Q&A: NBC’s Katy Tur on her wild year covering Trump

Her new book, Unbelievable, describes what she witnessed from her front-row seat covering the craziest political display in American history
Alanna Evans, FLARE

The day before the U.S. presidential election, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur stood amidst cameras, reporters and a smoke machine at a rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump. She was the first national television correspondent to start following his campaign—and she’d been there, every step of the way, for more than 500 days.

The photo, above, captured by Pulitzer prize-winning Getty photographer Chip Somodevilla, is one of my favourites of Tur. The 5-foot-3-inch reporter appears larger than life in a red blazer—likely part of the bright red pantsuit she wore on the campaign trail. Favoured by Hillary Clinton, the pantsuit couldn’t help but become politicized last year. “I remember wearing this really fantastic bright red pantsuit one day and someone actually said to me, ‘Is that a Hillary Clinton pantsuit?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s a Katy Mother-Effing Tur pantsuit,’ although I didn’t abbreviate it,” Tur tells FLARE.

But it’s not the blazer that I love most in this photo. It’s Tur’s face, illuminated by the light of her smartphone, tweeting out every detail around her. This is the same expression that likely caught Trump’s eye back in June 2015 in Bedford, N.H., when he called out Tur, specifically by her first name, in the middle of a rally. “Katy, you’re not listening to me,” he said. “I am listening to you,” she responded. “I’m tweeting what you’re saying.” It wasn’t the first time he’d targeted Tur, and it wouldn’t be the last. If you followed Trump’s campaign last year, you would have heard Tur called a whole manner of names by Trump—often right from the podium—including “Little Katy,” “little liar” and “third-rate reporter,” the latter on his favourite form of communication, Twitter. But I prefer to think of her as the woman who couldn’t be rattled, as she was described in a brilliant profile in The New York Times Style Magazine. 

Tur is not used to becoming part of the story, but Trump shined a spotlight on her and turned her into a household name in the process. In her new book, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (HarperCollins, $27)—out today—Tur gives us a behind-a-scenes look of what it was really like to follow Trump’s campaign. She lived out of a suitcase for more than a year, eating packets of peanut butter and blasting Phish to avoid burnout. Here, the intrepid reporter talks to FLARE about how she kept her cool when Trump tried to trip her up, her newfound hobby now that she’s not on the campaign trail and the one question she’d ask Trump—if she knew he’d answer honestly.

Q: How did you keep your cool when interviewing Trump?

A: First of all, I knew he was going to try and put me off my game. I went into it with this knowledge that I was an NBC News reporter, and Donald Trump was going to go after an NBC News reporter. Chuck Todd reminded me of that right before I went in. So I knew it was going to get contentious. This is a guy who is losing business over his comments—and one of the businesses happened to be NBC. I wasn’t put off by that. But I mean, listen, I’m not the most polished of TV reporters, I’m not the most polished of speakers, I tend to stumble here and there, sometimes I mumble as well. My questions aren’t always phrased in the most concise way. So when I was sitting there, I knew what he was doing, and I knew if I let him rattle me, and if I let him see that I was rattled, he would have won and he would have had all the power. So I took a few breaths, and I smiled. I smiled throughout the entire interview—and that was my strategy, as if to say, ‘You can’t intimidate me, buddy, you’re not going to intimidate me. I’m trying to ask you a few questions about your presidential run. They are valid questions, and you’re going to answer them. And if you don’t want to answer them, you can try to bully me, but good luck to you.’

Q: What did you learn about Trump when he attacked your character? 

A: Most people only caught on to the fact that he was calling me out on the day he first discussed his Muslim ban, but what they don’t know is that he was calling me out routinely. He did it at rallies a lot. The very first rally I ever went to he called me out, and then during multiple rallies after that, he would alternate between being aggressive and attacking me on stage or trying to charm me, telling the people around him what a great reporter I was and that they should follow me. It went back and forth, and I figured out that he’s the kind of guy that wants you to like him. He wants you to listen to him. He wants to be the centre of attention. A TV reporter is somebody who gives him a very grand stage, and I was the first national television correspondent following his campaign. So I was the first one to take him seriously as a presidential candidate, and he wanted to charm me—and when he couldn’t do that, he attacked. And it’s the same thing we see now. I mean, he does it every day with senators; he’ll be charming with them as they sit in those boardroom-like meetings with them, when they have these closed-door policy meetings, and the next day he will go out and attack them on Twitter and if they don’t fall in line. He toggles back and forth between these two aspects of his personality.

Katy Tur interview: a headshot of Katy Tur alongside the cover of her new book, Unbelievable

Q: What made you think Trump had a real shot of winning so early on in his campaign?

