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ON SURVIVING TRUMP
KAITLIN COLLINS I was so nervous to cover the White House because I was so young and didn’t feel qualified. But the thing about the Trump presidency was that if you had covered the White House for decades or you covered it for one day, no one was prepared for what was to come. I never let my phone leave my side.
KRISTEN WELKER One of the things that made covering the Trump administration unique is that it was literally 24/7. You had to be prepared for anything at any moment. The president spent a fair amount of time engaging with the press, so in a typical administration, maybe you get to ask the president a question once a week, if you’re lucky, but for President Trump, it was not unusual to ask him questions multiple times a day. Remember, he would often stop and talk to the press before he would get onto Marine One if he was traveling.
CECILIA VEGA I carried two cellphones and I have an Apple Watch, so whenever the president would tweet, it was like drinking from a fire hose — policy stories, immigration, firings, impeachment, and then January 6. I look back on everything we covered, and most Washington reporters don’t get to cover one of those things in a lifetime. I still don’t know how we did it. There was not a lot of sleep that was had during those four years, that’s for sure.
NANCY CORDES The insurrection on January 6 was so stunning to witness. Not only was that day so devastating and the loss of life really tragic, but the aftermath was equally devastating. The fact that there’s still much more security on Capitol Hill than there used to be, and you don’t have the same kind of freedom of movement that you once did. It’s a real open question about whether it will ever go back to the way it was. That, to me, is unfortunate because it flies in the face of what this building is meant to represent, and yet at the same time, the people who work in that building have every right to be safe. It’s a really tragic after-effect.
ON BECOMING THE STORY
YAMICHE ALCINDOR There was a moment where President Trump was talking about China with [CBS’] Weijia Jiang and there was an awkward exchange. President Trump then called on me to get away from her questions. I refused to let that happen and said, “Well, could you answer [her] question first?” President Trump stormed away. I thought about that for a long time, wondering if I did the right thing. I settled on the fact that I did.
COLLINS The goal in a situation like that has to be to not get dragged into the fight. If you do give in and start sparring with the president, instead of just pushing back or repeating your question, it feeds into the narrative that he wants to perpetuate, which is that it’s him versus the media. You have to rise above and realize it’s not your job to defend the media writ large, it’s your job to defend it by your actions and keep pushing forward with your questions.
VEGA It’s never fun for any of us to be in the eye of the storm. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of a presidential tweet. You don’t want to be the one who has to defend an exchange that you had with the president of the United States. [During a press briefing in the Rose Garden in October 2018, President Trump insulted Vega by saying, “I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”] I look back on what we all went through and how we handled ourselves, and I will say I’m really proud of the women in the Trump press corps who did an excellent job at not getting down and dirty and making themselves the story. I’m not disparaging my male colleagues, I just think the particular spotlight on the women got so ugly, and my colleagues really stayed above the fray.
ON THOSE WHO PAVED THE WAY
ALCINDOR There was a group of pioneering women — Judy Woodruff, Andrea Mitchell, Savannah Guthrie, Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, Gwen Ifill — who kicked down the doors and set a tone. I have to point out another, Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first Black woman to cover the White House. I think of her often; she was a daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper and she came to D.C. working as a typist for the government and literally persuaded an editor at the Associated Negro Press agency to give her a job. She is one who paved the way for me, an African American woman.
WELKER When I first got to Washington, I was a little green. Andrea Mitchell took time to answer all my questions. I would call and say, “I have this big interview coming up. Can we discuss it?” Her answer was always “Yes.” Gwen Ifill was a mentor, and I still miss her every day. When I first got to D.C, she took me to dinner and I’ll never forget the impact that had on me, not just as a journalist, but as a woman of color. Savannah Guthrie as well because she was a White House correspondent. I had some bumps along the way when I started at the White House and I would call her, we’d discuss what went wrong and what I could have done better. Those interactions and that type of feedback ultimately made all the difference. By the way, I still call Andrea and Savannah when I have a big interview.
CORDES I do recall that for many years there was sort of this unspoken assumption that you couldn’t possibly be a woman with children and do one of these jobs, because it was just too hard and your network would expect too much. I remember all of us marveling at the rare woman like Ann Compton of ABC, who had children and did the job. I remember when I had children, it was still very unusual to have a [female] network correspondent with kids covering Congress or the White House. A lot of women asked how I did it and if “CBS was cool with that.” Fast-forward to today, it is not unusual at all. It doesn’t mean that it’s always easy — to [be at] this level in any career is difficult and you have to juggle. But I never felt like I was being held back because I was a woman. My daughter was due on Election Day, 2008, and I had the lead story that night on the CBS Evening News.
