Wednesday 25 April 2018

President is 'performance artist' who gleefully sees each press conference as a stage

Sarah Huckabee Sandersthe. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sarah Huckabee Sandersthe. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Philip Rucker

Midway through Donald Trump's second media availability in a single afternoon on Thursday, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, held up a sign signalling to the boss that it was time to stop.

"One more question," it read.

The US 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 Mr Trump in his element: At his luxurious private golf club 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 Mr 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.

After a week of seclusion at his Bedminster golf club, mostly out of public view during his working holiday, Mr 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 travelling reporters lacked the formality of a fully 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, Mr Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly, was relegated to merely watching the spectacle. The retired four-star Marine Corps general has, with great fanfare, worked to instil order in the White House, including a more disciplined message and more limited access to the president.

But two things Mr Kelly apparently could not control on Thursday: What Mr 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 insider, 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 revelling in this moment," said Mr O'Brien, author 'Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald'.

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 galvanise his base of supporters at a time when polls show his support softening.

Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to the president, said Mr 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," Ms 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."

Mr 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 favour").

Mr Trump also said he was thankful to Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling hundreds of US 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 HR McMaster and Attorney General Jeff Sessions; is working to modernise the US nuclear arsenal; and is hunting down so-called leakers who share information with journalists.

His impromptu answers could cause headaches for his administration in the days to come. His comments on North Korea are unlikely to calm jitters around the world.

Mr O'Brien said Mr 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."

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

"He realises that the best way for him to control his message is to be the message." (© Washington Post syndication)

Irish Independent

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