Aboard Donald Trump’s $100 million 757 private jet with its gold-plated seatbelts, BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins flattered his host.
“When I was in high school, my business teacher used have us do a weekly assignment dealing with what happened on The Apprentice,” Coppins gushed to Trump.
“Oh. That’s interesting,” Trump responded.
It was an unlikely pairing. Trump, the real estate magnate, television star and conservative provocateur looked at Coppins as a nervous geek excited to finally meet an icon. Three weeks later, the same awkward, wire-rimmed Coppins had filed one of the most venomous hit pieces in recent memory, savaging Trump as a perennial fake candidate, a con artist expertly exploiting speculation about whether he might run for office.
The saga began on Sunday, January 5, when Coppins pitched Sam Nunberg, a top political aide to Trump on an interview. He was perfect, Coppins told Nunberg, saying his piece would fit alongside all his big features on the 2016 heavyweights.
“I’ve already done big profiles of all the major 2016 GOP players, including substantial sit-down interviews with Rand Paul and Scott Walker, and features on Ryan, Rubio, Cruz, etc,” Coppins told Nunberg, adding that choosing BuzzFeed for the profile would “show that he’s ahead of the curve and understands the new media landscape.”
A few white lies to score an interview is one thing. But an infuriated Trump and his team contend that basically everything in Coppins’ article is wrong – and that Coppins was a boor at Trump’s Florida resort to boot.
“I don’t know how to say it–he was looking at me like I was yummy,” recalled Bianka Pop, a hostess at Trump’s Florida resort, almost a month later. She was one of a number of people, including Trump, who said Coppins behaved unprofessionally there.
Trump himself said Coppins is a “scumbag,” recalling that at his Florida resort, Coppins said he wished his wife looked like two beautiful women who had just walked by.
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, said the accounts of Trump and his associates are not true.
“This laughable and grotesque list of fabrications confirms McKay’s reporting about Donald Trump’s delusions and the venal ‘yes-men’ who enable him,” Smith said.
Coppins himself did not respond to several requests for comment from Breitbart News, the first of which was sent early Monday. Reached by phone late Monday, Coppins said he said he thinks “the story speaks for itself and I have voiced some thoughts on Twitter.” Coppins said he was at a family-related event, could not answer specific questions, and abruptly hung up the phone.
Coppins’ piece begins with a comment Trump made upon getting into a motorcade with Nunberg, other Trump aides like Michael Cohen and Coppins in Manchester, New Hampshire. “They didn’t ask one question about running for governor,” Trump is quoted as saying. “They didn’t care.”
Yes, Trump told Breitbart News, he said that. But Coppins took it wildly out of context. “They were more interested in me perhaps running for president of the United States–where I could represent them–than for governor of a different state,” Trump said.
Perhaps more glaring are Coppins’ sins of omission as it relates to the events in New Hampshire, where Coppins accompanied Trump to the Politics & Eggs Forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
In his piece, Coppins said Trump told attendees it was the largest crowd in the history of the event, making him look egotistical. But the information about past attendance came from Neil Levesque, the director the NH Institute of Politics who invited Trump to speak, who tweeted out the same information that day.
“He spent a lot of time with people one on one and they really liked meeting him,” Levesque said in an email to CNN, that was provided to Breitbart News. “I deal with many potential candidates (we have hosted the CNN NH debates) and I really thought he was grade A.”
Coppins also claimed he was the “only reporter from a national outlet who had ventured outside the Acela corridor to see the Donald in action.”
Notably, well-respected Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Memoli, who works much of the time from the U.S. Capitol, filed a piece about the speech datelined from Manchester, New Hampshire. Reuters’ Boston bureau chief interviewed Trump ahead of the speech and wrote about it, leading with discussion about whether he would run for president. The Associated Press was there. CNN, CBS, Politico and the Boston Globe all wrote it up.
Cohen said Coppins’ claim in the article fit with how he handled himself in New Hampshire, walking around “talking about how he was this ‘big reporter’ and so on, he mentioned that several times about him being this ‘big reporter.'”
On that ride to the airport, with Coppins in tow, Trump faced a decision. LaGuardia, his planned destination, was closed due to inclement weather. One option was to head straight to Florida, where he needed to be the next day, and spend the night at his resort Mar-a-Lago. After his staff checked his schedule, he made the call to go to Florida. That meant, however, that Trump would miss his anniversary that evening with his wife Melania.
“Trump doesn’t seem to mind missing it,” Coppins wrote, quoting Trump saying “it’s fine” to chuckles from his aides.
Coppins not only misconstrued what Trump had said about the anniversary, Trump aides contest, he made no effort over the course of the weeks following his jaunt before publishing the article to figure out that Donald and Melania Trump had already discussed how he would likely miss the anniversary event.
“In all fairness, it wasn’t even a fun type of comment–it’s not how it happened,” Trump aide Cohen said. “Melania is the one who told Mr. Trump [the day before] that ‘look, tomorrow, you’re not going to get out. You have like tons of people waiting for you for this speech that they paid him a fortune for.’ So she turned around and said to him: ‘What are you worried about? When you get back, we’ll celebrate.’ That’s because she’s a very strong woman and she’s a very secure woman. Only an insecure woman would say ‘but, you know, it’s our anniversary. You can’t do this.’ You know what? They celebrated the day he got back.”