ON THE NEW ADMINISTRATION
ALCINDOR We’ve definitely gone back to a more traditional sense of the White House with daily briefings. Biden is allowing scientists to talk to us regularly, we have regular COVID updates. We are still in a place where the media is in an adversarial role with the White House, which is, I think, the way it’s supposed to work. But there is this feeling of mutual respect that I think is different from the Trump White House, where they were literally trying to make us the opposition and constantly lying to us.
CORDES President Biden, because he spent three decades in Congress, has a very good feel for the rhythms of Congress and how things work. The way he approaches this job is a little different than previous presidents — he understands that if you sort of bounce around from subject area to subject area, based on what’s in the news that day, you will not get anything done. Congress operates best when you focus on one particular issue and you work on that legislation, and then you try to push it through both houses as quickly as possible before different factions can pop up.
ON STAYING READY
ALCINDOR You have to be ready to cover anything, whether it be foreign policy, climate, race, education, anything. You have to be very quick on your feet and you have to rely on colleagues and others who have been covering these issues for a long time to help you navigate. I’m constantly talking to other reporters at PBS NewsHour so it’s a team effort. Even though I’m the only White House correspondent, I rely on other people throughout the day. That, to me, is key.
COLLINS Yesterday, we were covering what’s going on with police reform and then I got home last night and read up on climate change. You’re just always preparing for what’s next. I don’t really go home and watch a lot of television besides CNN — it’s always on in the background, of course — and I’m really not someone who unwinds during the week — which I know sounds terrible, and I’m supposed to have this great answer about these hobbies that I have, but I don’t.
CORDES It is definitely a crash course in a bunch of different policy issues that we didn’t cover as much over the past four years, but I think everyone loves that part of the job. It’s the reason that a lot of us got into journalism in the first place, frankly, was to cover policy issues. That’s the reason I went to graduate school for public policy. This is the kind of thing that I love to do. It means calling experts at the field who can walk you through what policies mean for people, how they would work, how they might not work, so that you’re ready when the news switches to that topic, and you’ve got a base to work from.
ON THE COMPETITION
WELKER It’s an incredibly competitive environment. We are always pushing to break news and to push the story forward. Having said that, we’ve been in the trenches together for years. I covered the [Hillary] Clinton campaign with Nancy and Cecilia, and we sat side by side in a small plane. You do develop close bonds. We would be racing to try to get to the rope line to ask Secretary Clinton a question and to try to get there first. Now, having said that, I have to acknowledge that [NBC chief Washington correspondent and former White House correspondent] Andrea Mitchell beat us every single time. She set the bar.
ALCINDOR Of course, we’re competitors going after the same stories, and dedicated to truth and justice, but there’s also personal support that you need while covering the White House, because it’s hard. It is really important that we have each other’s backs.
COLLINS We just had a brunch the other day. It’s nice for us to have a moment where we can get together off the White House grounds, away from the press briefing room, and talk about what else is going on in our lives, and what it’s like being a woman in a public-facing role where you deal with a lot of criticism from the left and from the right or from people who don’t like your coverage. The camaraderie that exists is very special.
VEGA One of the best compliments you can give a journalist is to say, “I wish I wrote that. I wish I asked that.” It happens all the time [with us]. That doesn’t mean that when one of them gets a scoop that I’m not saying, “Oh, they’re killing me.” Andrea Mitchell was on the campaign and she is just nonstop go, go, go. Nancy, Kristen and I would be exhausted on the fourth or fifth city for the day, and Andrea Mitchell would get up and go ask Hillary Clinton another question at a rope line. We’d say, “Oh man, is Andrea going up again? Do we have to go up again?” We all make each other better because of that competition, but it’s good to do it amongst friends.
ON THE WHITE HOUSE’S LESS-THAN-GLAMOROUS REPORTER QUARTERS
WELKER I’ve been there for a decade now and you are sharing a space, a very small, intimate space. It’s like working in a large walk-in closet, which means that you really need to learn to work with different personalities. That’s one of the things people don’t realize about covering the White House. Celia and I share a wall, so if she’s laughing loudly or I’m laughing loudly, we can hear each other. I’ll often pop in and say, “What’s going on in here?”
ALCINDOR I was on MSNBC once from the basement, and [comedian] Leslie Jones, who would post reaction videos on social media, said, “Hey, who’s that girl? It looks like she’s doing a live shot from a kitchen break room.” It made me laugh because that’s what it looks like. It’s not glamorous, the carpet is dingy, things are falling apart, but it’s an incredible honor to be in that historic space.
