It’s turning out to be just another week at the White House circus. The clowns are coming and going. The trapeze artists are doing their high wire acts. The elephants are crapping all over the place and someone keeps forgetting to clean up after them. And of course, one of the circus animals got away: Sam Nunberg.
The president claiming “fake news!” has decried the idea of chaos in his White House while embracing the concept by saying he’s not done firing people yet. Clearly the guy loves this stuff. But before all that, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders entered Monday’s briefing with more than 10 items on her agenda to clean up from last week’s chaotic scandals. They included (but were not limited to) the renewed scandal involving John Kelly and Rob Porter, tariff hikes and new trade wars, gun control, Vladimir Putin and his apparently imaginary new first-strike nuclear weapons, Syria, North Korea, Ben Carson’s dining room furniture, Anthony Scaramucci’s re-emergence to denounce the White House, the Robert Mueller investigation and Jared and Ivanka’s security clearance fiasco.
It has become popular in times of stress for the White House to spring a guest speaker on the unsuspecting press corps in order to soak up time and keep us from asking questions on point. Since reporters are rarely given a heads up as to who the speaker will be—think 30 seconds at most—it is difficult to prepare cogent questions before they begin. Yet we give it a good try.
Monday was no exception. Some reporters thought we’d see Wilbur Ross show up with his soup or soda cans and explain why trade wars are good things, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, the White House went for broke, tugging at heart strings by introducing two genuine heroes: war veterans John Peck and Liam Dwyer. These two remarkable men, who nearly died in service, were rolled in their wheelchairs next to Sanders. Their appearance in the room had only the vaguest relationship to any news of the day, but many in the press thanked them while Sanders told us of their plight.
The veterans who wanted to praise the president were reduced to human props flanking Sanders.
Sergeant Peck suffered traumatic brain injury in Iraq during his first tour of duty. After two years of therapy, he re-enlisted and, while in Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED, losing both arms and legs. “I don’t recommend that for anyone,” he later told us with a laugh. “Makes it hard to scratch your nose.” Two years ago, he got a double arm transplant. He is now receiving occupational and physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Staff Sergeant Dwyer endured a roadside bomb in Iraq, re-upped and then went to Afghanistan, where he also stepped on an IED. He lost his left leg and suffered severe injuries to his right arm. So far, he has endured 50 surgeries.
As heart-wrenching as their stories are, the press didn’t get a real chance to ask them questions during the briefing. The men weren’t mic’d, so there was little reason to ask them anything, as the live cameras wouldn’t pick up their answers. Their injuries made it impossible for them to walk to the podium to talk.
It was a difficult scene to endure, and not at all properly staged by the White House. (Both men spoke later at the outdoor stakeout area, where microphones were placed in front of them and cameras could adjust to their height.) In the press room, the optics were not only uncomfortable, but demeaning. The veterans who wanted to praise the president and request more help for wounded vets were reduced to human props flanking both sides of Sanders as she fielded questions about numerous scandals and policy positions. “This is horrifying,” a reader texted me during the briefing. “How can they use those men that way?”
To be fair, Sanders urged the press to ask them questions during the briefing. But no one did. Well, I wanted to, but of the two questions I had, she only answered one about former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci having questioned the White House’s morale in a Friday interview with CNN. With a smile, she told me all was well and left the podium.
CNN’s Jim Acosta chided Sanders for failing to call on the network for the third briefing in a row. This is another bad move on the part of the White House. Sanders would serve the administration and the country well if it handled CNN at the top of the briefing, offering the network one of the first two or three questions. That would allow the administration to take on its chief detractors and force CNN to ask questions on the news of the day, rather than leaving them last and giving them the freedom to raise questions the administration doesn’t really want to answer.
But who am I? Well, usually one of the guys who ends up asking one of the last questions for the very same reasons.
After the Monday briefing, the two veterans answered questions and praised the president, but there weren’t 75 reporters and cameramen in the stakeout area and the veterans weren’t able to speak on live national television. There were just a handful of us, and I left after asking as many questions as I could, thinking the two men deserved better.
In a few words, the White House blew it. While I don’t think the intent was to use veterans as human props—or at least I don’t think the entire reason was for doing so—there is no mistaking the missed opportunity the two men represented as well as the potentially humiliating situation in which the two men were placed. Bottom line: they were props.
Still, that missed opportunity and embarrassing moment paled in comparison to the rest of the day. Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, an obscure former campaign worker, kicked the circus into high gear, drinking and carousing and then being questioned on TV about his stint in Trump’s sphere of influence. Apparently, forgetting that if he refused a subpoena from Mueller he could be jailed, he said he had no plans to comply. He then took one Wild Turkey too many and went on a shaming quest across the Internet and airwaves. He gleefully took on current and past Trump staffers and called the president an idiot.
The president told the world, “Believe me, everyone wants to work in the White House.”
When Erin Burnett confronted Nunberg on CNN’s OutFront about the smell of alcohol on his breath, the fun was over. Reporters were left pondering the ethical quandary of what to do if a source is obviously drunk. Do you use them as a source anyway?
On Tuesday, the circus began anew. “Be prepared for the Oval Spray” a press wrangler shouted over the loud speaker, letting us know the press pool was about to enter the Oval Office for a meeting with POTUS. Some speculated what an “Oval Spray” was and others laughed. Nunberg was back in the news after apparently admitting he had been drunk on television the night before.
“Why didn’t someone believe him last night when he said he had been drinking?” A reporter asked in the bowels of the White House press offices. “Sam Nunberg lies!” another reporter said. “Duh!”
A church minister friendly with Trump tweeted out that Burnett plied Nunberg with alcohol, prompting some members of the press and the White House staff to joke they now had an overwhelming reason to go on her show. Meanwhile, somewhere, the dancing bears were warming up, the jugglers were getting dressed and the rodents prepared to flee the ship of state. A dog barked. Someone belched. “Anyone seen Mueller yet?” someone else laughed.
The president brought it all home in a joint news conference with the Swedish prime minister Tuesday afternoon. Responding to a question from a reporter with The Daily Caller, the president told the world, “Believe me, everyone wants to work in the White House.” Trying to put down the notion that there is chaos in his White House, the president said he embraces conflict. “I love it,” he said. “We have energy like never before.”
“I like conflict too,” radio reporter April Ryan said smiling as she walked out of her White House bureau office.
“I’ve talked to people everywhere in trade groups and Republicans on the Hill,” said a White House staffer. When it comes to working in the White House, “The answer is no. And not only ‘no,’ but ‘Hell no.’”
That afternoon, news broke that Kellyanne Conway may be in trouble for violating the Hatch Act due to comments she made during Roy Moore’s campaign for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat. After the president told us how much he enjoyed conflict, I asked him at the end of the news conference if he was concerned about staff members violating the Hatch Act. He ignored the question.
By 5 p.m., Gary Cohn, the president’s senior economic advisor, announced his resignation, days after he expressed his extreme displeasure over the administration implementing high tariffs on steel and aluminum. Apparently, not everyone wants to work in the White House.
It’s a good thing the president loves conflict and chaos, because there’s plenty of it around. Cue the dancing bears.