Fox News senior national correspondent John Roberts tracks his time on the campaign trail by the cities and towns he has passed through while covering this election. Name the place, and the month, week follows. Sometimes he figures it out by going backwards through his flight itineraries. “But you know what, if you were to ask me right now where I was yesterday, I would have a hard time telling you where that was,” he told FishbowlDC when we spoke to him last week. But then he remembers: Valley Forge.
With the frenetic, sleep-deprived (he averages about four hours a night) schedule of a correspondent on the trail of Donald Trump, Roberts must live in a perpetual present, covering the now of so many stops, events and twists.
If this is a presidential campaign that has been marked by so many new journalistic faces on the scene, Roberts is the vet. He’s been doing it since 1996, when he was at CBS News, “flipping back and forth on that campaign” as he covered both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. What that experience tells him, aside from the fact that he’s “never seen anything like this election,” is that, while subsequent elections may recover and scale back on the crazy, they probably won’t follow suit on length. “Just get used to, in the future, particularly with the explosion of social media, the ultimate perpetual campaign,” he said.
FishbowlDC spoke with Roberts about his time on the trail.
FishbowlDC: How are you holding up?
John Roberts: I’m a little tired, trying to sleep when I can, and it’s very funny–something on the campaign trail that seems to be a constant is the quality of the hotel rooms that we get is inversely proportional to the amount of time that we spend in them. We had a great hotel last night in Miami, and we spent four hours in it.
FBDC: Following the election’s close, what’s the first thing that you plan to do?
Roberts: My wife [CNN correspondent Kyra Phillips] is on the board of the Fisher House Foundation, which is a military charity, and they have a big fundraising golf tournament on the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C. on November the 11th—Veteran’s Day—and she and I plan to be playing that tournament, that is, after I finally get home and kiss my wife and kids, because it will have been a month since I’ve seen my five-year-old twins. Six weeks since I’ve seen my wife.
FBDC: How has your coverage approach changed from the beginning of the campaign to now?
Roberts: I think that the one thing that I’ve had to do on many, many, occasions is suspend disbelief. I thought after covering every political campaign since 1996 is that I had seen it all. Every day we see something that we couldn’t even in our wildest dreams predicted would happen. We joke amongst ourselves that if you thought you’ve seen the craziest thing that could ever happen in politics, just wait because something crazier will come along. It really has been extraordinary from that standpoint.
FBDC: Looking at your time on the trail, what have been some of your most memorable moments?
Roberts: For me I think the thing that really stands out was the day that I flew with Trump on his plane from St. Louis to Chicago. We were doing an interview with him on the plane as part of a documentary that’s aired a number of times on Fox. And it was being on a plane with him, seeing him in a more relaxed setting, and then getting to Chicago and seeing the chaos that ensued when all those protestors, some of them, I think, paid to be there, others I think were students at the college and disrupted the event. It was the very first time that a Trump rally had been disrupted to that point. It was a defining moment for how absolutely different this campaign was from anything that I have every covered before. We had initially thought that that was just some sort of organic event. Maybe a part of it was, but it also seems at least a good portion of that was organized as well.
FBDC: What is leading you to believe that some of it was organized?
Roberts: Just the news that came out that this guy [Robert] Creamer and the other fellow whose name escapes me had been talking about paying people to be at some of the rallies to try to provoke Donald Trump supporters, and I believe that he said that Chicago was something that they were involved in. The whole thing initially seemed like it was organic, but now it will appear, at least if these reports are true, that a portion of it, I don’t know how much of it, but at least a portion of it, was organized.
FBDC: Are there pieces of this election that you think permanently changed how subsequent elections will be covered?
Roberts: I think there’s a lot more social media and a lot more internet access than there ever has been in the past. You see a lot of these very small organizations like Right Side Broadcasting popping up, do a livestream, the pregame show, if you will, to these events, all the way through the events. The only coverage I’ve seen before was the pool camera and all of the networks, whether they be broadcast or cable. Now a lot of smaller players are getting into the market. BuzzFeed is in it in a big way as well, and I think that that has changed what we see on the campaign trail, but the coverage has always been the same. You go to the rallies, talk to the people, you work your sources.
FBDC: In terms of access to candidates, how has this season compared with previous campaigns?
Roberts: [In] 2000 I was the dedicated correspondent to the Al Gore campaign. I interviewed Al Gore probably every two or three days. I haven’t interviewed Trump for probably a couple of months now. He does a lot of interviews; I just haven’t done one since, I think, maybe La Crosse, Wis. in September.
Through the primaries, we got plenty of access, but I think both campaigns here in recent weeks have become a lot more guarded in terms of access, because they see the potential pitfalls of something getting out that will step on their message and so they have really limited their access to the press.
I think there is less access, by and large, to these candidates than there ever has been in the past.
FBDC: What does this tell you about future campaigns?
Roberts: I think that in campaigns going forward, social media will play an even greater role than it did in 2016, and this is definitely a high water mark for any of the campaigns that I have been covering. It’s that ability to be able to talk past the media. The Donald Trump campaign has been complaining that the media for the most part has been unfair to him. But he has also has this other conduit—it’s a firehouse, really—to be able to get his message out unfiltered. And I think you’ll see in the years to come an even greater degree of use of social media.
FBDC: What’s the workaround? If you’re getting less interview time with the candidates, how do you get the information you normally would from a direct interview?
Roberts: I have extensive contacts with the Trump campaign, everybody from the folks at the bottom of the ladder all the way to the top of the ladder. I interview them on a daily basis. And they’re very good at getting information to me, so the candidates will fill in the blanks and give you soundbites that you can put on the air, but a lot of the real information is coming from the upper levels of that campaign. And that’s been a pretty good conduit of information and the information has really been free-flowing, so whether you have access to the candidate or not, you’re still getting a lot of the detail of what’s going on on a daily basis.
FBDC: What is your overall impression of this election?
Roberts: I just think what we have seen here is 2016 is just extraordinary. You have a candidate like Donald Trump, or you have a woman running for president, or you have the extraordinary rancor that is in this campaign, and just the crazy things that have been coming up.
If you had told me four years ago that an investigation into a disgraced politician who allegedly was sexting with an underage girl revealed evidence that might affect the outcome of the election, I would have told you that you couldn’t even write that for Veep because it was so implausible that nobody would believe it, yet that’s where we are in this election. I don’t know whether it’s a harbinger of things to come or we’ll get back to a more normal cycle in 2020, but it’s been like riding the tail of a dragon all the way along.
FBDC: Thinking about how extraordinary it’s been and how, for better or worse, entertaining, do you think it’s do you think this has set this kind of stage where people are going to be looking for and getting behind these larger than life candidates?
Roberts: I don’t know how many larger than life candidates we have. There is sort of a gravitation toward this reality TV-ization if you will, of America, but I don’t know many candidates out there, or potential candidates, or people who are like Donald Trump. So I think this may be one for the ages, one for the record book, then we go back to a more traditional campaign in 2020. Or maybe this is just the beginning, but I don’t see another Donald Trump on the horizon. I think this may have been it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.