The FRONTLINE Interviews: Trump’s Road to the White House

Rep. Chris Collins

R-N.Y.

Chris Collins is a Republican congressman from western New York who in February 2016 became the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president. Collins, who was first elected to the House in 2012, began the presidential campaign supporting Jeb Bush, but when the former Florida governor dropped out of the race, he backed Trump, saying the nation needed "a chief executive, not a chief politician." Collins became a liaison for Trump to the GOP conference and of his most vocal campaign surrogates.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 7, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with the moment we begin our film with, the coming down the escalator. The media and the establishment sort of looked at Donald Trump and they laughed a bit. They didn't think that he was a serious candidate. Take us back to that moment now. When you looked at it, you at that point were working with Jeb Bush. Was he considered to be a serious candidate?

... I would use the word interesting. To see him there, I don't think anyone quite knew what to expect. I had known Donald Trump from three, four years earlier when he at least looked at running for governor of New York. And so, you know, I would say [he was] somebody well known in the public eye, but at that point in time, not many Americans, myself included, thought that he would be the one out of 17 that would end up with the nomination. ...

The establishment of the GOP was sliced to ribbons, one by one. As you're watching those primaries go by, are you surprised? His message is resonating with the public out there in a pretty surprising way. What's the feeling within the Jeb Bush campaign?

Well, at that point, those of us in the Jeb Bush campaign were frankly not focused on Donald Trump. We were focused on Jeb Bush. We were worried about Ted Cruz. We were looking at Governor [John] Kasich. I would say really not at all focused on Donald Trump. Certainly in some of the debates, Donald Trump had the ability to just grab the microphone, just trample over people. That was entertaining. It was different ... Give Donald Trump credit. He was dominating these debates. And then coming up with the nicknames, "Low Energy Jeb." And it stuck.

So it was frustration that I was feeling, and many others that were very early on Jeb Bush supporters, just because we saw him fading away. And there was nothing we could do. It was totally helpless. ...

Even the very first debate, were you surprised at Donald Trump and the way he presented himself? Everything about that debate was kind of fascinating, even to the point in the spin room after the debate, he's the one that shows up to spin. And all the press kind of goes to him immediately.

... He was as unconventional as any of us have ever seen. And breaking, frankly, all the rules that a traditional campaign manager or strategist would give someone.

... He was entertaining, but no one thought he could win. So Ted Cruz was focused on Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush was focused on Marco Rubio. Chris Christie was, you know, focused on him. Ben Carson was having trouble even getting someone to ask him a question. And there was Donald Trump, entertaining America.

A lot of people talked about the fact that the Republican Party, the establishment did this to themselves, that there was anger out there in the communities, anger against Obama, but also at the Republican Party. What's your point of view about this amazing election that we just went through? Where did Donald Trump come from and how did the GOP come to the point where a Donald Trump could rise to the top?

When we look at where Donald Trump may have come from, I don't think it was the Republican Party that created the opportunity for Donald Trump. It was actually the failure of government over the last 20 years. Republicans, Democrats, but big government, massive deficits, you know, now $20 trillion of debt. Jobs disappearing to China, to Mexico. Certainly the Rust Belt. Where I live, in Western New York, being devastated by closed factories.

So around the United States, certainly outside of the urban centers, there was this feeling, "My kids are not going to have as bright a future as I have. Where did the American dream go?" ... And I think, again, that's where Donald Trump tapped into the frustration of America ... much of it to do with Barack Obama -- losing our way on the national stage, the debt's piling up, unpopular wars and trying to topple regimes across the Middle East that weren't ready for democracy. And Donald Trump just seized that moment with very easy to understand phrases. And he never wavered – "Make America Great Again" -- Never wavered from that. And that was an honest message.

Why do you take that step off the cliff in the early days and become the first congressional supporter of Donald Trump's nomination?

