Trump: 'She's so tough on me'

CNN correspondents and commentators experienced the 2016 presidential election in unique and interesting ways. This recollection and others were produced in conjunction with CNN's election project, "A Race Like No Other: The Unprecedented Election of 2016."

(CNN)Never have I had a more surreal experience than covering a presidential candidate who I personally knew. And who happened to be Donald Trump.

I met Trump a number of times in the decade before he announced he would run for president. We'd become acquainted through television and various political events. He once asked that I introduce him when he was giving a speech, which I did. I met and had been on air with his son, Don Jr. When I happened to move into a Trump building in New York, I received a cutting board with my initials engraved in it from the Trump Organization.
We certainly weren't "close," but definitely familiar. Which is why his team undoubtedly trusted me with the embargoed draft of his campaign announcement before he delivered it at Trump Tower. When he didn't actually read from that draft, I knew covering Trump would be ... challenging.
Early on it was clear to me the campaign wasn't going anywhere good. Talk of Mexican rapists, Eisenhower-era immigration policies, Muslim bans and rank sexism was what we'd tried to push out of the party after Mitt Romney's loss in 2012. We wanted to focus instead on the issues that made conservative policies appealing to broad swaths of people -- limited government, fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense.
    So I was harsh -- brutal, at times -- swatting at his proposals, his outbursts, his surrogates, in print and on television. The way I saw it, disavowing the man my party seemed most enamored of, who would eventually become its nominee, and whom I knew personally, was awkward. But it was a necessary part of a daily battle for the soul of the conservative movement.
    The good news was I didn't come face to face with Trump throughout most of the election — until one of the last debates of the Republican primary.
    He spotted me in the spin room, where candidates flocked after the debate to "spin" their performances, pointed to me and told CNN's Anderson Cooper, "Nothing I do pleases this woman." He added, as I stood off camera talking to Don, Jr., "My son likes her because they both, you know, with the guns and the hunting, but I don't know why. She's so tough on me."
    At the next debate, when he was very pleased with what he considered a toned down, more serious performance, he walked right up to me while I was on CNN's set, shook my hand, and said, "It was time. It was time."
    The encounter was captured by cameras and smartphones, preserving the surreal experience forever. Not that I'd need that to remember the weirdest year of my life.