And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
When Kaitlan Collins nearly bombed out of her freshman chemistry courses at the University of Alabama, she thumbed through the course catalog in search of a new major and landed on journalism. The rest, as they say, is history. In six phenomenal years, she's risen from reporting novice to become the chief White House correspondent for CNN and now the anchor of a new primetime show at 9, which will debut in the coming weeks. I sat down with Kaitlan earlier this week to talk about her extraordinary journey, the president she's covered, and, of course, that tumultuous town hall a few weeks ago with Donald Trump. One note, this conversation took place before the news hit that Chris Licht, CNN's former chair and CEO, would be departing the network. Here's my conversation with Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan Collins, it is good to see you. I've been looking forward to chatting.
It's been what, 12 hours since we were last together?
I've missed you so much. We were together last night at the post, pre and post for the the latest CNN town hall with Nikki Haley. We'll talk a little about that later. But I want to talk about you. Look at it. Look at her eyes. She was like, oh, my God. But first of all. Kaitlan Collins, your face is, as they used to say, the face of the the face of Ireland or the map of Ireland. They're. I assume that's where the Collins has come from.
You know, any time someone ask my heritage, I'm like from Alabama because no one in my family has done like a genealogy test. We always talk-
Well how long have you been in Alabama, your family?
Forever. My mom's side of the family is from Memphis. They moved to Alabama when she was a child. But my dad's family has always been in Alabama, so we don't fully know. No one's done a deep dive. I think maybe people are too scared to look into it. I'm kidding. But I have hosted a few Irish events, so I am.
You could be you could run for judge in Chicago and get elected immediately just on the basis of your name.
Kaitlan Collins is about as Irish as it gets.
Yes. You grew up in Prattville, Alabama.
Right outside Montgomery. I tell people who who aren't familiar with the state that I'm from Montgomery because they don't know what Prattville is. But if you tell someone in Alabama that you're from Montgomery and then they find out you're from Prattville, they are like, no, you're not, because it's just totally different and people's minds.
Is it a suburb? Would you describe it that way?
It's a suburb of Montgomery, for sure. I mean, Montgomery is a military base, Maxwell Air Force Base. And so a lot of those families live in Prattville. A lot of people live and probably work in Montgomery. But the city has grown a lot. I mean, I can remember when we got it was never like a too light kind of town. But I could remember when the Walmart opened, when I was growing up, we went to the grand opening as a family and it has changed so much. It's like they've just they've done a really good job as it's grown. And every time I go home there's something new. So it's fun to see it, how it's developed and progressed.
And your dad was in mortgage banking?
Yeah, he is a mortgage man. He sells mobile homes now. And my mom is a fourth grade public school teacher.
I see. Did she inculcate you with scholarly instincts or-
I think she was always I always say my parents got so lucky with my older sister with me. We have all my siblings are wonderful, But my sister and I, we always just did our homework. We always studied. No one had ever had to really tell us to study. We just I don't know, we my mom went to school. She actually got her degree when we were growing up. So we watched her getting her degree. She wasn't a teacher. I mean, I can remember as a child when she was not a teacher, she went to school, got her degree in education and became a teacher. And it's funny. And now she's gotten her master's and gone back and since then. But it's cool to see your parents getting their education later in life and changing career paths and pursuing certain things. And it's also fun now as I get older because we talk more like peers about work and life and struggles and everything that comes with being an adult. And it's been interesting to watch.
How many siblings do you have?
I know that somewhere along the line they you were described as the mouth of the South, isn't that right?
That's what my mom used to say. I was when I was in the third grade, because I always got in trouble in class for talking, because I just talk a lot. I mean, clearly, it has benefited me in this role.
But maybe I need to I get told a wrap a few times when I'm doing my dispatches from the White House.
And she told you to wrap as a.
Yeah, I was getting told to wrap for a long time, long before I got to CNN.
So politics wasn't really a thing in your house?
No, not even a little bit. But I think that's true for for more people than we think that it just isn't top of mind for so many families. And it wasn't top of mind for my parents. They had so many other things growing up that we were not some political household. I don't ever remember my parents going to vote or anything, anything of that nature or talking about, you know, big elections. But obviously that has changed now. I think everyone is you know, politics has seeped into everything.
For better or for worse. That's another podcast.
Yeah, it is. It is. As you say, being a mouthy kid is useful as a journalist and going up and talking to people. So which is what you have to do in journalism, but also being a. Growing up in a place where the opening of Wal-Mart is a thing that's probably also really useful if you're going to be a good journalist covering this country.
Yeah, because I think I grew up in a very normal way and, you know, yeah, those were those are big things to us. Changes like that in the community, we saw what an impact that made in certain places. And I also went to public school my whole life. You know, we were never the students who were doing all these extracurriculars or anything like that. We were very normal kids, went to public school, applied to a bunch of colleges, chose the University of Alabama, which was about a little less than 2 hours from where I grew up and and graduated from there. But I do think that growing up in that way helped me. And it still helps me to this day because when I go home, I truly get a sense of what people people are worried about and care about. When I'm at Christmas. Everyone at one point was complaining about the price of eggs and we had just started talking about it on the morning show on a regular basis. But it was to see the impact that it has on, you know, my sister who has two kids and they're going through eggs like crazy. You just you see things like that in a way when you go home that sometimes I think people miss. None of my friends in D.C. are talking about how expensive eggs are.
So you went to University of Alabama and you followed in one of your siblings footsteps and decided you were going to be in chemistry?