Nunberg said he actually witnessed one side of such a conversation that happened via phone between Donald and Melania Trump the day before.
Coppins apparent relish in ignorantly mocking the real estate magnate’s marriage was a particular sore point in Trump-world. “The article goes after Melania,” Cohen said. “The article said he thought it was funny that he was going to be missing his anniversary.”
The next moment in his adventure with Coppins would come to haunt Trump. Having decided to divert the plane to Florida, he allowed Coppins to accompany him to the Sunshine State – and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort – as well.
Trump considered sending Coppins to New York with Cohen via train and conducting the interview by phone, but Nunberg intervened, saying he could be trusted.
“Previously, every time I’d dealt with McKay we had had a professional relationship,” Numberg now says, regretfully, adding that he’d worked on over ten separate pieces with the BuzzFeed scribe. “We’ve worked on pieces concerning the Romney campaign, and even concerning Mr. Trump,” Nunberg added. “He had always been professional and trustworthy. The pieces were always balanced.”
And so, Coppins boarded Trump’s extravagant jet.
Many reporters who get a shot at “The Donald” exude confidence, but on the plane, Coppins was quiet, reserved, and nervous, those present, including Trump, recall. He maintains an awkward, geeky persona, with a choppy bleach blonde haircut and medium-thick rimmed glasses protruding from his oversized forehead. Coppins slouched in his chair during his interview with Trump, seeming intimidated.
“He would answer the questions, but he wouldn’t speak out on his own–he would only talk within our conversations,” Nunberg said.
For a variety of reasons, Coppins might have felt out of place in an environment dripping with excess. A Mormon, Coppins has often written about his faith spoken to media reporters about covering the campaign from Las Vegas while not drinking or gambling. Nunberg said he had warned other aides to be sensitive about the topic and to avoid bringing up the subject of alcohol.
Trump tried to make small talk, asking him about his previous trips to Florida, his publication – a liberal blog that gets most of its traffic from viewers who came for the funny cat videos that are its parent site’s mainstay – and so on. But Coppins’ icy demeanor didn’t melt.
After arriving at the airport in Florida, and hopping into the next motorcade that would take them to Trump’s beachside resort Mar-a-Lago, Trump continued his charm offensive. “One of the signatures of Mr. Trump is that he loves to host people,” Nunberg said. “He’s outgoing, he’s gregarious. At heart, he is a kind and generous and hospitable guy.”
They arrived at the resort and Trump–like he does for everybody who arrives with him–offered Coppins the works. Clothes, room, food, drink–anything he wanted, it was on the house. “What he did is not out of the ordinary for anybody,” Nunberg said about Trump’s offers to Coppins.
On it’s face, that sounds like a generous gesture. But Coppins, in his piece, suggested ulterior motives, repeatedly bringing up his company’s ethics policy in an unusual an ostentatious way.
He also quoted Trump making disparaging remarks about women – “there are a lot of good-looking women here,” Trump said, according to Coppins – which came as something of a shock to the Trump aides and resort workers who had to deal with the reporter’s antics.
Pop, the resort hostess, recalled Coppins looking at her like she was “yummy” and said she didn’t care for his treatment one bit.
“This is my job. I’m here every day. And I don’t want to mix work with something else. And I think I’m doing a professional job,” she said.
Pop said Coppins, who is married and has a young daughter, gawked at her like he had wanted a “cup of me or something.”
“I remember him being a little bit nasty, and he was coming on toward me, but I put him off immediately,” she said. “I don’t remember the exact words, but the exchanges that he had with me were not very nice. You know, I was not feeling comfortable. I know he was also nasty to the waitresses here.”
Trump also recalled a startling comment from Coppins.
“There were two beautiful girls walking around Mar-a-Lago,” Trump told Breitbart News in a phone interview about the matter. “He said to me, ‘boy, I wish my wife looked like that’ while he was gawking at them. Unbelievable. What a scumbag.”
Nunberg, too, said Coppins ogled a waitress when the two ordered bison burgers at a resort restaurant in an untoward way.
“I was told that one of the staffers who was watching us being served by a female waitress was extremely upset to see that McKay was staring at the waitress when her back was towards us,” Nunberg said. “They didn’t like being looked up and down. I felt so about his behavior had to apologize for McKay,” he added.
Coppins’ hit piece on Trump has earned him accolades from other reporters, but it could hurt his ability to score future interviews, Trump insiders warn.
“I would tell them not to give access,” Nunberg, who was fired after the story was published, said when asked if he had a warning to the political world in response to this. “If you are a Republican, if you are a Democrat, if your are from the green party, an independent, the tree-hugger party, or any other party, you should never ever grant BuzzFeed access to anything in light of this piece. Anyone shouldn’t. And, if fact, I have friend who works at [an official Democratic Party campaign committee] who called me up and said ‘he [Coppins] looks like an idiot for what he did for this. This could burn his career.'”
“What Mr. Trump should have done is left his ass in Manchester where it belongs. He wasn’t responsible for McKay,” said Cohen.