We had been talking for two hours or more, about all manner of things, including American politics, the president and the Democratic field for 2020. A man at an adjacent table, whose back was to us, turned around, cellphone in hand, and asked me, “Would you like to speak to the president?”
Scenes from Trump’s second year in office
I was more than surprised by his words and at first wondered which president he was talking about. Because we were in Paris and had also been talking about Europe and related issues, I thought he might be talking about embattled French President Emmanuel Macron.
That made no sense, however, as the man with the phone was clearly an American. Still, the idea that it was President Trump on the other end seemed too weird to be real.
The man asked again if I wanted to take his phone. I looked at it and could see that the Caller ID showed no telephone number. Instead it was the same identifier of calls that come from the White House. Could this really be the president? I took the phone, wondering what kind of hoax was about to be played on us.
“Hello, Mr. President,” I said. The voice at the other end of the line was unmistakable. It was President Trump.
I had not spoken to Trump in more than two years, since before he was elected. Our talented White House team has the responsibility of pursuing interviews with him, and though I often write about him, I happily defer to them on that task.
But with the president on the line, whatever the circumstances, I thought I should try to elicit something newsworthy from him. I was thinking, as I began to question him, of the success my colleague Josh Dawsey had when he took a call from the president in the middle of a dinner in October.
“Mr. President,” I asked, “when are you going to settle the shutdown?” He said it needed to be resolved soon, but he made it abundantly clear that no discussions of any kind were underway and that his terms had not softened. He reiterated that he expects funding for his border wall.
I tried a few other lines of inquiry on the shutdown, but in the snippets of conversation, no news was being made. The disputed story about him ordering Michael Cohen to lie to Congress seemed like an unproductive avenue, given the circumstances. But my questioning obviously needed work. Suggestions, Josh?
“I hear you’ve been saying nice things about me,” the president volunteered.
The statement caught me by surprise and I demurred. The man at the table next to us had mentioned to the president that, even in Paris, people were talking about him. “Are they still there? Let me speak to them,” the president had said, I later learned.
Whatever had been conveyed to him about the conversation McAuley and I had been having, he seemed to believe he had a sympathetic American on the other end of the phone. But with my noncommittal response, he seemed a bit puzzled.
He asked me another question: “Are you Hillary or are you Trump?”
At that point, I realized that confusion was rampant on both ends of this telephone call.
“I’m a reporter,” I replied.
That stopped him short, and I could almost hear the wheels spinning at the other end of the line as he tried to figure out what was going on here.
“Do you know who you’re speaking with?” I asked him.
It was an unfair question to ask. Obviously he did not, as there was no way he would have recognized my voice or in any other way assumed that he was talking to anyone other than a random American who happened to be in Paris. Had he known, I wonder whether he would have agreed to have the phone handed to me.
I identified myself. He seemed to be as surprised by the fact that he had a Washington Post reporter on the line as I had been to find that a man at a table next to mine was actually talking to the president of the United States.
Trump was apparently on a speaker phone because after I identified myself, there was an outbreak of laughter over the oddity of the whole moment. The president appeared not to be alone, though he did not identify anybody else with him.
All of this transpired in less than two minutes, at which point the owner of the phone signaled that he wanted to take back the call. I handed him the phone. James and I looked at one another in amazement at what had just happened, and we wondered aloud: Who was this man with the phone?
When the man with the phone ended the call, he turned back to us with a smile. “Who are you?” I asked, though I should have realized more quickly who it was.
Though my confusion was understandable, I instantly recognized him when he told me his name and was embarrassed that I hadn’t picked up on it earlier. But he was out of uniform, quite casually dressed, and out of context.
“I’m Joe Kernen of CNBC,” he said.
Kernen is a well-known co-anchor of the morning program “Squawk Box.” He was on his way to Davos, Switzerland, for next week’s World Economic Summit. He was supposed to have had an interview with the president there, but Trump had canceled his Davos trip because of the shutdown.
Trump was calling Kernen to express his regrets that the interview had been scrubbed. Unexpectedly, he ended up briefly talking to me as well.
McAuley and I introduced ourselves to Kernen and his wife and son. I don’t know who was more surprised that we all ended up within a few feet of one another at a Paris brasserie with the president calling.
That was that. Just another night in a foreign capital. Just another bizarre moment and a chance encounter with the president of the United States. I wonder whether there will be another.