Yes. My older sister, who is, you know, one of my best friends, she went to Auburn, actually, that was the bigger controversy, was she went to the east side of the state, to Auburn, and I went to the west side, to Tuscaloosa. And we were a house divided. But yeah, she was it's been.
Must have been tough during football season.
Well, yeah. I mean, the family group text. My dad threatens to leave it regularly because it gets so obnoxious. But yeah, my sister is a brilliant scientist. She's a chemist now. She works in a drug drug development company. And for some reason I thought that I too would be a chemist. And reality hit me like a pile of bricks.
You didn't have chemistry with chemistry?
No. And I remember. I hate, it made me dislike college strongly because I'd never had difficulty in school and I had a lot of difficulty in my freshman year of college because of my chemistry classes. It just didn't click for me. It wasn't there. I would study for hours and work on my homework for hours, and it just it didn't work. And I came close to failing my second semester, my chemistry class, which you had to complete. And I was incredibly stressed about it. And a tornado hit Tuscaloosa, actually a really devastating tornado that April. And they canceled all of our finals. And because they canceled my final in chemistry, it was the only reason I passed the class. And because of that, I took a very hard look at the next semester and I was like, I can't come back and do this again because I don't I don't know if I'd make it.
Can't you can't rely on the forces of nature to save you every semester.
That wasn't going to happen again. And and so I looked through the course catalog like I physically flipped through the book and I was thinking, what could I major in? And I saw journalism. And I've always been a big reader and a pretty good writer. And I was like, I'm going to try that. So I think when people think there's like this divine intervention and people always know what they want when they go to college, I always and when I talk to young students all the time because there's such a level of stress and pressure to know exactly who you're going to be at 18 and I don't think you should always just wing it. I think it's good to be thoughtful and deliberative, but I think also you have to learn and get to know yourself and your twenties are so formative for that. And, and I just, I always try to impart that and I tell that story willingly to people, even though I don't like to admit that I came close to failing chemistry because I think it's important for people to realize sometimes it takes a minute to figure out what you're supposed to do, and you do try things to see if you like them. I truly just tried journalism and and I enjoyed class for the first time.
Yeah, well, I mean, you're going to be better at things that you enjoy and that you feel passionate about.
It makes such a difference. I truly didn't feel like I was going to class. I looked forward to it. I never missed class. I still talked to some of my teachers. From then to this day, it completely changed how I viewed college.
I know. You wrote a piece for the Tuscaloosa paper.
That was your big signature. Here I am. Were you an intern there? Is that where you were?
This is actually epic. I was it interning at the Tuscaloosa News. I was doing entertainment for them, which basically meant I created a calendar with all the events that were happening in Tuscaloosa. Tuscaloosa's a very creative community, and they've a lot of people who stay there long after then aren't affiliated with the school. But one night on a Thursday night, which is a big night for going out and college, I should note, it's basically Friday Jr. So like all my friends are going out and. They asked me to cover the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard concert and the Tuscaloosa News. Their newsroom is on this great hill and right down the hills where the amphitheater is. So I say, Sure. So I go to the concert. I'm hanging out with Willie Nelson's daughter beforehand, she was the opening act and I covered the concert.
I don't want to I don't want to ask what was going on in Willie's, in Willie's green room before.
I didn't get close to his green room. They didn't look the Tuscaloosa News into green rooms.
Sadly. I would have loved to have hung out with him. It was the first time that I'd ever been on like a real deadline because, you know, I was doing the calendar before it. It wasn't that big of a deal. And I remember they told me to leave when there were three songs left in the concert. I ran up the hill and you went in the back door to the newsroom. My face is, like, flushed. I'm typing up this story, and then I just send it in and I they're like, okay, you're good. So I leave. I go home. All right, actually, I went and probably met my friends at the bars or something. But the next day I went to get a sandwich and I'm in the sandwich shop and they would always hang up that day's copy of the Tuscaloosa News. And I look over with my friends and my friend Lee goes, that's your name. And it was my story on the front page.
Isn't that a great feeling?
I'd never felt that before.
I know I. My first day at the Chicago Tribune, I started as an intern and there were tornados that day. And they sent me out to cover these tornadoes. Stupidly wore a suit thinking my first day, I me. And they laughed at me and sent me out. I think the suit got completely ruined. But I phoned in my notes to a rewrite man. Yeah. And by the time I got back, the afternoon edition was out and there was my piece. And it was magical to see that. Yeah, it's three words.
Yeah. And truly, in your observations, you have the power to structure the story. Yeah. For people who weren't at the concert or who weren't there that day, the tornadoes they see. It's just it's a really.
Now, where you were you a Willie Nelson fan?
I mean, seeing Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard was epic and it was a different I'd been to concerts at this venue before, but it was a different kind of like there were the front rows were all seated because, of course, it was an older, older generation that was there for the concert. So I was a fan. I grew up listening to them and it just kind of-
Is country music a big thing?
Huge. I think I was only allowed to listen to country music for like the first 14 years of my life until I got my own car.
The lyrics and song titles of country music are so amazing. It's great.
Country is so wise. Yeah, it's great.
So you got an internship at The Daily Caller. Tell me about that, how that how that came about. That's gotten quite a bit of attention lately.
Yeah. Which is it's always funny how it gets attention for certain things. You know it. Whenever I was covering Trump for a lot of people, they felt like it gave me credibility. And then, you know, I think sometimes it's criticized.
Did it help you when you were covering Trump? Did the Trump people say, well, she's kosher.
