skin quite a bit.
So anyway, he calls me out at the rally. "Look back there, little Katy, she's back there." And I was like, what? And you know, we're caged in. We're fenced in bicycle racks, but we are surrounded on all sides with people who are fired up and angry ... And they're whipped up by Donald Trump. I described it as like, you know, an unchained beast roaring at you in a crowd. And the whole, the whole place turns at me, looks at me and boos.
There was one older woman who gave me a sympathetic look, like, "Oh, my gosh, what is going on?" But other than that -- and what do you do? I smiled and I waved, because I think that cowering would only enable them to try to intimidate me more.
But as he moved on and as it started to sink in, and as my phone started to go off because this was on national television, and as my mother started calling, freaking out, I started to get nervous. Because what if one of these people who's already angry about terrorism decides that they want to try to impress Donald Trump? And what are they going to do to me?
So Secret Service ended up escorting me to my car, because there was a concern that, you know, what if somebody lingered and tried to do anything? And I remember going to bed at my hotel that night and having a hard time sleeping, because I was worried if somebody had tried to follow me or tried calling all the hotels to find out where I was staying. It didn't help that my mom kept calling in tears.
“If he feels like he’s being treated unfairly, he will try to discredit the person who is criticizing him or has pushed back on him. And he’ll do it with personal insults. He’ll call you names, call you third rate, call you a liar.”
He's still doing it. He doesn't take perceived slights well. He is a counterpuncher, that's the way he is. If he feels like he's being treated unfairly, he will try to discredit the person who is criticizing him or has pushed back on him. And he'll do it with personal insults. He'll call you names, call you third rate, call you a liar.
He's always had a contentious relationship with the press to some degree. But he does love reporters, and he's used them to his advantage throughout his life. I mean, that's just apparent. He's been tabloid fodder since the '80s.
So he understands how to work the press. He understands how to make a headline. But he also is somebody who doesn't like to take criticism, and he is not afraid to throw whoever he needs to under the bus in order to appear stronger.
That, and he rightly assumed that if he discredits the messenger, he can say whatever he wants. And it can go unchecked. So if he says "the sky is yellow," and a reporter says, "no, I'm looking at the sky and the sky is blue," a supporter will be like, "Well, I believe Donald Trump, the sky is yellow because you're a liar. Because you reporters are all liars."
So he inoculates himself from any negative headline.
... There's a separation of powers. Not only in Washington with Congress and the executive and the judicial branch, but also a free press. A free press is what keeps Washington in check. We are a part of that system. And we dig and we find out things that politicians don't want us to know, or don't want the American public to know. Watergate is a great example of that.
... People should be concerned. Because even though you may agree with Donald Trump right now, at some point you're not going to agree with whoever's in office. And you're going to want to make sure that there's someone out there who's digging in and fact checking that person and making sure that what they're telling you is true. That's what the press does.
... And if you look at what happened ... part of what enabled Donald Trump to thrive was that right-wing media claim that all reporters were liars for years and years and years. And then suddenly when Donald Trump started painting everybody with that broad brush, including the right-wing media, the people had no reason to believe anyone any longer. So they suffered from their own criticism.
But it's important because the press plays a pivotal role. And without us, dictatorships happen. Without us, democracy crumbles. Without us, the American way of life would cease to exist.
Right after that tape came out, suddenly everybody on the Trump [campaign] went radio silent. Everyone. Kellyanne Conway canceled her Sunday show appearances. So did Reince Priebus. The only people that would appear were Rudy Giuliani. And I think even Newt Gingrich went dark for a little while. Chris Christie went dark. I was told by a member of the RNC [Republican National Committee] that Reince Priebus was telling staffers to do what they needed to do, to follow their conscience. And if their conscience led them out of the RNC because they couldn't work with this candidate for fear of their reputation, or because they didn't agree with this and they had families and they didn't agree with this sort of language or this sort of rhetoric, or this idea that you can grab women, then you were free to go.
... A number of Republican lawmakers were coming out and saying he needs to step aside, he needs to let Governor Pence take over, this is unacceptable. ... But it was, it was a really hairy time and it was hard to get anybody on the phone. But Trump is not somebody who would ever quit. Period.
I think with the exception of maybe one or two people, everyone thought that that was the end. How do you survive this? How do you survive this? As a Republican, how do you survive advocating or saying you're allowed to grab women in their private parts because you're a star? That is not just something that anybody can survive.
Kellyanne Conway, I was told by a source, was seriously reconsidering whether she would stay. She has children. She is, I was told, a practicing Catholic, who had a visceral disagreement with this sort of language. She obviously ended up staying, but she did disappear from the airwaves for a while. And she now says that nothing was wrong. But even a few days later when, at the debate in St. Louis, Chris Matthews asked her, "Do you plan on staying on?" And she wavered a little bit.
So I think looking back, everything is viewed through rose-colored glasses, but at the time, this was a moment where it looked like it could be the end. Governor Pence even went dark for a while.
