White House Reporter Major Garrett on the ‘Thrills’ of Covering Trump

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Major Garrett is CBS News’ chief White House correspondent and author of the new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency.” Garrett has covered four different administrations at three separate news outlets. He spoke to Daily Signal editor-in-chief Rob Bluey and contributor Ginny Montalbano. An edited transcript is below. You can also listen to an audio version on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Rob Bluey: You recount in the book the first words that Donald Trump ever spoke to you and why you should have taken them more seriously. Let’s go back to that moment in August 2015, when Donald Trump, for many conservatives, was somebody who they didn’t necessarily expect to end up in the White House. Can you tell us that story?

Major Garrett: Sure. So we’re in Birch Run, Michigan. This was just a few days after the first Republican Presidential Debate in Cleveland, Ohio, where Donald Trump made a very big splash, and he drew a very large crowd to this part of Michigan. It wasn’t even for a Trump rally or a Trump event. I still have my press pass from that event. It was for the two local Republican county offices. I think one of them was Genesee County. I can’t remember the name of the other county, but it was a fundraiser for those two Republican counties.

The Trump campaign didn’t even have its own press badges. It didn’t even have an apparatus, and you were charged, I think, $25 to get in, $75 if you wanted a front-row seat, and there were thousands of people there.

Before the event, Donald Trump had a press conference, first time I’d ever seen him in person my entire life, and he goes through a couple of questions on one side. He looks over the right side, where the press corps is sitting. I’m in the far seat on the first row, so not very close to him, but he notices me, and he says, “Major, fantastic.”

What he meant by that was, “You’re here, and because you’re a network correspondent, I know who you work for. I know you by reputation. My campaign must be getting more important. Therefore, I must be getting more important.”

Then he says, “I saw you ask a question of President Obama. He didn’t like that. I’ll probably be happier. Go ahead,” something to that effect. It’s all in the book. What I say is I should’ve learned a lot of things about that. First of all, his sense of self, and his sense of media presence providing verification to Trump that he’s becoming more important and how much he monitors that … That was a very early clue.

The fact that he watches and consumes a lot of news television … He knew a great deal about this question that I asked President Obama about the Iran nuclear deal, where the president really went after me, and that he also had no sense of time. He said it was two weeks ago. It had been a month ago.

And then also this sense of the president wasn’t happy, but I’m sure I’ll be more happy, meaning, “Whatever the scenario, whatever the situation, I believe I will have the upper hand.”

The point of all this is to say he left me a lot of clues about who he was, and what his approach to politics was going to be, over and over and over again. My own criticism is I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to that.

There were clues right there, right in front of me, but I didn’t take them seriously. I didn’t analyze them closely enough. If I had, I’d have spared myself months and months and months of bewilderment about who Donald Trump was and what he was actually trying to do, if I’d just paid closer attention to that very first sentence he ever spoke to me.

CBS News’ Major Garrett says covering President Donald Trump is unlike his past experiences reporting on the White House. (Photo: Jeff Malet/Newscom)

Ginny Montalbano: You mentioned President Trump’s sense of self. Something else that you write about in your book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” is the president’s reliance on his gut. How big of a strength, would you say, was that during his campaign, and do you think it has served him well in his presidency so far?

Garrett: Well, it was the most important component of his campaign. I can’t tell you how many Republicans, especially those who ran against him and lost, could … to this day are, day in and day out, amazed about how this particular political figure in American life, Donald Trump, now our president, now the nation’s president, relies on this sort of instinct he has and will not turn away from it.

In fact, when criticism comes cascading down, and when he senses people around him, even his closest allies, begin to get wobbly, begin to get weak-kneed, he increases, not decreases, whatever it is that he’s just done to create the cascade of criticism or the sense of anxiety among his advisers.

That is a unique approach to politics. I’m not saying it’s the best approach to politics. I’m not saying it always works to his advantage, but it is singularly different.

That sense of gut instinct, whether it always serves him in the best way or the worst way, it is his most reliable instrument as a politician, and his reliance on it is nearly perpetual.

And for the time in which he was running, and it may not be worthwhile at any other time, but for the time in which he was running, it sent a powerful and reassuring signal to his supporters, who wanted someone to speak the way Donald Trump did and, once criticized, wouldn’t back down. That reinforced their sense of confidence in him, their reliance upon him, and their willingness to turn out for him.

I don’t see how you can take any of those things I just said and separate them from his eventual victory. I believe they are absolutely reinforcing. Now, has that always served him well, as president? No, it hasn’t, but it has also served him well at times when he’s pushed the envelope and then backed away.

I have an entire chapter in the book about this president’s, and there’s only one way to describe it, unique approach to North Korea—incredibly hard, intense, aggressive, belligerent by one turn, and then diplomatic and backing away in the next.