It helped me, but not because of that. It helps me because I think and I'll explain how I got to The Daily Caller, but I think it helped me because I was in a newsroom that was very conservative leaning as Trump was making his way from being just a candidate in the 2016 contest to the front runner. And I watched I got to see up close how conservatives saw this, because there were a lot of people there who were more conservative leaning. I have always been very I'm not a political person. I'm not I've always been very unbiased, but I got to watch it in real time. How we saw the Republican Party go from distancing themselves from Donald Trump and saying he'd never be the nominee, because they did also say that once to then embracing him and to see that I think helped inform how I covered the White House because I watched that transformation happen up close.
Did you watch it happen in you? You know, you say you're close to your family. You go back to your hometown. And did you watch that whole thing evolve there as well?
Yeah, because it was this There's family and friends that were largely nonpolitical. You know, we didn't talk a lot about who was in office and what was happening on Capitol Hill, and that totally changed. I think that's true for a lot of people, that the way Trump altered politics in the way it so many more people are consider themselves political or pay attention to what's happening has has obviously shifted in a in a real way.
So what what is the core of his appeal that you saw then that struck you?
It was very much the same appeal that you saw at his rallies, because I would talk to people about this when I went home. And also, you know, when I would go home and I was covering the Trump White House, people were always fascinated and asked me, what's he really like? You know, is it really that. Crazy. It's not that they didn't understand that it was chaotic. I think everyone saw saw that from the White House, but they also just wanted to know what he was like. And they had so many questions for someone who had an upfront view, a close up view of that. So you did see it change really just in how political people became, I think. And I would hear people who weren't very political before talking about it much more frequently than they had previously.
But I guess what I'm asking is did they talk about what about him spoke to them.
I think they felt they could relate to him and that he-
It's kind of incredible when you think about it.
Because it's not typically someone who would, if you just looked at it on paper, who'd be able to relate to, you know, someone in Alabama who, you know.
Where they don't have gold toilets seats?
Is from a small town, doesn't have a college degree, you know. And it was interesting to see that. But but they liked I think they liked which is I think this is obviously been well covered and documented now. They felt like he would tell it like it was and that, you know, he would shove it to the establishment. And they channeled that in a real way.
Which is still his strength today. I mean, if you look at his base, that is still his base. And if you look at his appeal, it's that he is authentically giving the finger to elites and the establishment and so on to this day.
Yeah, And I think they see that. And I think part of that is why they're more forgiving of. When they see the chaos around him and the investigations and the impeachment, It just it hits them differently than I think it does for a typical politician.
Well doesn't he, hasn't he- I wanted to get into this later, but hasn't he set up a construct now? I was always struck by this story that Lesley Stahl told that you may have seen about a conversation she had with him in 2016 after he was elected, and she was getting ready to do 60 Minutes with them and they had a pre-meeting. And he started railing about the media and she said, why are you always doing that? You know? And he said, I do. I discredit you and I denigrate you because I don't want people to believe what you say when you say bad things about me. And that was diabolically effective.
Yeah, because I think if you had seen that with any other politician, I mean, that's what you know, that is the greatest mystery around Trump, is that if any other politician had a third of what he's faced and, you know, the investigations and the impeachments, it would be perceived so differently. And one of those would be devastating. For everyone else.
Career ending. But how many times have we said, well, he'll never survive this? And here he is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. It's as if each indictment, legal setback, each scandal is kind of a certification of his authenticity as an insurgent, as the guy fighting the deep state and so on. It's it's people who underestimate that I think miss something.
I think that's true. And I do wonder, though, especially I mean, this is why this election will be so fascinating, is because you do hear from voters when you go on the ground in Iowa or in New Hampshire or certain places who say it is a bit chaotic, it is a bit much with everything that's going into him. I do wonder how how voters will assess it when there are the challengers to him. And he does have obvious competitors. So who knows.
Part of it is how willing are the challengers going to be on the Republican side to take him on on that stuff? We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. I was struck last night by Nikki Haley. I'd say she went for the capillary, not the jugular. I mean, if your theme is we've got to stop the negativity, we've got to stop, you know, the pettiness. If your theme is, you know, we can't have people mistrusting their own election system and so on, how you say those things and not say, and that guy is promoting that.
When people would wonder aloud why Republican lawmakers in Washington would refuse to criticize Trump for certain things he did, or condemn him or rebuke him. I went to so many rallies of Trump's that we covered obviously all of them when we were when we were covering him as president. You'd go to South Carolina and you'd see 10,000 people, 15,000 people in an arena there with Trump. And Senator Lindsey Graham is obviously standing to his side. They see up close the effect that he has. Most of their politicians would not be able to get 10,000 people into a room, into an arena like that. And so I think that was the clearest line. They watched that and they understood that their political fates were tied to him.
Yeah, but if you're running against him now for the very same reason, at some point you've got to say to yourself, you know, I'm not going to wrench those people away from. He's got a base. So the question is, who am I? And is there a base? Is there another base out there of people who want something different. And can I coalesce that base? Because if I can't, I'm going to lose. And that's the you know, the the who who has the guts to make that calculation is the answer, because Ron DeSantis is just trying to be Trump without the crazy. We're going to get back to Trump, as he would insist. But I wanted to ask you, you were going to tell The Daily Caller story.
