The Oral History of CNN's US Election Week

Kate Storey
·24 min read
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

From Esquire

Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.

As Election Night 2020 bled into Election Week, the talking heads on CNN became something like members of our families. We memorised the shades of John King’s magic map; Wolf Blitzer’s calming voice put us to sleep. And, somehow, when we woke up the next morning, as Tuesday turned to Wednesday which morphed into Thursday and then Friday, those same anchors remained on television. We wondered, when were these people sleeping?

The answer, it turns out, was: barely at all. I spoke to more than a dozen CNN anchors, reporters and producers about how they pulled off the longest and most dramatic Election Week in recent memory, which wound up being the cable news network’s most watched week of all time. Here's how it all went down.

Tuesday, November 3: Election Day

David Chalian, political director: At 3 o'clock, we had an editorial team meeting with everyone that was going to be on air that night to make sure that we understood the various storylines that could emerge, and how we were prepared to deal with each of them. When exit polls became available at 5 p.m., five of us had a very quick 10-minute huddle to wrap our brains around what the exit polls were saying. And then we were off to the races.

Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief: Over the course of any given 24 to 48 hour period, we were rotating election coverage through 12 different CNN control rooms. As we moved from team to team, we needed to take a control room down, clean it for COVID purposes and bring it back up for a different shift. We had equally sized staff across every shift of coverage. So we never went down in size.

Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

Abby Phillip, political correspondent: I'm the newbie, so I didn't know what to expect. At some point Tuesday afternoon, I was kind of like, "So, when are we supposed to be done again?" Then Jake [Tapper] and Dana [Bash] were like, ‘Don't even ask.’ They were like, ‘In 2016, we were here until like 5 a.m. Don't even think about sleep as a concept.'"

Dana Bash, chief political correspondent: It was a complete roller coaster and we prepared for that. We took our Dramamine and we knew that it was going to be wild.

John King, anchor and chief national correspondent: Joe Biden jumps out to these giant leads in Ohio and Texas, and it's like, "Whoa." So we had to be careful. The constant challenge was to say this is very real, we just don't know how complete it is yet. We know it's not complete, and we don't know where we're going and to try to convince people on both sides.

Bash: It's like watching a mural being painted and at the beginning it looks like one thing. And then you realise it's something completely different from what you thought it was at the beginning. And that’s not normally how election nights are.

Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

Wolf Blitzer, lead political anchor: When we saw the results coming in from Florida, I thought maybe Trump has a chance.

Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent: Tuesday night it kind of looks like it might be one of those circumstances again where President Trump might pull it off. And so I was hearing such a jubilation from sources who were like, "Holy shit. This actually is going to work in our favour."

Arlette Saenz, political correspondent covering Joe Biden's presidential campaign: I will say it was real quiet. It was very quiet from people on Tuesday night.

Van Jones, host and political commentator: Tuesday night was devastating. The polling had been suggesting that there would be just a wipe out of Trump. And the fact that it wasn't a wipe out was crushing.

They sent us home around 3 or 4 in the morning. We had drivers. And I remember walking through the lobby of my apartment building, and the security guys who I talked to the day before, who were very excited that Trump was going to get his comeuppance, looking at me for some sign of hope. And I had nothing left to give. I shrugged my shoulders and got in the elevator. I couldn't even talk to them.

Jake Tapper, anchor and chief Washington correspondent: I went home Wednesday thinking that there was a chance that Donald Trump was going to be reelected.

Wednesday, November 4: Two Pints of Coffee and No Call

Tapper: When I woke up and I looked at the numbers, I was like, oh, no, probably more like a 25% chance [Trump will win]; he probably won't.

Collins: Around 3 a.m., I started getting ready, drinking coffee, and I was back at the White House at 5 that morning. Of course, the headline then was the president is claiming he's won an election that nobody has won yet. I’m talking to sources who were like, "We have no idea why he came out and said that. He went off script saying that we actually won. That wasn't in the prepared remarks."

