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Within the first weeks of his presidency a theory emerged among Trump’s friends that he was not acting presidential, or, really, in any way taking into account his new status or restraining his behavior—from early morning tweets, to his refusal to follow scripted remarks, to his self-pitying calls to friends, details of which were already making it into the press—because he hadn’t taken the leap that others before him had taken. Most presidents arrived in the White House from more or less ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed and reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this would not have been that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower, which was more commodious and to his taste than the White House, with servants, security, courtiers, and advisers always on the premises and a plane at the ready. The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.
But another theory of the case was exactly opposite: he was totally off-kilter here because everything in his orderly world had been thrown on its head. In this view, the seventy-year-old Trump was a creature of habit at a level few people without despotic control of their environment could ever imagine. He had lived in the same home, a vast space in Trump Tower, since shortly after the building was completed in 1983. Every morning since, he had made the same commute to his office a few floors down. His corner office was a time capsule from the 1980s, the same gold-lined mirrors, the same Time magazine covers fading on the wall; the only substantial change was the substitution of Joe Namath’s football for Tom Brady’s. Outside the doors to his office, everywhere he looked there were the same faces, the same retainers—servants, security, courtiers, the “yes people”—who had attended him basically always.
“Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if that’s what you did every day and then suddenly you’re in the White House?” marveled a longtime Trump friend, smiling broadly at this trick of fate, if not abrupt comeuppance.
Trump found the White House, an old building with only sporadic upkeep and piecemeal renovations—as well as a famous roach and rodent problem—to be vexing and even a little scary. Friends who admired his skills as a hotelier wondered why he just didn’t remake the place, but he seemed cowed by the weight of the watchful eyes on him.
Kellyanne Conway, whose family had remained in New Jersey, and who had anticipated that she could commute home when the president went back to New York, was surprised that New York and Trump Tower were suddenly stricken from his schedule. Conway thought that the president, in addition to being aware of the hostility in New York, was making a conscious effort to be “part of this great house.” (But, acknowledging the difficulties inherent in his change of circumstances and of adapting to presidential lifestyle, she added, “How often will he go to Camp David?”—the Spartan, woodsy presidential retreat in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland—“How ’bout never.”) At the White House, he retreated to his own bedroom—the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms (although Melania was spending scant time so far in the White House). In the first days he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a longtime fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at McDonald’s—nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed.
If he was not having his six-thirty dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls—the phone was his true contact point with the world—to a small group of friends, among them most frequently Tom Barrack, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.
But after the rocky start, things started to look better—even, some argued, presidential.
On Tuesday, January 31, in an efficiently choreographed prime-time ceremony, an upbeat and confident President Trump announced the nomination of federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch was a perfect combination of impeccable conservative standing, admirable probity, and gold-standard legal and judicial credentials. The nomination not only delivered on Trump’s promise to the base and to the conservative establishment, but it was a choice that seemed perfectly presidential.
Gorsuch’s nomination was also a victory for a staff that had seen Trump, with this plum job and rich reward in his hand, waver again and again. Pleased by how the nomination was received, especially by how little fault the media could find with it, Trump would shortly become a Gorsuch fan. But before settling on Gorsuch, he wondered why the job wasn’t going to a friend and loyalist. In the Trump view, it was rather a waste to give the job to someone he didn’t even know.
At various points in the process he had run through almost all his lawyer friends—all of them unlikely, if not peculiar, choices, and, in almost every case, political nonstarters. The one unlikely, peculiar, and nonstarter choice that he kept returning to was Rudy Giuliani.
Trump owed Giuliani; not that he was so terribly focused on his debts, but this was one that was certainly unpaid. Not only was Giuliani a longtime New York friend, but when few Republicans were offering Trump their support, and almost none with a national reputation, Giuliani was there for him—and in combative, fiery, and relentless fashion. This was particularly true during the hard days following Billy Bush: when virtually everybody, including the candidate himself, Bannon, Conway, and his children, believed the campaign would implode, Giuliani barely allowed himself a break from his nonstop, passionate, and unapologetic Trump defense.
Giuliani wanted to be the secretary of state, and Trump had in so many words offered him the job. The resistance to Giuliani from the Trump circle derived from the same reason Trump was inclined to give him the job—Giuliani had Trump’s ear and wouldn’t let go. The staff whispered about his health and stability. Even his full-on pussygate defense now started to seem like a liability. He was offered attorney general, Department of Homeland Security, and director of national intelligence, but he turned them all down, continuing to hold out for State. Or, in what staffers took to be the ultimate presumption, or grand triangulation, the Supreme Court. Since Trump could not put someone openly pro-choice on the court without both sundering his base and risking defeat of his nominee, then, of course, he’d have to give Giuliani State.