Yes, I knew graduating that I wanted to move out of the South. I wanted to see something different. I'd been there my whole life. I barely traveled outside of the southeast. And so I applied for any and everything. And so I applied for a lot of jobs. In L.A. and in California, New York, I hadn't really applied to that many in Washington. But this one California based journalism center. It's called the Franklin Center, basically took applications for interns and I applied to them, made it to their process. Got it. It was like, I think ten other students myself, I thought it meant that I was moving to California. But the way they do their program is they basically place you around the country and they kind of pay that place, you know, a few hundred bucks to to have you as an intern. So you could be in local news in North Carolina. You could be in Iowa. They called me and said, you're going to The Daily Caller in Washington. I'd never even heard of The Daily Caller before.
Did you when you looked it up, what you being an intrepid reporter that you are, you probably said, hey, maybe I should look up what this Daily Caller is.
I looked it up and I sought the advice of a mentor of mine at the time. And I said, you know, do you think I should go here? This is really my only option that's out of state, or it's just an internship. But I want to I just I want to move. I want to just get my foot in the door. And it definitely had a conservative lean to it, obviously. But this person at the time, you know, said you're not going to have your dream job right out of college. Just it's important to get experience. It's important to get your foot in the door. So I thought about it, and a month later, I moved to Washington. I packed up my car, I got dropped off. I didn't take my car to D.C. and and I just figured it out kind of. And. I was reflecting on this recently when I moved to New York because I moved to New York last fall and I was in the train station, which I've been in a million times to come to New York. But this time was obviously different because it was my last time leaving as someone who lived in Washington. And to reflect on where I was when I first moved to D.C., which was interning at The Daily Caller, making a few hundred bucks a month with only the promise of eight weeks, by the way, before they brought me on full time. I lived with a guy off Craigslist that I didn't know. And then to see where I was eight years later as I was leaving was as someone who's not a sentimental person. It was a special moment for me to to reflect on.
Yeah, it's quite a journey.
It's. Yeah, it's about as far from two ends as you can get, from one to the to the other. But it was a special moment for me and.
I bet. Now, did you know Tucker when you were working there?
Yes. So he was. He was still in the office a bunch then, because that was when he was, I believe, still a weekend host on Fox and Friends. It was before he became prime time, Tucker. I mean, he was already well known. Obviously, it had shows on CNN and MSNBC. But yeah, but he was in the office pretty, pretty frequently then.
Were you surprised that he became I mean, he is sort of the voice of right wing populist I want to say supremacist. He might object to that, but he is that person. Was he that person then?
I think he was different then because I think, not different as a as a person. But I think he had his life was different. His platform was so different. Obviously, he day to day ran this small website, The Daily Caller. Small by the definition of what a typical newsroom would look like, and then was hosting the early morning show on Fox on the weekend, which was, you know, obviously Fox and Friends in the Morning is very different than Fox at night. And it was just a completely different platform, I think.
Do you think that he believes the stuff that he says these days?
Yeah. And I guess we're going to hear from him at some some point. Again.
It's deeply he's deeply influential over the Republican Party. And I think that was another thing covering the Trump White House that you saw and understood, because I knew him, I had an understanding of how I mean, we saw what an influence, you know, which there were. And said Sean Hannity was like the shadow cabinet member with the former president. I think Tucker was also a very big influence with with Trump. Obviously, Trump sought his validation and and wanted that. The other thing I thought, you know, when Tucker left Fox and is deciding what his next move is, is the effect that has on the Republican primary happening right now because he is such a force for Republican voters and for that base that you were just talking about and how that shapes the fates of certain people when it comes to how they talk about Ukraine and other other major issues, I think will be very interesting to watch and how that's different now without that show at 8:00.
Yeah, if he doesn't find a way to reintroduce himself.
Were you uncomfortable? I mean, there's been a lot were said and written about the coverage of The Daily Caller and on issues like climate, for example, where there you know, if you called in Daniel Dale, your fact checker, he would have like a field day on some of this stuff. When you were a young reporter there, did did that trouble you at all?
I was there. I mean, and when I covered what I covered, there was not even politics at the beginning. I covered, you know, entertainment and did their clickbait stories that they did. Some people would always ask if I was even a real person, because I would do like my job is like to do slideshows and stuff. And I think then at that age I was so far my experience in journalism was so limited. I mean, I'd been in college, I'd been interning, and then I started there and so much of that was just me learning how to be an adult and what it was like to have a job and operating in a newsroom. And I think where it really changed was and I got very burnt out on that because I didn't feel fulfilled doing clickbait. Obviously, I wanted to cover real stories. And where it shifted was when I started covering the White House and I started covering-
Day one that Trump took office. Yeah, but they didn't really have any kind of there was no one who was covering the White House for them at the time then. So I was kind of I was the only person, you know, and I was figuring out we didn't have a seat in the briefing room. I would have to go to the when I started covering Sean Spicer's briefings, I'd have to get to the briefing three or 4 hours before it started. And there was one or two seats where the person did not come on a regular basis, and I would plant myself there and just sit there and work on my questions. And of course, as you know, White House briefings get delayed all the time. And I would be sitting there for 6 hours or so. But I got to know the briefing room. I got to know all of these veterans of the White House, the photographers, everyone who'd been there. And they I really started and I watched these other reporters in the briefing room, and that was how I really figured out how to operate in that way.
Did you have role models there?
Yeah. So I learned from so many people, and this is what I always tell people, if you if you really want to learn how to be better at something, just watch people who are really good do it. And from the second to last row where I was, you know, I would watch. Jon Karl and all of these all of these reporters at the front, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Major Garrett asking their questions. And I would just I would see I learned so much from watching that. Mara Liasson at NPR. And that was a deeply informative to me. And so then I was in that role just for a short period of time. I quickly learned a lot, I think, about covering them. I also felt like I had a bit of a leg up because I did come from a conservative leaning outlet. So I think people in the White House, maybe Sean Spicer, they would often call on me thinking I'd be friendlier to them. And when I was just a straightforward, normal reporter, I think it caught them off guard at times. But I saw how. How that worked. And I think all of that shaped my experience. But that was how I really learned, you know, to cover the White House was from watching in those early days, watching those other reporters in the room.