I cornered Steve Bannon the morning of that debate as he was running out of Trump Tower to get on the plane to go to the debate. And I said, "What are your plans tonight? What are you going to do? Are you going to bring up Bill Clinton's accusers? Is that part of the strategy?" And he just smiled, and he's like, "We'll see." That's it.
Next thing I know – and no one in the press knew this was happening – there was a press conference with all Bill Clinton's accusers right before the debate. And you can go back and look at the tape and go back and look at the photos in that room and look at the reporters. ... there was widespread shock that this was happening. Nobody had it beforehand. It was a tight hold. Nobody, unless you needed to know about it, you did not know about it. If the kids disagreed with it, I did not hear that. But this looked like a Steve Bannon special.
Distract. Equivocate. Say that I might be bad, but look what Bill Clinton did. I mean, this is not a strategy that the Republican Party thought was a good one, because they tried this in the '90s, it didn't work. Newt Gingrich certainly tried this in the '90s, it didn't work, to bring Hillary Clinton down for Bill's sins. She's not a part of them.
But they had nowhere else to go at this point. I mean, barring a spectacular debate performance, things were not looking good. The first debate really did a number on him. And then the 2005 audio did another one. I mean, it looked like this was, this was the Titanic and it was about to go under. And, save yourself, maybe we'll try and put a Band-Aid on it to stop the, to stop the water from getting in.
“The press plays a pivotal role. And without us, dictatorships happen. Without us, democracy crumbles. Without us, the American way of life would cease to exist.”
... So the first 20 minutes he was talking about trade, he was talking about creating jobs. And he was on message. He was controlled. He didn't raise his voice. He seemed like he had a real shot to at least come out not so behind Clinton, who had been preparing for so long. And then Clinton got under his skin. She talked about that million-dollar loan from his dad. She knew how to get under his skin. She had been practicing. She had been studying him. Her team knew what were his -- knew what his buttons were.
And she just started unleashing them one after the other, and he lost it. And he interrupted her, I believe it was 29 times. He talked over here. He tried to demean her. And he lost control of the debate. And we thought that the campaign would at least have to acknowledge to a degree when they came out. I don't know why we thought that, because they've never acknowledged any misstep.
And every single one of the campaign staffers came outside and the ones that talked to reporters on the record said that this was a great debate performance. It was very clear that Donald Trump won. And Donald Trump himself said the same thing in the spin room.
... But behind the scenes, there was an acknowledgement that he needed to do more to prepare, that he was not prepared for that debate, that sitting around and spitballing questions and answers with his debate team -- Governor Christie, Mike Flynn, Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes -- was not an adequate way to prep for a debate against Hillary Clinton. They needed do something, they needed to get him behind a podium. They needed to make sure that he understood the topics that he was talking about. They needed to show him how he could get under her skin, and how he could control himself when she tried to do the same to him.
So there was a real acknowledgement that that debate did not go well, and could have gone a lot better. And needed to for this second debate.
I think that the only thing that the attacks against Trump served was to make him stronger. Every time that Romney came out against him, every time that Marco Rubio came out against him, every time that Ted Cruz called him a liar, every time that John McCain criticized him, or Mitch McConnell wouldn't mention his name, or Paul Ryan tried to avoid talking about him, and people just thought, "Wow, this guy is really ruffling feathers." This guy really is going to be able to -- he's not beholden to any of them, like the rest of them are. He's his own man. He answers to nobody but himself, and now hopefully he will answer to nobody but us. That's what his supporters felt.
Every time the establishment attacked Trump, it played in to the narrative that they wanted to put out there. Which was that he was so anti-establishment, they were going to do anything that they could to take him down.
Well, there's a difference. The elected officials that were there were there and they were uncomfortable for the most part. They didn't know what was going to come out of this convention. There was a feeling that we're just here because we have to be here.
And then the Trump supporters who were there because they were excited to see Trump, and the delegates that were pro-Trump delegates, there was the same excitement you see at the rallies. Couldn't wait for it to start. ...
It was a darker message. It was not a -- for all of his experience as a reality show producer, this was not a well-produced convention. The timing was off. The star speakers were not so glamorous. Oftentimes some of their more important speeches fell in hours that would not end up on national television.
So it was a rocky convention. But there was a real turning point when Ted Cruz took the stage. Ted Cruz took the stage -- and this was Donald Trump's biggest rival during the primaries. They had said some horrible things about each other. Their families had been involved. Ted Cruz called him a sniveling coward, said he would never support a man who went after his family. But there he was, standing on the convention stage and delivering a speech to the RNC, which team Trump knew was not going to end with him endorsing him. They knew that was going to happen.
So they were like puppet masters behind the scenes, allowing Ted Cruz to go out there and essentially hang himself in front of the Republican Party. He didn't endorse him. And as his speech went on and as it became clear that he wasn't going to end with "vote for Donald Trump," the crowd turned against Ted Cruz, this crowd that wasn't necessarily entirely enthusiastic about Trump suddenly became enthusiastic about Trump and coalesced because Ted Cruz wouldn't do it. They were suddenly all with Trump and against Cruz, booing him, trying to get him off stage. And Trump, coincidentally, comes down his stairs and his box and appears during Ted Cruz's speech, stealing all of the attention from him. And making it all about Trump instead of about Cruz.
