If there were any doubt that his presidency was an unending campaign, Donald Trump erased it Friday when he pulled two pieces of paper from his suit jacket and recited the lyrics of a song.
Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president read "The Snake," a parable about a tender-hearted woman who takes in an ailing snake and gives it milk, honey and a silk blanket, only to be killed by the revived reptile's poisonous bite.
Trump explained the metaphor: "You have to think of this in terms of immigration."
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump frequently told the tale of the snake. The crowds at his rallies loved it. Other Americans were appalled and found it racist.
On Friday, Trump made "The Snake" the focal point of a 75-minute extravaganza of a presidential address that was evidently designed to enthrall his most loyal supporters - and further alienate the rest of the nation.
The campaign was back.
In fact, it never ended.
"Did anyone ever hear me do 'The Snake' during the campaign?" Trump asked the CPAC crowd, which roared back at him with applause. "I had five people outside say, 'Could you do 'The Snake?'"
"Let's do it," he told his fans. "I'll do it, all right?"
A day earlier, Vice President Mike Pence stood on the same stage at CPAC and sounded a call for unity. "There will always be more that unites us than will ever divide the good and great people of this country," he said. "So let's try to reconnect in the days and the debates that come ahead."
His boss had a different idea, however. Trump mocked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a war hero and Republican elder statesman with a terminal form of brain cancer, for his health-care vote. He vowed to "fight" a current Democratic foe, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. And he revived his row with a previous one, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, by encouraging chants of "lock her up" and sounding off about her alleged "atrocities."
"They're crazed anyway, these people," Trump said of Democrats. "They are really crazed."
Trump's address to an enthusiastic crowd of activists at CPAC amounted to a kickoff for the midterm campaign season, as Trump sounded an alarm about the fragility of the GOP's congressional majorities.
"Whoever wins the presidency has a disadvantage, for whatever reason, in the midterms," Trump said. "What happens is you fight so hard to win the presidency - and you fight, fight, fight."
Now, he said, "You're sitting back, you're watching television, [thinking] 'maybe I don't have to vote today. We just won the presidency.' And then we get clobbered. And we can't let that happen."
Trump added, "The word really is 'complacent.' People get complacent. It's a natural instinct. . . . Don't be complacent, OK?"
Trump made clear what his aides long have indicated: He is at his most comfortable on the campaign trail, as a political brawler feeding off the passions of his fans and speaking off the cuff.
"You don't mind if I go off script a little bit?" Trump said during his Friday speech, referring to the teleprompters loaded with words his aides wanted him to read. "Because it's sort of boring. It's a little boring. Got this beautiful speech, everything's wonderful, but a little boring."
Boring is not in Trump's playbook. But zany sometimes is.
To liven up his morning crowd - he started speaking a little after 10 a.m. - the president revealed that his dome was balding. Like a contestant in one of his beauty pagents, Trump turned in a circle to show off his orange-hued hair, which he carefully combs over and sprays down.
"I try like hell to hide that bald spot, folks," Trump said. "I work hard at it. Doesn't look bad. Hey, we're hanging in. We're hanging in."
Inside the West Wing, chief of staff John Kelly and some other advisers have struggled to get Trump to behave as a more conventional commander in chief. They have tried to limit the president's schedule of campaign-style events - such as a rally last August in Phoenix, where he went off script with one angry rant after another.
Trump often lets off steam at times of political stress. He and his White House are currently under siege on several fronts, including the intensifying Russia investigation by Robert Mueller, who secured a guilty plea Friday from a former senior Trump campaign official, Rick Gates.
But other aides, who abide by the campaign mantra of "Let Trump be Trump," marveled at the president's CPAC appearance and were especially excited that he had revived "The Snake." One staffer tweeted that it was "vintage" Trump, while another tweeted two green snake emoji.
Trump called for transforming the family reunification process he derides as "chain migration" with "a merit system." Never mind that earlier this week, a lawyer representing Trump's Slovenian-born wife, Melania, and her family told The Washington Post that the first lady's parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, had becomepermanent legal residents of the United States and were seeking citizenship. Experts said the couple very likely relied on the family reunification program to get their green cards.
Trump spent a considerable portion of his speech reliving his glories from the campaign two years ago. He talked about Clinton spending too much time in reliably-blue California - which, he said, was "crazy." And he said she spent too much money in North Carolina ("we did very well there") and too much time in Pennsylvania ("to no avail"). Next time, he said, Democrats won't forget about Iowa and Ohio, two battleground states he carried by big margins.
"Everybody said, 'He cannot do it,' " Trump recalled. "But, you know, we just hit a chord."
But Trump was mute about Russia's extensive, three-year operation aimed at influencing the U.S. election and helping him win. This virtual war was the subject of a series of indictments announced last Friday by his Justice Department, and Trump's intelligence chiefs warned last week that the Russians were planning similar attacks in this fall's midterm elections.
Another president might have had strong words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, or announced how Washington might punish Moscow, or simply projected American resolve in the face of a foreign intrusion.
Trump, however, focused on his domestic foes.
"So I just leave you with this: We have to fight Nancy Pelosi," he said.
"Kerry may be the worst negotiator I've ever seen," he said, referring to former Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iran nuclear deal.
"And Obama, of course. He's the one," Trump said, mockingly.
Perhaps Trump's sharpest barb came against a fellow Republican, McCain, who 10 years ago was the GOP presidential nominee and standard-bearer.
Trump lamented that Obama's signature health care law was not fully repealed - and blamed McCain, who voted against the GOP's repeal bill last year.
"Remember, one person walked into a room when he was supposed to [vote] this way, and he said he was going this way, and he walked in, and he went [another] way," Trump said. "And everyone said, 'What happened? What was that all about?'"