So I read somewhere that you were at a White House Correspondents Dinner or something, and you approached Jeff Zucker.
Yeah, I had been going on CNN and other outlets to talk about my reporting and what was happening inside the White House, moments from the briefing room and including CNN, where they had always treated me not as a reporter from a conservative leaning outlet, but as a White House reporter. And I deeply appreciated that because I that wasn't necessarily my expectation. I'd kind of been told by others, like be ready when you go on. And what I went on, it was a really pleasant experience. And so I went to the White House correspondents CNN brunch that they have on Sundays, as you know. I was like a plus one's plus one. I don't even know how I got in the door. I was not supposed to be there, but I had just done ABC that morning because Jon Karl was guest hosting and it invited me on which I really appreciated. And I went to this brunch and I was standing with Oliver Darcy, our CNN media reporter, and he was like, oh, that's Jeff Zucker. And I said, oh, which one? And he pointed to him and I said, I'm going to go say hey. And Oliver was like, You can't go say hi to him. I was like, Why not? And Oliver had just started at CNN, which we all are. And I laugh about this to this day, but I went up but I just I said, I just I want to introduce myself. I'm Kaitlan Collins. I cover the White House today from The Daily Caller. And you've had me on a few times. And I really appreciate that because I was I knew obviously was widely reported how involved Jeff was at CNN at the time. And I said, I just wanted to thank you for letting me come on. I was not looking for a job in broadcast. I'd never I'd only done a handful of TV appearances before.
Did you think that you wanted a job in broadcast?
No, I wasn't looking for that in any way. I was still like, you know, just adjusting to White House coverage and enjoying being a White House reporter. And Jeff said, thanks very much and nice to meet you. And we went our separate ways. And then like an hour or so later, he came back to me and introduced me to Virginia Moseley.
And who was running the Washington bureau and.
Yes. And now runs all of newsgathering. And it just went from there. And then I started interviewing for a job. I didn't really know if I would get it. I interviewed for several months. I talked about what I thought I could bring to the table as a reporter. And then I got a job at CNN.
Hey, given how polarizing Trump was, especially relative to CNN. How did your folks react and the folks back home when you said, hey, I'm going to work for CNN?
It was very interesting, I think, because I think their initial reaction was confusion. As a family who didn't watch CNN a ton, obviously, they didn't watch a lot of cable news, like my dad watched the local news. And that was.
Fair to say. If you watch cable news down there, more likely Fox News than.
Very fair to say. Definitely overwhelming. And I remember at the beginning, I think my dad's reaction was, why not Fox? I think he genuinely didn't understand it. And then I started at CNN and my whole life changed.
You obviously became quite well known because you were an aggressive questioner at these press conferences. And you have the distinction of irritating a succession of presidents now with your questions. But I'm interested in your relationship with Trump because the world sees Trump as a guy who is at war with the media, but he also apparently relentlessly courts the media when he's not at war with the media and the public. So how often did you actually speak with him? I saw somewhere that sometimes on Air Force One he'd want to chat and so on. How frequently did that happen and how weird was it to be the target of his ire in public? And then what was the nature of your conversations? I guess I should ask that.
Yeah, well, I think when it comes to the aggressive questioning, I think I also, because I had of my background, I knew when they were being dishonest in their criticisms of the media or they didn't want to answer a question. And those briefings in the early days, as everyone remembers, was just a series of lies. And so I think that was a big or they would just not try to answer. They would try to dodge the questions. And I think that was on display for people. And I think a lot of the reporters who, you know, had been talking because also with the Trump White House, you talk to all these sources and officials behind the scenes and they'd tell you one thing and then you'd go into the briefing room and they would be saying something very different. You know, their colleagues and you knew what was really going on behind the scenes. I think it was frustrating in that sense. Of of lack of transparency. With Trump himself also, this is what I was it would explain to my friends and family back home. He's so critical of the media, especially. He was critical of CNN at the time, obviously, but he desperately sought the media's validation behind the scenes. And I think he's always been like that. I think he was like that in New York. When you read Maggie Haberman's book and you read about the calls that he used to make to the tabloids, it was all there. None of it changed when he came to the White House. It was just amplified and it was on a different level because it was the president of the United States doing it and not a New York businessman.
So what were those conversations like?
A lot of them were off the record. So I can't I can't get into many of them.
But, I mean, just between you and me.
Yeah. And everyone is listening. But often we would laugh because, you know, you'd get on he'd be very critical of of the media. One time we were at a rally. He did. I can't remember what state it was in. And I was on the phone actually with a source who had called me. It was very loud. And then all of a sudden I returned back to the table and everyone was looking at me and I was like, Wow, Eric Trump just called you out from the stage. And Trump had said something about I think it was talk he was talking about evacuating Afghanistan or it was something related to the military. And he said from the stage, remember that Kaitlan. As in remember when you're covering this that I just said that and. It was kind of like he was, you know, chiding me. I think probably half the audience was like, Who's Kaitlan? And then we got back on Air Force One, and the plane is still ascending. And he comes back to talk to the reporters who were gathered there. And that was a pretty regular occurrence. And those were always off the record conversations. So I can't disclose them. But he would come back to talk to us and and ask us questions. It wasn't just us asking him questions.
