SALT LAKE CITY — To all the never-saw-that-comings of the 2016 American presidential campaign add this: the reporter who said it was never going to happen just got a nice, fancy new job because it did.
McKay Coppins, the BYU journalism graduate who covered the 2016 campaign for the online media giant BuzzFeed, is a man in demand these days. He returned to Utah during Thanksgiving week at the invitation of both Utah State University and the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics to give speeches about an election that made “Cubs Win!” look predictable. And while he was here, The Atlantic, Washington, D.C.’s legendary magazine, announced it had lured the 29-year-old Coppins to move to the nation’s capital and join its staff, hiring him to do the same thing he did for BuzzFeed: keep covering Donald J. Trump — now that he got him elected.
Like it or not, fair or not, that’s Coppins’ legacy from the ’16 race: he’s the journalist who goaded Trump into running.
It all began almost three years ago, in the winter of 2014, when Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz were the men to beat for the Republican nomination and Donald Trump was a reality TV star. Coppins, who had already written lengthy profiles about Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Cruz and other men who would be president, pitched Trump’s handlers about doing a piece on The Donald.
Next thing he knew he was on Trump’s private jet for a whirlwind trip that included an overnight stay at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, where he was wined and dined and exposed to all-out Trump opulence.
A few weeks later, BuzzFeed, which attracts more than 100 million online visitors a month, published “36 Hours On The Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump.”
In a 6,000 word profile, Coppins chose the term “A long con” to describe Trump’s political career. “Trump very badly wants to be taken seriously as a potential political candidate and not be written off as a man-boy who cried wolf,” he wrote. “But, at the same time, he plainly has no interest in actually running for office.”
Then he added: “If history is any judge, Trump is about as likely to run for president in his lifetime as he is to accept follicular defeat.”
After that, no one was ever going to accuse McKay Coppins of being hypnotized by Trump’s trappings and largesse. Least of all Trump, who responded to the article by calling Coppins a “dishonest slob” and “garbage with no credibility” on Twitter and continued with more of the same in an online article published in the pro-Trump website Brietbart that featured this headline: “Exclusive – Trump: ‘Scumbag’ Buzzfeed Blogger Ogled Women While He Ate Bison At My Resort.”
The balding, glasses-wearing Coppins didn’t have to dignify the suggestion he’d turned into a skirt chaser in Florida by reacting, because, as he said, “it wasn’t a believable line of attack. Everyone who knows me in the media knows I’m a married Mormon dad with two kids who has no history of anything like that. He could have come up with much more plausible spears.”
Nonetheless, the battle was on as Coppins found himself joining a long list of Trump targets that would grow to include John McCain, undocumented immigrants, a Latino judge, Muslims, women, Rosie O’Donnell and, of course, Hillary. Undaunted, Coppins doggedly refused to back down, defending in numerous interviews his contention that Trump was merely a poser and would never actually run for office. During one cable TV talk show he suggested he would bet a year’s salary he was right.
All of which preceded the announcement a year later, when Trump, his hair perfectly combed over, formally declared his candidacy for president of the United States.
Whatever role, large or small, a political news website nonexistent five years earlier played in putting a man on the path to the presidency who had never before even ran for political office, Trump never said directly; but neither did he let it go. When the name BuzzFeed came up at a nationally televised debate in Detroit, Trump sneered: “BuzzFeed? They were the ones that said under no circumstances will I run for president — and were they wrong.”
Then came the summer of 2016, when Trump, assured of the Republican nomination, found time to send this email to Coppins:
You got it all wrong, but I won’t hold it against you. Nor do you have to pay the one year salary to me that you guaranteed if I ran — I will let you off the hook. And remember not only did I run in the primaries, I won — watch what happens in the general.
Donald J. Trump
Less than three months later, Donald J. Trump won the general election over Hillary Clinton — dispelling any chance that the odd relationship between the 70-year-old billionaire and the 29-year-old BYU graduate would end anytime soon.
For the next four years, every time Trump looks out at the press corps, McKay Coppins will be looking back at him.
“I don’t know exactly how to describe my relationship with Donald Trump,” Coppins said during his stopover in Utah. “We’re not like buds, but it is also like we’re frienemies or something, because he’s at various periods instructed his aides to keep me apprised of his progress on the campaign trail. It’s almost like he enjoys rubbing my nose in the fact that he’s so successful after I was so skeptical of his political aspirations. I understand the desire to gloat, given how skeptical everyone was at the outset. I think he’s probably reveling in the humiliation of the media establishment, myself included.”
It wasn’t comfortable, Coppins notes, being attacked by the Trump machine. Although it did help his career.
“I remember somebody pulling me aside, telling me this was great for my career, having this famous, rich, powerful person blasting me publicly day after day,” says Coppins. “It’s weird, because when you’re in the middle of if you’re not thinking that way. But, yeah, I guess in the long run it has been strangely good for my career. I don’t know if I would have picked that way to get noticed, but I guess I’ll take it.”
Being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the right time, has been a staple for Coppins the journalist.
He was a freshly minted BYU graduate in 2010 when he wrangled an internship with Newsweek in New York. Less than two weeks after he arrived, the 77-year-old publication went up for sale, veteran reporters took bailouts in droves, and Coppins found himself hired to write full time. He pitched a story idea to the editors about interviewing Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor who was serving at the time as U.S. ambassador to China. What was projected to be a short Q and A turned into a six-page profile when Huntsman used the interview to announce that he was thinking of running for president against his current boss, Barack Obama.
The Huntsman story, and others, caught the attention of Ben Smith, who had been hired by BuzzFeed, a new online company known mainly for its cat videos, to start up a news division. Coppins was one of four reporters in their early 20s selected by Smith to make up a BuzzFeed political reporting team. (The newsroom has since grown to several hundred).
This was in 2012, the year of the Mitt Romney-Barack Obama presidential race.
Coppins, a Mormon who grew up in Boston, where a younger Mitt Romney had been president of his LDS stake, gained instant notoriety on the traveling press corps as the “Mormon Wikipedia.”
“The one edge I had, aside from being willing to pull all-nighters with the energy of a 24-year-old, was I had this special insight into the candidate no one else had,” says Coppins.
By the 2016 campaign, Romney was gone, replaced by a nominee so completely opposite, Coppins marvels, “It was almost like I changed careers. In 2012 I was a political reporter and now I was like a cattle herder or something, it was that different.”
Romney, like all men running for office, had his moments with the press, not above sometimes complaining about biased media, Coppins says, “But he didn’t encourage thousands of people at his crowds to turn around and boo and curse us, which is what Trump did.”
How will Trump do as president? “Like any American citizen, I’m rooting for him to be different than he was on the campaign trail,” Coppins says. “But I’m not very confident that’s going to happen. He’s what, 70 years old? I don’t know a lot of people who completely overhaul their personalities at 70. I think he’s the most fascinating political story I can imagine covering. But I also think a lot of the things he says, the things he muses about, are very dangerous. He scares me and intrigues me. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve needed a more robust, active and aggressive press corps covering our government than right now.”
And does reporter Coppins think he’ll be a marked man?
“I’ll put it this way,” he says. “By the end of the campaign, Donald Trump had a lot of enemies in the press corps besides me. So if he’s working his way through an enemies list to seek revenge, I’ll probably be on that list, but it might not be at the top.
“I used to joke with people early in the campaign that if Donald Trump became president I’d have a decision to make: I could seek some foreign assignment for four years, maybe cover China; either that, or I could cover the White House. I’d want to be as far away as possible or get up as close as possible. It looks like I’ve opted for as close as possible.”