I witnessed it and I’m still unsure what it is I saw. Prior to the polar vortex—and after Roger Stone sank like a millstone around Donald Trump’s neck (with apologies to the gospel according to Matthew) and before Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared “Gawd” wanted The Donald in the White House—the administration rolled out its new White House press briefing, only a few day's before the president's 2019 State of the Union address. (You can watch that here.)
The James Brady White House Press Briefing room, which throughout January began to look like a Greyhound Bus waiting station, transferred itself back into its official capacity with the assistance of some very attentive White House staffers. They dutifully raised the height of the podium, prompting speculation. The rumor of tall guest speakers—including perhaps the president himself—made its way around the news crews a few minutes later.
“Who could it be now?” became the game as the anticipation built. The optional video screens were then swung into place and flickered to life. They showed us a Mercator map of Earth with most of the Western hemisphere colored blue. Mexico was red. Venezuela was yellow. Most of Europe was white; Russia and China were also colored red.
Sanders emerged dramatically with a smile, the multiple sounds of camera shutters, some limited introductions and her three special surprise mystery dates—I mean guests. “I’d like to welcome to the podium National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow,” Sanders said with genuine enthusiasm. Only the Trumpettes were missing in this Hollywood production.
For nearly the next hour, with the cameras not covering the event at CNN and MSNBC, the American public who tuned in saw the most professional briefing ever given by the White House. Critics maintain that’s a low bar to overcome, and while they’re right, that’s appealing to the dark side of the Force. Yoda would advise to avoid such criticisms.
As a White House staffer told me about Trump, “He’s angry as hell about the Sims book and the intelligence chiefs calling him out.”
To his credit, Mnuchin is one of the president’s best men—meaning one with a professional demeanor. He smiles and blinks and though if he was ever caught in a wildfire he might burn to death, you can be sure he would never get excited about it. Mr. Peepers/Mnuchin would just blink and smile.
Bolton is a combination Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain in a twisted Mr. Magoo or Yosemite Sam fashion. He’s the guy who swaggers into a poker game swinging a pistol while claiming he doesn’t have one. The bigger problem isn’t that he is lying, but rather he may actually believe he wasn’t carrying a lethal weapon.
Larry Kudlow can quote arcane economic professors and defend supply side economics with the reckless abandon of a true believer. The happy warrior constantly soldiers on no matter what. He recently showed up to an outside gaggle at the White House still suffering from the effects of a recent illness. It was bitter cold and Kudlow hung on longer than most presidential surrogates to take questions from the press on a windy, bitingly cold evening.
The Three Semi Wise Guys wielded their rhetoric show of force and leveled Venezuela during the briefing. They supported and encouraged opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Guaido named himself interim president after challenging the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s recent reelection. Trump, along with other international leaders, has formally recognized Guaidó. In other words, the U.S. is telling Maduro to take a hike. Regime change fellahs. Yo.
Mnuchin then dropped the rhetoric bomb. “Today, Treasury took action against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to help prevent the further diversion of Venezuela’s assets by former President Maduro,” he said before methodically and bureaucratically rolling out exactly what the sanctions were, sort of, while keeping the “boots on the ground option” open.
As it turns out, Bolton had apparently written a reference to 5,000 troops being committed in one form or fashion to Venezuela and the cameras caught what I could not. The still images went viral. No explanation was ever offered for Bolton’s note—though several people including myself asked about when and where the next step would be against Venezuela.
Meanwhile, Kudlow sounded as sound and reasonable as a professor of divinity and dressed the part as he turned his attention to the economy following the recent government shutdown. “We’ll get a GDP report in about a week for Q4. It’ll take longer for the first quarter. As I’ve said many times, I think you have just a whole bunch of very temporary factors. And now that the government has reopened, the switch goes right back on. There’s certainly no permanent damage to the economy,” Kudlow said with all the reasonableness of the cleric.
Cogent. Engaging. If you didn’t get an answer to your question, no one screamed “fake media” or “enemy of the people." No one could ever imagine Trump saying anything as tedious and nuanced as Kudlow when describing the economy. “Thanks to me, the economy is the best it has ever been!” is about all we hear out of the president.
I asked Mnuchin about reacting to critics who claim the administration is in disarray following the government shutdown. God love him: He smiled. His defense of the administration was cursory but not mean-spirited or spiteful.
I suddenly flashed back to briefings I’d attended in previous administrations. For the first time I felt reasonably sure a Donald Trump administration briefing could actually have occurred in any other administration I’ve covered since Ronald Reagan. We were back to a place where people treated you politely and semi-professionally as they lied to you. Quite the improvement.
The choreographer of the First Edition of the 2019 Presidential Press Briefing featuring your Master of Ceremonies Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually pulled off a big win for the administration. As for the press secretary herself, Sanders engaged in her normal behavior of spinning, ducking, dodging and diving—and while sarcastic, she was not out-of-the-box outrageous. She managed to give good-natured grief to both John Roberts and Jim Acosta without anyone on either side of the aisle going ballistic.
Do not misunderstand. Sanders remains defensive of the president and took some pointed questions that ended up in nearly laughable answers. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy. The president’s surrogates stand in a storm of Trump’s making, denying it exists while it wipes out everything and everyone it touches. The surrogates all respond with a variety of a comic shouts that boil down to Alfred E. Newman’s catchphrase, “What? Me worry?”
Considering the current situation after Roger Stone’s indictment and his resulting roadshow, one has to wonder if in the end, this administration will be like the chickens I saw once on my mother-in-law’s farm in Missouri. My brother-in-law took a hatchet and separated a chicken’s body from its head with a quick and decisive swing that ended in a crunching sound and a quick squawk.
Then I watched a chicken walk around for close to a minute or more before it effectively knew it was dead.
We were back to a place where people treated you politely and semi-professionally as they lied to you. Quite the improvement.
Then Tuesday showed up and the president didn’t.
Wednesday rolled around and the president was still not seen publicly. By Wednesday evening, it had been five days since the president had shown his face in public.
It’s as if the administration blew everything on Monday’s performance and couldn’t repeat itself. Or the chicken gave it up sooner than we expected.
It turned out there was just fresh drama about. As a White House staffer told me about Trump, “He’s angry as hell about the Sims book and the intelligence chiefs calling him out.”
That's in reference to Cliff Sims, a former White House staffer, publishing a book called Team of Vipers that did not paint Trump in a pleasant light. “It would be a surprise if it did,” a staffer quipped. But Sims, whom I had limited but always productive interaction with, prompted nasty tweets from Trump and a threat to sue him for violating a nondisclosure agreement.
Trump also assailed the U.S. intelligence agencies once again, undermining their actions and claiming they need to go back to school for a variety of reasons including assessments of Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Syria.... and who is Keyser Soze?
By week's end, Trump felt settled enough to invite a pool of cameras and reporters into a meeting where he mentioned marauding caravans of mythical creatures from Middle Earth ready to invade the U.S. as he once again defended his wall. “By the way, if you go to Tijuana and you take down that wall, you will have so many people coming into our country that Nancy Pelosi will be begging for a wall, she’ll be begging for wall. She will say, ‘'Mr. President, please, please give us a wall.’”
Pelosi still sounds like Ronald Reagan with her “Just Say No!” campaign against the wall, but that doesn’t matter to Trump.
It began snowing on Friday as Trump headed out of town for Florida for the first time in two months. Mueller, meanwhile, stayed still in town.