CNN SOTU

Behind the Scenes of the State of the Union With CNN's Top Talent

For Kaitlan Collins, Dana Bash, Abby Phillip and the rest of the D.C. team, SOTU day is always like a marathon. A global crisis and ever-changing pandemic made this one intense day of work.

For most of us, noon marks the midpoint of the workday. But for CNN's on-air talent on Tuesday, it was nine hours before President Joe Biden's first State of the Union address and the beginning of a marathon for which they have prepared mentally, physically and, yes, even sartorially, to power through past midnight.

A long day at the office, sure, but even by noon it was one that the network's chief political analyst Gloria Borger called "history-making."

Despite the heightened global drama and the gravitas of their jobs, the women on CNN's DC team still have to wake up like they do any other day. There were dogs to walk, children to feed, and coffee to be downed. The journalists optimized their morning routines for endurance: balancing early workouts for energy with caffeine, healthy snacks, or intermittent fasting to avoid a crash. Anchor Pamela Brown and National Politics Reporter Eva McKend would be on air until at least 2 a.m.

Meanwhile, their colleagues worked potentially under fire in a war zone. According to the network, there are about 80 CNN personnel in Ukraine and the surrounding region. 

The State of the Union is always a long day at the network's Washington D.C. bureau. But the situation in Ukraine changed things. Because the president's original focus was on the domestic agenda, that's how CNN's star players prepared. This turn of events required different sources, different reading, and a different tone. 

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Credit: Eman Mohammed

"I try to conserve my energy. There's a whole parallel story that's going on that is not centered necessarily on Washington," Abby Phillip, the CNN Anchor and Senior Political Correspondent says. "Typically we would be on-air a lot of the day. I've been glued to the TV, like everybody else, to see what's unfolding and to make sure that I know what direction this is all heading in. It's changing minute by minute."

In DC, Tuesday also marked the day the indoor mask mandate for public buildings was lifted. In the bureau, security and cleaning crews kept masks on, while many staffers, including the talent we spoke with, opted to ditch theirs. Later, President Biden and most of his audience for the State of the Union would too. 

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Credit: Eman Mohammed

Catching up with Jessica Dean and Lauren Fox at The Capitol

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jessica Dean breezes through the underground tunnels from the Capitol to the Russell Senate Office Building. "I've walked through here at every hour on the clock, all 24, at one point or another in the last year and a half," she says.

She is dressed a little more formally than usual for the president's address — in a fitted Karen Millen black dress and her longtime "trusty old Manolos." Because she works long shifts on the Hill or literally runs after lawmakers for a comment, she's started dressing more for comfort, albeit reluctantly.

"I noticed my step count has gone up since I started this job," Dean, 37, says, a contrast to covering Biden's campaign and transition. As a result, she'll opt for block heels or flats to mitigate the impact of the concrete floors. "I've definitely leaned into my sneaker game when I can."

Instantly proving the same point, Lauren Fox runs — in thistle-colored Sam Edelman heels — after a Senator en route to the bathroom who can help round out her story.  

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Lauren Fox interviews Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi on the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace, which President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested. Biden has repeatedly ruled out the option, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Russia. | Credit: Eman Mohammed

Dean has shifted from focusing solely on domestic policy to catching up on Ukraine. 

"It's been so wild to watch this unfold and absolutely heartbreaking…" she switches gears as she spots West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin approaching, flanked by reporters. "No matter what the topic is, Joe Manchin is mobbed."

Closer to 1 p.m. we're at the balcony of the rotunda of the Capitol where the correspondents do their live shots.

"I feel really strong in the second trimester. First trimester was very tough," says Fox, who is 33 and pregnant with her first child, a fact I didn't know until she mentioned that she chose her black-and-white alice + olivia blazer dress because it still fits well at 20 weeks. The scene 10 minutes earlier, in which she chased after a Senator in heels, hits differently now.

Fox says the heels are comfortable enough that she owns them in several colors, but she has backup Uggs at her desk to keep cozy when she's not on-camera. She does a lot of early morning TV and says she really struggled with nausea in the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy. 

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Credit: Eman Mohammed

"What got me through it was so many people that I know who have done it and so many people at CNN who've done it. So many friends have kids up here," Fox says. "But when you're going through it, and you're here at 5 in the morning or 6 in the morning, it's tough."

It's not like she's had a very restful week leading up to the State of the Union marathon. She had gotten home at around 11 p.m. Monday after covering two back-to-back classified intelligence briefings for the House and Senate on the developing conflict.