The tone was definitely lower than it ever was. But I think that's Trump. I think he he I mean, he obviously has a sense of bravado and has always displayed that in front of the cameras. And I think that's one of the reasons why if you're going to cover him, you have to be prepared for that because it's not personal. You can't let it become something between the two of you, because then that's what he wants and it gets away from what you're trying to ask.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. The Biden White House. You covered that for, what, a year and a half?
Yeah, a little over a year and a half.
So talk to me about the difference between covering the Biden White House and the Trump White House.
It's like night and day. It's very different. And I think when you go into it as someone who had not covered Obama or other past presidents before then, Trump was my first president that I had covered. And so when you're not used to how the White House typically works, which it's a little different for every president, of course. And Trump was your-
There are normal parameters that would not necessarily apply to Trump.
That every White House has. Yeah. And Trump obviously broke all of those. And so I remember one thing that was noticeably different on day one to me was, as you know, if you're a reporter and you go past the briefing room, you can go to what is called upper press. That's where the press secretary's office are. And their aides who sit outside of them, you know, during the Trump era. And you, as a reporter, have a right to go up there and stand outside, outside their office and wait for big questions. You know, we'd often be lined up outside, Kayleigh MCENANY or Sarah Sanders or Sean Spicer's office or Stephanie Grisham. When Trump had fired someone waiting because we wanted we needed a comment from the White House. On day one of of the Biden administration that was so different to go up there, the environment and how they just approached, because there's always tension between a press office and a press corps of any politician going back in history.
There's also a level of respect and just understanding of your each just doing your job. That, I think, was something that the Biden White House took into mind, that the Trump White House did not. Mm hmm. I mean, even in the Trump White House, if you wrote something that was true but critical, they would personally attack you. And instead of just, you know, the reporting wasn't wrong, they just didn't like that you were reporting it.
This town hall that got a lot of attention, did you know, having had all that experience with him, was it what you expected?
Yes and no. And I think he was exactly what I expected. I don't think many of his answers surprised me. I think there were really important areas, too, to press him on, because from my view going into it, this is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Mm hmm. Who I covered, obviously, from day one when he was in the White House till when he left and have covered him ever since amid all these investigations and whatnot. And he had never been pressed on January 6th. On the documents investigation on all of these things in a public way. I don't think he had done a TV interview with a major outlet besides Fox News since he left office. And that's what I was interested in, is asking him those questions and getting a, we have a pretty good idea of his mindset, I think. But but not all. Sometimes it's more revealing when he's being pressed on things and not just when he's, you know, asked an open ended question on a, in a Fox News interview or in a rally. And so I think that was what was important to me was to actually get more of his mindset. You know, he didn't apologize to Mike Pence for endangering his life. He talked about pardoning the rioters if he gets into office again, including those convicted of seditious conspiracy and the ones who who beat up cops that day. And so I think those things-
There were no there were a number of things in there. Look, I was a defender of Target. I mean, the idea that you're not going to give a platform to a-
He already has a platform.
Right. I mean, but what he doesn't do is, as you say, answer questions. The issue was you were asking questions in what basically felt like a rally. And at what point did you say to yourself, holy smokes, this is not what I expected or this is because he clearly went in there with a game plan.
I don't know if he went in there with the game plan. I think he had some apprehension going into it. I think he's always emboldened by an audience, though, and that is what's important to keep in mind here. And I think what will be something going forward is that that one cheer from the audience or that one chuckle that it's like he feeds off of it. That's why you see him speak so differently when he's, you know, at the White House when he was giving an address than when he's at a rally because he feeds off the crowd. And so I think that was part of it. But I never had a moment where I was like, holy smokes or.
Your quote was. But I think when I was in there, I mean, I'm a reporter. I always will be. And I know how Trump operates really well. Probably better than not most. I mean, I would obviously, with all the people who covered Trump, obviously understand that very well. But I knew how he operates and I knew what were the important questions to ask. And so that was that was all that I could focus on or hear the questions that he, the Republican frontrunner, needs to be asked. In my view, and based on our reporting, that was where we pursued those lines, I think on the investigations and whatnot. Those are answers that will live on for a while.
And so it didn't bother you when he called you nasty, which he does, by the way, fairly frequently, almost always to women.
Always to women. I mean, not that he doesn't criticize men or give them.
But nasty is a word that he tends to women.
Nasty is is that and I later heard from some of his allies who said they thought that was his worst moment during the during the town hall. I think I'm I'm pretty immune to the criticism of from him on that kind of stuff the personal stuff because A it's not his first time doing it to me. He kicked me out of the White House of the Rose Garden once for an event because he didn't like the questions I asked him. So I'm very well aware of what his reactions to tough questioning often are. And I think my job is to not be deterred by that and to be. It is really important for any reporter, but especially if you're covering Trump to be unflappable in that way. And to do your job.
Yeah, the fear of the flip side and I thought you hung in there in a remarkable way, the flip side of being unflappable is you're also a human being. I'm sure that you were not immune to the criticism that followed. And I was wondering about that. You've had this sort of meteoric career, but it struck me that you've had these great successes, kind of an extraordinary what are you, 31 years old now? You know, to be in your mid-twenties and to be a nationally known White House correspondent. I think your peers, although you weren't able to accept the job, elected you head of the White House Correspondents Association, really a remarkable thing. And now you see really kind of unflattering coverage. How did you process that? Had you ever had a setback like this? And I'm just wondering what it's like to be you.
