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Trump’s Cabinet meetings have become about everything but the business of his Cabinet

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

President Trump gave a combative briefing to reporters during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Oct. 21. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Cabinet meeting was billed as a discussion of the administration’s “successful rollback of the abuses and the high cost of the bloated regulatory state.” It began with a prayer from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. A large cardboard poster titled “CHAMPIONS” was perched behind the president’s head.

Then with the cameras rolling and the administration facing criticism over its Middle East policy and presidential self-dealing at the same time as an impeachment inquiry from House Democrats was gaining momentum, President Trump made it clear he had other things on his mind than cutting regulations. He had stayed inside the White House all weekend, sending more than 80 tweets and playing no golf.

“Everybody feel comfortable over there?” he said at the opening of the 71-minute affair that was part news conference, part stream-of-consciousness bragging and all about Trump.

President Trump on Oct. 21 defended his now-abandoned decision to host next year’s international Group of Seven summit at his Florida property. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The president boasted of personally being responsible for the capture of Islamic State soldiers; decried the criticism that he was receiving “emoluments” from foreign governments as phony; insinuated that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) gave information to the whistleblower who raised concerns about the administration’s actions toward Ukraine; attacked his predecessor for signing a deal with Netflix; and turned the Cabinet Room into a stage for a lengthy advertisement for his Florida golf resort, which he originally picked to host a meeting of international leaders before backtracking this weekend in the face of bipartisan criticism.

The latest on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump

Under Trump, Cabinet meetings have become less about the business of his Cabinet than an opportunity for the president to invite in the assembled press to boast of his own accomplishments, lash out at his critics and to hear the praise flow forth from advisers seated around a large oval table. The gatherings, with the press in attendance, often stretch for 60 to 90 minutes.

During a June 2017 Cabinet meeting, Trump went around the table, allowing his top aides to thank him for allowing them to serve his administration. Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called the opportunity a “blessing.”

Trump trashed his former secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, during a Cabinet meeting in January, shortly after he resigned because the retired four-star Marine general said they didn’t share the same perspective on how to treat allies.

“What’s he done for me?” Trump said.

On Monday, the president seemed particularly aggrieved by criticism of his foreign policy decisions in the Middle East, his attempt to stage the Group of Seven meeting at his golf resort in Florida and the ongoing impeachment inquiry by House Democrats that has dominated the headlines. On every front, he said, he was undeserving of the criticism and tried to deflect it back on his opponents. “Illegitimate” and “phony” were his words du jour.

“You people with this phony emoluments clause,” he said, dismissing concerns that hosting international leaders at the Trump National Doral Miami resort would have violated the constitutional ban on presidents accepting gifts or money from foreign governments.

He batted back questions about whether his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria and the ensuing Turkish military offensive led to the release of Islamic State fighters being guarded by the Kurds. And he cited a loud cheer from a rally crowd in Texas to back his decision to remove the U.S. forces.

“I’m the one who did the capturing,” Trump, who avoided military service with a bone spurs diagnosis, said of Islamic State militants. “I’m the one who knows more about it than you people or the fake pundits.”

Much of the event seemed about self-validation as Trump’s allies describe a presidency under siege — and a president frustrated with an onslaught of criticism. 

“I’m very good at real estate,” he said, without being asked about his real estate prowess. For several minutes, he used the White House setting to talk up his resort in Florida while defending himself against claims that he uses the presidency to help his properties. 

“It would have been the best G-7 ever,” he said, now saying he would have held it “for free.”

Critics charging that the meeting would have offered a high promotional value for Trump’s business was also a canard, according to the president.

“I don’t need promotion,” he said. “I get more promotion than any human being that’s ever lived.”

Without prompting, he informed the government’s top officers — and the assembled news media — about his prowess at filling arenas.

“I can set a world record for somebody without a guitar,” he said of his rally crowds.

At times he segued into criticizing former president Barack Obama, suggesting that he made money off his presidency, conflating his predecessor’s post-presidency book deals and contract with Netflix with charges that Trump’s businesses have directly benefited from his time in office.

“Obama made a deal for a book. Did he run a business?” Trump asked. Obama did not have a business in office.

He also mocked Obama for not securing a meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — a brutal dictator who has repeatedly agreed to meet with Trump but has not agreed to give up his nuclear weapons.

“Actually, he tried, 11 times,” Trump incorrectly said of Obama. “But the man on the other side, the gentleman on the other side, did not take his call. Lack of respect.”

There were a number of false, or dubious, statements. Defending his attempt to stage the G-7 at his resort, he cited the benefit of having the Miami International Airport nearby. “It’s right down the road,” he said. “Some say it’s the biggest in the world.” The airport does not rank in the international top 20 for size.

Trump said the presidency was costing him “between $2 billion and $5 billion,” though there is no evidence for such a claim — and his own disclosures show he has continued to profit while in the Oval Office.

The president said only George Washington had given away his salary like Trump does, though historians say John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover donated their pay.

As the meeting dragged on and Cabinet officials sat silently, there was little talk of the official reason for the gathering, as the president continued to field questions from reporters.

He gave backhanded praise to Democrats while excoriating at least one prominent critic in his own party for criticizing him. 

“They’re vicious and they stick together. They don’t have Mitt Romney in their midst, they don’t have people like that,” Trump said. 

He described unidentified “lowlifes” trying to keep him from getting out of wars — and said it would be easier for him not to have to visit Walter Reed hospital and Dover Air Force Base to visit injured soldiers or witness the arrival of the remains of those killed. 

“It would be much easier for me to let our soldiers be there, let them continue to die,” he said. “I go out to Dover and meet parents and it’s the most unpleasant thing I do.”

Toward the end, he turned to the day’s official agenda — touting the economic benefits of the number of regulations his administration has cut or weakened.

For that he first turned to National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, a man Trump described as a “great, great remark maker.”

“I’m sure it will be great. Let them know how we are doing. We’re doing poorly, let them know,” he told Kudlow. “But I don’t think that is going to happen.”

It didn’t.