The news analysts and pundits took us to the races this weekend after a question I asked President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House actually got answered.
The pundits, of whom I admit I am one, got it wrong.
As the president left the White House for the Army/Navy football game, he stopped on the tarmac of the South Lawn as he left his residence to first greet well-wishers and then to tell reporters he planned to flip the coin at the beginning of the game.
Then he took questions.
With my certificate from the Sam Donaldson voice training school, I got in the first question to him; did he expect additional indictments from the Mueller investigation? He answered by telling us first about the coin flip and then addressed my Mueller question saying that he liked the Mueller findings because they proved “No collusion” though Trump admitted he hadn’t read anything Mueller or anyone else had filed in court.
Additional questions on Mueller by other reporters were met with silence. So I shifted gears and shouted out the other question on my mind (well other than the one about whether or not Trump had found the NY Times anonymous op-ed writer). I asked if John Kelly still worked at the White House. Trump pointed at me because he had trouble hearing the question, but apparently did hear the magic words “John Kelly.” I repeated the question.
He answered and suddenly we had a breaking story on the South Lawn.
No one was more shocked than me when the president said Kelly would leave the administration by the end of the year. I would’ve thought such an announcement would come in a joint news release followed by a Kelly announcement. But no.
Presidents have been making the trek to the South Lawn since Eisenhower to board Marine One – the helicopter that acts as an aerial presidential motorcade to Joint Base Andrews, Camp David or on other short trips where a motorcade is either impractical, unsafe or otherwise unwarranted.
Ronald Reagan and Donaldson made the extended walk infamous. Reagan, often sporting a grin and placing a hand to his ear, would pretend not to hear Donaldson as the man with a megaphone mouth would pepper Reagan with questions as the president took his stroll.
One of the incidents still talked about among photographers and other technicians still on the White House beat from that time was the day Donaldson saw Reagan limping and called out, “Mr. President, I see you limping. Does that mean you’re a lame duck?”
Reagan apparently said, “I heard that,” and turned around and answered some questions.
Getting the president to answer questions, of course, is the trick and most presidents haven’t stopped for any length of time to discuss anything with reporters on the South Lawn. The obligatory wave to crowds that don’t exist (except for reporters) is the most we usually get. Photographers get a publicity shot. Reporters usually get nothing.
But the South Lawn has turned out to be Donald Trump’s sweet spot.
He has never held a news conference in the White House Press Briefing Room. He’s only had three full news conferences, and other than the occasional pool spray appearance, the best place reporters have had to catch the president is on the South Lawn as he leaves the White House – which is often.
In the first days of the administration, Trump was like most other presidents and seemed to enjoy ignoring us, but as time wore on he became friendlier on the rope line and that’s simply because of how The Donald operates.
Time is limited as the president walks to the helicopter so Trump knows he won’t be mingling for an extended period of time with the heathen reporters. Since the helicopter engine continues unabated and because Trump can pace a rope line while reporters remain motionless, the president can also ignore reporters, pretend he didn’t hear them, cut them off, refuse to answer or allow follow up questions and limit his interaction while still quenching his thirst to be in front of the cameras.
Thus, the South Lawn evolved into Trump’s preferred place to interact with reporters. It’s a control issue.
To adjust to this reality, reporters are approaching these interactions differently than they have with previous presidents. They are more organized. Sound technicians, photographers and reporters have developed a method by which they can get the most bang for the buck out of the encounter. Personally, I come loaded with three or four questions. The president isn’t predictable about much, but he will usually talk in the morning when he leaves the White House versus the afternoon, evening or early morning when he returns.
Saturday’s surprise announcement regarding John Kelly’s imminent departure from the White House was greeted by pundits as “bringing more instability” to the White House and the loss of Kelly meant Trump was losing his “Inner Circle.”
Both of those statements are a load of crap.
I, along with other reporters on this beat, have seen this administration up close since day one and there is simply no way it could be more unstable. Chaos doesn’t get more chaotic.
As for the “Inner Circle,” Trump’s ultimate inner circle is inside his own head. Other than that it extends to his closest family members and everyone else is expendable.
Those offering a wide variety of opinions on this matter are most often those who are only tangentially covering this president.
They are paid to give us an opinion based on years of covering politics, but without the experience of covering Trump.
And The Donald, with all due respect, is so far different from any other president that previous experience covering politics is not an asset. It is a detriment.
Do not forget: Trump is no ordinary politician.
If you’ve covered con men, used car salesmen and habitual criminals or mobsters, your experience is an asset in covering Donald Trump – but not if you’ve covered your average mediocre politician.
Trump is unlike any other stain ever to spread itself across the American psyche. Trump is completely absent of any redeeming qualities other than being pure sideshow entertainment.
Here is where he thrives and why he loves working the South Lawn.
He becomes a barker on the midway enticing you to throw rings on the bottle.
When you land one, you feel satisfied.
Trump? He doesn’t care. The odds are always in favor of the Midway Barker.
His conversation isn’t deep. It is thin, illusory and keeps you focused on things that don’t matter while the Midway Barker fleeces your pockets.
Any long term discussions or any in-depth analysis uncovers the naked truth that there is nothing there with Trump.
This is where most pundits fail.
They over analyze what amounts to an insecure, brazen, self-absorbed huckster with daddy issues pretending to be something he isn’t.
Donald Trump continues to be the most transparent president ever. You can see through him because there is nothing there.
Trump likes to speak. He enjoys the spotlight when he can control it. He’s a reality star. This isn’t rocket science.
Saturday he was in the mood to talk. He glad-handed with well-wishers and feeling the rush walked over to talk with reporters. But he didn’t want to talk too much about Mueller.
He couldn’t. As he said, he hadn’t read any filings.
So when I asked about Kelly, it gave Trump something to say about an issue on which he actually had knowledge. Forget whatever the president’s minions had decided to do. The big dog wanted to bark.
Obviously the administration had discussed Kelly’s departure, and Trump knew enough about that to give us a few words before he left for the Army/Navy game.
Since decorum matters little with Trump there is absolutely no reason for him to stick to any archaic ideas like protocol or manners. Hence, any plans of a smooth roll out of the information were scrapped to please Trump’s desire to say something of substance that didn’t have to do with Mueller.
At the same time, he has no desire to be trapped in a briefing room where he is stationary and is subject to repeated questions or follow ups on issues with which he has little desire to discuss.
The joy for Trump on the South Lawn is half the time reporters can’t hear each other and that limits our ability to coordinate any questions or follow up on each other’s line of questioning.
At the end of the day, with respect to all my fellow pundits who I didn’t see on the South Lawn rope line Saturday, there are two things to take away from Trump’s pronouncements about Kelly.
First, as the Mueller investigation noose tightens, Trump will limit himself more and more to his sweet spot with regards to talking to the open press. (This of course is separate from the issue of one-on-one interviews with a variety of reporters with whom he feels comfortable.)
Secondly, quit over-analyzing the president’s motives. He doesn’t read filings. His current and former staff members do not give him high marks for organization, reading or planning.
He flies by the seat of his pants. He goes with his gut.
There are no deep thoughts. There are just the survival instincts of a cornered New York sewer rat.
President Trump is that rat.