I don't view it as a setback. I totally understand that there was a lot of criticism and thoughts on how it was handled and what it looked like. I think it's important to hear from the Republican front runner.
Understood. But I'm talking about you. I'm talking about you were the focus of national critiques. I'm just I think I'm trying to penetrate the unflappable it you know what I'm asking you as a human being, was that tough to read some of that stuff?
I think that I did the best job that I could do.
I know. But I'm asking different question.
I know, But but but I spent weeks preparing for that. I watched past town halls, past debates. I did my homework. And I think when you come out of something like that, you have to be prepared to people are entitled to their own reaction to it. And we certainly saw that. My question for me at the end of the day is, do I think that I did the best job that I can do and how do I feel about my performance in that? And and I felt like I did the best job that I could do. And so it didn't bother me in the sense that maybe you could have misgivings if I felt, well, maybe if I had asked it this way or said that question or watched this, I would have been better prepared. I went into it fully prepared. I was prepared for what how he was going to respond to that and what that was going to look like. And I think that was the best that I could do. And and my job was to press him on those really important issues that he hasn't been pressed on.
Was that the toughest, the aftermath of that? Was that that sort of toughest thing that you've had to grapple with?
I don't know if it's the toughest thing I've had to grapple with. I think I take things. I take my work really seriously and. I work really hard to be prepared for moments like that because I think that is how you best handle something like that. That's what suited me well, during my time covering the White House when Trump was in office. And I think that's how you handle it.
It. Do you think that he would have treated, because there is a sort of we talked about the nasty thing. Do you think he would have treated a like a man differently?
I don't know. Potentially.
Talking about Trump. Where do you think this story is going? You've been doing some good reporting on it. As we were sitting here, I think that there was a bulletin that Trump's lawyers visited the Justice Department. It's it feels like this thing is coming to a head, at least on the documents case. What is your sense of where it's going?
Just based on the Trump team's mindset of where this stands, they think in June there will be some movement. They don't know what that movement is, but that is their prediction. And so we'll see what that looks like. But I do think what we reported, which was that Trump's on recorded audio talking about classified information and making clear he knows he doesn't he shouldn't have it outside of an unsecure area and that he doesn't have the power to declassify it out of office like he's claimed.
And doesn't really have the authority to have it after he leaves the White House.
And it's a national defense document we're told. That reporting has shifted the level of confidence that I've heard from Trump allies about what's going to happen in this. I think there's a level of uncertainty that has been injected into it where they don't ultimately know where the documents investigation is going. Previously, they thought after what happened with President Biden's documents from his time as VP and Mike Pence, his documents from his time as V.P., they thought that would help buffer Trump basically from any real, real charges or pursuits. I think they they see it very differently now. So I don't know.
Pence case just got dismissed this week.
Yes. Which they moved pretty quickly. On Biden's as a special counsel. Trump's obviously as a special counsel. And so his team is meeting with the DOJ today, ostensibly to talk about the special counsel's investigation. I assume they're wanting some they have some complaints that they're lobbying about it. But I do think there's a level of uncertainty and uneasiness in Trump's corner about where that investigation is going.
Let's go back to your journey here, because I think you were a superb White House correspondent and a real asset there. You were approached by management to come in and become an anchor on the morning show. I know how much you love reporting and I know how much you loved that beat. And as I said, you were about to become head of the White House Correspondents Association. How did you process all of that?
I had just become head of the White House Correspondents Association, which of course, I loved. It was those elections are hard fought if you ever watch them, because the White House press corps is I mean, they really want someone who's a fearless leader. And you have very important decisions to make with that. And that was a fun period. And I loved my time covering the White House. I could have covered the White House, you know, for the rest of my life and really enjoyed it because I'm deeply fascinated by presidential history and whatnot. But I was approached to do to do the morning show. It would be a different set of skills than I had really ever taken on before. And I think of this, you know, even in terms of interviewing style, I had only done press conferences and briefings and whatnot and questions and those sense sense of the manner, but I'd never done a lot of one on one interviews with lawmakers. This gave me a chance to do that. I still kept reporting, as I am still doing to this day. We had a bunch of big stories last week, and so I think I thought of it in that way. This is a new challenge, and I've never said no to something like that and to an opportunity. And so I moved to New York and and did the morning show in.
The weekend before this podcast. There was a piece in The Atlantic that was critical of Chris Licht, the chief of CNN, CEO of CNN, obviously a great ally and admirer of yours. I'm not going to ask you about that because I don't want to put you on the spot, and I know you well enough to know that you're not going to answer any questions about it anyway. But I do want to ask you about your experience on this briefly as the host of this new morning show. This was a new show, the morning show, these morning shows are really, really tricky because everybody wakes up to this group that they want to think is their TV family. And so the whole casting and you guys were sort of thrown together, you and Don Lemon and Poppy Harlow, they did promos as if you guys were old friends and so on. Then the chemistry speaking of chemistry, that chemistry wasn't wasn't particularly good. Were there moments then when you said, man, I miss the White House?
I think there will always be moments when I miss the White House. But I also was looking forward to it, to trying something new and to having a new challenge. And I fully was aware of that going into it. So it wasn't-
I'm just some of the kind of friction that ensued and I'm not going to get into all the specifics of that. I don't want to ask you about that. It's unfair to you. It's unfair to Don. It's, but but was that hard?
