ANALYSIS | All week, reporters at the White House have waited for the announcement over the loudspeaker instructing the day’s press pool to report for duty pronto for unplanned presidential remarks. But, so far, the speaker has remained mostly silent — just like President Donald Trump.
Even during a term that has featured — at the time, at least — what felt like consequential weeks, this one quickly took on a different feel.
Other than brief remarks over the loud engines of Air Force One on Monday morning, a president who has effectively counterprogrammed negative media coverage, questionable policy moves, bitter West Wing staff departures and even the opening weeks of an impeachment has retreated from reporters’ questions.
Frequently, the president speaks to journalists during planned and impromptu question-and-answer sessions in the Oval Office and other spots around the White House. Not so this week.
The next chance for reporters to ask the president about testimony from current National Security Council and administration officials that appear to corroborate a whistleblower’s account of his July 25 call with Ukraine’s new leader could be late Friday afternoon.
That’s when Trump will depart the White House for a campaign rally in Mississippi, where he is expected to sound off on those who testified that they were uncomfortable with his request that Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government investigate his Democratic opponents. But first, the president will decide whether to stop on the South Lawn, weather permitting, and take questions about that testimony — and the slowing economy.
Here are three takeaways from the president’s public silence, other than his tweets, of course.
‘No public events’
Some White House correspondents prepare for a chaotic day when they read nine words late at night when Trump’s public schedule hits their email inboxes: “THE PRESIDENT has no public events on his schedule.”
That’s exactly what they saw at 9:08 p.m. Wednesday evening as many were watching the Washington Nationals capture their first World Series title. When those nine words coincide with a day like Thursday — when Trump’s top Russia adviser is testifying before the panel leading House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and that chamber is voting for the first time to codify the investigation — the president himself can set in motion a day of constant action.
One Democratic strategist said Thursday that the president’s shunning the very television cameras he so often seems to crave is off-brand.
“It’s almost like he is low energy these days,” said James Manley, who advised the Clintons, using one of Trump’s derisive nicknames that he has used to try discrediting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other rivals.
A White House official did not respond to an inquiry about just what the president has been up to this week while not answering reporters’ questions, as he so often does.
National security sources say they cringed Sunday morning as Trump announced that U.S. military forces swarmed from their eight helicopters and cornered Islamic State leader Abu al-Baghdadi in a compound in northern Syria. Rather than be captured, al-Baghdadi opted to kill himself and three of his children.
Trump’s remarks began much like past remarks from George W. Bush and Barack Obama, America’s other post-9/11 commanders in chief.
“ Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” he said. “U.S. special operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style. The U.S. personnel were incredible.”
But then came a departure, as Trump broke with his predecessors by mocking al-Baghdadi and the ISIS forces and sympathizers he left behind: “He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
Later, what would have been a relatively brief, facts-based speech that amounted to an update of the war against violent extremist groups for the American people turned into just another Trump pool spray, with the president boasting and saying whatever crossed his mind.
“But about a …. year, year-and-a-half before the World Trade Center came down, [my] book came out. I was talking about Osama bin Laden. I said, ‘You have to kill him. You have to take him out.’ Nobody listened to me,” the bragging Trump said, referring to the al-Qaeda leader killed by American forces during a raid into Pakistan that Obama greenlighted.
“And, to this day, I get people coming up to me, and they said, ‘You know what one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen about you? It’s that you predicted that Osama bin Laden had to be killed before he knocked down the World Trade Center.’ It’s true,” he said, taking shots at Bush and President Bill Clinton, who both were presented with options for trying to take out bin Laden prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer who served in the region and is now with the Defense Priorities think tank, said this week that the moment should have been a “clear victory” and a “real legacy moment for the president.”
“It takes a lot of thought and will to approve a mission like this. A lot can wrong. You’re putting American lives at risk,” Davis said.
“But he didn’t focus just on that. And it should have been a chance for him to argue that the mission proved him right on getting our troops out of Syria. It did show that we don’t need forces there permanently to hit these high-level terrorist leaders — and hit them hard.”
Democratic lawmakers and that party’s presidential candidates also described the al-Baghdadi announcement as a missed opportunity.
“I am, however, troubled by the potential consequences of this operation, and I am equally troubled that the president chose to ask permission — then thank — the Russian and Syrian governments ahead of our Kurdish allies who have stood side-by-side with us in this fight for years,” Democratic Senate Armed Services member Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a combat veteran and former Army officer, said in a statement.
Still ‘the economy, stupid’?
“The Greatest Economy in American History!” Trump declared Wednesday morning in a tweet, repeating a major theme of his 2020 reelection campaign. That is, something he wants to be a big part of his pitch for a second term. He practically channels Clinton campaign adviser James Carville, who once said of presidential politics: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The Greatest Economy in American History!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2019
But Trump’s argument to voters that he has restored the roar of America’s economy — bringing lower taxes, more jobs, higher wages and skyrocketing retirement accounts — was undermined about one short hour later.
The Commerce Department announced the economy grew at a rate of just 1.9 percent during the third quarter. Gross domestic product had grown at a 2.0 percent clip in the second quarter and 3.1 percent in the first.
Both consumer and government spending continued to grow in the third quarter, but at much slower rates than in the second quarter. Growth in the two categories of government spending – federal, and state and local — contributed less than half what they had to growth margins in the second quarter. Meanwhile, business investment continued to fall, but at a much slower pace.
The president has used remarks at campaign rallies and official events for much of his term to tout the state of the economy, often boasting it has grown faster under his watch than under Obama.
“So, the unemployment numbers just came out, and they’re the best numbers we’ve had in over 50 years. The unemployment number is down to 3.5 percent. So that goes way, way back. We haven’t had numbers like this in a long time,” he told reporters earlier this month.
On the latter, Trump’s shunning of the cameras might be because, when it comes to GDP growth, that statement rings a little too true.
That’s because, as this chart from Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis shows, the slowing economy’s growth rate over the last two quarters almost mirrors that of the Obama era. As always, there’s a tweet for that — this time, one that shows then-citizen Trump’s view of what he dubbed the “Obama economy,” posting in Sept. 2012: “The Obama Economy — workers added to disability and individuals added to food stamps more than doubles net jobs.”
The Obama Economy–workers added to disability and individuals added to food stamps more than doubles net jobs created https://t.co/p1iTELDk— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2012
Doug Sword contributed to this report.