By Brian J. Karem
Sunday morning, two eager young drug dealers in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico wanted to show me a small portion of their stash to prove their bonafides to me after spending the previous evening drinking Tecate and tequila and telling me the easiest way to sneak drugs into the U.S. - with or without a wall. They did this while wearing some of the Playboy swag I took with me to the border. (That full story coming soon to Playboy)
By Monday morning, shortly before nine a.m., I was back at the White House and Kellyanne Conway was holding court on the North Lawn in an informal gaggle, telling us about the Southern Border crisis and how it called for building the president’s $5 billion wall.
After Conway told us how all the politicians and law enforcement on the border were on board with the president’s plan, I asked if the president had spoken with local officials in the region. I had. They told me that a wall wasn’t needed as much as more technology and more men on the ground were. At any rate, no one I spoke to saw the border crisis as a “National Emergency,” even if they liked the idea of a wall. On the border people look at the problem more like an ongoing law enforcement task that has much more to do with effective policing of a large disruptive neighborhood situation than a West Bank and Gaza Strip Wild West war zone - despite whatever reality show the president was trying to sell.
“We don’t need a wall in Texas,” law enforcement on both sides of the border told me. “We have a river.”
Conway stopped her gaggle to chastise me. When she and CNN's Jim Acosta got into it recently, I tweeted out a defense of Acosta, based on something Helen Thomas once told me.
At a recent gaggle Conway took exception to a question Acosta asked and after upbraiding him also said he was un-liked. I tweeted out a response reminding Conway and others that we’re not there to be liked. Thomas once told me, if you’re “here to be liked, then you’re in the wrong business.”
I also tweeted out that not many people liked Conway. I understand why she got upset about that. Bursting bubbles can be painful.
She told me I should quit lying on twitter. I smiled and replied, “You all should quit lying on twitter.”
Thus Monday morning broke cold and snowy at the White House.
After the Conway dust up, minor as it was, I spoke to her privately for a few moments after her gaggle. Conway is much more amenable in those situations, and I’ve always appreciated her candor pro and con (mostly con) in those interactions.
But I didn’t have long to talk. The president was scheduled to depart for New Orleans. He had apparently tweeted out he was going to Nashville and some members of the press called him out for his little geographical oddity.(Apologies to Ulysses Everett McGill.)
I really didn’t care where he was going. He was scheduled to leave at 9:30 a.m., and I knew where I had to be. The president has found his sweet spot in talking with the press on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One. We can’t hear each other. He can pretend he doesn’t hear us and ignore the questions he doesn’t want to answer before he bolts for the helicopter. Several dozen of us are usually wedged into a very tight space, becoming more intimate with sound gear and television equipment than we ever dreamed imaginable, but somehow we’ve made it work. Mints and anti-perspirant help.
Naturally the president was late.
I can’t say he’s always late because I haven’t been to every press interaction with the president. I can only report that when I’ve been in his presence, he’s been late.
Monday morning, with the cold wind blowing and several inches of snow on the ground, Trump had his fun once again. He stepped up to the microphones and took a few questions. I was at his far left, hugging the chain which held us back and getting close enough to a news photographer to know he wasn’t happy to see me and had a spare camera lens in his pocket.
I heard the president get upset with a reporter to my left for asking if Trump ever worked for Russia - afterward I found out the question came from Kristen Welker from NBC. Still he seemed rather subdued, for Trump. He took several questions including one from me about the ongoing shutdown. Conway told me in our semi-private conversation a few minutes earlier that she was hopeful a deal with Democrats could be close and the government shutdown might soon end.
Trump wasn’t so optimistic. He told me, “I don't know if we're close on a deal. This should be the easiest deal that I've ever seen. We're talking about border security. Who could be against it? We're talking about ... human traffickers tying up women, putting tape on their mouths, and pouring into our country. We can't have that. We can't have that. We have drugs, we have criminals, and we have gangs and the Democrats don't want to do anything about it.”
Having just spent four days covering 175 miles of the Texas/Mexican border, I may have visually flinched at some of what he said, but I honestly couldn’t hear it all very clearly until I saw the video replay later. It didn’t matter, Trump was off to Nashville, err New Orleans.