When this strategy failed—Rex Tillerson got the secretary of state job—that should have been the end of it, but Trump kept returning to the idea of putting Giuliani on the court. On February 8, during the confirmation process, Gorsuch took public exception to Trump’s disparagement of the courts. Trump, in a moment of pique, decided to pull his nomination and, during conversations with his after-dinner callers, went back to discussing how he should have given the nod to Rudy. He was the only loyal guy. It was Bannon and Priebus who kept having to remind him, and to endlessly repeat, that in one of the campaign’s few masterful pieces of issue-defusing politics, and perfect courtship of the conservative base, it had let the Federalist Society produce a list of candidates. The campaign had promised that the nominee would come from that list—and needless to say, Giuliani wasn’t on it.
Gorsuch was it. And Trump would shortly not remember when he had ever wanted anyone but Gorsuch.
On February 3, the White House hosted a carefully orchestrated meeting of one of the newly organized business councils, the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum. It was a group of highly placed CEOs and weighty business types brought together by Blackstone chief Stephen Schwarzman. The planning for the event—with a precise agenda, choreographed seating and introductions, and fancy handouts—was more due to Schwarzman than to the White House. But it ended up being the kind of event that Trump did very well at and very much enjoyed. Kellyanne Conway, often referencing the Schwarzman gathering, would soon begin a frequent theme of complaint, namely that these kinds of events—Trump sitting down with serious-minded people and looking for solutions to the nation’s problems—were the soul of Trump’s White House and the media was giving them scant coverage.
Hosting business advisory councils was a Kushner strategy. It was an enlightened business approach, distracting Trump from what Kushner viewed as the unenlightened right-wing agenda. To an increasingly scornful Bannon, its real purpose was to allow Kushner himself to consort with CEOs.
Schwarzman reflected what to many was a surprising and sudden business and Wall Street affinity for Trump. Although few major-company CEOs had publicly supported him—with many, if not all, big companies planning for a Hillary Clinton victory and already hiring Clinton-connected public policy teams and with a pervasive media belief that a Trump victory would assure a market tailspin—there was suddenly an overnight warming. An antiregulatory White House and the promise of tax reform outweighed the prospect of disruptive tweeting and other forms of Trump chaos; besides, the market had not stopped climbing since November 9, the day after the election. What’s more, in one-on-one meetings, CEOs were reporting good vibes from Trump’s effusive and artful flattery—and the sudden relief of not having to deal with what some knew to be relentless Clinton-team hondling (what can you do for us today and can we use your plan?).
On the other hand, while there was a warming C-suite feeling for Trump, there was also rising concern about the consumer side of many big brands. The Trump brand was suddenly the world’s biggest brand—the new Apple, except the opposite, since it was universally disdained (at least among many of the consumers who most top brands sought to court).
Hence, on inaugural morning, the employees of Uber, the ride sharing company, whose then CEO Travis Kalanick had signed on to the Schwarzman council, woke up to find people chained to the doors of their San Francisco headquarters. The charge was that Uber and Kalanick were “collaborating”—with its whiff of Vichy—a much different status than a business looking to sober forums with the president as a way to influence the government. Indeed, the protesters who believed they were seeing the company’s relationship with Trump in political terms were actually seeing this in conventional brand terms and zooming in on the disconnect. Uber’s customer base is strongly young, urban, and progressive, and therefore out of sync with the Trump base. Brand-conscious millennials saw this as beyond policy di@kering and as part of an epic identity clash. The Trump White House stood less for government and the push-pull of competing interests and developing policies, and more, in a brand-savvy world, as a fixed and unpopular cultural symbol.
Uber’s Kalanick resigned from the council. Disney CEO Bob Iger simply found that he was otherwise occupied on the occasion of the forum’s first meeting.
But most of the people on the council—other than Elon Musk, the investor, inventor, and founder of Tesla (who would later resign)—were not from media or tech companies, with their liberal bent, but from old-line, when-America-was-great enterprises. They included Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors; Ginni Rometty of IBM; Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE; Jim McNerney, the former CEO of Boeing; and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo. If the new right had elected Trump, it was the older Fortune 100 executives who most pleased him.
