Reporter's Notebook: My 'Golden Ticket' Covering the Election and Trump's Entire Campaign

John Santucci recaps his journey covering Donald Trump's presidential bid.

We met with Trump in late April 2015 as rumors swirled that he might run for the White House. My role before election coverage was to go after major interviews for ABC, and with the year we were entering, politics was my focus.

When Trump later sat for his interview with ABC, he turned to me, pointing across the gigantic conference room, over a huge marble table, to a model of his 757 jumbo jet. "I'm flying that around the country," he said. I smiled, thinking this would be a fun project for a few weeks.

Of the dozens of journalists on board the press plane that currently follows Donald Trump around the country, I'm one of the few (the only one among the network embeds) who was at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, when he kicked off his campaign. It shows again that no one thought this was real. My role that day was producing Trump's first sit-down interview after the kick-off speech; the next day my role became "keep an eye on Trump." That expanded quickly.

I flew with Trump on his plane, nicknamed Trump Force One. One December day, I learned a lot about the candidate. I can confirm that his obsession with TV is very much real. The plane is filled with gold and family crests, but Trump told his flight attendant to sit down as he got up and got himself a Diet Coke and a bag of chips while we talked about the race and the media. It was a side of Trump he rarely shows in public.

"The Twitter," as he called it, which became his secret weapon, was the source of many sleepless nights and early mornings. Either the light on my two phones would wake me up or the news desk was calling to ask if I heard his latest comment — which would become the next moment of the campaign.

Two memorable interactions with Trump came before key primaries. In South Carolina he was working the rope line in Myrtle Beach when a man shouted at him, "I'm a Muslim, and I support you."

Trump turned on his heels to the cameras. "He's a Muslim for Trump," he said.

He then pointed at me and said, "John!" as the man repeated his support.

"See that, John?" Trump said, smiling and making sure we got video.

We spoke about the music at his rallies. "What do you think of the playlist?" he asked.

"What Billy Joel song is on my playlist?" he questioned.

I drew a blank, and finally, Hope Hicks, his communications director, shouted, "Uptown Girl." She was right.

"'Uptown Girl'?" Trump said, surprised, "There are better Billy Joel songs than that." It was off the list shortly thereafter. I blame myself.

In every job, for any high, there is also a low. But I found more lows as the race went on. I was on the road for weeks on end, leaving behind a life. And for that, not getting the access most past campaign reporters talked about.

I remember one night in Virginia, a senior staffer was going to let me ask Trump a question — the first opportunity I had to do so. As I was waiting backstage, the billionaire said he was looking forward to going on a campaign trip to Israel. I wanted to ask about that, and the staffer told me I could not. We disagreed, and I finally was told to "get out."

As I walked back to the press area, the other embeds didn't look at me, didn't talk to me, thinking I got something I didn't. For what seemed like a long time, I was considered an outcast. I'm grateful we moved past that, and I consider my colleagues from the other four networks friends. We have been through a lot together — good, bad, in the middle of nowhere without Wi-Fi. We had some incredible meals that I never would have had otherwise. (Get the fried chicken skins at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, or the meatball from Centro in Des Moines, Iowa.)

The exhaustion, though, can be deadly. On one frigid day I drove from Charleston to Greensboro, racing from one event to the other. My desk called me with an alert from the local affiliate that Trump would be doing a press conference. I floored it, at one point skidding on the icy highway from the third lane to the first lane and back to center. It was terrifying. When I made it to the venue, the lot was full. I ran across a snow-covered field, my bag dripping wet, only to run upstairs and be told, "Presser canceled."

The structure around Trump has been — for lack of a better word — frustrating. Both small and seemingly inexperienced. Calls were often not answered, texts ignored, and the emails, I'm convinced, went to a dark secret place far more hidden than your average day's spam folder. The staffers at Trump's media events were more responsive. They helped out in ways like pulling me off the long line in a New Hampshire blizzard so I didn't freeze to death.

The campaign leadership has gone through massive shifts. Trump's first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, ran a tight, small ship. His team was the little band that flew with Trump everywhere. And it was during his tenure that Trump was far more accessible, though, at the same time, the staff was not.

Building sources around the campaign became a nightmare; people were terrified of speaking. When I broke a few pieces of news based on source information, I was threatened by a person on the campaign leadership. "Tell me who the leak is," this person demanded. I refused, and I was told I would regret it.