I wondered after the president left what in all of Christendom he had been babbling about. It’s always the same words, same thoughts - a jumble of fragmented phrases, facts, and imaginative flights of fantasy are spewed forth in a sufficiently random fashion as to make the listener question the speaker’s sanity while searching fruitlessly for any salient fact, cogent thought or truthful narrative.
Trump returned to the White House late - after 5 p.m. By then it was getting dark, and as the wrangler ushered us back onto the South Lawn, there was a noticeable chill in the air, aided and abetted by a brusk albeit light breeze.
We gathered again on the residence side of the White House because Trump planned to later join the Clemson Tigers football team in the East Room to celebrate the NCAA national championship victory over Alabama. The slow, steady process of sending sound technicians, the pool, cameras, ladders and reporters onto the South Lawn to witness the helicopter landing proceeded at its normal dysfunctional pace. Then, after a few minutes of jockeying for position and finalizing our set up, we were informed we had to move across the White House campus quietly and quickly.
Apparently Trump wanted to go to the Oval Office.
We found out mere minutes before Trump was scheduled to land.
Whatever else you think of the White House Press Corps, we tried admirably to breakdown, walk quickly but quietly some 50 yards away from our initial setup to one closer to the Oval Office. I saw one guy walk very quickly, but no torso movement whatsoever. His feet were moving as if on a fast treadmill while his mechanism of locomotion resembled Fred Flintstone on his toes. I heard the tinkling of toes in my mind.
Naturally I had to laugh. It was a cartoon. A big mass of people trying to move as one to our goal. Personally I think Patton’s 3rd Army pivot at the Battle of the Bulge paled in comparison to the press’s herculean effort to move quickly. It was a joy to behold.
Actually it was a bit more dysfunctional than that of course, but we did manage to get set up, after the obligatory bumping, griping and apologizing.
Then I shot my mouth off to our wrangler. “How much do you wanna bet he goes to the residence?” I said loud enough to be heard. The walk to the residence was far shorter in the cold than the trek to the Oval Office from where Marine One lands, and why did the president need to go to the Oval?
I’m not implying anything nefarious, just mentioning the obvious. None of us really cared where he would enter the White House complex; we just wanted to be near.
A short time later, Marine One stirred up blizzard-like conditions for several minutes as it landed.
“I wonder if anyone but me is laughing at this?” I said to myself as I looked skyward to Marine One. “Surely someone onboard the chopper is laughing at us getting pummeled by snow,” I thought.
After the snow settled and the doors opened, the president finally emerged.
He headed straight for the residence.
Now, in an even quicker fashion, the press had to breakdown and return to our original positions. This comic effort almost had me on the floor - meaning I slipped in the cold and ice and nearly face planted on the pavement.
Still, I confess I was laughing. There was no alternative as positive as a good laugh. We long ago left political reality for reality television. Some of us don’t know it. Some of us don’t care. Some are angry about it and I’ve gone through all three stages of that and now can only laugh at it. If anyone by now doesn’t understand the chaotic dysfunction of this White House, they’ve never watched a reality show. One could argue Trump, being personally aware of the false pretense of reality shows, used his experience in the media as the basis for his belief of “Fake news” and “The enemy of the people.”
At any rate as Trump marched quickly toward the residence, I jumped over a sound technician, a tripod and a boom mic in quick succession to get to the pool camera which had remained in place to stake out the residence entrance for just such an emergency. (Apologies to Fog Horn Leghorn) The White House Press Corps has a little experience covering presidents and knows how to cover the bases.
Trump and I nearly reached the only camera waiting for him at the same time. He stopped. I stopped. He looked warm and comfortable. I was dripping wet.
He saw me and it looked almost as if he planned to make a quick splash with a statement to one camera and ditch the rest of us before we could reassemble and question him. That explained his quick pace. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ haunted face clinched it for me.
But I got there in time to ask him the obvious question I didn’t get answered earlier:
“Mr. President, do you still own the shutdown?” I asked loudly, of course.
Trump looked at me and then directly faced the camera and said something I could barely hear, but I definitely heard the word “shutdown.”
The helicopter engine sound from Marine One seemed to echo off the breeze and distorted the next sentence and I desperately wanted to hear the rest of the answer. There was no mistaking he heard the question. We were five feet apart and I was the only loud-mouthed former high school football coach shouting a question at him.
The next few sentences remain a blur in my mind. I had to read the printout of the event to be sure of what happened because at the time I believe my mind was blown. A question about the most serious crisis this hobbled and heckled administration has faced was answered by the President of the United States with a televised live pitch for . . . wait for it . . . Fast Food!
