Amid breaking news of a U.S.-Mexico trade deal, President Trump invited reporters into the Oval Office on Monday to punctuate the moment in an unusual way: allowing them to sit in on a celebratory phone chat with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
But when he punched a button on a phone on the Resolute Desk, the line was dead.
“Enrique?” Trump said, with television cameras rolling. There was no response. “You can hook him up,” he called out to aides. “You tell me when. This is a big deal. A lot of people are waiting.”
The audience, including top White House advisers and Mexican diplomats, would have to wait a touch longer — “Hellooo,” the president tried again. “Do you want to put that on this phone please? Hellooo?” — before an aide finally took the receiver and patched Peña Nieto through.
The awkward, real-time sequence in the Oval Office offered another example of Trump’s willingness to discard protocol and conduct his presidency like a reality show playing out in real time, conscripting those around him in service of the spectacle.
From hour-long Cabinet meetings broadcast live on cable television to White House events and campaign rallies in which he impulsively invites guests on stage to speak, Trump has employed his showman’s mind-set to cast those around him in bit parts in a never-ending series about himself.
“I thought we’d congratulate each other before it got out,” Trump told Peña Nieto.
Parts of the conversation were so stilted that it took on the air of a hastily arranged photo op. An interpreter tried to keep up with the Mexican leader’s Spanish, while Peña Nieto promised Trump, who doesn’t drink, a tequila toast.
Former press aides to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not remember anything similar during their tenures, and reporters wondered aloud on social media whether Peña Nieto even knew he was on speaker phone. A senior Trump administration official familiar with the call said the Mexican side fully agreed to it.
Trump “thought talking about sealing the deal in front of reporters would be not just interesting but important for the American people to see,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It was coordinated with the Mexican government. I’d caution you that something like that does not take much time at all. If a deal is done, you say, ‘Hey, Mr. President, why not get on a phone call for the press?’ ”
The official emphasized that Trump’s performative personality has allowed him to disregard the convention of his predecessors and pull back the curtain on a job that has long been “so scripted and milquetoast” in which presidents “follow a script line by line.”
The approach has offered some advantages for Trump, allowing him to bask in the glow of unadulterated praise.
At Cabinet meetings, he has allowed reporters to observe as he moves around the table asking aides to answer questions about issues including the economy, tax reform and foreign policy — prompting them to praise his leadership in flowery, often over-the-top prose.
At official events and campaign rallies, Trump has made a habit of calling on associates, friends and supporters to join him on stage — sometimes offering them the microphone to address the raucous crowds.
During an address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in July, Trump called to the stage Allen Q. Jones, a 94-year-old World War II veteran, who promptly asked if he could visit the Oval Office.
Trump leaned and answered, “Yes,” thrilling the crowd and prompting Jones to request an autographed photo of himself with Trump during the campaign.
Public officials who attend Trump’s events said they come prepared in case he calls on them to perform.
In Duluth, Minn., in June, Trump called up several politicians, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.), as well as a local county commissioner, Pete Stauber, a Republican who is running for Congress.
“Hey, Pete, come here,” Trump said. “Say a few words. I wasn’t supposed to do this, but let’s hear him.”
Stauber took the microphone and praised Trump for curbing regulations and boosting the economy. “Mr. President, these people support you!” he said, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd.
Trump took the microphone back and said: “So I didn’t know he was going to do that. Then he takes out a speech and reads it.”
Caroline Tarwid, Stauber’s campaign spokeswoman, said Trump’s team informed the campaign ahead of time that the candidate, who rode to the rally in the presidential limo, might be asked to speak.
“Obviously, the staff did let us know that anything can happen,” Tarwid said.
But such unscripted moments have also led to flubs. At a live-televised meeting with congressional leaders on immigration in January, Trump appeared confused about policy details and contradicted himself several times, leaving lawmakers uncertain about his intentions.
More recently, Trump was speaking at a White House ceremony honoring federal immigration agents when he impulsively asked a Latino Border Patrol agent to join him and address the room.
“Speaks perfect English,” Trump declared with a smile as the agent made his way to the stage, prompting blowback from commentators that the president had been racially insensitive.
For Trump, Monday’s speakerphone call with Peña Nieto helped mask 18 months of tensions with his Mexican counterpart, who abruptly canceled a White House visit early last year after Trump repeated his campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for his proposed border wall.
As the two leaders wrapped up, Peña Nieto told Trump he was sending him “an affectionate hug.”
“A hug from you would be very nice,” the president replied, before hanging up and mistakenly telling reporters that he had just sealed a trade deal with Canada.