The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘When you put this guy in a cage and think you’re controlling him, things like this happen’

While vacationing at his Bedminster, N.J., estate, President Trump on Aug. 10 answered questions from reporters about numerous topics. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Midway through President Trump's second media availability in a single afternoon here Thursday, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, held up a sign signaling to the boss that it was time to drop the curtain on the show.

“One more question,” it read.

The president either did not see her plea or opted to disregard it, because he kept answering questions — for 20 minutes straight, after having already fielded them for seven minutes in the earlier session.

This was Trump in his element: At his luxurious private golf club here in Bedminster, the cameras trained on him, his vice president and national security advisers looking on admiringly, he parried queries — at times even gleefully — like a tennis player.

Engaging with people — journalists, advisers, friends and even foes — is Trump’s lifeblood. His Oval Office has felt like a busy train station, with people breezing in and out to share a juicy tidbit or to solicit the president’s opinion on a pressing issue or to chew over something in the news. He likes to watch cable television news shows with other people, sometimes only through the phone.

Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

Police officers applaud a line by U.S. President Donald Trump (R) as he delivers remarks about his proposed U.S. government effort against the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, to a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials at the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, New York, U.S. July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (Jonathan Ernst)

After a week of seclusion at his Bedminster golf club, mostly out of public view during his working vacation, Trump seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest. He weighed in on a far-reaching array of topics and generated new headlines in rat-a-tat fashion.

The president’s exchanges with a small pool of traveling reporters lacked the formality of a full-fledged news conference. (His last was in February.) After each answer, he made eye contact with a reporter, as if to say, “Gimme another!”

“It was like he was a dam that had suddenly burst free and he was able to unload a lot that was on his mind,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.

At both media availabilities, which had been billed as “sprays,” an official term for photo opportunities, Trump’s new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was relegated to merely watching the spectacle. The retired four-star Marine Corps general has, with great fanfare, worked to instill order in the White House, including a more disciplined message from the administration and more limited access to the president.

But two things Kelly apparently could not control on Thursday: What Trump would say next or how long he would keep talking.

“This is what General Kelly will learn very quickly, which is when you put this guy in a cage and think you’re controlling him, things like this happen,” said one Trump confidant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Also watching it unfold on television was Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. The moment, he said, was vintage Trump.

“President Trump is a performance artist and he loves being on stage. . . . He was very much Trump unshackled and unfettered and reveling in this moment,” said O’Brien, author of the 2005 book “Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald.”

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Senior White House officials reached out following the president’s performance to say how much their boss enjoyed the exchanges. They said the president is eager to prove that he is hard at work on his vacation, and they argued that the president’s visibility helps galvanize his base of supporters at a time when polls show his support softening.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump in recent days has been restless to share his thoughts on what she termed “one of the juiciest, newsiest periods of his presidency.”

“The president proved again that he is the best messenger and communicator in his White House,” Conway said. “The rest of us are serviceable understudies. . . . From the campaign trail to the presidency, he gets joy on the job, and part of his joy is engaging with the fourth estate.”

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, echoed Conway’s assessment, saying, “This is what has made him a success in everything he’s done for the last 40 years.”

Trump made news on North Korea’s nuclear crisis (“Things will happen to them like they never thought possible”), on his frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (“Mitch, get to work!”), on the FBI’s pre-dawn raid of his former campaign chairman’s home (“Pretty tough stuff’), on the opioid crisis (“It’s a national emergency”), and on banning transgender people from the armed forces (“I’m doing the military a great favor”).

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Trump also said he was thankful to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin for expelling hundreds of U.S. diplomats from his country; was still weighing a decision about troop levels in Afghanistan; has confidence in a pair of embattled senior aides, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Attorney General Jeff Sessions; is working to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and is hunting down “leakers” who share sensitive information with journalists.

Trump’s impromptu answers could cause headaches for his administration in the days to come. His comments on North Korea, for instance, are unlikely to calm jitters around the world over the escalating nuclear brinkmanship between Trump and North Korea’s erratic leader, Kim Jong Un.

O’Brien said Trump “was in his element,” but added, “I don’t think it’s a good thing. Donald Trump in his element is someone who’s living in his own private Idaho, inside his own head. He’s constantly scripting how he sees the world and his role in it.”

Thursday's episode reminded some in Trump's orbit of his thrill ride of a news conference at the end of the Republican National Convention last summer in Cleveland.

Trump's aides had succeeded in keeping him buttoned-up and on-message through the week-long convention, and his final stop in Cleveland was supposed to be a quick thank-you event to honor his local supporters the morning after he gave his formal address accepting the GOP nomination.

Instead, Trump effectively free-wheeled, reviving feuds with former rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich and even defended the journalistic credibility of the National Enquirer after it published an unsubstantiated charge about Cruz's father.

Trump lives to be in the arena himself, said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser.

"He realizes that the best way for him to control his message is to be the message," Nunberg said.