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’

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

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. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — 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 and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from right, pose for photographs with the University of Utah ski team during an event with NCAA championship teams at the White House.
President Trump visits the U.S. Capitol to meet with Republicans on the day the House will be voting on its tax bill.
Trump speaks about his Asia trip in the diplomatic reception room of the White House.
President Trump receives a bomber jacket from Air Force personnel during an event at Yokota Air Base at Fussa, near Tokyo.
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold up hats they have both signed that read “Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan.
Trump and Abe meet with their wives Melania Trump and Akie Abe for a dinner at a restaurant in Tokyo.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Adm. Harry Harris, left, and his wife Bruni Bradley, throw flower pedals while visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.
First lady Melania Trump listens as President Trump speaks with reporters at the White House before departing from the South Lawn in Marine One for a trip to Asia.
President Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family during Halloween celebrations at the White House.
Trump departs in his motorcade after an afternoon at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
President Trump hands out candy to children of journalists and White House staffers for Halloween in the Oval Office.
Trump holds up a presidential memorandum to declare the opioid crisis a national public-health emergency after signing it at the White House.
President Trump takes questions from reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on his way to Marine One before departing for Texas to attend a briefing on hurricane relief efforts.
President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pose with winners from the National Minority Enterprise Development Week Awards Program in the Oval Office of the White House.
A protester throws Russian flags as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center left, walks with President Trump to the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill.
Trump bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, shake hands during a joint statement in the Rose Garden.
Boeing Executive Vice President Kevin McAllister, right, and Singapore Airlines chief executive Goh Choon Phong, along with Trump and Singapore Prime Minister Loong, attend a signing ceremony for airplane sales at the White House.
Trump, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster by his side, shakes hands with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in the Oval Office.
Trump, center right, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, center left, and others meet in the Oval Office.
Trump, right, listens as Rosselló speaks in the Oval Office.
Trump, flanked by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), speaks during a meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee and members of his economic team in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump waits at the West Wing of the White House for the arrival of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Trump meets with Tsipras in the Oval Office.
Trump answers a reporter’s question during a news conference with Tsipras in the White House Rose Garden.
Trump talks with Hope Hicks, White House communications director, between radio interviews at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump makes a statement on Iran policy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the news media on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump prepares to hand the pen he used to sign an executive order on health care to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
Trump congratulates Kirstjen Nielsen after nominating her to be secretary of homeland security in the East Room of the White House.
Trump shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, left, and first lady Melania Trump look on from the Oval Office of the White House.
Trump speaks in Middletown, Pa.
Trump honors the NHL’s Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Room of the White House.
Trump departs Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
Trump speaks at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House as Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, left, first lady Melania Trump and Treasurer Jovita Carranza listen.
Trump holds up the signed National Manufacturing Day Proclamation in the Oval Office.
Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks as he and the first lady meet with first responders at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Trump talks with residents during a walking tour with the first lady in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Trump makes a statement about the mass shooting in Las Vegas from the Diplomatic Room at the White House.
Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.
Trump stops to greet people as he walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump takes a group photo with members of the National Security Council on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.
Trump shakes hands with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Trump and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hold a joint a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
Trump speaks before signing a memorandum to expand access to STEM, science technology engineering and math, education, in the Oval Office.
Trump greets Sen. Luther Strange at a campaign rally for the Republican in Huntsville, Ala.
Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Palace Hotel in New York.
Trump arrives with first lady Melania Trump, right, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump speaks during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump encourages Frank “FX” Giaccio, left, as his father, Greg Giaccio, looks on while he mows the lawn in the Rose Garden of the White House. Trump accepted Giaccio’s offer after he wrote to the president saying it would be an “honor to mow the White House lawn.”
The Trumps and Vice President Pence tour Naples Estates, an area in Florida damaged by Hurricane Irma.
The Trumps participate in a moment of silence at the White House in remembrance of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greet members of the military after a Sept. 11 memorial service at the Pentagon.
The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, and Trump hold translation earphones as a reporter asks a question at a news conference in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Pence meet with House and Senate leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as they hold a meeting about tax overhaul in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Trump waves as he departs St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington with first lady Melania Trump after they attended services for a national “Day of Prayer” for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Assistant rector D. Andrew Olivo is at center.
Trump gives a little girl a kiss as he and the first lady greet Harvey evacuees in Houston.
The first lady and the vice president look on as the president holds up a FEMA damage-assessment map of Texas.
Trump holds up the Texas state flag after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Harvey relief efforts at a fire station where people gathered to welcome him in Corpus Christi.
Trump shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto during their joint news conference in Washington.
Trump shows his signature after signing the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act into law at the American Legion convention in Reno, Nev.
Trump participates in a tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Yuma, Ariz.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, looks up toward the solar eclipse without glasses from a balcony at the White House.
At the White House, Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing China’s trade practices.
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville, that turned deadly.
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.
Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster.
Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the “telehealth” event.
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.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kelly’s private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office.
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, N.Y.
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 Republican baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va.
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.
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference.
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the group’s national jamboree in West Virginia.
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.
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Photo Gallery: A look at the second half, so far, of the president?s first year in the White House.

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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