I started out the first press briefing of 2018 wishing for a bit of change at the White House, and ended the first work week of the year remembering to be careful of what I wish for, as it can sometimes come true.
The Trump administration, ending 2017 on a high note with its tax plan victory, began the calendar year engaged in a war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that more resembled two prepubescent boys comparing the size of their genitalia than any type of international policy.
“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” our president declared in a tweet.
Trump then went on to tweet that he was going to announce his self-appointed “Most Dishonest and Corrupt Media Awards of the Year,” the following Monday. I’m not the only one all a blush hoping to get one of these “Fakies,” as Stephen Colbert describes them. Colbert himself is hoping for one, too.
Both issues speak to a man with a tenuous hold on reality. Nuclear conflagration is nothing to joke about or with which we should ever threaten to bring about—especially to a “depleted and food starved regime.” Not only do we sound like a rich, fat bully threatening a poor, starving kid, but we’re coming closer to Carl Sagan’s warning about nuclear war, first spoke in 1983 when he described the possibility of a “nuclear winter": “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.”
As for the president calling out reporters and organizations for producing news he believes to be “fake,” I was left wondering if the president didn’t have something more to do than produce another reality television show. Didn’t he have a country to run?
This administration has said it is entitled to alternative facts. How is that different from Steve Bannon?
Many of us in the press corps have grown tired of his tweets, his stray comments on the South Lawn and his quick soundbites during pool sprays. In his first year as president, Trump spent 91 days on the golf course and more than 100 on Trump property instead of the White House. For a president who campaigned by tweeting he’d be too busy as president to golf, the words rang hollow, and even if he got a substantial amount of work done on the golf course during the holidays, he had little if any contact with the press or the American people.
What did he do? No one knew. And we still don’t.
I asked during a briefing this week if the administration would give the American public a detailed accounting of what the president did during his vacation—you know, with him being the head of a government of, for and by the people. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told us the president talked a lot about trade— “and we’ll keep you posted if we have specifics to roll out,” she promised.
I then asked her if there was any chance the president would visit us in the briefing room, like every other president who’s held office in my lifetime, and answer questions for himself. He has had only one solo news conference in a year and has never visited the press room.
I got no answer. By the next day, after word of Steve Bannon’s participation in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a new book about the first year of the Trump presidency, hit the news cycle, no one was talking about the president’s extended foray in the rough at Mar-a-Lago anymore.
Bannon called actions by the president’s son “treasonous” and Trump responded by saying Bannon, or “Sloppy Steve,” had lost his mind when he lost his job at the White House. Sanders, embattled in the press room, took hit after hit while calling the soon-to-be released book “a work of fiction and fantasy.” But if it were indeed fantasy, the president couldn’t stop talking about it. Sanders said with a straight face that Bannon is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts, which brought about a few chortles from reporters who remembered Kellyanne Conway’s pronouncement that the administration was entitled to “alternative facts.”
Sanders also fought back with impressive statistics from the stock market; meanwhile, the president tweeted how no one had died in a commercial airliner crash in the past year due to his stringent rules on air travel. (In reality, there hasn’t been one since 2009, but as the man said in Animal House, “forget it. He’s rolling.”)
By the third day of the year, and only the second work day of 2018, the country was already overwhelmed with a tidal wave of new allegations against the president. His bunker was showing signs of direct hits. His communications director Hope Hicks was rumored to be somewhere, though few have seen her since she took the job.
Sanders continued to sally forth, girded for battle, and had to deal with Trump dissolving a presidential advisory commission on election integrity because he couldn’t get anyone to cooperate. The administration banned cell phones in the West Wing (purely for safety reasons, not to keep staffers from leaking) and Paul Manafort filed suit against the Department of Justice, deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller, claiming Mueller’s investigation had “gone too far.”
As Hunter Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Jeff Sessions doubled-down on Thursday saying the federal government would crack down on marijuana, rolling back an Obama-era rule regarding pot and in effect telling us Reefer Madness is once again the law of the land. Officials in states across the nation making millions off of legal weed laughed, giggled and offered him a peace pipe. While it’s doubtful Sessions has ever had any wildwood weed, he is, according to some, the West’s leading candidate for needing a big bong hit.
But the president didn’t have time to deal with stoners. He was on a Twitter-litter tirade against Bannon, threatening to sue to stop the publication of Wolff’s book (which he can’t do due to “prior restraint”) and threatening to sue Bannon for defamation of character (which he can do.) Of course, by saying Bannon is out of his mind, Bannon’s representatives said Trump opened himself up for a defamation suit, too.
By Thursday afternoon, the press corps was exhausted. I had two questions for Sanders. First, was the president undergoing mental acuity tests with his physical next week? Second, this administration has said on many occasions that it is entitled to alternative facts. How is that different from Steve Bannon?
Sanders smiled and returned with this: "This administration has not said on numerous occasions that they’re alternative facts. I know that there was one reference in which they were saying there’s basically two sides to the story. I think that’s very different than completely false information and an opinion.”
Just three work days into 2018 and the White House was in dysfunctional shambles. The press staff was understaffed and some of the younger press wranglers had to deal with angry reporters wondering why they were cut out of a pool spray. The wranglers who had to handle a pool spray let other duties fall by the wayside.
Then, on Thursday night, the New York Times reported that the president had encouraged Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation, which brought about another round of chest-thumping and scared looks. Democrats who hate Jeff Sessions looked like deer in headlights. Should he quit? Should they demand he quit? What if he didn’t quit? What if he did? Where’s my mommy?
The president had engaged in a Twitter litter campaign of more than a dozen tweets, some obscenely grotesque, others funny and many downright mean. Stephen Miller was seen in the lower press office trying to speak in tongues. Hope Hicks was still rumored to be around, somewhere. The Chief of Staff was rumored to be pulling what few hairs he had left as everyone was dealing with a president many described to be emotionally “stunted,” lacking in empathy or worse.
Few casual observers put any credence into the claim that the president once looked into the mirror shouted out he was a self-made man who hated his creator.
Meanwhile, North Korea and nuclear war was all but forgotten. By Friday, as the president emerged from his sequestration in the Oval Office to get on a plane to fly to Camp David for the weekend, he bypassed the chaos. “Hi everybody,” he told assembled reporters on the frigid South Lawn. “I’m going over with the senators. We’re going to Camp David…the stock market is up, very, very big today…and we’re making America great again.” It read like something Mr. Rogers would say from his neighborhood. With that, Trump boarded Marine One and was gone.
Any semblance of normalcy was long gone before the helicopter took off and reporters, many of whom now walk around with a stare akin to a zombie in The Walking Dead, have lost hope. “My one last hope,” a reporter told me, “is that I get some legal weed before Sessions cracks down so at least I can get comfortably numb.”
Thus ended the first week of a new year in the Trump administration. And the Mueller investigation continues.