A: I was there every day for over 500 days, and every day I saw these massive crowds, these rabid supporters, these people who would do anything to go see Donald Trump at a rally. They would wait in line in sub-zero degree temperatures in Iowa, they’d stand in freezing rain in Michigan, they would melt at a rally inside of an airport hanger in Florida on a 90-something-degree day. They would pass out in the sun. There were paramedics who would show up to these rallies and treat people. There was one guy in Atlanta after the South Carolina primary who messed himself, and he sat there in his own mess for hours because he was there to see Donald Trump. This was enthusiasm that political candidates and politicians do not get. This was the kind of enthusiasm that wasn’t going to go away… And it was really evident to me, the first time I really saw it—besides these fawning crowds, these wild crowds—was back in July 2015, when he went after John McCain. He went after an American war hero, a POW. You don’t go after veterans in this country. If there’s one thing that’s sacrosanct, it is the American military veteran. And when he did go after John McCain, saying he likes people that weren’t captured, that McCain’s not a war hero—and his poll numbers went up—that should have been a real indication to anybody who was really looking that he was certainly going to get away with going after Muslims, with going after Mexican immigrants, with going after women, with going after Democrats, with going after other Republicans. If he can get away with going after a veteran, he can get away with pretty much anything.

Q: How did it feel to see t-shirts at rallies with sexist slogans like “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica”?

A: The first time I was saw one of those shirts, I was in Albany, New York. It was during the primaries, and it was from a vendor outside of the rally—and politics aside, because it’s not a political thing—but I remember being horrified that somebody would sell a shirt, let alone wear a shirt, with such a crude and disgusting message on it about an American politician. When I saw “Hillary sucks but not like Monica,” it was so crass; it was disgusting. It was sexist. It was just gross. It’s OK not to like somebody as a candidate—you can vehemently disagree with their policies—but a shirt like that I believe crosses a line, And I thought Americans were better than that. And I presumed, wrongly, that guy wouldn’t sell a lot of shirts. But he did. And people would wear them. And we saw more and more vendors with those shirts, and we saw people making their own versions of them… and I realized that for some of the supporters—not all, but some—the line wasn’t where I thought it was. And it was demoralizing. It was a sad indication of where this country was going in terms of how we would treat one another, but it was also very indicative of how angry and frustrated people were, and what they were willing to say and what they were willing to be photographed doing, in order to make sure that they were heard and they were acknowledged.

Q: How did it feel to be a woman covering Trump’s campaign?

A: You know, I didn’t feel it personally, because it’s not my job to feel it personally. I didn’t think, as a woman, how would I react to something, because I had to try to stay as disconnected from it all as I could.

Q: What went through your head you asked Hope Hicks and Jason Miller [two members of Trump’s communications team] for a comment on the Access Hollywood tape?

A: I was thinking, I can’t believe I’m typing these words right now! Even going back and writing about it for the book, and reliving that moment, I remember thinking, OMG, I cannot believe this actually happened. I mean, that was the entire campaign, it was one of those things where you would never believe it unless you saw it with your own eyes. It was this remarkable experience that was gruelling, and that was personally very tough—your life was put on hold, and physically, you stopped recognizing yourself—but at the same time, you had a front-row seat to what was truly the most unbelievable political show anyone in American history had ever witnessed, and I saw it every single day and got to try to figure it out every single day. And for better or worse, I got to write emails that I never thought I would write, emails that will now live forever in a book, in what could be a history book, about the 2016 election.

Q: In Unbelievable, you write: “It’s a law of TV: as your profile rises, your confidence tanks.” How did you learn to stop doubting yourself? 

A: Well, when I learn to stop doubting myself, I will let you know. I still doubt myself every single day. No, it’s interesting, when you’re just starting out in the TV business, you don’t know anything at all, and you think you’re doing a better job than everyone else around you, and you wonder why you’re not getting more opportunities and you demand them—you just sort of presume that you’re not getting the credit you deserve. And then when you start to get better, and you start to be recognized, the pressure is extraordinary, and then you start to second-guess everything you do, and  when people start looking to you for answers, for insight and for analysis and guidance, you start to wonder if you are the right person—even when you have all the information, even you’ve done all the reporting, and even when you know you’ve got this.

Q: How do you handle all the fake news talk?

A: I think we’re still trying to figure that out. But I think the key thing is really connecting with people, building relationships with people and letting them know who you are. It’s about refusing to back down, no matter what. And I hope my book does that for people. I hope it will show people that this is who I am—I’m not working for any specific agenda, I’m reporting the news as it happens—and I’m going to keep doing just that.

Q: How did you avoid burnout on the campaign trail?

A: Packets of peanut butter kept me going, and blasting Phish in my ears. I remember going back to my hotel room and watching South Park and BoJack Horseman just to tune it all out. Today, it’s different. I’ve started baking. Having my hands deep in dough keeps them away from my phone.

How did you pack for being on the road for so long?

A: There’s a perfect sweater from J. Crew, and I bought one in almost every colour. Plus a great scarf. It’s such an easy thing to put on before going on camera.

Q: And what’s the one question you would ask Trump, if you knew he’d answer honestly? 

A: Why don’t you tell the truth?