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Essay: For White House press pool on Trump’s impeachment day, the silence was deafening

President appeared to understand there are some historical events not even he can counter-program

President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after a rally in Michigan on Dec. 19, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after a rally in Michigan on Dec. 19, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

ESSAY | The silence was deafening. Certainly not what I expected as the White House in-town pool reporter on the day President Donald Trump was impeached. 

Trump, famous for his feisty interactions with the press as a New York businessman and who flashed his penchant for drama as a reality television host, has transformed presidential communications.

So much so that reporters on the White House beat coined the phase “Chopper Talk” as a coping mechanism for the stressful, hard-to-hear, and chaotic impromptu press conferences Trump holds regularly as Marine One loudly waits for him on the South Lawn. His tweets move stock markets from New York to Europe to Asia and leave members of both parties on Capitol Hill either dumbfounded or scrambling to recover — and oftentimes, both.

Then there are the “pool sprays.” In the Oval Office. In the Cabinet Room. In the Roosevelt Room. And, sometimes without any notice at all, in the sweltering or frigid Rose Garden, depending on the season.

Those of us on the White House beat covet the access we get to Trump, even if the informal and sometimes fast-paced and wide-ranging gaggles trigger potentially unhealthy amounts of adrenaline in our systems several times per week.

But none of this was the case on Wednesday, when I was the print pooler on the most historic day in Washington since, well, Donald John Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Covering this president and the White House day in and day out can be exhausting. But it also can be an exhilarating ride through history as major policy and political decisions are made at the whim of the most mercurial chief executive any of us has ever seen, much less covered.

Which is what made Wednesday, with all of its history and drama, so notable to this pooler.

Normal start

The day began, for me, like any other. An alarm well before sunrise, a workout timed — as always — to be completed before any presidential communications (read: tweets). A White House aide later noted the president’s day also started very routine, and he was in the midst of a policy-heavy, not impeachment-dominated, workday.

Soon afterward at the White House, bright December sunshine was a welcome successor to several days of winter rain, and it illuminated the executive mansion that is perhaps the world’s most famous — and, at times, infamous — building.

Even knowing the House was hours away from delivering a stinging blow to Trump, all in the complex was business as usual. At the far end of the North Lawn, a U.S. Park Service landscaping crew’s truck sat idling. Not far away, a Secret Service officer was letting his K9 partner stretch his legs. Television reporters prepared for live shots, and camera and sound technicians scurried about.

Just another Wednesday at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Only it wasn’t.

Night terrors

There was a distinct buzz upon entering the press area, the same kind of aura one experiences when entering a sports venue for a postseason game. The stakes are higher. The margin for error in a big game — and on such a big story — are minuscule. It creates an intoxicating feeling. But it also brings a certain kind of unique pressure.

That goes double on such a day for those in the day’s press pool, the dozen or so individuals or outlets responsible for documenting and globally distributing to other outlets information about any presidential movements or comments. Though Trump’s public message about the impeachment inquiry has been the same for weeks, making sure every quote was spot on in real time would be of utmost importance.

The very notion of having to correct, for instance, a Trump quote minutes after he had joined Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton as the only impeached American presidents is the stuff of nightmares — or night terrors.

The nature of the Trump White House can help breed such mistakes. The president himself will request the day’s pool be brought into a meeting or other “closed press” event on a whim, leaving us scrambling as we enter the Oval Office. And he sometimes does just that when he feels it’s time to “fight back,” as his aides often put it.

In fact, one can see and feel Trump relishing such back-and-forth exchanges with reporters. I will never forget the confident look on his face when I asked him in the Oval on June 25, amid tensions with Iran, if he had a plan for avoiding a protracted war with the Middle East power.

You’re not going to need an exit strategy. I don’t do exit strategies,” he shot back, eager to appear tough on the world stage.

But not on Wednesday.

The silence

The often-bombastic and talkative Trump muttered but two words to the in-town pool, of which I was a part, or the pool that traveled with him to a political rally in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“Doing good,” the president replied to the day’s travel pool in response to their impeachment questions as be stepped into his heavily armored limousine at an airport near the Kellogg Arena.

