Democracy Dies in Darkness

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‘When you put this guy in a cage and think you’re controlling him, things like this happen’

By Philip Rucker

August 10, 2017 at 8:30 PM

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While vacationing at his Bedminster, N.J., estate, President Trump on Aug. 10 answered questions from reporters about numerous topics including Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. (The Washington Post)

Midway through President Trump’s second media availability in a single afternoon here Thursday, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, held up a sign signaling to the boss that it was time to drop the curtain on the show.

“One more question,” it read.

The president either did not see her plea or opted to disregard it, because he kept answering questions — for 20 minutes straight, after having already fielded them for seven minutes in the earlier session.

This was Trump in his element: At his luxurious private golf club here in Bedminster, the cameras trained on him, his vice president and national security advisers looking on admiringly, he parried queries — at times even gleefully — like a tennis player.

Engaging with people — journalists, advisers, friends and even foes — is Trump’s lifeblood. His Oval Office has felt like a busy train station, with people breezing in and out to share a juicy tidbit or to solicit the president’s opinion on a pressing issue or to chew over something in the news. He likes to watch cable television news shows with other people, sometimes only through the phone.

President Trump arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York to speak to the media about infrastructure and respond to questions about the violence, injuries and deaths at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, center, delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower. Standing alongside him are, from left, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Trump speaks about the violence in Charlottesville as he talks to the media. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks to the news media about the protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, stops to respond to more questions about his responses to the violence in Charlottesville as he leaves a news conference at Trump Tower. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At the White House, President Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing Chinas trade practices. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump salutes as he disembarks from Marine One at the White House. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville that turned deadly Saturday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, shake hands with military veterans after signing the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act in Bedminster, N.J. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. AmbassadorNikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive to speak with reporters before a security briefing at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump, accompanied by Pence, speaks to reporters in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump talks about North Korea during a briefing on the opioid crisis at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Bedminster for vacation. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice at a rally in Huntington. Justice, a Democrat, said he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Trump listens to a presentation by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a VA telehealth event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the telehealth event. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, joined by Cotton, speaks in the Roosevelt Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, left, and adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during a White House event with owners of small businesses. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
New White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kellys private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to well-wishers after dining at Trump International Hotel in Washington. (Chris Kleponis/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about the MS-13 street gang on the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, N.Y. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump speaks with reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after firing Reince Priebus and naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly as his new chief of staff. (Evan Vucci/AP)
At the White House, Trump welcomes Jennifer Scalise, wife of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot in June at a congressional baseball practice. The ceremony honored first responders who helped during the shooting in Alexandria, Va. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a GOP baseball team practice. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Supporter Geno DiFabio speaks with Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
From left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner attend a meeting with the Lebanese prime minister in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the groups national jamboree in West Virginia. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
From the Blue Room of the White House, the president urges Senate Republicans to move forward with legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

After a week of seclusion at his Bedminster golf club, mostly out of public view during his working vacation, Trump seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest. He weighed in on a far-reaching array of topics and generated new headlines in rat-a-tat fashion.

The president’s exchanges with a small pool of traveling reporters lacked the formality of a full-fledged news conference. (His last was in February.) After each answer, he made eye contact with a reporter, as if to say, “Gimme another!”

“It was like he was a dam that had suddenly burst free and he was able to unload a lot that was on his mind,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.

At both media availabilities, which had been billed as “sprays,” an official term for photo opportunities, Trump’s new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was relegated to merely watching the spectacle. The retired four-star Marine Corps general has, with great fanfare, worked to instill order in the White House, including a more disciplined message from the administration and more limited access to the president.

But two things Kelly apparently could not control on Thursday: What Trump would say next or how long he would keep talking.

“This is what General Kelly will learn very quickly, which is when you put this guy in a cage and think you’re controlling him, things like this happen,” said one Trump confidant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Also watching it unfold on television was Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. The moment, he said, was vintage Trump.

White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, second to right, and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, look on from the wings as President Trump, left, speaks to reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 10. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“President Trump is a performance artist and he loves being on stage. . . . He was very much Trump unshackled and unfettered and reveling in this moment,” said O’Brien, author of the 2005 book “Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald.”

Related: Trump reiterates warning to N. Korea: ‘Fire and fury’ may not have been ‘tough enough’

Senior White House officials reached out following the president’s performance to say how much their boss enjoyed the exchanges. They said the president is eager to prove that he is hard at work on his vacation, and they argued that the president’s visibility helps galvanize his base of supporters at a time when polls show his support softening.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump in recent days has been restless to share his thoughts on what she termed “one of the juiciest, newsiest periods of his presidency.”

“The president proved again that he is the best messenger and communicator in his White House,” Conway said. “The rest of us are serviceable understudies. . . . From the campaign trail to the presidency, he gets joy on the job, and part of his joy is engaging with the fourth estate.”

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, echoed Conway’s assessment, saying, “This is what has made him a success in everything he’s done for the last 40 years.”

Trump made news on North Korea’s nuclear crisis (“Things will happen to them like they never thought possible”), on his frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (“Mitch, get to work!”), on the FBI’s pre-dawn raid of his former campaign chairman’s home (“Pretty tough stuff’), on the opioid crisis (“It’s a national emergency”), and on banning transgender people from the armed forces (“I’m doing the military a great favor”).

Related: Trump says he is ‘very thankful’ to Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats from Russia

Related: Trump says he was surprised by FBI raid of Manafort’s home, which sent a ‘very strong signal’

Related: Trump says opioid crisis is a national emergency, pledges more money and attention

Trump also said he was thankful to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin for expelling hundreds of U.S. diplomats from his country; was still weighing a decision about troop levels in Afghanistan; has confidence in a pair of embattled senior aides, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Attorney General Jeff Sessions; is working to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and is hunting down “leakers” who share sensitive information with journalists.

Trump’s impromptu answers could cause headaches for his administration in the days to come. His comments on North Korea, for instance, are unlikely to calm jitters around the world over the escalating nuclear brinkmanship between Trump and North Korea’s erratic leader, Kim Jong Un.

O’Brien said Trump “was in his element,” but added, “I don’t think it’s a good thing. Donald Trump in his element is someone who’s living in his own private Idaho, inside his own head. He’s constantly scripting how he sees the world and his role in it.”

Thursday’s episode reminded some in Trump’s orbit of his thrill ride of a news conference at the end of the Republican National Convention last summer in Cleveland.

Trump’s aides had succeeded in keeping him buttoned-up and on-message through the week-long convention, and his final stop in Cleveland was supposed to be a quick thank-you event to honor his local supporters the morning after he gave his formal address accepting the GOP nomination.

Instead, Trump effectively free-wheeled, reviving feuds with former rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich and even defended the journalistic credibility of the National Enquirer after it published an unsubstantiated charge about Cruz’s father.

Trump lives to be in the arena himself, said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser.

“He realizes that the best way for him to control his message is to be the message,” Nunberg said.


Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. He previously has covered Congress, the Obama White House, and the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. He joined The Post in 2005 as a local news reporter.

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