For more than 10 minutes Thursday, President Trump was struck nearly speechless as rapper, activist, entrepreneur and MAGA-hat wearing, Trump-loving, dragon-energy-exuding Kanye West held forth in an Oval Office soliloquy that included an f-bomb, references to male genitalia and a presidential hug that looked more like a mauling.
West, slouched in a chair facing the president, called himself a “crazy mother- (expletive)” and rued the “bull- (expletive)” the president endures. He called the 72-year-old president “bro.” He wore no tie and he kept the red hat on throughout.
The office is no stranger to blue language — cue the Richard Nixon tapes — but West’s often incoherent performance occurred before reporters and cameras. Republicans have long groused that former Democratic president Bill Clinton disrespected the Oval Office with pizza parties and his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and complained that former Democratic president Barack Obama was photographed with his feet up on the desk and didn’t always wear a coat and tie like his predecessor, George W. Bush.
But perhaps it was only Republican Trump, with his reality-show sensibility and taste for drama, who could have unleashed Kanye West — who now asks to be called just Ye — on the prim confines of the Oval Office.
“I don’t answer questions in simple sound bites. You are tasting a fine wine that has multiple notes to it,” West told a reporter who asked a follow-up question on criminal justice reform, the supposed topic of West’s invitation to a White House lunch.
“You better play 4-D chess with me like it’s ‘Minority Report,’ because it ain’t that simple. It’s complex.”
The performance became a must-see video, including for Republicans.
“Reality meets reality television,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said as he stared, rapt, at a video replay of West in the Oval Office.
West said his 2016 bipolar diagnosis was incorrect — he is sleep-deprived instead — and said Trump had given him a “Superman cape” of empowerment for good. There was also a lot of stuff that made less sense than that.
“The thing is, let’s stop worrying about the future. All we have is today. We just have today. Over and over and over again, the eternal returns, the hero’s journey,” West said. “Trump is on his hero’s journey.”
Scholars of the presidency were not amused.
Kate Andersen Brower said West’s wife showed more reverence for the space when she met with Trump there earlier this year.
“When Kim Kardashian visited President Trump, she took a very solemn photo with him., and it was a somber occasion — she was trying to get a woman out of prison — whereas this seemed more like a publicity stunt where it was more about Kanye West,” said Brower, who has written books about the White House staff, first ladies and vice presidents. “I think it cheapens the presidency.”
The closest recent analogue to Thursday’s encounter was the surreal 1970 Oval Office meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley, Brower said. While that meeting was not carried live on TV and social media in the same way that Thursday’s was, it probably would have measured up in terms of absurdity: According to historical accounts, the King showed off his police badge collection, attempted to give Nixon a pistol, asked for a federal narcotics badge and then gave the president a hug.
Tim Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said Trump’s meeting with West underscored that, as with other aspects of his presidency, Trump has chosen to make the Oval Office an accessory to his personality.
“President Trump has effectively turned the Oval Office into ‘Trump Space.’ It’s a performance space now,” said Naftali, who previously served as director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
In the past, some Republicans have upbraided Democratic presidents for far less controversial behavior in the presidential office.
That some of those same critics were silent on Thursday’s over-the-top Trump-West meeting suggests those concerns were motivated more by partisanship than by protocol, Naftali said.
“It turns out that many of President Obama’s critics were looking for reasons to criticize him. They were not criticizing him because they had a particular view of decorum in the Oval Office,” he said.