WASHINGTON >> Reporters were seated in the White House briefing room awaiting an appearance by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday when a call went out over a loudspeaker to head to the Rose Garden. There was no time to lose: President Donald Trump wanted to talk. Again.
Chaos briefly ensued as the press corps quickly repositioned itself along a rope line among the famous garden’s fall mums and foliage in front of a podium marked by the presidential seal.
While Trump rarely holds formal, stand-alone news conferences, his freewheeling, last-minute Rose Garden scrum was the latest example of his penchant for talking to journalists on the fly. For nearly 40 minutes, the president held forth on everything from tax policy to the Russia investigations to Hillary Clinton. Trump reveled in the wild rumpus, gesturing to specific journalists with a “hello” or a wink as they screamed and jumped to get his attention.
Quietly standing by: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who joined the president to affirm their working relationship.
The press-savvy president has been particularly chatty with reporters lately. He opines in the Oval Office. He stops to talk near the fluffy boom microphones on the South Lawn. He chats with the press on the tarmac as he boards Air Force One. He comes back to gab with reporters aboard the presidential plane.
Top correspondents now flood the South Lawn for Trump’s entrances and exits, hoping to lure him over with shouted questions.
“If he can walk out of his office and command the most elite press corps in the world, that feels good to him. It’s like going before a rally crowd,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio, the author of “The Truth About Trump.”
Trump’s Rose Garden exchange Monday was his second conversation with journalists that day. Earlier, he spoke with the press for nearly 20 minutes at the start of a Cabinet meeting, offering a monologue that touched on tax policy, drug prices, the wildfires in California and the Iran nuclear deal. He offered a tease of his meeting with McConnell, telling reporters he would “say a few words on the steps after that.”
A former reality television star, Trump has long told associates that he’s always been his best press secretary and spokesman. His impromptu press availabilities hark back to his days in New York real estate and on television, when he enjoyed talking to reporters and promoting his business ventures.
“The president is a media savant,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide. “He understands that access helps get your message out.”
Nunberg added that Trump knows that by keeping the plans loose, it means “the press doesn’t have time to prepare for a big takedown.”
To be sure, Trump’s media accessibility is paired with a steady stream of insults at what he dubs the “fake” media, with attacks on news outlets and individual journalists on Twitter and in his speeches. He also steers himself toward sympathetic interviewers — sitting down with conservative host Sean Hannity and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently. And he’s avoided some traditional media opportunities — declining, for example, to speak to reporters on his foreign trips.
Trump’s approach represents a marked contrast with former President Barack Obama, who rarely made unplanned remarks or ventured over to talk to reporters on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One. Early on, former President Bill Clinton would frequently answer questions while out on his morning jog. But aides reined in that behavior, deeming it unpresidential for a sweaty, short-shorts-wearing Clinton to be commenting on issues of the day.
In the Rose Garden, Trump churned through questions at whiplash-inducing speed, leaving open the possibility he’d dump his nominee for drug czar, Rep. Tom Marino, reaffirming his relationship with McConnell and discussing his judicial nominees. He claimed previous presidents did not sufficiently honor fallen soldiers. And he denounced the investigation into his campaign’s involvement with Russia.
Always one to build suspense, the president offered a few cliffhangers, promising new details next week on the nation’s opioid crisis and pledging to release a new economic development bill. Said Trump, “I haven’t even told Mitch because I want to focus on tax cuts and some other things right now.”
In all, the president took more than three dozen questions Monday during his Cabinet meeting and in the Rose Garden. Even as he wrapped up his remarks in the Cabinet Room, Trump couldn’t resist taking a few more.
“So that will be it. Okay?” Trump said.
Then he added, “Any other questions?”