The strange reality of Donald Trump's White House - Macleans.ca

The strange reality of Donald Trump’s White House

Step inside the famous building and things seem, in places, smaller and shabbier. But there’s no mistaking the lure of the man in the middle of it.

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Trump meets with Trudeau in the Oval Office on June 20, 2019, in Washington (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s been easy to think that on some level, the President of the United States might really hate his job. That Donald Trump maybe did not truly expect to ace the interview and land the gig back in 2016, and that, once the visceral, fluorescent thrill of winning—so much winning, winning seven ways from Sunday, winning for winning’s sake—wore off, he may have been chagrined-to-outright-horrified by the hassles and protocol and nitpicking of the job.

So many people beaking at you like the teachers on Charlie Brown, about how you can’t say this or do that, and staffers trying to pry your Twitter device away from you, and having to negotiate with and cajole people beneath you, because it turns out you can’t just make things go all by yourself. Power is nice, and winning is better, but there have been many moments when Trump’s frowny petulance have suggested that he is trapped in a gilded cage and profoundly not enjoying himself.

But the possibility that he wants out evaporates the moment you step into the White House, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—trailed by a small herd of Canadian media—did on Thursday.

Trudeau’s arrival was brief and rote—the heralding growl of police motorcycles, Trump appearing in the doorway, Trudeau emerging from an SUV, handshake, brief swivel to the assembled lenses, and off they went. A few hours later, the president tweeted a brief video compilation of Trudeau’s visit set to a percussive classical soundtrack, and with this dramatic treatment, the arrival suddenly looked like two astronauts striding to the launchpad. That version was better.

As soon as the two men were inside, the journalists who were permitted into the Oval Office for the staged-dramatic-reading portion of the bilateral meeting scurried through a door that opened, with an aggressive lack of ceremony, directly into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

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Earlier, someone had drawled, “Get ready for the biggest disappointment of your life” when the Canadian press corps drifted into the room to take shelter from the heat and await Trudeau. And indeed, the room looks less like its famous, instantly-recognizable self than a two-thirds scale model installed as an immersive experience in some museum. Cables snake across the floor and lighting panels blare from the ceiling of the impossibly small space. Camera equipment is crammed into every conceivable nook. The rows of seats are crinkly blue leather with worn armrests and spacing that suggest a second-run cinema.

Up on a small dais, at the base of the podium from which Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hectors, dekes and dissembles—for a limited time only, through the end of this month—is one of those black squishy strain-relieving floor mats you see in restaurant kitchens. Behind the podium, the iconic oval White House seal hangs on the wall between a series of frosted-glass panels embossed with small versions of the same logo, lit from below. It’s one of the most famous news vignettes in the world; if you look closely in person, the glass panels have greasy smears on them, like a set of patio doors in a house with small kids.

The whole thing is weirdly, almost touchingly, tatty and real.

One of the Canadians commented, with naked surprise, that our National Press Theatre in Ottawa is swankier than the White House digs. “Yeah, but yours doesn’t have the air of despair that ours does,” an American reporter replied.

With Trudeau and Trump making their way through the corridors inside the building, the press pool darted through the rear door in the briefing room through which Huckabee Sanders spirits herself when she’s had enough, past administrative desks and walls lined with poster-sized photos of the president, his wife and various adoring crowds, and assembled on an outdoor arcade to await permission to herd into the Oval Office. By the time they released the hounds, Trump and Trudeau were arranged in the familiar bilateral positions in pale yellow chairs in front of the fireplace.

Both wore navy suits, but Trudeau had taken care to pair his with moose socks because this is apparently still something people like me feel compelled to take note of. Trump did virtually all of the talking during the 12 minutes or so in which the two men engaged in the strange Kabuki ritual of sitting side by side in a fake meeting to tell reporters what they would talk about in the real meeting they had not yet had and which no one would be permitted to witness.

Trump sat hunched forward in his chair, his fingers steepled and his elbows planted on his splayed knees, while Trudeau was both literally and figuratively more self-contained, sitting back with his ankles crossed and his hands folded primly on one knee, saying barely a word.

Trudeau has never seemed like a particularly sphinx-like creature; he’s too emotive and performative—in both his best and worst moments as a politician—for that mode. But here, with Trump veering from topic to topic and tossing out non-sequiturs like candy at a parade, Trudeau merely listened intently or offered a saintly grin, eyes occasionally seeking out his shoes, as the president careened on.

The fireplace mantle behind the two leaders was strangely domestic and suburban-looking, featuring three possibly-fake green leafy plants and a trio of smallish bronze figures. The sculptures were likely some kind of mythological figures, but the one in the middle clutched an upraised staff that looked at a quick glance like a golf club. And thus, the Oval Office mantle appeared to be proudly displaying some paunchy dad’s golf trophy, which is exactly perfect.

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“Thank you very much,” Trump said to open the floor. “We had some good news.  The market hit an all-time high today. The S&P just broke its record, so we’re very happy about that. The stock market continues to do well. Jobs have been literally through the roof. And, speaking of jobs, we have the USMCA with Canada, with Mexico. And we’ve come a long way. It’s a great agreement.”