He created that space for him, with very unconventional methods, methods that left the foreign policy clash, right and left, bewildered. This sense of gut instinct and going on his own and looking around the room and saying, “Well, just because we haven’t done it before, why can’t I do it?” It’s a question he routinely asks, often answering it himself: “Well, I’m going to do it this way. Everyone, fall in line.”

That sense of gut instinct, whether it always serves him in the best way or the worst way, it is his most reliable instrument as a politician, and his reliance on it is nearly perpetual.

Bluey: You’ve had the opportunity to cover four different presidencies, and that’s certainly one of the distinctions about this president, is that gut instinct. How have you changed, or how have you been forced, and other reporters been forced, to perhaps take a different perspective, based on the other presidents you’ve covered, because of Trump’s unique style?

Garrett: It’s a great question. I’m always reluctant to describe how other reporters have changed, because I’m so focused on what I do and how I try to do it, and how we try to do the story within the confines of CBS News.

I would just say there was, in the previous presidencies I covered, a general rhythm. There was a general rhythm, and there were rhythms.

Most presidents, every president I covered, would look at a week, at a month, and have a strategy, have a set of goals. Some were short term. Some were medium term. Some were long term. Other events would intervene, of course, but they would try to create a sense of internal and external pace, and some dimension of predictability.

This president just doesn’t do that. He doesn’t think that way. He doesn’t operate that way. Even when some things are put on a somewhat predictable path, meaning there’s a decision that has to be made, and several agencies are involved, and they need to check off on it, and it needs to get to a place where it can be presented to the president, and that process has a somewhat traditional dimension to it, the president himself, and I write about this in the book, will sometimes look up and say:

“Nope, I’ve changed my mind,” or, “I’m taking the opposite position, just because I don’t think everyone in this room has thought about it as much as I have or has tried to be as creative as I have,” or, “I’m just changing my mind. I’m just now changing my mind.”

That creates its own disruption. That’s an internal disruption that sometimes filters out to us.

Then there’s just the normal disruption that he likes to create in general. He loves to churn. He loves to churn in the sense that he can always redirect the conversation, or if not redirect it entirely, shove it in different and unpredictable directions.

And because his Twitter feed means a presidential statement feed, we have to measure and weigh everything that appears there against the totality of everything else that’s going on, because the most important thing that may have happened in any given day, Saturday, Sunday, 1 a.m., 4 a.m., it doesn’t matter, could be a tweet.

That sense that you always have to be on guard and always sifting that aspect of this presidency is, without a doubt, completely different.

Major Garrett, CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, second from right, in the White House’s Brady Press Briefing Room. (Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP / Polaris/Newscom)

Bluey: Of course, that speaks to the title of your book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” which I love, as somebody who’s been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland before. It’s certainly something that all of us in Washington have come to adapt.

Garrett: It’s an endlessly fascinating saga. It’s an exhausting saga. It creates anxiety. It creates a great sense of adoration.

One thing I write about in the book is you can’t get away from the fact that this presidency, in all of its, one phrase I use, cyclonic spasms, creates tremendous and near-constant reactions, some of them deeply emotional, some of them psychological, some of them ideological, some of them just pure amazement.

All of that is the totality of our American experience with what is clearly an American experiment. Donald Trump is the first president of his time never to lead a military successfully into a large battle or to have been previously elected and tested in prior political office.

It’s an endlessly fascinating saga. It’s an exhausting saga. It creates anxiety. It creates a great sense of adoration.

He checked neither of those boxes. Every single President before him had. As I write in the book, that tells us something that is changing about our American sense of expectation of what a president either needs to be or should be.

As this experiment continues, we’re all watching. And the point of the book, for me, is to step back and say, “Whatever your reactions, if you love this or hate this experiment, things are happening,” and five to 10, 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, “Wow. Those things that happened are still with us, for good or for ill.”

I try to step away from a bit of the noise and find a protective space, where I could try to make sense and assess what’s already happened on the substantive side of the Trump presidency, as opposed to the noisier side of it.

Montalbano: It is certainly a unique presidency. Something we discussed was President Trump’s love of TV. How do you think that television news shapes his thinking and his decision-making?

Garrett: Well, it certainly informs his sense of the world. Because his television viewing habits tend to, according to his own Twitter feed, which gives us pretty regular and near constant signals about what he’s watching and what’s making an impression upon him … his TV viewing habits are not only large, meaning he watches a lot of television. There’s no debate about that, and that is one of the ways he is informed about the world, and it’s one of the ways he then interacts with the rest of the country.

Television does inform a lot of what he does, what he thinks, and what he reacts to. That’s also something that White House aides have told me makes him unpredictable.