When Paul Manafort came in, access to the nominee was virtually killed. The war between Lewandowski and Manafort was exhausting. You could have two senior level sources in the campaign, but if one was from Team Corey and the other was from Team Paul, you risked being wrong. It became two campaigns in one. I got burned once because of those conflicting views.

Finally, after finding it hard to accomplish goals and with Trump's children becoming frustrated, they axed Lewandowski. Manafort would eventually face the same fate after a lackluster convention and a disagreement with the candidate. Trump's third iteration of leadership is a mix of both — Kellyanne Conway is extremely accessible to the press (as "Saturday Night Live" joked about), and Steve Bannon is not.

When I think of the rallies, I think of both the lighthearted jokes Trump would make and the darker moments. I remember driving in South Carolina in December 2015, and while stuck in traffic, I swiped out of the GPS on my phone to check email.

"Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," a statement read. I was stunned. I swerved. I was fine but shocked.

When I boarded the U.S.S. Yorktown for Trump's rally on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it was ugly. The crowd seized on his words. It was the first time I felt the anger in a room. It was the first time the supporters really turned on the media. It felt like a turning point.

But his support didn't fade, despite being blasted by just about every Democrat and many Republicans, including his future running mate, Gov. Mike Pence.

The attitude toward members of the press has now become hostile. I never felt unsafe until a recent rally in Cincinnati. The press walked in together and were immediately booed by the crowd. I remember one woman who looked like my grandmother giving me the finger and telling me to "f--- myself." I stared back at her, and eventually she looked away. As the rally went on, three men in front of me repeatedly turned around to shout, "You suck."

I took my brother to a rally on Long Island in New York for my birthday. I heard Trump reaching the part of his speech where he was going to attack the press. I leaned over to my brother and said, "Don't get scared." He asked what I was talking about. "Just don't make eye contact," I told him.

Within seconds, Trump bashed the media, and a man in front of us looked right at my brother and started screaming at him. As we left the rally that night, he asked me, "How ... do you put up with this?" I shrugged.

What is most notable to me is how different Trump is with the press in public versus private during the final round of this journey. Privately, he appears to be friendly and talkative. Publicly, he is anything but those things.

The bashing of the press, along with his talk about building a wall and a rigged system have become the three issues guaranteed to be in any speech. In the last leg of this journey, one of the things many of us first-time campaign reporters hoped for was being in the cohort aboard the candidate's plane.

Instead, we follow behind in our own plane. Twice now, we arrived after Trump, and he decided to start without the press. Obviously there is no rule, but in a modern day presidential campaign, it is unheard of.

In the last week of this journey, we crisscrossed the country. On the final Saturday night, we landed in Reno, Nevada. Someone shouted "Gun!" and the place went crazy as Trump was pulled offstage by two Secret Service agents. We knew nothing. Staffers were missing. I saw my colleague from CNN in the crowd, trying to do his job and being pushed and shoved.

People were screaming at us, pushing the barricades as if we somehow had something to do with the protester who caused the commotion. As I left the venue for the second time, after being evacuated and returning, a man looked right at me and said, "Tell the truth!"

I'm often asked what I think of Trump. I'm confident I've done the best I can to cover him fairly and have grown to know him and his children after covering him for 512 days.

What I also tell people is that, after being around him, there seem to be three Donald Trumps. The first, the man we all have seen usually behind a lectern — a tough, brash man who will tell you the way it is and can at times offend much of America. The second, the smooth businessman who can pull you in and make you feel as though you are the only person in the room. I've seen it happen many times, and you have to give credit where credit is due: The man is successful for that skill. The third and less seen is the man who cares a lot about what everyone thinks.

Donald Trump is not just a man: He has become a brand, a theme, a legacy. He will push, fight and scream if he doesn't like something. He wants things his way, and he wants to look good in his own eyes. To the master brander, the brand is everything.

In the final hours, I can tell you this was a great adventure. When ABC selected the team for these assignments, an e-mail was sent. "You've just been given Willy Wonka's golden ticket," it said. And that's what this job has felt like — a chance to cover a moment that is special.

I am tired. I have lost weight, gained weight and now (knock on wood) lost it again. I have spent a lot of lonely nights in cars driving along dark farms in Iowa as the moon glistened on icy fields. Trump said during one of his more memorable speeches that he loved Iowa so much so that he would perhaps buy a farm there. I actually think I would.

I have seen a campaign from start to finish — a job I've wanted for a long time.

There is a phrase campaign journalists have, one that I had before this too. I am embracing it now more than ever: "Good, bad, whatever happens — on to the next."