So the convention, although it started rocky, found its legs once Ted Cruz basically came out and hanged himself. And everybody was thrilled by this, because it looked like the Republican Party was coming together behind Trump. And they woke up the day after the convention and they thought, "Wow, we might have a candidate that we can put in the White House."
It's the public and private face of the campaign. Kellyanne Conway is the public face. She was the one who was Donald Trump's absolute best surrogate. Could go on any show, take any question, and turn it around and make it an attack on Hillary Clinton. No matter the subject. She does it better than anyone else does. She can turn a whole conversation into her favor within a matter of seconds.
Steve Bannon is somebody that you rarely see. He doesn't talk to reporters. He doesn't do interviews. If he's standing near Trump, it's off to the side. He runs in and out of Trump Tower and tries to avoid reporters as much as he can.
So who was involved in strategy more? Who was involved in actual campaign inner workings? I think Kellyanne Conway was less involved in strategy than Steve Bannon was. Kellyanne Conway was there to sell the strategy. Bannon was there to come up with the strategy and to come up with the winning game plan.
Well, Trump never, you know, the campaign likes to say that he vehemently disavowed white supremacists and the alt-right. He didn't do it as vocally as any other candidate has or would have. He waffled on a condemnation of David Duke. He retweeted white supremacists. His kids at points retweeted accounts linked to white supremacists. Michael Flynn, the national security advisor now, retweeted accounts that were linked to questionable characters.
... And the campaign, while they would claim they disassociated themselves from it, didn't do it in the way that a normal politician would have. ... white supremacists will tell you that they felt like Donald Trump was giving them a wink and a nod, like, "Yeah, yeah, I disavow you, but you can come be a supporter of mine." Which is why they continued to robo call for him, and why they endorsed him in their papers, and why they advocated for a Trump presidency and showed up at his rallies. They felt like even though he couldn't say out loud that he supported their cause, they felt as if they did.
He would get on stage and he would give an address meant to focus on African American communities, saying that, "You're living in poverty, your children don't get good education, you have no job security, you have no job prospects. What the hell do you have to lose?"
And he's saying it, "what the hell do you have to lose?" And the crowd is 99.9 percent white. And they all are cheering at this idea, like, "Yes, you're right, the African American community's going to be on Trump's side."
But in reality, he was rarely speaking to African American crowds. And when he did go to places that were a majority African American, they weren't so supportive. We were at a school in Cincinnati and Donald Trump talked to schoolchildren there, and there's a photo of him, I think, high-fiving or shaking the hands of a young boy, a 10-year-old boy in a classroom. And I spoke to him and his grandmother afterwards, after Trump was giving his education speech, and I asked them, you know, "Why are they supporters of Donald Trump?" And they laughed and said, "We're not supporters of Donald Trump." The grandson said it was a cool to meet a celebrity, and the grandmother basically just, you know, tore him to pieces and said that he acts like a bully. And in no way should somebody who's a bully be the president of the United States. They were there because the school had asked them to be there.
... Their internal polls and the RNC's polls, according to sources that I spoke with, did not have Donald Trump winning. They went into election night believing that they were going to lose. The social media team and the pollsters have come out afterwards saying that, no, that's not true, but day-of, that's the word that I got.
They had hoped that there was this underground silent majority for Trump, this underpolled group of folks that would show up. They weren't entirely sure that they would because the polls -- and this was a fault of polling across the board -- showed registered voters. And Donald Trump was able to turn out voters who were not high propensity voters ... So that's why it ended up turning at the end. But they didn't necessarily think that they were going to win, because they were looking at all the same numbers that the rest of us were. Which was that Hillary Clinton was leading among registered and likely voters.
What they believed, and they were totally right, was that Donald Trump's jobs message was going to resonate with the Rust Belt. It was going to resonate with the upper Midwest, the working class in the upper Midwest. And that's why they started focusing on Michigan. And they thought that they had a chance in Michigan, not necessarily because their polls showed him doing well in Michigan, but that suddenly Hillary Clinton was spending more time there.
So they saw her showing her weakness and showing herself to be worried about that state. And they believed if that's the case, then we need to go there and hit it harder. And they did. And Wisconsin, the same thing. Minnesota, the same thing. Ohio, the same thing. They felt like Donald Trump was a candidate that related more to the American worker than Hillary Clinton did, and that they would end up coming out for him in droves, more so than her, because frankly there was no excitement for her, and there was excitement for him.
And frankly, anybody who went to a Donald Trump rally more than once would tell you that the excitement was there. ... I went to Trump rallies in more than 40 states -- in some deeply blue states. And he would turn out massive crowds, even those states, thousands of people who would come out to see him. They often said that they were running a 50-state campaign, and they were. And they believed that no matter where they were campaigning, no matter where they were holding a rally, even if it was a place they were not going to win as a whole, Oregon, or Washington, it was worth being there because they were going to get on national television with thousands of people screaming for Trump. And that was the message that they thought would hit in all 50 states and show people that there is excitement, there are likeminded folks in this country who do believe in Trump, and you're not alone. ...