... I was very early supporting Governor Bush ... and when he withdrew after the South Carolina primary, I looked at who was standing. And in my opinion, of the people still standing and looking at the numbers, call it the polling, I saw Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz with legitimate chances of being our nominee. Two of the three are legislators, with no executive experience at all. And I look at Barack Obama, a legislator with no executive experience. And I have seen the country flailing, you know, for seven years because of that. Donald Trump, chief executive his whole life. The guy in charge. With a message, Make America Great Again." With a stance on trade that I had been talking for 12 years, coming from the devastated Western New York Rust Belt.

So his background as a CEO, his message of making America great again, his stance on trade was, in my case, a very easy -- took me half a second to say I'm going to now support Donald Trump to be the next president ... And it was an interesting phone call, because I wasn't sure he wanted my endorsement. I wasn't sure Donald Trump wanted any endorsements. So we said, you know, we're not going to do something that would be counter to his campaign's message of being the outsider. I mean, I'm an outsider as well, but I'm still a member of Congress. So we called the campaign and said Collins is going to endorse Mr. Trump this morning. If you want, we'll just do a press release, not take any phone calls, we won't do any interviews. We'll just let it go at that.

... And he left me a voice message. And the voice message thanked me for endorsing him, and encouraging me at that point to see what I could do, do as much press as I could do. ...

I don’t think it was the Republican Party that created the opportunity for Donald Trump. It was actually the failure of government over the last 20 years.”

... When [Steve] Bannon comes on and Kellyanne Conway comes on, replacing [Paul] Manafort, there seemed to be a turn in the campaign. Why were Bannon and Kellyanne such a good fit? Was the campaign evolving? What did you see at that point?

Well, I mean, that was, that was beyond interesting ... Certainly the campaign was bumping along. And doing well in some parts, and maybe not so well in other parts.

So I was actually in Trump Tower at a meeting with General [Michael] Flynn and Rudy Giuliani and some others ... As it turns out, it was Kellyanne's first day, Steve Bannon's first day, and Paul Manafort's last day. But Paul Manafort is the one I knew the most. So I just didn't quite understand who these other two people were at the end of the table.

... But there was a magical moment in that meeting when I knew there was a chemistry. And it was a discussion on what was going on in Syria, what was going on with ISIS. And the discussion was, should Donald Trump make any statement along the lines of, "We're going to declare war on ISIS." That's a strong statement. And there were some other folks, generals and former attorneys general arguing a nuance there. The nuance was, you don't declare war on a person, you declare war on a state. And somebody said, "Well, they are a state. They've taken land. ISIS now controls land."

And so, there was this discussion of, that's such a harsh word. You know, people are saying, "Oh, Mr. Trump's going to take us to war." So what happens with the word war?

... And this was the magical moment. He turned and he looked at Kellyanne, who I didn't know, first time I'd ever met her. And he pointed a finger at her. And he said, "Kellyanne, how will this play? How will the women of America respond if I use that language?" And Kellyanne instantly: "Mr. Trump, I think somewhere around 72.6 percent of American women will actually want you to use that kind of language. You will not lose support. That's exactly what the soccer moms of this country want to hear." And you could just see, Mr. Trump said, "That's where we're going to go."

He looked to Kellyanne for advice, especially on the women's issue. She was prepared, statistically nailing it. And I could just see a chemistry ... It was just a remarkable march forward from that day on.

And Bannon, renown for being the ideas guy, the chemistry there?

Well, at that meeting I don't think Steve Bannon said anything ... Obviously he and Mr. Trump had a long, long history. He was listening, watching the dynamics.

... The first debate didn't go so well for Trump. Were there worries within the campaign? What was the thinking around the time of the first debate?

You're speaking about the debate with Hillary Clinton.

With Hillary.

