Washington, DC – I suppose you could call it the day I finally figured out covering US President Donald Trump’s White House was going to be a bumpy ride.
It was February 16, 2017, less than a month into the presidency of Donald Trump.
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He had just allowed a select group of reporters – known as the “pool” – into the Roosevelt Room to make quick remarks, during a meeting with Republican politicians.
He talked about the F-35 jet and why it was a waste of money and how he would be negotiating other government contracts to save the US “billions and billions of dollars”.
By Trump standards, it was a relatively straightforward photo-op … until he blurted out: “I don’t think the press will want to show up but I think I’ll have a press conference probably at 12 o’clock in the East Room.”
He said this at roughly 10:45am local time, just over an hour before.
I was on the White House grounds that day, and the looks on the press staffers’ faces following that moment can be summed up in one word: “Huh?”
Whenever anyone asks me what it’s like working at the Trump White House, I think about that day and the reality show that now consumes the world’s most recognisable place.
‘Nothing is normal’
It’s even more surreal and strange up close.
A press conference by a US president is normally a massive deal planned hours or days, sometimes weeks, in advance. His every word is scrutinised and debated not just by Americans, but by world leaders in every capital and industry.
The press office and government agencies are often involved.
Presidents, quite simply, don’t arrange and plan their own press events on the spur of the moment. But when your name is Donald Trump, nothing is normal.
On February 16, Trump did what he has done so many times since then, and something journalists like me are still trying to get used to. He turned a fleeting thought in his brain into reality or, more appropriately, reality TV.
What emerged that day was one of the most epic press events I’ve ever witnessed during my 16 years covering Washington politics.
It was a hastily-organised (White House employees were scrambling to bring chairs into the East Room as we entered) but highly-entertaining, 78-minute showdown between himself and, as he so often says, “the fake news media”.
He went around the room like a game-show host in a lightning round, answering queries from reporters, cutting them off when he sensed a difficult question coming, admonishing others for not doing their jobs and even complaining at one point that no one was calling him to confirm stories.
For the record, Trump doesn’t typically give his mobile phone number out to journalists, as far as I know.
It was a rambling, off-the-cuff affair that was more spectacle than substantial, a fitting banner for Trump’s first year. And, it hasn’t stopped.
When a US secretary of state is forced to give a press conference – as Rex Tillerson did in October – to take the unprecedented step of telling the world he didn’t call the president of the US (his boss), “a f***ing moron”, the US is in uncharted territory.
I’d like to repeat that, the world’s top diplomat gave an entire press conference to answer questions on whether or not he used the word “moron” in reference to Trump.
I remember a flustered White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sticking his head into a Florida press room – during the visit of Chinese President Xi – telling reporters that upcoming remarks by White House officials would be on background (meaning: we can’t say the names of the people who briefed us) and on camera, then changing his mind moments later, saying they wouldn’t be, only to change his mind again. He was obviously being micromanaged by someone higher up and, for the record, I still don’t know whether it was on background or not.
More recently, a CBS News producer perfectly captured a messy conference call for reporters on the Iran nuclear deal that I was also on. As the White House struggled to put the call in listen-only mode for 22 minutes, to mute the chatter from dozens of reporters on their phones, an unknown voice said to everyone listening: “This White House can’t even run a f***ing conference call.”