Reporter's Notebook: A Year of Covering Donald Trump

PHOTO: Campaign reporter John Santucci, pictured on the right, is assigned to cover Donald Trump for ABC News.ABC News/Ida Astute
Campaign reporter John Santucci, pictured on the right, is assigned to cover Donald Trump for ABC News.

One year ago today, Donald Trump began his race for the White House. At the same time, ABC News assigned me to cover the Trump campaign and I had just one thought. Why me?

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I say that because no one thought Trump was really going to run, and if he did, that he would stay in the race for so long. Yet, 50 states later, Donald John Trump, hailing from the same Queens, New York, neighborhood as I, is the presumptive Republican nominee.

I still remember that first day and, as the candidate has said, the “famous escalator ride.”

A staffer came by and handed us four sheets of paper. They were Trump’s remarks. Within the first sentence, the speech was out the window (or got lost in the escalator). Looking back a year later, that speech should have been an indicator of how this entire campaign would be: off the cuff.

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people,” he said in the line we all know about Mexican immigrants to the United States.

The list of companies that dumped the candidate was long and it was difficult to conceive how he could possibly survive losing so much.

But he did.

Even as he attacked other candidates and former party nominees (John McCain, Mitt Romney), the crowds loved it.

I think of all the candidates, his supporters most enjoyed watching him attack “Low Energy Jeb [Bush]” or “Lyin’ Ted [Cruz].” Toward the end of Cruz’s candidacy, the crowd would start the chant before Trump himself did.

“Build the Wall” always led the charge, though, and still does.

The music will always remind me that covering Trump is like covering no one else. It’s a playlist he hand-picks. I’ll admit, I personally thanked him when they added Billy Joel, but he will always love Elton John.

He did ask me if I liked tenor Luciano Pavarotti. I lied. I’ve watched him many times turn to his advance team on the ropeline to turn up the volume.

Every journalist, I think, who covers Trump had a moment at some point along this journey when they realized this was real. For me, it was Sept. 21 in Dallas.

I keep that credential on my lanyard with my ID because it reminds me of the crowd, the enthusiasm, the clashes with protesters afterwards. It was the rally that captured all so well that this was not a joke, and made me realize I had the best assignment of anyone covering the 2016 race.

The people I’ve met and their love of country has been incredible.

And that time a parrot and I became friends.

One of the best memories was the time I interviewed Trump and flew with him from Mesa, Arizona, to Los Angeles. What struck me most was despite how fancy the plane was, Trump sat back with a coke and a bag of chips and we talked about life on the road.

And as the year came to an end, it was time for primary season to commence.

But first a quick trip to Burlington, Vermont, the home of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for a rally.

Then, Iowa.

It didn’t go so well.

New Hampshire.

And with family by his side, Trump rebounded.

It went on and on after this. As concerns grew about the racial undertones of Trump’s speech, I’ll never forget a rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was filming the ropeline and a man shouted at Trump that he was a Muslim supporting him.

Trump pointed the man out and pointed to me, making sure we saw it. We did.

What I have noticed more and more is that we are not just covering a campaign, we are covering the mood of a nation, and it is split, citizens for Trump and those against him.

In fairness, this is happening at some of Hillary Clinton’s rallies as well, but not to the magnitude or frequency of Trump.

But we are also seeing people who love Trump and his family over and over again.

For now, he’s the presumptive nominee, and even the night when it was clear the billionaire would be, his own team was shocked.

I’m often asked, as a person who has come to know Trump well, what’s going to happen? I thought I’d be back in my office by now. A week like this I’d probably be in Orlando covering the horrific shooting.

Instead, I’m in a hotel room, in Atlanta thinking about whether I want to iron a shirt for Friday’s rally in Dallas. Or should I wear a polo because it’s going to be over 100 degrees.

The answer is simple. No one knows what is going to happen, and anyone who says they do is lying to you.

Happy One Year to us; 144 days to go.

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