So in that first debate, you know, Mrs. Clinton is a very skilled debater. She'd done this her whole life ... Hillary Clinton was very artful in getting under Mr. Trump's skin and bringing up the issues that were like putting, you know, gasoline on a fire. And you know, to use the word, to some extent, she controlled that dynamic and she took Mr. Trump off message. He did not pivot to "Make America Great Again." He tended to answer her questions, and she would drag that out. And many of us watching the debate just felt there were some missed opportunities.

And it turns out it did not go well. But then again, it was Hillary Clinton. And you know, she doesn't exactly warm people's hearts. And we were then confident debate two and debate three would go differently, that having a bump in the road, better to be the first debate than the last debate. ...

There's a bad stretch in October where there's the release of the tax returns. There's the Access Hollywood videotape that comes out. Were you having conversations with the campaigns during those events? How did you look at that period of time? What was the feeling?

Well, you know, perhaps I need to set a little different stage here. Certainly I had a few meetings with Mr. Trump, but from February 24 right through November 8, as kind of a chief Washington, D.C., surrogate doing hundreds of TV shows and all the cable networks, these were not coordinated with the campaign.

So when the Access Hollywood tape comes out, what are you thinking? You know the potential for problem here.

... It was a different, extraordinarily difficult tape to listen to. And Mr. Trump says this is locker room talk. And we all do know. I mean, men and women alike, you know, you get a bunch of women together, get a bunch of guys together on the golf course, we all joke about certain things, whether we should or not.

... And I have to say, that morning, I just wasn't sure how it was going to play in America. I did my best to spin it back, you know, to Bill Clinton's actions. I said, "These are Donald Trump's words, but let's remember Bill Clinton's actions. And let's remember Hillary's really a phony feminist. She really went after and destroyed the lives of the very women Bill Clinton preyed upon."

So in one case we have words, in the other case we have actions. So I think we need to keep that in perspective and just look at the future, making America great again for all Americans, putting America first, having a bright future for our children and grandchildren. I just said there's words and there's actions, and we had something to point to with the Clintons that were true actions.

... But you've got [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wisc.) pulling away and there was still angst within the establishment GOP. So it was, if you look back at the movement of the campaign, it was a pretty rough patch.

Well, the Access Hollywood tape, the words, those were a moment where -- call them either the lukewarm supporters of Mr. Trump or the Johnny-come-latelys, folks like a Mr. Ryan, Speaker Ryan, who said, "I'm supporting him" -- at that point, they turned on him. You know, called out what he said. You know, "This was disgusting, I'm no longer," as Mr. Ryan said, "I'm no longer going to campaign with him. I'm probably going to vote for him, but I'm done campaigning." You had folks like Kelly Ayotte and Joe Heck in Nevada un-endorse him. You had other members, "I'm taking back my endorsement." Members saying he should withdraw from the race, Mike Pence should be our candidate.

There was no worse time than the morning after those tapes were released, because at that point there were very few of us that thought he could still win. I know there was a lot of concern in the campaign. There's not a lot of time to go here. On top of some other things that had been twisted and misstated and exaggerated, now we have this, and it's in his voice.

So a lot of folks that deserted were comfortable in doing it, because they said, "He can't win. So now that I know he can't win, I'm just going to pile on." And then there were about 10 or 12 of us left still defending Mr. Trump at every turn and on TV stations. I was one of the few that would even go on TV at that point.

It was a dark day. And at some point you just say, "I'm going to do my best to see where we can take it. It doesn't look good, but then again, we're running against Hillary Clinton. We've always got to remember we're running against Hillary Clinton."

For all of us, it was an ‘oh my god’ moment. It was euphoria that we had won the election that no one thought we could win.”

... Why did Donald Trump win?

Donald Trump won because America is in a very, very difficult place today on the world stage and economically. There's just fear amongst Americans -- what's the future for my children and grandchildren? What's my own future? You know, half of Americans, they've said, don't have enough money to fix a flat tire. So any thought that our country is doing well and people are feeling optimistic about their own future and their children's, it's, there's a bit of fear moving into this election.