Trump attended the meeting with his full retinue—the circle that seemed always to move with him in lockstep, including Bannon, Priebus, Kushner, Stephen Miller, and National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn—but conducted it entirely himself. Each of the people at the table, taking a point of interest, spoke for five minutes, with Trump then asking follow-up questions. Though Trump appeared not to have particularly, or at all, prepared for any of the subjects being discussed, he asked engaged and interested questions, pursuing things he wanted to know more about, making the meeting quite an easy back-and-forth. One of the CEOs observed that this seemed like the way Trump preferred to get information—talking about what he was interested in and getting other people to talk about his interests.
The meeting went on for two hours. In the White House view, this was Trump at his best. He was most at home around people he respected—and these were “the most respected people in the country,” according to Trump—who seemed to respect him, too.
This became a staff goal—to create situations in which he was comfortable, to construct something of a bubble, to wall him off from a mean-spirited world. Indeed, they sought to carefully replicate this formula: Trump in the Oval or in a larger West Wing ceremonial room presiding in front of a receptive audience, with a photo opportunity. Trump was often his own stage manager at these events, directing people in and out of the picture.
The media has a careful if selective filter when it comes to portraying real life in the White House. The president and First Family are not, at least not usually, subjected to the sort of paparazzi pursuit that in celebrity media results in unflattering to embarrassing to mocking photographs, or in endless speculation about their private lives. Even in the worst scandals, a businesslike suit-and-tie formality is still accorded the president. Saturday Night Live presidential skits are funny in part because they play on our belief that in reality, presidents are quite contained and buttoned-down figures, and their families, trotting not far behind, colorless and obedient. The joke on Nixon was that he was pitiably uptight—even at the height of Watergate, drinking heavily, he remained in his coat and tie, kneeling in prayer. Gerald Ford merely tripped coming off Air Force One, providing great hilarity in this break from formal presidential poise. Ronald Reagan, likely suffering the early effects of Alzheimer’s, remained a carefully managed picture of calm and confidence. Bill Clinton, amid the greatest break in presidential decorum in modern history, was even so always portrayed as a man in control. George W. Bush, for all his disengagement, was allowed by the media to be presented as dramatically in charge. Barack Obama, perhaps to his disadvantage, was consistently presented as thoughtful, steady, and determined. This is partly a benefit of overweening image control, but it is also because the president is thought to be the ultimate executive—or because the national myth requires him to be.
That was actually the kind of image that Donald Trump had worked to project throughout most of his career. His is a 1950s businessman sort of ideal. He aspires to look like his father—or, anyway, not to displease his father. Except when he’s in golf wear, it is hard to imagine him out of a suit and tie, because he almost never is. Personal dignity—that is, apparent uprightness and respectability—is one of his fixations. He is uncomfortable when the men around him are not wearing suit and ties. Formality and convention—before he became president, almost everybody without high celebrity or a billion dollars called him “Mr. Trump”—are a central part of his identity. Casualness is the enemy of pretense. And his pretense was that the Trump brand stood for power, wealth, arrival.
On the February 5, the New York Times published an inside-the-White-House story that had the president, two weeks into his term, stalking around in the late hours of the night in his bathrobe, unable to work the light switches. Trump fell apart. It was, the president not incorrectly saw, a way of portraying him as losing it, as Norma Desmond in the movie Sunset Boulevard, a faded or even senile star living in a fantasy world. (This was Bannon’s interpretation of the Times’s image of Trump, which was quickly adopted by everyone in the White House.) And, of course, once again, it was a media thing—he was being treated in a way that no other president had ever been treated.
This was not incorrect. The New York Times, in its efforts to cover a presidency that it openly saw as aberrant, had added to its White House beat something of a new form of coverage. Along with highlighting White House announcements—separating the trivial from the significant—the paper would also highlight, often in front-page coverage, the sense of the absurd, the pitiable, and the all-too-human. These stories turned Trump into a figure of ridicule. The two White House reporters most consistently on this beat, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, would become part of Trump’s constant refrain about the media being out to get him. Thrush would even become a fixture in Saturday Night Live sketches that mocked the president, his children, his press secretary Sean Spicer, and his advisers Bannon and Conway.
The president, while often a fabulist in his depiction of the world, was quite a literalist when it came to how he saw himself. Hence he rebutted this picture of him as a half-demented or seriously addled midnight stalker in the White House by insisting that he didn’t own a bathrobe.