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN

Jessica Dean, Washington correspondent covering Joe Biden's presidential campaign: The [Biden] campaign was incredibly confident that when all the votes were counted, Joe Biden was going to be the winner. They were looking at the modeling. They were looking at their data, and across the board they were all incredibly confident this was going to happen, it was just a matter of time.

Phillip: Wednesday, everybody was like, "It's possible that we might have to call it." I was thinking to myself, that seems really unlikely. In my gut, I felt like the results weren't coming in fast enough that it would produce a call on Wednesday. I kind of felt like we were going to be there even longer.

Jones: After Tuesday night, then you just get dropped into this endless, timeless hell loop of being on air, trying to keep up what's going on, watching this epic performance of John King at the wall. Sometimes a wedge of pizza appears in front of your face or a Diet Coke. And then they say, "You got to take that away because you're going to be on air." And then you look up, but now it's another meal and four hours have gone by. You're trapped in this hell of unknowing. And over time my spirits began to rise as our numbers got better in other places, especially places like Georgia, and the slow kind of crawls up in Pennsylvania.

Tapper: The caffeine strategy was I needed coffee all the time, always. I was getting a new coffee every half hour.

Gloria Borger, chief political analyst: I drank a pint of coffee every morning and all during the day. Then I switched to Diet Cokes in the afternoon.

Blitzer: I was hoping somebody would go to Starbucks. We do have an excellent coffee machine that makes Starbucks black coffee, and you put some milk in it with one Splenda, and it may not be a Venti Skim Latte, but it's very good.

King: I know I look like I eat a lot, but I actually don't. In the morning, my tradition around election times, I'll have an egg and cheese bagel in the morning, because it fills me. So, I can go the rest of the day after that. They were buying these Kind energy bars—the peanut butter ones are great—and so I would just keep two of them behind the wall.

Tapper: There was some of the wild flailing by the Trump campaign [Wednesday], members of the Trump family—just their deranged claims about the election. One of the sons retweeting some bogus video of ballots being burned when there wasn't... I think it was ballot applications being burned… It's such a tell when a politician or campaign is acting desperate, and it just suggests that they knew what was going on and they just were in denial about it.

Collins: Wednesday night, a Trump person texted me and said, "I believe this is over." That was the first real indication from their world that they understood. They had had a pretty high high, and now is about to be a really low low.

Thursday, November 5: Will Trump Behave Like an Adult?

Phillip: It was starting to get more clear that Pennsylvania was going to be a tipping point, and that there were enough votes that Biden would almost certainly overtake Trump. If that happened, it didn't really matter what happened in all the other states, like in Georgia or Arizona, or even really Nevada.

Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

Jones: At that point, I didn't care if we beat him by one vote in one state. I mean, if George W. Bush could be president based on 500 or so votes in Florida, and we beat this guy by three votes in one state, I would've been ecstatic because by the time we finally crawled past them in Pennsylvania, people who are in the Democratic Party just wanted this thing to be over. They just wanted him to have to pack his bags and go, and we didn't care what the margin was at that point.

King: Thursday and Friday kind of became groundhog day. There were results coming in, but nothing to get us to the finish line.

Collins: I had these days where I would wear three different outfits on TV, because technically I would have been at work at 5 a.m. one day and then I went home at like 9 and then I came back at like 12 and then I came back at like 9 p.m. It was a mess. My closet was completely destroyed.

Blitzer: I trim my beard usually twice a week, either Sunday or Monday, and then either Wednesday or Thursday. It takes exactly two minutes. It's a beard trimmer. It's got a little safety thing on it, so you can't cut it too short. That's a piece of cake. Since the pandemic started in March, I've been doing my own makeup and that takes me another minute or two because first of all, half of my face is a beard, so there's limited real estate that I got to worry about. On the other half, I put some powder on. I make sure my forehead is not shiny and then I comb my hair and put a little hairspray on it and that's about it. I could look in the mirror and touch up my forehead with a little powder during a commercial break very easily.

Bash: When the president came out and was like, “I won and this is going to be stolen” ... As much as I have become accustomed to hearing that kind of talk from President Trump over the past four, even five years, it felt different when it was truly the basic tenet of democracy that’s at stake, which is the free and fair vote. And the fact that he was at the White House as the president of the United States, lying, was jarring. It was really jarring. It was really jarring. We called it out like we normally call things out, but it just felt different.