While Tuesday is a momentous night, "there are a lot of really big nights that people will never see," she says. "You don't go into it cold, you're building those relationships and learning the subject matter way before."

Nonetheless, she woke up at 6:15 a.m., hit the Peloton for 30 minutes, stretched, and checked emails while having yogurt for breakfast. Her husband had thankfully made coffee.

"The backdrop of war and our colleagues that are overseas covering this conflict has added an intensity to this day that wouldn't have previously been there," she says.

At the White House with Kaitlan Collins

At around 4 p.m., CNN's chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is well caffeinated — she made a pot of coffee and ate avocado toast at home. In the morning she picked up her daily cup of Peet's. Now, she's got Starbucks in hand after a team pit stop late in the day.

"Normally we wouldn't do that. We'll leave work at 7 or 10 p.m. But we know we'll be here till 2 a.m. tonight," she says. 

She worked out, which she always does on a big day. Having recently recovered from Covid, she's been going back to Pilates classes or working out with the Mirror. "I tried to take it easy in the morning because it's gonna be such a long night."

That's about the extent to which she can plan her days. Last Wednesday, before Russia began its attack, she had tickets to a John Mayer concert, but something told her she shouldn't go.

"Thank God I didn't because I stayed here and everything happened," Collins, 29, said. "But you can't plan. You will have to cancel. And you will be here. You don't get to decide when the news breaks. News decides. You need to have really understanding friends if you're in journalism."

She does try to manage what she can, especially early in the day. "I always eat healthy in the morning because I feel like once I get here, all bets are off." (Salad for lunch, "a billion French fries" for dinner.)

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Credit: Eman Mohammed

Having an established work uniform helps keep things under control, as well. Collins is known for her signature pairing: a turtleneck (often black and Veronica Beard) and a blazer (Veronica Beard, ALC, or Zara). Today she's in a white ribbed 525 America one that the brand doesn't make anymore — she knows, she emailed the company to ask. She shoots outside the White House for hours on end most days, so her outfit formula is as easy to throw on as it is useful for keeping warm. DC's humid summers are a bit tougher to dress for.

"I love when it's below 55 degrees because my life is so much easier," she says. Tonight she's wearing a navy blazer and trousers and brown boots with a comfortable block heel. Later she'll put on a hot pink coat as the temperature drops. 

Collins is known for being unflappable (Trump infamously banned her from a press event, and Biden snapped at her when she asked why he met with Putin. The President later apologized, which she said was unnecessary). As recently as last week, she doggedly asked Biden about sanctions against Russia.

"I normally will ask questions that either I know the answer or I've done some reporting: 'Why aren't you sanctioning Putin?' We knew it was something they were discussing. What question elicits the best answer?" she says.

She explains that she revisits transcripts of old press conferences and interviews to prepare — "I'm a big nerd" — which speaks to her ability to stay level-headed when even the president gets emotional. 

Referencing the exchange that elicited Biden's apology, she says, "Putin had denied meddling in the election, denied cyber attacks... He was just denying human rights, denying his malicious behavior. It's important to make sure you always know what you're talking about. So when you do ask a question, if they push back, you're ready with your information. That's how you stay calm."

Just before 5 p.m. she put her in dinner order: crabcakes and fries from The Hamilton.

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Credit: Eman Mohammed

At The Hay-Adams Hotel with CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger 

In the morning, Borger, 69, turned on CNN, to catch up to the news and read: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. "I want to know what happened to that convoy, that 40-mile-long Russian convoy. Is it in Kiev yet?"

At about 5:40 p.m. she arrives at The Hay-Adams, dressed in a black coat, black pants and a white pashmina scarf. The sun is setting and she will go live at around 6 p.m. with her colleague Wolf Blitzer to discuss the President's speech, which is still hours away and still taking shape. She speaks to two senior administration officials about the pivot to Ukraine. 

Prepping for a long night at CNN's DC bureau with anchors Dana Bash, Pamela Brown, and Abby Phillip 

CNN's DC bureau is slowly coming back to life and aiming for a March 14 return to the office and adjusting to a brand new CEO, Chris Licht, who was named the day before. The newsroom was partially occupied for the big night, vestigial signs of the renovation done during the  pandemic lingered: contractors around a corner, occasional power outlets that didn't work.