He went on for a while about the things they would talk about and how “we want to have very positive days. We only have positive days,” before ceding the floor to Trudeau with a solicitous “Please.”

“Thank you, Donald, for this meeting,” Trudeau said. “This is just a really great opportunity for us to continue to work and to develop and to build on the closest alliance in the world, between Canada and the United States.” Last summer, that BFF alliance took a hit when Trump stormed out of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Que., Trudeau pushed back hard on U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum and Trump hate-tweeted that Trudeau was “dishonest and weak” as he fled town. Trudeau would be asked later on Thursday in a press conference where he felt the relationship was now, but he refused to take the bait, offering boilerplate on the close relationship and shared interests between the two countries.

The Americans reporters were transfixed on Thursday by the question of how the U.S. would respond to Iran shooting down a surveillance drone, which Trump characterized as “a very bad mistake” that must have been perpetrated by someone “loose and stupid.” At one point, there was a brief lull in his remarks in the Oval Office and the assembled media suddenly bellowed questions at him, Iran being the only topic that could be heard clearly above the din.

But Trump was suddenly taken by the model plane on the coffee table in front of him. “I was going to say, this is the new Air Force One, which we ordered, which they’ve been trying to order for a lot of years,” he mused, pointing. “We were able to shave $1.5 billion off the price. When I got here, they were going to spend a lot more money than we spent. And I would say the plane basically is an upgrade over that model.” It’s a very nice plane, Mr. President, now if we could just ask about Iran or NAFTA…

He did eventually answer questions on what he would do about Iran (the answer being, several times over, “You’ll find out”). And on one of the Canadian priorities of the day—getting Trump to press Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in Japan next week about the detention of two Canadians in China—Trump seemed to reflexively wave off the question at first, replying that he had “no concerns” about the situation.

Another reporter tried again: Will you help Trudeau secure a meeting with Xi? “Well, I don’t know that he’s trying to meet,” Trump said, turning to Trudeau. “Are you trying to get a meeting?” Trudeau smiled indulgently: “We’ve got a lot of things to discuss.” A reporter again offered some help: Trudeau wants to meet, but Xi won’t go for it. Here Trump heard something of interest. “Well, otherwise, I’ll represent him well, I will tell you,” he said. “We have a meeting set up with President Xi, and it’s obviously on the big transaction that we’re talking about and negotiating. Our people are actually speaking now, and we’ll see what happens with that. But anything I can do to help Canada, I will be doing.”

Later, another reporter asked whether tariffs would be permanently kiboshed when the new NAFTA deal was ratified by all three counties (Mexico had ratified the deal in a landslide vote the day before). Trump admonished him playfully. “Don’t say ‘when,’ because, so far, I have to get the Democrats to approve it,” he  said. “So, I like your positive thinking. But if—and the ‘if’ is really subject to the Democrats—let’s see what happens.”

Trump said he figured Nancy Pelosi—with whom Trudeau would meet later in the afternoon, in an effort to move things forward—and the House of Representatives would ratify the deal, but he refused to rule out future tariffs. If there were problems, he would call Justin to take care of it, he said, and if that didn’t work, they would have to talk. “We’re going to be fine,” Trudeau said beatifically.

The Oval Office in which they were sitting is a manifestly strange place, most obviously because it’s a real-world space that has effectively become a TV set, a through-the-looking-glass version of itself.

On Thursday, there were 20 or so Canadian journalists and dozens of American ones crammed in. A scrum of this size and intensity is, literally, a spiky affair: a plump semi-circle of journalists brandishing boom microphones, television cameras, smart phones and audio recorders in outstretched hands, all pointed toward the only thing in the room that matters: Trump and his guest—today it was Trudeau, but whoever it is, the effect is the same, and there’s no doubt whose name is biggest on the marquee—side-by-side on their chairs.

And here is where you start to see the insanity in the concept that, as harangued and bored and impatient and frustrated as Trump may feel in his current job, he could ever really hate the gig. It would not matter if he started reading the ingredients off the side of a cereal box, no one in that room—and no one watching the TV feeds or reading the stories produced by the people in that room—could look away from him. He is the magician about to snap the tablecloth out from under the delicate china, the concert pianist with his fingers poised over the keys, a child at his own birthday party about to blow out the candles.

Everything about the apparatus of Trump’s world—of the world at large, it often seems—revolves around him, like the walls of this room and the heat-seeking electronic attention factories brandished at him by the media assembled in it.

Soon, Huckabee Sanders and other staffers would shoo out the journalists covering the pretend meeting so the real meeting could begin, with Huckabee Sanders addressing the rabble as “Press” in a tone that suggested this was both their species and each of their individual proper names.

For now, though, Trump talked about whatever he felt like and answered questions that interested him and batted aside those that didn’t, and offered extended answers to questions no one had asked, and everyone in his orbit listened and watched with rapt attention.

Beside him, Trudeau occasionally smiled like the Cheshire Cat, and looked like he might possibly be capable of disappearing into the branches of a tree, even with all of us there staring right at him.

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