In August, President Trump asked for a certain newspaper clipping, thus throwing the White House into the Trump version of Defcon 2. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly assigned two aides to investigate how the clip made its way to the president without being “cleared.” These aides, anonymous but clearly brave, determined that Keith Schiller, a former New York City police officer and Trump’s longtime body man, had slipped the “contraband newsprint” to the commander in chief. Soon, Schiller was gone from the White House. Kelly, a retired Marine general but an American sniper at heart, had picked off another.
This account of the “contraband newsprint” comes from Sunday’s New York Times and was written by three of the paper’s top reporters. Their reporting brings to mind Napoleon on St. Helena — his newspapers coming three months late and his days so empty that he took four hours’ worth of baths. Trump’s newspapers arrive promptly, but the rest of his reading is censored and, instead of taking four-hour baths, he devotes at least as much time to watching TV.
We also learned from the Times that Trump consumes about 12 Diet Cokes per day. A new book by former Trump campaign staffers added other culinary details. On the road, the future president typically ate for dinner two McDonald’s Big Macs, two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and a chocolate shake. Because the McDonald’s delivery system is both quick and direct, this diet poses a greater threat to the nation than the North Korean nuclear program.
But it is not, apparently, what the president eats that concerns Kelly. It is what he sometimes reads. Understandably, Kelly is constantly on the alert for a presidential friend slipping Trump a highly unauthorized news article. This happened over Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago. Some of Trump’s guests “passed him news clips that would never get around Kelly’s filters,” the Times reported.
These guests were probably Trump’s old pals from New York and Palm Beach, billionaires with a nose for the oncoming socialist apocalypse who fear the president does not know how crooked Hillary Clinton really is or that the press is still insisting that Trump lost the popular vote or maintaining that it was his voice on that “Access Hollywood” tape when, upon repeated hearing, it just could be Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Trump himself begins the day commendably early. (It’s the farmer in him.) The Times says he rises at 5:30 and turns on the TV. For some reason, he watches CNN — monitoring fake news, no doubt — and then self-medicates with “Fox & Friends.” Later, in an updated version of “hate week” from George Orwell’s “1984,” he clicks on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” His friends suspect the program’s critical approach “fires him up for the day.”
Thus stoked, our commander in chief sallies forth to meet with probably the most illustrious collection of aides since Groucho hooked up with Chico and Harpo. The group includes Ivanka Trump, of the world of fashion; Jared Kushner, late of New York real estate; Hope Hicks, formerly of the Trump Organization; and, for some reason, H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. What he knows about real estate or fashion is not at all clear.
Then the president resumes a day of strenuous TV viewing. The Times interviewed 60 advisers, associates, friends and members of Congress for the article and report ed that Trump spends four to eight hours a day watching cable news. Since the shows are mostly about him, he must recognize cable news as an extension of his old reality show, only he cannot fire Kim Jong Un. He can, however, insult him.
At the White House, Trump controls the remote control. This, it turns out, is the true “football” of this administration — comparable to the one that accompanies the president everywhere and contains nuclear codes. “No one touches the remote control except Mr. Trump and the technical support staff,” the Times reported.
I confess that by the end of the article, I found myself feeling sorry for the harried Kelly. He spends 14 hours of his day at his task, reining in a White House staff that once felt free to just drop in on the Oval Office, possibly interrupting “Hannity” or something equally important. As the Times also reported, Kelly not only monitors Trump’s phone calls but sometimes listens in. I finished the article no longer thinking of Napoleon in exile but of Jack Valenti, Lyndon Johnson’s aide, who said he slept better at night “because Lyndon Johnson is my president.”
It’s a wonder Kelly sleeps at all.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.