It does inform not only what he prioritizes and what messages he drives on his Twitter feed, but, for example, and I recount this in some detail in the book, when he saw the original global television coverage of the chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2017, then he got intelligence briefings and other video that reinforced it, he said, “I have to do something. I have to do something that suggests that the world is not going to take this, and there’s going to be a reaction, and I’m not going to do it the way President Obama did it.”

And then I sort of go through what was described to me by many who participated in it, a very methodical and gradual process to make a decision, methodical and gradual in ways that even surprised those who were expecting … They’d never seen President Trump operate under this kind of pressure before. They were expecting him to act maybe a little bit more rationally, or maybe more rapidly, either one, but he didn’t.

I explain the process in the book … I’m not saying it’s an absolute conclusion, but it offers some suggestive evidence that, in that case, when the pressure was on, and there was something he was reacting to, emotionally and otherwise, via television, he took his time.

He took a lot of meetings, listened to a lot of different voices, then made a decision, and then stuck with it and moved on. Television does inform a lot of what he does, what he thinks, and what he reacts to. That’s also something that White House aides have told me makes him unpredictable internally, because they’re not sure what it is that he’s, A, watching, and what it is that’s going to click in his head, and then suddenly come to their desk as a new high priority item.

President Donald Trump is surrounded by media during a briefing on Hurricane Florence. (Photo: The White House/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Montalbano: Something else I was hoping you could give us some insight into are your personal interactions with President Trump. I know, specifically, there’s one instance in the book where you asked him if he was scared to let people, to let his supporters, down. Could you elaborate on that?

Garrett: Yeah, we were in South Carolina, Myrtle Beach, and it was a very, very hot day. My producer and I got to the rally about two hours early. We knew that we were going to have an interview with then-candidate Trump.

The crowd had been forming long, long before that, maybe six-seven hours, and that was consistent with so many Trump rallies that I had covered, and I’ve covered more than 75 Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign.

I said to him, “Do you ever worry that all the promises that you make—” and he, by then, had long since embraced this idea of you’re going to get so tired of winning. We’re going to win everything. It’s all going to be great. I said, “You know, you’re building up tremendous expectations. Do you ever worry that you’re not going to be able to meet them?”

He said, and I quote him directly in the book, “I don’t want to let these people down. It is pressure. I would be so upset with myself if I let them down. They show up early. They wait in line for hours. I want to say to them, ‘What are you doing? Why are you here?’ Well, it’s because of me, and I feel the weight of it.”

I’m paraphrasing there, but it was a moment where I think he was, at least momentarily, reflective about the expectations he was setting.

Then I mentioned to him, in the course of the interview, “You know, when Harry Truman left the office, he said, ‘You know, Dwight Eisenhower’s going to come into this place and is going to bark orders, like he did when he was the supreme allied commander, and back then, all the orders were immediately carried out. He’s going to come here as president and he’s going to say, ‘Do this. Do that,’ and nothing’s going to happen. Poor Ike.’”

I said to the president, “You know other presidents have been frustrated with—even though they’ve won an election and they were setting an agenda, it takes a long time to get things done.” He acknowledged that ever so briefly, but said, “No, I’ll get it done. I’ll take care of all these things.”

I quote him directly of all the things that he, at that moment, in that part of the conversation, before the South Carolina Republican primary, had prioritized.

Then I sort of say, “Well, some of them have been carried out. Many of them remain undone,” which exemplifies this gap that every president encounters, between what their intentions are, what their promises are, and what they’re actually able to get done.

Bluey: Well, Major, I applaud you for making all those trips to those rallies, getting outside of Washington, and telling those great stories that come from all across America. You know, one of the things that we’ve seen here in Washington is a lot of comings and goings from this White House in the time President Trump has been there. Who, based on your own reporting, still has his trust, whether it’s somebody in the Cabinet or whether it’s an aide who still remains loyal to him. Who does he trust?

Garrett: I fundamentally believe he trusts his chief of staff, John Kelly. But does he trust him every hour of every day? No, that’s not really the way that Donald Trump operates. I don’t think, outside of his family, there is anyone he trusts 100 percent of the time, day in and day out. I just don’t think he operates that way.

Now, I don’t say that the only other option for Donald Trump is mistrust. There is a gray area in between, a testing place. I mention in the book a couple of times that it’s been my experience, both dealing with him and talking to people who work with him on a regular basis, that he’s always placing people on a continuum of high performance, high trust; not so high performance, maybe mistrust, and that evaluation process, unlike most political figures I’ve covered, never ends.

With most political figures I’ve covered, once you’ve proven yourself, you’re in and you’re trusted until you provide evidence otherwise. For Trump, even if you don’t provide that evidence otherwise, he still wonders and tests and re-evaluates.