The president continued, teasingly: "Boy, oh, boy. Who was that? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't want to be controversial, so I won't use his name, OK?"
Trump did not have to. Everyone knew.
WASHINGTON - A top Justice Department official alerted the White House two weeks ago that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay the security clearance process of senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
The Feb. 9 phone call from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to White House Counsel Donald McGahn came amid growing public scrutiny of a number of administration officials without final security clearances. Most prominent among them is Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, who has had access to some of the nation's most sensitive material for the last year while waiting for his background investigation to be completed.
A week after the call from Rosenstein, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly announced that staffers whose clearances have not been finalized will no longer be able to view top-secret information - meaning that Kushner could stand to lose his status as early as Friday.
As president, Trump can grant Kushner a high-level security clearance, even if his background investigation continues to drag on. But Trump said Friday that he would leave that decision to Kelly.
In his phone conversation with McGahn, Rosenstein intended to give an update on the status of Kushner's background investigation. He did not specify the source of the information that officials were examining, the three people said.
Justice Department officials said Rosenstein did not provide any details to the White House about the matters that need to be investigated relating to Kushner.
"The Deputy Attorney General has not referenced to the White House any specific concerns relating to this individual's security clearance process," spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the status of Kushner's clearance or on information relayed by Rosenstein to McGahn.
Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment.
In a statement to The Washington Post last week, Lowell said he had been assured by officials that there was nothing unusual about the delay in Kushner's security clearance.
"My inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner's level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner's application," Lowell said in a statement on Feb. 16.
Kushner's interim clearance allows him to view both top-secret and sensitive compartmented information - classified intelligence related to sensitive sources. With that designation, he has been able to attend classified briefings, get access to the president's daily intelligence report and issue requests for information to the intelligence community.
Security clearance experts said it is rare to have such a high level of interim clearance for such a long period of time. Typically, senior officials do not get interim access to top-secret and sensitive compartmented material for more than three months, experts said.
The day before Rosenstein's call to McGahn, The Post reported that Kushner was among dozens of White House personnel who were relying on interim clearances while their FBI background investigations were pending.
White House officials have complained that they have had trouble getting information from the Justice Department and FBI about the status of delayed clearances, including Kushner's. People familiar with the Feb. 9 call said Rosenstein was returning a White House phone call seeking guidance on the status of his background investigation, among those of others.
Rosenstein intended to speak to Kelly, but the chief of staff was not immediately available, so he ended up talking to McGahn instead, according to three people familiar with the call.
In the call, Rosenstein did not say whether the information that had come to the attention of the Justice Department was learned by the FBI in its standard background clearance investigation of White House staff. Rosenstein also oversees the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has scrutinized Kushner's contacts with foreign officials and business dealings as he examines Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
There are conflicting accounts about whether Rosenstein discussed with McGahn the significance of the information and its possible impact on Kushner's clearance. Two people said the deputy attorney general told McGahn the Justice Department had obtained important new information, suggesting it could be an obstacle to his clearance process. Two others said Rosenstein did not discuss the nature of the ongoing investigation.
Bob Bauer, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration, said administration officials should view Rosenstein's alert as a strong reason to revoke Kushner's interim top-secret access.
"It seems to me that he should have restricted access to highly classified material until the resolution of those issues," Bauer said.
Kushner's inability to obtain a final clearance has frustrated and vexed the White House for months. As someone who meets regularly with foreign officials and reads classified intelligence, he would typically have a fast-tracked background investigation, security clearance experts said.
During the last six months, McGahn privately discussed the slow pace of Kushner's background investigation with other senior aides, including with Kelly in the fall, according to a top administration official. Kelly expressed frustration with Kushner's access to classified material on an extended interim clearance, according to the official. But McGahn and Kelly decided to wait for the FBI to complete its background investigation and took no action at the time to change his access.
Their wait-and-see mode ended abruptly last week, when Kelly issued a new policy that would block staff with interim clearances from receiving top-secret information as of Friday.
The changes were prompted by intense scrutiny that has followed domestic-abuse allegations against Rob Porter, the president's former staff secretary, who was also working under an interim top-secret clearance.
The move puts a "bull's eye" on Kushner, a senior official told The Post last week.
Kelly has told associates that he is uncomfortable with Kushner's uncertain security clearance status and his unique role as both a family member and staffer, according to people familiar with the conversations. He has said he would not be upset if the president's son-in-law and his wife, Ivanka Trump, left their positions as full-time employees.
On Friday, Trump said he would defer the question of Kushner's access to his chief of staff.
"I will let Gen. Kelly make that decision, and he's going to do what's right for the country," the president said during a news conference. "And I have no doubt that he will make the right decision."
In a statement about Kushner issued earlier this week, Kelly said he had "full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico."
Inside the White House, officials have discussed concerns that the delay in Kushner's clearance is due in part to repeated updates he made to a form detailing his contacts with foreign officials.
He filed three amendments last year to the questionnaire, after failing to fully disclose contacts reaching back several years. Kushner has said the omissions were inadvertent errors.
Investigators scrutinize those activities to determine whether a person could be subject to influence or blackmail by a foreign government and can be trusted to guard classified information.
Ordinarily, security clearance experts said, the failure to completely disclose all contacts would jeopardize an applicant's chances of obtaining final clearance.
In addition, Kushner's actions during the transition have been referenced in the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Prosecutors said Flynn was acting in consultation with a senior Trump transition official, whom people familiar with the matter have identified as Kushner.
- - -
The Washington Post's Shane Harris, Sari Horwitz, Ellen Nakashima and Julie Tate contributed to this report.