The day was supposed to be over — at least, that’s what the White House communications staff told reporters Thursday evening as President Trump retired to the State Dining Room for dinner with his top military commanders.
Then, unexpectedly, the president summoned them back into action. That day’s episode was not quite over. A plot twist was ahead.
At 7:18 p.m., reporters were led into the lavish dining room where the military’s senior leaders and their spouses were lined up on either side of the president and first lady Melania Trump in preparation for a formal group photo.
“You guys know what this represents?” Trump said gesturing to the commanders surrounding him as he made looping motions with his right index finger.
He dramatically paused and then said: “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”
“What’s the storm?” a reporter called out, as the officials and their spouses continued to pose, their faces frozen in toothy smiles, even as many of their eyes began to dart around the room.
“Could be the calm before the storm,” the president said.
It felt like the opening scene of an action movie — the president, stiffly rotating from side to side, surveying the country’s military leaders and providing an ominous hint that something would soon unfold. He wouldn’t say what, but it seemed clear that it wouldn’t be anything good. Maybe something involving North Korea or the Islamic State terrorist organization or Iran or who knows what else.
Or maybe not — maybe this was just the showman president grabbing the day’s narrative and providing viewers with a reason to keep tuning in, even if there was no plan for an actual storm. Media pundits spent much of the day Friday trying to guess what he meant.
“I think this is a president who is living in a constant reality TV show,” said Timothy O’Brien, a journalist who wrote “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald” in 2005. “He loves the notion of ‘Tune in next week for the next exciting installation of ‘The White House,’ an ongoing reality show and national psychodrama.’”
For decades, Trump played popular culture’s role of the stereotypical rich guy, and he starred in the reality game show, “The Apprentice,” for more than a decade. O’Brien said that Trump is first and foremost an entertainer — and one who is always engaging in performance art.
“He believes he connects to people by keeping the mystery alive,” said O’Brien, who has been openly critical of the president, “when, in reality, what we want from our parents, our managers and our presidents are people who provide direction and clarity in a sober-minded way.”
On Thursday evening, reporters were only in the dining room for about a minute — and they kept asking the president to explain what he meant.
“What storm, Mr. President?” an NBC News reporter called out.
“We have the world’s great military people in this room, I will tell you that,” Trump said in a loud but calm tone, flanked by his generals, whom he then thanked for coming to the White House.
Again, a reporter asked: “What storm, Mr. President?”
He responded: “You’ll find out.”
Some of the theories floating out there: Maybe Trump was referring to the international deal with Iran, as he is expected to announce next week that he will “decertify” the agreement and kick it to Congress to handle. Or maybe he is planning to intensify the attacks on the Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East. Or maybe the storm has something to do with North Korea or Syria. Or maybe he was referring to the actual storm that’s headed toward the United States this weekend, Hurricane Nate. Or maybe he didn’t mean anything by it at all.
"If something like that was said in a past presidency, you'd really worry about it," former secretary of defense Leon Panetta said on CNN on Friday afternoon. "But this is a president who tweets, who engages now in verbal tweets as well. . . You begin to assume that it's more about getting attention, than it is about proclaiming some kind of national policy. I don't think it's responsible, I don't think presidents ought to do it, but I think in this instance, we probably all should take a deep breath and try to assume that he's just making a play for attention."
Trump’s spokespeople were asked again and again: What storm?
At the White House press briefing on Friday afternoon, about one quarter of the questions directed at press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders revolved around the president’s calm-before-the-storm remark. She did little to provide clarity to Americans worried that the country might be headed into war.
“We’re never going to say in advance what the president’s going to do,” Sanders said when first asked about the storm comment. “And, as he said last night. . .you’ll have to wait and see.”
A reporter pressed Sanders on how seriously the country should take the comments: “Was it a joke? Was it serious?
“I think you can take the president protecting the American people always extremely serious,” Sanders said. “He’s been very clear that that’s his No. 1 priority, and if he feels that action is necessary, he’ll take it.”
Asked a third time, Sanders said the president plans to “keep all of his options on the table” when it comes to North Korea and that the White House will continue to “put maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on countries like North Korea.”
And that prompted the question: “North Korea? That’s the storm?”
Sanders quickly clarified: “I’m just using that as an example. I think we’ve got a lot of bad actors in the world, North Korea, Iran, there’s several examples there.”
Later in the briefing, another reporter noted that the president did give advance warning that he might do something by saying that there could be a storm coming.
“He, unprompted, dangled these hints,” the reporter said.
Sanders responded: “He didn’t talk about any specific actions at all.”
When another reporter asked Sanders if reporters were properly interpreting her interpretation of what the president said, she replied: “I haven’t been specific about anything.”
And another reporter asked Sanders if perhaps the president was “just being mischievous, that he was messing with the press a little bit, when he made that comment.”
“I wouldn’t say that he’s messing with the press,” Sanders replied. “I think we have some serious world issues here. I think that North Korea, Iran both continue to be bad actors, and the president is somebody who’s going to always look for ways to protect Americans, and he’s not going to dictate what those actions may look like.”
She added: “I don’t think there’s anything beyond that, that I can add on that front.”
Ashley Parker contributed to this report.