That’s one of the things I think makes it difficult to work for Trump and why you’ve seen people, who had good jobs, leave. I write about this in the book.

People who come into the administration, they set an egg timer. They’re like, “I’m going to be here a year, maybe not even that,” and usually when that time expires, they’re out because it’s tough. It’s a tough and exacting and sometimes emotionally difficult, sometimes traumatizing, but a lot of times difficult, system of standards that Trump sets.

I think Kelly has his trust. I think he is strongly behind his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin. I talk about how Mnuchin was one of those early identified key people in the Trump world, outside of his family, starting with the day after the election. I talk about that in some detail in the book.

I think the circle is small. Even his family members have recently said his circle of trust is small and they would like it larger. I think, even for those who are not family members, who have his trust, it’s never permanent, and just because I think that’s the way Trump looks at life. You can never be sure, so you’re always asking and you’re always testing.

One thing you mentioned about the Trump rallies … I want to get this across. One of the things I’ve tried to do in the book is not just say, “I went to this rally,” but introduce people who are reading the book to people I met and the voices I heard during the campaign, because they’re relevant to some of the policies that President Trump has pursued. I wanted those voices in the book, so it wouldn’t be just a Washington, D.C., book about a president.

Not only that, my colleague at CBS, Dean Reynolds, who is based in Chicago, on a monthly basis does these Trump supporter check-in stories. All this is going on in Washington. We’re with Trump supporters in some part of the country. What are they saying?

I’ve placed those voices in the course of the first year and a half of the Trump presidency as well to constantly have a check, not only for the reader, but for anyone here in Washington. I introduce and make sure those voices of people who look at this presidency and have a certain point of view on it, that they’re not left out, or they’re not short-changed in trying to evaluate what has and hasn’t happened.

White House chief of staff John Kelly in the Oval Office. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Newscom)

Montalbano: It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since the election. Looking ahead, are there any significant changes you think the Trump team will make for the 2020 campaign?

Garrett: Well, a lot of that’s going to be determined by whatever happens in the midterm elections. Now, I’m not suggesting there’ll be wholesale changes, but there will maybe be some significant reassessments, depending on what happens.

As I say in the epilogue of the book, if Democrats retake control of the House, then there’ll be a readjustment that will suggest Democratic backlash or snapback that will suggest maybe some buyer’s remorse against some suburban Republicans and independents who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. There will have to be some measurement about what does that mean and what does it portend for a re-election campaign.

As I also say in the epilogue, if Republicans even narrowly retain control of the House and Democrats don’t regain or take control of the Senate, meaning Republicans basically hold full, I say President Trump’s renomination is guaranteed and his re-election is far more likely than anyone would’ve imagined, even his most ardent supporters, on Inauguration Day 2017.

The midterms are going to be one of these mile markers in the Trump presidency. We’re going to look back on that as either there’s this heavy reaction and there looks to be all this activism but Republicans still, by some amazing combination of their loyalty and Trump’s unique political skills, hold on, or there is going to be this tide, this wave, of some dimension, and then there’ll have to be a reassessment.

There’s a suggestion there’ll be a rather big personnel shakeup in the White House if Democrats take control of the House. If they take control of the Senate, maybe that will even be deeper and more profound, in terms of personnel and how to position the White House.

I think all the data and all the things that we thought we’d learned before 2016, that told us there were pieces of data we could sift and analyze, that would have some predictive value, I think that’s all gone. I think the Trump era introduces a new dimension of unpredictability.

There’s a sense that if Democrats take control of the House, and maybe the Senate, but even if it’s only the House, the investigatory aspect of the Congress will be much more intrusive, and the White House will need to prepare for that, not just in terms of communications, but lawyers and experts. There could be some significant changes, depending on what happens in the midterms.

The last thing I’ll say about the midterm election, because I learned this in 2016 … I spent a lot of time covering presidential campaigns before and lots of midterm campaigns. I’ve been all over the country doing that many times.

I think all the data and all the things that we thought we’d learned before 2016, that told us there were pieces of data we could sift and analyze, that would have some predictive value, I think that’s all gone. I think the Trump era introduces a new dimension of unpredictability.

We saw it first in 2016. I think we’ll see it again in the midterm. By that, I mean you can’t go back to a previous midterms cycle and say, “Well, these pieces of evidence told us what was going to happen, and these pieces of evidence are going to tell us what’s going to happen now.”

I don’t think we know what’s going to happen. We know some trend lines, but because the Trump effect, his personality and the way people react to it, is so different, we just have to wait and see.

Montalbano: Some great insight. Major, thank you so much for writing the book and for joining us on The Daily Signal Podcast. Once again, it’s called “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride.”

The post White House Reporter Major Garrett on the ‘Thrills’ of Covering Trump appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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