Photo credit: Getty / Scott Olson
Photo credit: Getty / Scott Olson

Tapper: The question was always, is President Trump going to do the right thing and behave like a normal functioning adult who has the best interests of the United States at hand or is he not? And you're not going to lose money if you bet on not, at this point in 2020. So we were prepared. And then there was that long delay before he actually came out, and that always means that some of the cooler heads are trying to talk him out of something, that some of the few rational guardrail type people in the administration are there saying, "Please don't do this," or, "This isn't the right thing to do." And then you saw his family coming out, Don Jr. and Eric, with their smiles on their faces, which meant that the wrong side won the debate...

[Whether to cut Trump off or not] is not a call that I make, that's a call that Jeff [Zucker, CNN president] would make… At the time I wasn't paying attention to what ABC or CBS or anyone else did, but I understand the inclination [to stop airing his speech]. But to me, this was history, it was the President of the United States, he was saying that. And, frankly, CNN has been out there calling out the president's lies, calling out the indecency, taking a stand in favor of basic democratic values—not a partisan stand... The fact that other networks were, all of a sudden, trying to enter this discussion and debate [by cutting off Trump’s speech] I thought was interesting... A lot of those news networks, I think, have really failed the American people when it comes to just standing up for basic American values. I thought it was cute that all of a sudden they were in on the game, but I didn't take it very seriously.

Santorum: I thought [Trump] brought up some legitimate things which were valid about how well he did and how he was able to overcome things, but to suggest as he did that the election was somehow fraudulent or rigged? That disturbed me. That a president would go out and suggest that—and I thought it was inappropriate … [Conservatives] were very upset I wasn’t standing up for the president and his right to fight this.

Bash: My son now thinks, certainly his father [John King] and me a little bit less, are a little bit cool. His father is all over TikTok; I'm a little bit on TikTok. That’s his arbiter of what’s cool.

King: Somebody forwarded me a couple of TikTok things, and I forwarded them to my son. I text him. I said, "See, your old man is kind of cool," and he just texted me back, "Kind of."

Tapper: At this point, I hadn't seen my family all week. I have an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl and a wife. I'd been arriving home after they were in bed, and then getting up early to go back into work. So I was trying to keep in touch with them on FaceTime. And my daughter, Alice, was for the first time, I think impressed because, apparently, the TikTok crew was watching a lot of CNN that week. So she was impressed that people on TikTok knew me, which was nice.

King: The American people should know that I bathe every day. I promise. I took a shower every day and changed my suit every day. I keep a couple of extra shirts in my office. The studio's cold. It's not like you're going to sweat, but every now and then you might spill some coffee on yourself. But that's the way it is, and you prepare for that.

Collins: I remember I came home at probably midnight Thursday and basically our decision had been once Biden gets within about 5,000 votes of Trump's margin in Pennsylvania, we were going to head back into the office. So that could have been at 3 a.m. It could have been at 5 a.m. We really weren't sure. So I came home and I showered before bed and did my hair before going to sleep and slept like perfectly positioned so then if I needed to wake up in a moment's notice I could just go straight to the White House. And it was that level of, we have no idea what's going to happen.

Dean: I would wake up in a panic, like every hour on the hour. Did I miss it? Do I need to be awake? Did something happen? I would have nightmares that I couldn't make it to the live shot location on time or I can't find my mask.

Blitzer: I have a couch in my office and I tried to take a little nap and I actually fell asleep for about 45 minutes.

Friday, November 6: Memes and Naps

King: Friday was: Biden is on this trajectory toward victory. We're not certain yet, but let's keep playing out these pieces… You're counting votes, and a couple of things settle a little bit, but you can't call Pennsylvania yet. You're still looking at Nevada and Arizona, and the count's going really slow out in the West. Georgia is interesting, but it's quote unquote "good" for Biden that a Democrat is competitive in that state because it's been so long, but you weren't there yet.