“Do I seem like a bathrobe kind of guy, really?” he demanded, not humorously, of almost every person with whom he spoke over the next forty-eight hours. “Seriously, can you see me in a bathrobe?”
Who had leaked it? For Trump, the details of his personal life suddenly became a far greater matter of concern than all the other kinds of leaks.
The New York Times Washington bureau, itself quite literal and worried by the possible lack of an actual bathrobe, reverse-leaked that Bannon was the source of the story.
Bannon, who styled himself as a kind of black hole of silence, had also become a sort of official black-hole voice, everybody’s Deep Throat. He was witty, intense, evocative, and bubbling over, his theoretical discretion ever giving way to a constant semipublic commentary on the pretensions and fatuousness and hopeless lack of seriousness of most everyone else in the White House. By the second week of the Trump presidency, everybody in the White House seemed to be maintaining their own list of likely leakers and doing their best to leak before being leaked about.
But another likely leak source about his angst in the White House was Trump himself. In his calls throughout the day and at night from his bed, he frequently spoke to people who had no reason to keep his confidences. He was a river of grievances—including about what a dump the White House was on close inspection—examples of which many recipients of his calls promptly spread throughout the ever attentive and merciless gossip world.
On February 6, Trump made one of his seething, self-pitying, and unsolicited phone calls without presumption of confidentiality to a passing New York media acquaintance. The call had no discernible point other than to express his bent-out-of-shape feelings about the relentless contempt of the media and the disloyalty of his staff.
The initial subject of his ire was the New York Times and its reporter Maggie Haberman, whom he called “a nut job.” The Times’s Gail Collins, who had written a column unfavorably comparing Trump to Vice President Pence, was “a moron.” But then, continuing under the rubric of media he hated, he veered to CNN and the deep disloyalty of its chief, Jeff Zucker. Zucker, who as the head of NBC had commissioned The Apprentice, had been “made by Trump,” Trump said of himself in the third person. And Trump had “personally” gotten Zucker his job at CNN. “Yes, yes, I did,” said Trump.
He then repeated a story that he was obsessively telling almost everyone he spoke to. He’d gone to a dinner, he didn’t remember when, where he had sat next to “a gentleman named Kent”—undoubtedly Phil Kent, a former CEO of Turner Broadcasting, the Time Warner division that oversaw CNN—“and he had a list of four names.” Three of them Trump had never heard of, but he knew Jeff Zucker because of The Apprentice. “Zucker was number four on the list, so I talked him up to number one. I probably shouldn’t have because Zucker is not that smart but I like to show I can do that sort of thing.” But Zucker, “a very bad guy who has done terrible with the ratings,” had turned around after Trump had gotten him the job and had said, well, it’s “unbelievably disgusting.” This was the Russian “dossier” and the “golden shower” story—the practice CNN had accused him of being party to in the Moscow hotel suite with assorted prostitutes.
Having dispensed with Zucker, the president of the United States went on to speculate on what was involved with a golden shower. And how this was all just part of a media campaign that would never succeed in driving him from the White House. Because they were sore losers and hated him for winning, they spread total lies, 100 percent made-up things, totally untrue, for instance, the cover that week of Time magazine—which, Trump reminded his listeners, he had been on more than anyone in history—that showed Steve Bannon, a good guy, saying he was the real president. “How much influence do you think Steve Bannon has over me?” Trump demanded and repeated the question, and then repeated the answer: “Zero! Zero!” And that went for his son-in-law, too, who had a lot to learn.
The media was not only hurting him, he said—he was not looking for any agreement or really even any response—but hurting his negotiating capabilities, which hurt the nation. And that went for Saturday Night Live, too, which might think it was very funny but was actually hurting everybody in the country. And while he understood that SNL was there to be mean to him, they were being very, very mean. It was “fake comedy.” He had reviewed the treatment of all other presidents in the media and there was nothing like this ever, even of Nixon who was treated very unfairly. “Kellyanne, who is very fair, has this all documented. You can look at it.” The point is, he said, that that very day, he had saved $700 million a year in jobs that were going to Mexico but the media was talking about him in his bathrobe, which “I don’t have because I’ve never worn a bathrobe. And would never wear one, because I’m not that kind of guy.” And what the media was doing was undermining this very dignified house, and “dignity is so important.” But Murdoch, “who had never called me, never once,” was now calling all the time. So that should tell people something.
The call went on for twenty-six minutes.
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