President Trump, a reality-show host in his past life, is an attention-generating machine.
Exhibit 394,627, by unofficial counts: the phone call he had with a 7-year-old named Collman Lloyd who had called in to a government program that purports to track Santa Claus and is run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. (Yes, the military has a program that helps children look for Santa.)
The president and first lady had invited members of the media into the White House State Dining Room around 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve as they fielded calls to NORAD that had been patched through to them. A fire roared behind them, and Christmas trees flanked the hearth.
It was the kind of scene favored by Trump: a grand setting, spiked by a dash of controversy.
So when Collman called, perhaps the president was trying to push the envelope a bit.
“Hello, is this Collman? Merry Christmas. How are you? How old are you?” Trump asked the girl. Reporters could not hear the child’s responses.
“Are you still a believer in Santa? ’Cause at 7, it’s marginal, right?”
A short video of the exchange from the White House end was published by the Daily Beast on Twitter around 8:30 p.m. and quickly began circulating, its way paved by Twitter’s algorithm.
The video was a small illustration of the way in which Trump is the ultimate figure for the social media age, a showman with an uncanny ability to keep people watching, clicking, engaging.
Was Trump trying to dissuade the child from her innocent belief in Santa? Was he too blunt and cynical? Was he being refreshingly realistic? Maybe it was just a joke? The video is yours to debate, tweet, rebuke, endorse, share, should you choose to spend your holiday thinking about the president. And many did: By Christmas morning, the video had registered well over 8 million views, becoming the subject of jokes, wisecracks and mockery on social media.
On Christmas, the Charleston, S.C.-based newspaper the Post and Courier posted a video that showed Lloyd talking with the president from her home in Lexington, S.C.
The newspaper reported that she had never heard the word “marginal” before, though she had politely responded, “Yes, sir,” to both of Trump’s questions. She said that the operator who had taken her call to NORAD’s Santa tracker had asked her when she called if she wanted to speak to President Trump. She was put on hold for about six minutes before she was patched through to the President.
“He has a lot to do on the night of Christmas Eve,” she told the Post and Courier. “I was like, ‘wow.’ I was shocked.”
Parents have debated for years about how much information to give or withhold from their children about figures such as the tooth fairy and Santa. Data from a study by University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley, cited by the Atlantic in 2014, showed that 5 is the peak age for nurturing this kind of innocent belief: Eighty-two percent of 5-year-olds believe in Santa, she found. By 7, that number is about 60 percent. By 9, it’s down to about 30.
Trump played it straighter with the other children who called in.
“What’s Santa going to get you for Christmas? Who’s with you?” he asked one child. “Have a great Christmas, and I’ll talk to you again, okay?”
More than 1,500 volunteers staff a call center in Colorado Springs to help answer children’s queries about Santa. The program dates to an error in 1955, when a Sears ad for children hoping to talk to Santa directed them to call a number that went straight to a secretive red phone on an Air Force colonel’s desk.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name and sex of the child who spoke with President Trump.