Saenz: Friday, at one point, I was walking from my hotel and I ran into two [Biden] staffers, and one was getting ready to go on a run because she wanted to be around if it was called later in the afternoon. The other one was carrying a little cooler with some Prosecco in it for what they had hoped would be a celebration later in the day.

Phillip: Honestly, the way that you get through these long hours is, when you are not on, you find amusement elsewhere. We were on Twitter and looking at all the memes, just trying to find levity in an otherwise gruelling, gruelling schedule. At one point, Jake was playing music on his phone, and we were dancing.

Tapper: I am a very proud Philadelphian. So I put on Motownphilly at one point.

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

Phillip: Around Friday, my mom calls me while I'm on the set, and she's like, "Abby, I just got a call from a reporter in Trinidad. They just found out that you're Trinidadian, and they want to talk to me." At first, I thought something was wrong. I was like, "What?" She's breathless, like she'd just run up a flight of stairs. She was just so excited. I was like, "Mom, I'm on set right now." I was like, "That's great. I can't deal with that right now."

I mean, obviously I'm on TV every day, but I think for my mom, having people back home, from where she's from, talking about her daughter was like the most exciting thing to happen to her. So she was really worked up about that, and I haven't heard the end of it since. There are a lot of WeChat conversations between my mom and her family back home.

Bash: There was a break where we knew we weren't going to call the race for a few hours. And I have a couch, it’s like a love seat. And I’m little, I’m like 5'2". And my producer is 5'10". And I was like, hey, we're going to do this. We're going to sleep. So I took the cushions out. I was like, I go that way, feet that way; you go that way, feet that way. And we did it because we were so tired; we cuddled up on the couch and slept hard for an hour and a half. She was like "I can’t believe we’re doing this" and I was like, "we’re beyond 'can’t believe'".

Collins: I was standing at the camera ready to do a hit focused on the latest with the president and his legal team and then it broke the chief of staff [Mark Meadows] had contracted COVID. The White House had just basically acted like coronavirus wasn't happening last week. They had said the media was going to stop covering it after the election.

Phillip: That Friday, I think we left around midnight on Thursday night. Then we were kind of told, "Keep your phone on, because we may need to call this race today, depending on how quickly the results come in." So we all went home.

Blitzer: When you're working on a story like this, your adrenaline is pumping. I really did not feel exhausted or tired or anything. I felt actually pretty good. It reminded me of the first Gulf War in 1991, January when I was a Pentagon correspondent. All of a sudden, the US launched the air strikes on Baghdad to liberate Kuwait. I was non-stop reporting from the Pentagon for days. Obviously, that was 30 years ago, so I was a little younger. But it reminded me of that to a certain degree.

Everybody wants to know, “How do you do it?” I just do it.

King: I love a big story, and I'm an adrenaline freak. I love elections. It's what I've done all my life in journalism, and so of course you like, "Can I stay a little longer? What if this is going to happen?" You want to be there for the big moment.

Saturday, November 6: "We Can't Do This Anymore"

King: We did know when we came in Saturday morning that if Biden continued on this trajectory, he was getting close to satisfying all the metrics.

Blitzer: We were waiting to see what was happening in Pennsylvania and Biden was building up his lead. Originally, we were thinking maybe when he goes ahead by 20,000 votes, that would be a good time to project. Then we waited. Once he got to a 30,000 lead, we knew that most of the remaining votes were mail-in ballots, where Biden was doing so much better with mail-in voting than Trump was. We decided that it was time.

Phillip: Saturday, I was like, "It has to be today. We cannot do this anymore."

Saenz: I remember waking up and just thinking, I cannot do this election Groundhog Day again.

Chalian: If you go back and look at our footage you can hear John King say on air to Kate Bolduan who was reporting Philadelphia, “John, Wolf stepped away for a moment.” Literally, in that moment, we were preparing to make the projection.

Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

King: The control room producer said to me, “Keep going.” That's when I kind of got a clue, because I was like, "Why did you want me to keep going?" He needed me to keep going so Wolf could get over to setup position to do the projection. Then he said, "Wolf."