A short time earlier, as twilight fell upon a frigid White House South Lawn, the in-town pool and a small horde of our colleagues set up shop outside the White House residence. We were eager to get Trump’s take on the House’s daylong debate about the impeachment articles, and the near-certainty that he was hours away from joining the kind of presidential club one typically works tirelessly to avoid. We were equally eager and ready for Trump to be in a “fight back” mood, meaning he could take questions for 20 minutes or 30 minutes or even 40 minutes.

A White House press aide then broke some news of her own with a nervous smile. We were going to have to move to the opposite end of the driveway. POTUS would be making his way to the executive helicopter via the Oval Office. She implored us to do so “calmly,” but chaos — as it has so many times during the Trump term — broke out.

She told the sound techs to go first. “What about the print pool?!” a harried and concerned wire reporter asked rightly. Before we lost any chance of getting into a position to accurately document any presidential remarks, I responded the only way that seemed appropriate, “Just go!” She did. We all did. When my colleague dropped her notebook, I scooped it up and returned it to her, more in the motion of an American football option pitch than a hand-off. We were on the move.

After more chaos as we avoided injuring one another and more or less worked with White House staff and each other to reposition, the silence returned.

Not from the low roar of Marine One’s engines. And certainly not from our shouting questions. But from Trump himself.

He never made the hard left turn onto the South Lawn driveway that would have led him to our position, a turn he’s made so many times since he took office. He merely waved to us a few times. He seemed to spot a favorite television personality or two in the front row, giving those folks a playful grin as he pointed them out. But there would be no “Chopper Talk” on this historic day.

Heaven and hell

Frozen, my colleagues and I returned to the White House basement. They trickled out, most to watch the president’s rally from home and otherwise continue covering the country’s third impeachment elsewhere. I took a brief dinner break off-campus. Transcribing is perhaps my least favorite part of the job this side of meetings, but there was a definite feeling that could only be described as regret that I was not hunkered down at my basement desk delivering Trump’s impeachment prebuttal to the world.

The bag with a steaming container of tomato basil soup and always-jarringly large square of wheat bread a Cosi employee slid in front of me as she took my red-glowing buzzer would have to do.

Back at my post, I hung on Trump’s every word as he seemed glued to his lectern in Michigan, a key swing state he’s trying to hold in his campaign for re-election. As he spoke, even suggesting the late Michigan Democratic Rep. John D. Dingellmight reside in hell after first referring to him as “looking down” from Heaven, I realized just how deeply Trump seemed to be taking his historic rebuke.

What set in yet again was just how far this president, this person, is willing to go to succeed — even if his definition of success and justification of his brash tactics differ wildly from a majority of his fellow citizens.

As the insults and mocking nicknames flew from the ad-libbing and bare-knuckled commander in chief, I also wondered whether any of the Democratic presidential candidates are willing to enter the general election ring and fight Trump’s kind of fight.

He’s the champion, the incumbent. He’s a tour de force. His political movement is a cult of personality as much as anything else. So the insults and brashness allow him to set the tone, to establish what kind of fight is ahead. After all, the champ doesn’t have to win the championship belt. He or she just has to find a way to not lose the gold.

The silence returns

Trump went on for over two hours, one of his longest rallies yet. After Air Force One then Marine One ferried Trump back to Joint Base Andrews then the White House, where my mobile device’s weather app put the “real feel” at a shiver-causing 8 degrees Fahrenheit, the silence returned. There were questions shouted by me and others. There was the same low roar of the chopper’s idling engines. But louder than all of that was the rare sound of an again-mum Donald Trump.

On the admittedly bleary-eyed ride home — here’s a shout-out to my Lyft driver “Charlie” for extracting me from the brutally cold downtown Washington wind tunnel at nearly 1 a.m. — I thought about Trump’s disinterest in interacting with the press on his presidency’s darkest day. In a way, it felt out of character for a president whose relationship with the media is as codependent as it appears dysfunctional. But in another, it was remarkably fitting.

That’s because even the president seemed resigned that this was one narrative he couldn’t control, one of the few truly historical events he couldn’t counter-program.

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