... So this was an outside change agent with a strong message of making America great again for all Americans. That was the honest message. And that's why certainly most of America, when you look at the map, outside the urban centers, overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump, because they've put their faith and trust [in him].

How does he bring though that other half of America over, the blue states. You come from a blue state. There's a lot of fear out there. There's minority point of view that felt that Trump had played up on the fears to help get elected, that he wasn't a guy that was interested in listening to their voice, minorities, Hispanic, a lot of the blue side of America. What's your overview?

Well, certainly our nation is divided, you know, 50/50, if you will -- the urban centers, very much in the Democratic camp; rural America, the Rust Belt, clearly in the Donald Trump camp. To me, what's going to have to happen, and what will happen, are actions and results are all that matter. So we have four years for Mr. Trump to deliver on his message of making America great again, bringing manufacturing jobs back ... Make sure that we do secure our borders, that we don't have drugs and illegal immigrants coming across the border. It's actions ... Healthcare, make it more affordable. And on jobs, that we make sure other countries are held accountable.

... This is what Mr. Trump, President Trump will do. He will deliver on his promises. Those things will make for a better and safer life in the urban centers, which did not support him at all. And I think anyone who thinks it through, one year, two years, three years down the road will say, "My life is better because of President Trump." He has delivered on his promises, which most politicians don't. And that's why, you know, we're going to see a Reagan-esque kind of victory when he runs again in 2020, because certainly all his supporters are going to be with him, but all the naysayers are going to say, "We just had a great four years. You know, we're not at war, we've certainly got ISIS on the run. The drugs aren't pouring over the borders anymore. It's actions that will unite our country."

As you said, he's an independent voice in a lot of ways. He sort of defined that all the way through as being anti-establishment, anti-any establishment, GOP or Democratic. What will this new Republican Party be after a Donald Trump presidency?

Donald Trump, certainly as the president, is the leader now of the Republican Party. The good news there is, he is a change agent that is calling out very directly the failures of government in people's lives. The bureaucracy. The red tape. The angst that the public has felt.

And so, it's his vision that will be implemented. It's Congress's role to help Donald J. Trump, the president, make his vision a reality: make America great again for all Americans. So our legislation will be consistent with what we've always said -- less regulations, Article One of the Constitution, understanding the role of Congress and not executive orders. President Trump will understand that as well. ...

Mr. Trump called you the day after the election. Can you give us a little bit of insight into that?

So 3:00 a.m. on election night, it's obvious now that Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States. You know, we're switching stations, looking at CNN and the disbelief on MSNBC, and finally we understand that Hillary Clinton has called Donald J. Trump to say that she's conceding. I'm not sure she congratulated him, but she conceded, but wouldn't do so on television.

But for all of us, it was an "oh my god" moment. It was euphoria that we had won the election that no one thought we could win. And so, about 3:00 a.m., you know, most of us are going home. It was a very long night. And it was about noon the next day, six, eight hours later, that I got a call that President-elect Trump would like to talk to me.

So when you see a blocked phone call come in, you know, that's who it's likely to be. And a few minutes later, the phone rings. And it is Donald Trump. And I know it's going to be him. So I just answered the phone and said, Mr. President-elect, how good does that sound? ...

And so, we carried on a conversation. He had me on the speaker phone. Ivanka was there as well. And we really chatted about the election. You know, about, "did you think we were really going to get it done?" I said, "Yes, sir, I always thought we would get it done. Had concerns here and there." He says, "We did it." He said, "And I need to just thank you for what you did as a voice on television. You defended me in some very, very difficult times. You know, I watched. You had my back. I'll never forget that."

... So it's just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, you know, reaching out, thanking me for my support, chatting about the election ... So I was honored to have taken his call and had a chance to discuss that with him. It tells you a lot about what he thinks on a loyalty factor for someone like myself that had his back, you know, unequivocally from February 4 right through November 8. ...

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