UNL graduate first reporter to cover President Trump full time

From the D.U. takes on D.C. series
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Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson covers President Trump at a campaign rally

Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson didn’t want to write about politics.

But the University of Nebraska alum ‘07 has spent the last fourteen months on President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign trail, and will serve as one of six reporters on the Post’s White House press team.

For someone who didn’t want to write about politics, she’s dedicated more than a year to covering the rise of America’s 45th president.

She attended at least 170 Trump campaign rallies.

She interviewed countless Trump supporters in downtrodden towns across the United States.

She watched as “Make America Great Again” became a movement America rallied behind, earning Trump the win on Nov. 8.

As the first print reporter to report on Trump full-time, she experienced the entire breadth of Trump’s personality, she said.

There were times when Trump called Johnson backstage at his rallies to thank her for writing articles, she described him as “overly gracious” at times.

Then there were three months when The Washington Post was banned from covering Trump events after he didn’t like the headline on a story Johnson wrote.  

But having her press credentials removed at Trump’s rallies provided Johnson a more vivid understanding of his supporters, because she stood in line with them through the heat and through the rain. She sat next to them in crowded arenas, trying to do work on her phone that she normally would on a laptop.

“It made us work harder,” she said.

Johnson describes her relationship with Trump as overall very good, simply because she treated him as a serious candidate right out of the gate.

She took him seriously even though he is unlike any other president this country has seen.

Through the controversy surrounding Trump, Johnson maintained unbiased, and trained herself not to develop views on issues, she said.

But there were times when Trump made statements so blatantly offensive or unconstitutional, that Johnson and her team decided to describe them as such-- like when Trump said he wanted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, or when The Washington Post broke the video of Trump describing how he can get away with “grabbing” women because he’s wealthy, Johnson said.

While Trump presented Johnson with new problems, she held him to the same standards as she held all candidates, even when it came to his tweets, she said.

“Everything he says matters,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter how he says or where he says it.”

But Johnson’s team tried not to fall into that “trap.” They focused on policy and the campaign, rather than rumor or entertainment, Johnson said.

While Trump was an unusual politician to cover, his story wasn’t unfamiliar to Johnson, she said.

Prior to covering Trump, she reported on Maryland’s 2014 race for governor which ended in what the Washington Post called a “stunning upset.” A Republican businessman won the office, the first time it wasn’t to be occupied by a Democrat since 2006.

The race in Maryland is what set the stage for Johnson to cover Trump.

In Maryland, citizens were unhappy with the status quo, itching for change and ready to embrace a relative-political outsider, Johnson said.

That’s also what Johnson saw in her time travelling with the president-elect, and interviewing countless people in rural “Trump Towns,” she said.

These “Trump towns” are former industrial communities, their residents typically have low incomes and very few are college educated, Johnson said.

In a January 2016 article, Johnson wrote that the feeling in the towns was that the economy was in need of a “dramatic change” if it was going to get better.

Johnson felt the struggle the towns were facing in the rundown motels she stayed in and the dissatisfied Trump supporters she interviewed.

It was those interviews that made Johnson happy covering politics. She said that while political reporting sounds like “schmoozing” politicians and arguing with press teams, Johnson made it about reporting on people.

This will be her approach in the future covering a Trump White House, as well, she said, “One foot in the White House, and one foot in the country.”

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