Blitzer: The producers tell me to walk over to my other location, get ready to make a projection. Of course, I walked over. I do a lot of walking. I do a lot of steps in the election coverage, walking over to John, walking over to David Chalian, walking over to Pamela Brown. The key is when you walk, you don't walk too fast. You don't want to lose your breath. You want to be calm. Just walk casually...

We pause for the animation and then I make the projection.

Tapper: I don't think I was emotional. I did cough at one point, which I think was misinterpreted as emotion, because I'd been talking for a week.

Bash: The moment we started talking about the first woman to be vice president of the United States and to be able to do it with another woman, with Abby, I will never forget it. It was of those, Wow. We are the first draft of major history right now [moments]. And it was cool.

Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

Collins: That day was seeing the race be called while the president is golfing. And we were kind of wondering, what is his reaction going to be? When he left the White House there were not these massive crowds cheering his loss outside of his home and he's coming back and here they are. He had to drive through the crowds in his motorcade to get back to the White House. So it was kind of this remarkable moment to see that.

Jones: After Wolf called it, all my text messages started blowing up. Especially my Muslim friends and especially my friends who have ties to immigrant communities. And their just palpable relief and joy really hit me hard; it cracked open in me my own sense of relief, which you really kind of have to dissociate from.

I had dissociated. I mean, I could say the words, "Oh, Muslims are being discriminated against," but I had long ago stopped feeling it. Long ago. It wasn't healthy for me to go around feeling those babies being snatched from their mothers. So I had dissociated from all that stuff emotionally just to be able to do my job. And then suddenly all those people are reaching out to me. And it dropped me back into my body, and I realised I hadn't been in my body, my feelings, for years.

And so I asked for tissue. And then about the time I got a tissue in my hand, they were done with Jake's thing, and they came to me, and they came to Anderson [Cooper]. And I think Anderson asked, "How are you doing, Van?" Almost as my friend like, "You okay?" And we're sitting there exhausted. I mean, nobody's had any sleep.

It came out the way that it came out, but it wasn't like I was sitting there with some speech in mind. We didn't know it was coming. But honestly, had I not had that WhatsApp group and I had not had my phone face up, looking at all these text messages coming through, I probably would've been able to get through it without so much of the emotion coming up.

I mean, look, it's just one of those moments. If they'd given me five more minutes to get myself together, it wouldn't have been as raw, my kids wouldn't have been as embarrassed, but maybe it wouldn't have been as impactful. … I think I surprised myself as much as anybody else with what I said and the emotions behind it. I didn't realise how much I was sitting on, and I think probably a lot of people around the world felt the same way.

King: Biden spoke, and they cleared me because they knew we weren't going to do much after that. But I have a Sunday show at 8 in the morning. So I went down to my office in the building and wrote for a couple hours. Then I went home and sat at my kitchen table and had a glass of wine and wrote for another hour, 90 minutes. Then, as I found myself falling asleep sitting up, I said, "You know, maybe you should get some sleep."

Blitzer: I was the most tired when I got home, when the whole thing was over with, and I could finally get a good night's sleep. I said, "Oh my God, I'm really tired."

Tapper: I had a Sunday morning show to do. It wasn't like, "Oh, Saturday night, it's over," it was like, "I have to make it to Sunday at 11." And because of the pandemic, and because of being short-staffed because of just everything, of everybody working, I was unable to get any coffee on Sunday. And because I didn't have commercials, I couldn't run to the kitchen and get coffee.

So I was there doing these interviews and my energy was just depleted. It was like driving on an empty tank of gas, and just hoping that you make it to the end, to the gas station before your car just dies. Anyway, I did, I made it through, and asked why I couldn't get coffee, even though I'd been asking for coffee. But that's another story. And then, and this hasn't happened to me in decades, but literally on the drive home, I would close my eyes and wake up, and I was driving. Like a split second, but you're like, "Oh, my God." That happened three blocks from my house, so I was like, "Okay, I can make it for the next three blocks." But, yeah, it was rough. In this metaphor, my car was about to die.

Bash: I got home Saturday and my son had a big bouquet of flowers and he was like, “Mommy, you were amazing.” I just forgot about everything else.

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