I guess it was time for Trump, in the middle of today’s fantastic episode, to give a shout-out for his favorite restaurants.
Anyway, as he told us about Cheeseburgers in Paradise (apologies to Jimmy Buffett - well maybe not) and praised the Clemson team, I realized I was witnessing a historical first: The President of the United States actually sent out for burgers to honor the visiting NCAA Division 1 football team. It says something. Wonder if the delivery guy got a decent tip? To Hell with the government shutdown and Mueller investigation and a dozen other critical issues, the president had to buy some cheeseburgers for the boys.
The president, taking pride in his decision, provided ample access to the press so we could adequately document the feast one player later said would cause the team’s nutritionist to “have a fit.” Trump’s publicity department has failed him again, but he’ll blame it on someone else for the blow back - probably the media or a half a dozen other familiar and convenient enemies.
What the world saw were dozens of young student athletes respectfully dressed in suits and enthusiastic for the historic visit to the nation’s house being greeted by a president who bragged about dipping into his own pocket and buying food my football coach derisively called “Belly Wash”.
Who was the genius who thought that was a great visual? These are highly trained athletes visiting the White House - not your son's middle school friends celebrating after winning a Saturday afternoon recreational soccer game.
"I have it!" Someone probably shouted in the Situation Room. "Hamburgers and McNuggets. That'll do it. The base will love it!"
Trump liked the food, expressing no preference for any particular brand. Plugging them all at once was what the contract called for - move along. Earlier he talked about having some “very large people who like to eat,” coming to the White House - hence the inspiration for sending out for fast food.
At the event, Trump praised and singled out the team’s quarterback but otherwise gave a fairly standard, light-hearted speech without too much of the Trump vitriol mixed-in to beef up the ratings. It was Trump at his dullest until he mentioned Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin.
I had already drifted to the back of the room after failing to secure an early release from the event and found myself mingling with other assorted guests listening and reacting to the president. We chuckled when Trump mentioned Mnuchin’s athletic abilities or lack thereof. Mnuchin’s reaction, more than anything else, brought out the laughter. He looks like a cross between Mr. Peepers and Bob Newhart.
I also understand how visualizing Secretary Mnuchin playing football could make you laugh - particularly if you've met the man. I don't know if I'd make the joke, but that's all Trump was doing. Sure, you could say Trump has little room to talk or the president made a belittling comment, but in this case, you would be taking the president too seriously.
You may not like his humor, but in Mnuchin’s case, Trump merely tried to emulate the Dean Martin Roast. Maybe Trump identifies with Don Rickles. I cannot say. But it says something that even his attempts at humor carry with it a certain mean-spiritedness that's hard to ignore.
Trump can be funny - in the most awkward way imaginable, without intention and in ways he never dreamed possible. He can also be funny on purpose. Further, he can let it drop that he knows when he’s playing a character. But he's always acerbic. His favorite character is an adaptation of Mr. Wilson in Dennis The Menace. Every time he starts talking about his big beautiful border wall I picture Mr. Wilson yelling "You kids get off my lawn."
Once in a news conference, Trump/Mr. Wilson told me to sit down. I was already sitting down and told him so. He chuckled. A few days later he told me the same thing and this time I said, “Like I said, I’m already sitting down.” He chuckled and said, “Yes you are. Yes you are.” At that moment I think he stepped outside of himself and laughed. I wish he would do more of that.
And while Trump can be funny, that’s not to defend any action he’s taken or mitigate his complicity in making my life more dangerous, muddying the waters of government or fanning the flames of fear and hatred.
The damage this administration has done to the Republic remains anything but funny. I firmly believe and hope we find ways to work together so we can heal our cultural divide. It began with Ronald Reagan and Trump is simply the epitome of the culture founded in the Studio 54 era - not an aberration of it.
Today all political arguments are seen in stark black and white terms - or more accurately red and blue. Both sides, entrenched in a corrosive battle dream of the ultimate victory: to stand over the dead carcasses of the common foe and thump their chests with a caveman grunt while growling, “All Not Like Me Must Die!”
Again, we’re back to the cartoon.
Be nice if we got back to reality. I have had all the humor on this issue I can take.
What’s the next stage?
c 2019 Brian J. Karem