After 7 p.m. Phillip, 33, walks into Bash's new office for the first time. Brown is also there, and the two reminisce about taking naps on Bash's couch while pregnant or during the election. Phillip has a six-month old and Brown has two small children, ages 2 and 3. The trio discussed their various bouts of Covid in the past couple of months. Phillip said she still experiences fatigue when she works out.

Bash, 50, says she started her day by taking her dog out, taking her son to school, having the same breakfast she has every morning: two pieces of Ezekiel toast with almond butter (Bash, a self-professed former sugar addict, gave it up a few years ago.) When thinking about her colleagues in a war zone, she says, "there's a little bit of guilt there" for the normalcy of her life. 

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Dana Bash, Pamela Brown, and Abby Phillip in Bash's office. A placard on her desk states, "Welcome to the shitshow." On one wall, frameless photos of her with celebrities (Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Stamos) and her family are mounted in a grid. Shades of pink, textures, and pillows abound, including one printed with the "New Yorker" cartoon of a man telling a woman: "Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence." | Credit: Eman Mohammed

Bash is dressed in a white tuxedo, a color she wears a lot for bigger events. Phillip is wearing a peachy millennial pink wrap dress and the two discuss getting white mics for the show tonight. Because they appear on-air together, they do discuss their outfits ahead of time so that they don't clash or their clothes don't distract. 

Brown, 38, anchored throughout the weekend. On Monday, she went to two classes at George Washington University where she's getting a Master of Studies in Law, kept tabs on the invasion and then, to unwind after putting her kids down, watched the finale of HBO's Euphoria a day late. On Tuesday, she'll be on until 2 a.m. and then go to class at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. She says she emailed her professor to explain she would not be able to do the reading for class and asked to not be called on — luckily for her, he agreed.

After photos were taken, Brown, dressed in a royal blue dress, slipped off her black slingback heels and slipped into Converse sneakers. On Tuesday, her husband let her sleep in until 8:30 and she had some coffee with banana milk. She's intermittent fasting so she won't eat until she has a Daily Harvest smoothie for lunch. She went to her class on national security law at 1:40 p.m. before work.

The women remembered a time that their colleague, Clarissa Ward, came to D.C. for a political story and, unimpressed, said she'd rather cover wars. 

"Just thinking about her and Erin [Burnett], and other moms in Ukraine right now, covering this I just get emotional thinking about it," Brown says. She recently came close to tears while anchoring a report on Ukrainian children pretending to be turtles, as they braced for bombing in a shelter over the weekend.

"A wave just came over me. I literally couldn't have stopped it if I had put every ounce of energy into it. I've just become really emotional since becoming a mom," she says.

"Oh that's definitely a thing," Phillip adds. "I can't watch…"

"I'm thinking about my colleagues who are over there with their children, I'm so worried for their safety," Brown says. "But at the end of the day, I'm human, and I try to be professional on air and have it together."

She says she received messages of support from viewers, which may not have happened in the past. "It's slightly embarrassing, when you're emotional or cry, you feel like that's a private moment. But at the same time, I wasn't ashamed, and I think people felt like they could relate."

A rite of passage: National Political Reporter Eva McKend's first SOTU

The newest hire, McKend, 32, drops into Bash's office, apparently a popular hangout. She's dressed in a red sleeveless dress that she says she feels confident in — this night is her initiation of sorts. To ward off chills in the office (workplaces haven't changed that much), she hugs a colorful shawl around her arms. 

Her hair has been braided into passion twists with blonde highlights as of last week. Despite being told by mentors at the beginning of her career that she should relax her hair to fit in more, in the past several years she makes it a point to wear her hair natural or in twists. 

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CNN National Political Reporter Eva McKend sets up her shot. | Credit: Eman Mohammed

"My hair choice is intentional in that I try to honor my Blackness. So if I'm not wearing my natural hair or a natural looking wig that mimics my natural hair, I try to wear braids or twists or something Black."

She's wearing a silver wire cuff bracelet that she says her mother gave to her — McKend says her mom's been texting her all day, and she credits her for her own sense of self-confidence. She also has a Fitbit to make sure she gets her steps in that she'll take off when she goes on-air. Then she remembers the truth about the bracelet: "She didn't give it to me. It was hers. I took it."

At 8 p.m. CNN'S special coverage begins in the studio. The speech begins shortly after 9 p.m. and the baton — or mic — would be tossed between these women who tried to bring home the gravity of this first draft of history.

Up until 2 a.m. viewers could watch Brown, a mom, anchor and grad student, discuss the president's address with McKend, who crossed the finish line on her first State of the Union at CNN. A marathon, completed.