I think what was the challenge for me was moving to a new city and having a new job. Luckily, I was still at CNN and I. I knew so many people here. I think that was more of it than anything else. And and just learning how to be an anchor is something that is it's a different it's a different set of skills than just being a correspondent. And I loved being a correspondent. It felt like I mastered that. I think I'll always be a correspondent at heart and a reporter at heart. And I think that was where I was more focused on is what could I do to make this better and to make the show better and to get good guests on who are the new newsmakers of the day and ask those questions and bring new reporting to the show. I think that was what I focused on.
You did you did at one point reportedly walk off pissed about something about an exchange. I don't want to get into the whole thing, but I'm just I'm interested in your journey. And you were on this sort of going in this one direction and you had the whole thing figured out. And then you come into this and it was challenging.
But I think challenges are good. I think it's good to deal with things like that and. That was how I viewed it is how can I how can I make this better? I mean, that's always how, like, viewed my role in things is to be a happy warrior in those situations and to bring my best to the table. And that's what I did every day.
Now you've got this new assignment, which is the 9:00 hour, which is prime real estate, not no pun intended, but the 9:00 hour. That's where Chris Cuomo was. It's been sort of vacant since then. What do you want to do with that? How are you going to put your imprimatur on it?
I think it's well, we'll see what that looks like when it when it's underway. I think really the biggest thing that I've understood being at CNN is that our audience cares about news. That is truly all they're invested in. They want to see interesting interviews, smart conversations, and they want to hear the news. And that's what drives me. That's what I always have cared about. And so I don't think doing the 9:00 is reinventing the wheel. I think it's just it's taking my approach to reporting and interviewing and bringing that to the 9:00. And I really enjoyed it when I did it a few weeks ago. And so I just think it's a perspective of of how to do that and have our audience, who knows me so well from the White House. And I think trust me, when it comes to our sourcing in our reporting, how do I bring that to a show at 9:00 that is just focused on the biggest things of the day?
Well, let me ask you something about being so young and taking on that assignment. You are unflappable, which is a great strength in when you're interviewing politicians who are endlessly frustrating and trying to evade questions and so on. But there are other stories that involve tragedy and, you know, human tragedy and loss and vulnerability and so on. And that's where age and experience can be useful because you've experienced some of the things that you know or you've been around, some of the things that others are going through. How do you develop that? How do you develop that part of your profile? Everybody knows you can kick ass when it when you're talking to powerful, dissembling politicians, of which there are many. How do you develop that part of your journalism?
I think so much of journalism is is learning things as you go in and experiencing them and covering them and being there on the ground and talking to people. And yeah, I've I've been covering the White House for so long and, you know, been an anchor since October. But I think what I love to do is to travel to those places, because I think the best way you tell a story is to be there in person. And I think of when President Biden went to Kentucky, when they had a really devastating string of tornadoes. And obviously when a president visits a site like that, you are at a distance from it because there are so many storm relief efforts underway. And we were in this neighborhood and we were walking around and talking to a lot of the families there. I mean, the neighborhood was completely leveled and I dealt with a lot of tornadoes growing up in Alabama. And we found this photo on the ground. My producer and I and it was a family. And, you know, when a moment like that happens and your entire house is devastated, you lose everything you own. Yeah. Things like that are so precious. And we really wanted to get it to to whoever it was. And so we're walking around and it's a neighborhood where a lot of these families had lived there their entire lifetimes. And we were talking to this this guy, I won't say his name because just in case he's a private person and it was his family's photo. And so.
How did he react when you gave it to him?
He had lost his mother. So it was really emotional. And his aunt, they were together and it was this really emotional moment. And he really was someone who his mom watched CNN all the time. And it was just this moment of humanity where we we talked to him. And I still keep in touch with him to this day. But I think in a moment like that, you know, when we were doing our our reports from there, it wasn't about, you know, just what President Biden was doing per se. It was what these people had been through and what their experience had been like. And some of them didn't even have shoes because a tornado sometimes hits so quickly. If you're barefoot at home, you don't always think to put shoes on. I know that because my mom and my grandmother, would always make us but tennis shoes on if a storm was coming. And so I think things like that, you know, when there is humanity, I mean, we're all human, you know, we are anchors and reporters, but we also understand that aspect of it. And so I think that's something that you apply in any in any situation that you're in, because anchoring a 9pm show will be many different stories or whatever.
Which is the part of the appeal, I'm sure.
So at the end of this, you mentioned earlier what this emotion that you felt leaving Washington as you prepare to take on this new assignment. Man, it seems a long way from Prattville.
It is, but also it's not. You know, I was just home a few weeks ago and it's just it's always humbling to go home and makes you realize, you know, you never should forget, obviously, where you came from. I never could, because Alabama has shaped me in every single way. And but it's exciting to know that. And as you were talking earlier about right, what was my family's reaction and friends reaction when I got my job at CNN? You know, now my dad in the lobby of his office, we're on their where they sell mobile homes. He they keep it on CNN. And sometimes he will come in and say, why are you watching CNN? And they're like, oh, Jeff's daughter works there. And I think what I love is being a source of credibility and trust for them, that they know something that they've been told not to trust for whatever reasons. They know that I'm from their hometown. They know me. I'm from their home state, and they can turn it on. And I feel like they have that level of trust with me. And that's really precious to me. And I. I think of that when I'm doing my reporting and making sure that I'm being fair and being unbiased, but also telling them the truth, the hard truth of what's really happening and what it actually looks like behind the scenes.
Well, I'm sure they're proud of you as a CNNer I am as well, and appreciative of you as a colleague. Really look forward to seeing what you do in this new slot and watching this story unfold, your story unfold. Kaitlan, thank you.
Thank you. If you need a podcast co-host.
Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Fender Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uchicago.edu.