VEGA I was just talking to Kristen out in the hallway. She can probably hear me right now through the wall as we speak because there’s not a lot of privacy here. She’ll kill me for telling you this, but she sends us emails about The Bachelor or the royals, and we tease her about it.
CORDES Our booths at are so tiny. You’re squeezing people in from each network, and even though I share a wall with Cecilia and Kristen is in the next booth over, I often don’t know what they are working on for that night’s show until I see them on the air. It really is rock and roll all day long. All of us want to have the best story every night — if we didn’t then we wouldn’t be in this business in the first place — but we all want each other to do well, too.
ON THE NEXT GENERATION
WELKER I always make sure I am having mentor sessions with our interns at NBC, and whenever someone reaches out and says, “Hey, I’d like your advice,” or “Do you have five minutes to talk?” I always try to take time to do that because I know that that was just critically important to me when I was a young journalist.
COLLINS I may get 10,000 mean tweets, but then if there is one from a young woman who reaches out and says she switched to journalism or she’s about to graduate and is inspired by my career path and wants to move to Washington and get her foot in the door, that means so much. I don’t really reply to random people on the internet, but if I see a message like that, I always try to get back to them. Even if it’s something like “Where do you buy your turtlenecks?” You never know when a little boost can help someone think differently about what their career is going to look like.
VEGA If somebody wants to be a journalist and they have tracked my email down and asked me a question along the lines of “Hey, can you give me advice?” I don’t respond to that. But if they want specific advice: “How can I do X, Y or Z?” I’m 100 percent yours for as long as you need me. If you have a specific question and you’ve got the guts to track down a network news reporter and reach out with something specific, here’s my cellphone number.
COLLINS Seeing all these women with a range of ages and experience asking questions of the president and covering the White House sends a message, maybe not overtly but subliminally, to people and to young girls, that this is a place where you can go and belong.
VEGA The very first press conference that President Biden held, there were a handful of questions, and almost all came from women. I thought, “Wow, to be a young reporter coming up and to see that that’s the norm, that there’s nothing exceptional about this, that we’re just doing our jobs,” it made me realize we have come a long way.
CORDES I feel very proud to be part of this group because not only am I good friends with all of them but I really admire all of them as journalists and have for a long time. I often have to pinch myself to be reminded that these are my compatriots at the White House. We’re competitors but we also genuinely want each other to succeed and you can feel it. Beyond everything, being able to go to work every day and see these great friends of mine and be able to share this experience with them, it’s really, really fun and special.
JUST THE FACTS
C.V. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, she covered the Trump and Sanders campaigns as a national political reporter for The New York Times; recently appointed moderator of PBS’ Washington Week.
Chyron worthy Won the White House Correspondents Association’s award for Overall Excellence in White House coverage in 2020; is married to fellow journalist Nathaniel Cline.
C.V. The University of Alabama grad joined CNN in 2017 following a stint at The Daily Caller; became the youngest chief White House correspondent at CNN when she was promoted in January.
Chyron worthy Like Steve Jobs, Collins has become known for trademark turtlenecks. “Covering Trump and now Biden, you’re juggling so many things that the last thing I want to think about is what I’m wearing. It’s nice to have a uniform.” The staples are a hit with viewers, sparking a Twitter account under @KaitlanStan that spotlights the many ensembles she’s worn.
C.V. Magna cum laude from University of Pennsylvania; master’s degree in public policy from Princeton; followed up stints at NewsOne and ABC News with a job as transportation and consumer safety correspondent at CBS News; went on to spend 12 years covering Congress as CBS News’ chief congressional correspondent.
Chyron worthy After her daughter was born a week after the 2008 election, she returned early from maternity leave to cover Barack Obama’s inauguration: “I couldn’t bear to miss out on covering that.”
C.V. She was a print reporter at her hometown San Francisco Chronicle; joined ABC News in 2011 and anchors and reports for GMA, World News Tonight, Nightline and 20/20.
Chyron worthy Seeing her byline fulfilled a dream: “I still have a hard copy of every story I wrote. That was the big leagues. I thought I was going to be a newspaper reporter until the day I died.”
C.V. After graduating cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in American history, Welker worked as a researcher on NBC’s Weekend Today. While in college, she interned for the network’s Today show.
Chyron worthy Welker moderated the final presidential debate between Trump and Biden on Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, with The New York Times praising Welker as the “winner.”
Interviews edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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