on the trail

What It’s Like to Be a Female Reporter Covering Donald Trump

A gaggle of reporters surrounds Donald Trump. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Olivia Nuzzi walked into Donald Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She’d seen the Republican nominee up close before — in media gaggles covering campaign events for the Daily Beast — but they’d never been introduced. She was there to interview Trump for a story she was writing about his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. Hicks herself had declined to be interviewed, but Nuzzi figured Trump, as her boss, would be an ideal source.

Trump was there behind his “enormous” desk — “he looks like a plankton behind it,” she said — and Hicks was there, too. “She was obviously nervous about having a reporter there,” Nuzzi said. “I don’t know why, but she turned to Trump and said, ‘This is Olivia, she’s very young.’ Trump looked at me and said, ‘Very young and very beautiful.’”

Donald Trump’s relationship with women has been under scrutiny for as long as he’s been in the public eye — which is to say, for decades. But since launching his presidential bid, some of his remarks to and about women — that letting them work is “dangerous,” that pregnancy is an “inconvenience” to business, or that they should be “punished” for getting abortions — have worked their way into the narrative of his campaign. (Just yesterday, his own campaign manager accidentally referred to his record on women as “abuse.”) His comments have not endeared him to women voters. But for the women whose job it is to report on Trump every day, the negative effects have been subtler.

One of the first people to interview him after his formal announcement was MSNBC’s Katy Tur. Tur called their 29-minute exchange in the lobby of Trump Tower “combative” and said that when the cameras turned off he was “furious.” According to an essay Tur wrote for Marie Claire, Trump told her, “You couldn’t do this. You stumbled three times.”

Over the course of his campaign, Trump’s insults toward Tur have become more pointed — he’s called her “little Katy” on more than one occasion, and when she pressed him on his apparent appeal to Russian hackers, he told her to “sit down.” He’s done the same to other women on the trail, calling CNN’s Sarah Murray “unemotional” and, just last week, Maureen Dowd “wacky” and a “neurotic dope.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t gone after male reporters, too. “When you hear his daughter say he’s an equal-opportunity offender, I think that’s largely true,” one reporter told me on condition of anonymity. (Two of the women I spoke to requested anonymity so they could speak freely without it affecting their jobs.) “Contrary to what a lot of people might think, I don’t think he’s more inclined to go after women than men.” But, she said, when he does “go after” women on the trail, there’s a sexist tinge to his insults.

“He doesn’t call men crazy or wacky … he’s so much quicker to label women he’s attacking that way,” the reporter said. “I think that what’s innate in a lot of what he says is a subtle kind of sexism. If you’re attuned to it, you can hear it. That’s why it’s so important to have women on the trail. We’re able to say, ‘Gender is an issue here,’ even though no one’s blatant about it.”

When I asked her whether she thought Trump realized the sexism implicit in his word choices, she laughed. “No, I don’t.” Then she paused. “You know, maybe he does. I’ve always said he’s an incredibly intelligent brander — he’s a master at this. If he’s smart enough to be branding Hillary Clinton as unstable, he could be doing it on purpose. He’s definitely playing into a lot of the genderized concerns that men across the country share.”

Some of his male supporters have used the same types of gendered insults to intimidate the women who cover their candidate. “My Twitter mentions are a bastion of people telling me not only, ‘You should be raped, you should be killed,’ but also, ‘Oh honey, oh sweetie, let’s leave this to the experts,’” the reporter said. “I think a lot of people have trouble with women as a voice of authority about someone who presents themselves to be as macho as Trump does.”

Nuzzi was once catcalled at a campaign event by a man wearing a “staff” badge, and Rosie Gray, who covers the GOP for BuzzFeed, said her Twitter mentions are a mess. “I wouldn’t say that Trump has outright encouraged these people,” she said. “I’d say they feel empowered by his success. Trump has broken with the norm in terms of what you can and can’t say, and that has opened the floodgates.”

Trump may not be overtly sexist at his rallies, but his supporters often fill in the gaps he leaves for them. And they’re particularly virulent when it comes to his opponent. Bumper stickers that read, “Trump that bitch,” and T-shirts that say, “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica,” are available outside his rallies, and when Jezebel’s Anna Merlan told one vendor she wasn’t comfortable with women being called bitches, he replied, “This one it’s alright; she’s done more dirty than any normal woman.”

“I think you don’t realize the emotional cost of every single day, twice a day, being in rooms where the norm has become people shouting out, ‘Hang the bitch,’ ‘Kill her,’ ‘Cunt,’” the second reporter said. “You shouldn’t be at the point where you hear ‘Cunt’ and you think, Oh, they’re angry at Hillary, or you hear ‘Bitch,’ and you’re like, Oh, they’re talking about our former secretary of State.”

She went on, “I do wonder what it does to you as a woman, walking into rallies where people are wearing these shirts, saying these things, and speaking about women in these ways, and either having to hear it or getting to the point where you don’t hear it. Those words and those phrases should be jarring. That should never become normal, and if and when it does, some emotional cost has been extracted.”

Of course, nothing about the Trump campaign is normal, including its candidate’s habit of disparaging a reporter by name during a televised press conference. But the women I spoke with were so used to the latter, they couldn’t remember the first time it happened. More than anything, calling out a reporter seems to be Trump’s way of reasserting his control. According to one reporter, camera crews from a few networks at a time are allowed out of the press pen to shoot cuts of the scene from the stage. Once, when a network embed was around the stage filming, Trump called her out directly. “He said, ‘This network is up here. They’re supposed to be back there, but that’s okay; we’ll let them stay.’”

Nuzzi said she’s doing her best not to become numb to Trump — to remind herself that his candidacy is extreme. “I still have moments when I think, I cannot believe he’s the Republican nominee,” she said. “I’m not used to it, and I don’t think anyone should be used to it.”

The second reporter put it this way: “Everybody has a part of themselves that they’re not proud of — thoughts they think and then quickly push out of their minds. Trump gives people permission to unleash that very tiny part of themselves in a much larger way. But in order to do your job every single day, you learn to tune it out.” 

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Covering Donald Trump