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‘Covering Trump’s White House is like being tossed inside a washing machine’

A year ago, Washington bureau chief David Smith watched Trump win. Here he shares the unique challenges of covering the strangest president in US history

Its 2am on Wednesday 9 November 2016, and Im pretending to be a Donald Trump supporter. I have been standing on the same spot in a hotel ballroom for six hours, slowly boiling in a winter coat, and have a splitting headache maybe a metaphor for something. When security guards arent watching, I take out a notebook and interview supporters at Trumps election watch party in New York about their journey from surrender to surprise to cant-believe-this-is-happening ecstasy.

By 3am, its over. I head out to the hotel bar and gulp down some water and much-needed aspirin. Ive talked to the voters, seen the results and heard the mans victory speech from up close, but its only when I see the chyron on a TV screen that it becomes real: Donald Trump elected president. The words will haunt me for the next year.

As the Guardians Washington bureau chief Ive banned myself from using words such as surreal or unprecedented to describe Trump he drained them of meaning long ago. The 45th president is exhausting, physically and morally. Covering his White House is like being tossed around inside a washing machine, from pre-dawn tweet storms to late-night revelations of alleged collusion with Russia. Im short of sleep and high on coffee. There are a dozen stories to choose from every day, and events that would have dominated the Barack Obama presidency for a year now flare for just hours before burning out. On to the next outrage.

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One year on: reporting Trump’s election night win video

There is also the degradation of political and civic culture. Just when you think Trump has hit rock bottom, a week later you realise youre gazing up at that place wistfully from an even murkier depth. There was his drawing of moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. There was his attack on the African American widow of a soldier killed in Niger. Race always seems to be at the heart of it. Dwell on it too long and it can be soul-destroying.

Its totally toxic, journalist Sally Quinn said of Washington in an interview on PBS television last month. Its like youre breathing in carbon monoxide and its killing you but you cant see it or smell it. Its the most poisonous atmosphere I have ever known in my life. Sometimes, one yearns to come up for air.

And yet, as I recall from reporting in hotspots in Africa, there is a paradox. Utopia is a pretty boring place; dystopia is what journalists thrive on. In the American capital there is a sense of being at the centre of things, of witnessing history firsthand these events will be studied for decades to come. Im having the time of my life right now, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta told the Washington Post in July. This is the biggest story of my life. Im like a kid in a candy store.

Its a story where the journalists are protagonists, inescapably part of the narrative. Trumps politics of division thrive off creating enemies that he can go to war with as a means of uniting his coalition: they know what theyre against. The media rivals Hillary Clinton as enemy No 1. I was in an unusual position near the front of the White House briefing room (normally Im on the back row) when the then press secretary, Sean Spicer, stormed in for his debut briefing, lambasting the media as he bellowed: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration period.

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David Smith in the West Wing of the White House. Photograph: Courtesy David Smith for the Guardian

(In the ultimate symbol of our reality TV meets politics meets reality TV age, Spicer later parodied his own lie at the Emmy awards.)

The ensuing months would bring relentless media bashing, notably at Trump rallies (hes already campaigning for 2020). Here again the reality is difficult to separate from sport or pantomime. When the president railed against damned dishonest reporters in a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, his supporters turned and booed and jeered us. Some appeared to be sincere, but others, maybe a majority, were grinning, as if knowingly part of a performance.

His highest-profile targets are CNN and the New York Times. The Guardian is still some way down the hitlist. But Im told that Steve Bannon, when he was White House chief strategist, once remarked: Read the Guardian if you want to know what they are thinking. Its fair to assume that, by they, he was referring to the liberal global elites he despises.

With one foot in and one foot out, the Guardian is well placed to maintain a critical distance; Americans say they value our outsider perspective. It is incumbent on us not to normalise the abnormal, diminish the emergency or be distracted by his words while neglecting the consequences of his actions. Trump has also raised unexpected journalistic issues. Should we call him a liar? A lie implies conscious intent, so we tend to go with falsely claimed more frequently. But the presidents assertions that millions of people voted illegally, or that Barack Obama wiretapped him, test the boundaries to breaking point.

At a recent Guardian Facebook Live event, a reader asked how we stay motivated to maintain integrity when more and more people deny the value of truth and reliable reporting of facts. The answer is there is no greater motivation. Lets park postmodernism for now and get back to objective reality. Kellyanne Conways infamous assertion of alternative facts is galvanising for the media: a call to arms, a renewed sense of purpose. If we didnt know why were were journalists before, we do now. Speaking truth to power has taken on a whole new meaning.

Reporting on the strangest president in American history is to witness the awesome, awful spectacle of a 240-year-old democracy and its institutions creaking and bending under a freak storm. A popular Facebook Live question was: will Trump be impeached? How much more of this is there? I have no idea, and that is both compelling and scary.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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