WASHINGTON >> He eats almost every meal in the White House or at properties he owns. His presidential travel has been limited largely to red-state campaign rallies with adoring crowds, brief appearances surveying natural disasters, official travel overseas and a handful of forays to factories. His most consistent interactions with Americans are the steady diet of tweets he sends them.
Every president complains that the White House is a confining bubble, but unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump has made little effort to break out of it. In many ways, he lives in an echo chamber of his own making, an approach to the presidency that will be strenuously tested as Trump begins his campaign for re-election.
Virtually none of his travel as president has been to areas where he could expand his political base. Instead, he seems to mostly seek a controlled, home-court advantage.
That will be the case Thursday, when Trump travels to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for one of the “Make America Great Again” rallies that have provided Trump with a direct connection to his base since he became president, and require registration to attend.
He carried Michigan in 2016, needs to win it again in 2020 and can expect supporters in the western part of the state to provide an enthusiastic endorsement of his claim that he was fully exonerated of allegations of collusion and obstruction of justice by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. In fact, he was explicitly not exonerated of the obstruction charges, according to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the investigation by Mueller.
“This president seems to be operating on ‘how do I make my smaller supporters more intensified’ as opposed to ‘how do I get more supporters?’” said Matthew Dowd, a former top political adviser to President George W. Bush. “He’s using the power of the presidency, instead of trying to overcome division, he is trying to harden the division.”
Neither the White House nor the Trump campaign responded to questions seeking comment about his travels.
But an examination of Trump’s calendar every day since he was sworn into office, using the data compiled at factba.se, shows that the president has mainly spoken to audiences who already agree with him, with the exception of his trips responding to natural disasters.
According to factba.se, he has spent 82.5 percent of his presidency at the White House and has visited a property he owns on 224 out of 796 days, or 28.1 percent, he has been in office. He has visited 38 states, but that masks the extent to which he has concentrated his time in states that voted for him for president: nine visits to Missouri and West Virginia, eight to Texas and North Carolina, for example. Heavily Democratic Maryland, for instance, is one of his most frequently visited states, but that is because he travels from Andrews Air Force Base, located in the state.
Trump continued that pattern through the midterm elections, making only three campaign appearances in states he did not win in 2016. And his calendars, according to factba.se, indicate he has eaten only five times at the private residence of a supporter, with the rest of his meals at the White House, a Trump property or an official event.
Other presidents who have walled themselves off, like Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam or Richard Nixon during Watergate, did so because of a national crisis. Trump is doing so by choice, though with his relentless use of social media and extraordinary accessibility to the media, he is hardly a cloistered figure.
“What is remarkable is that President Trump has the kind of pinched travel schedule that we haven’t seen with a president since the worst days of the Johnson and Nixon administration,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
“The office of president of the United States is a place of unity,” Naftali said. “I think the president more often than not takes a sectarian approach to leadership, pitting one group against another. His schedule seems to confirm that.”
President Barack Obama tried to stay connected with Americans’ everyday concerns by reading 10 letters a day that an aide slipped into a purple folder and put in the briefing book he read each night. At times, he had a meal or a drink with small groups of voters, or one on one.
“Obama liked the spontaneous stops, going out to Five Guys,” said Anita Dunn, who served as his communications director. “He and the first lady would go to restaurants. Presidents have to work to stay in touch. That’s a very real challenge of the job.”
Other presidents, Republican and Democrat, took questions at town halls and tried to connect with Americans to avoid feeling like a prisoner in the White House, which Bill Clinton once called “the crown jewel of the federal penal system.”
“The idea that he’s a president who lives entirely in a bubble is true,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton. “There are very few points in his day where he seems to get out of it. He is generally surrounded by advisers who reiterate his points of view or who are isolated and unable to get their points of view heard.”
A review of his time in office shows that in Trump’s first year, he took an occasional visit to a factory like the Boeing facility in South Carolina in February 2017 or the Snap-On Tools plant in Wisconsin two months later.
In 2018, he made about a dozen domestic trips, but spoke at more than 40 MAGA rallies. And those events did not feature substantial interaction with voters. The notable exception was his meeting with victims of the mass shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
“Obama and Bush tried as best they can to break out of the bubble,” Dowd said. “He sort of goes out of his way to put more cement around the bubble, so nobody can get to him.”
But Trump has made a point of traveling to the scene of natural disasters. In Alabama recently, he was greeted with great enthusiasm. In other instances, like his visit to New Bern, North Carolina, in September to survey the damage from Hurricane Florence, he was criticized for lacking empathy.
Trying to make small talk with a man whose home had been damaged, he pointed to an elegant yacht that had been washed ashore during the hurricane and was marooned against the back deck of the man’s red brick house. “Is this your boat?” he asked the homeowner.
When the man shook his head and said “no,” the president turned with a grin and said, “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.”
Trump’s approach will be on trial in the 2020 presidential campaign. He has shown little inclination to try to expand the electoral map from his 2016 effort, when he won 306 Electoral College votes but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million.
The president’s victories in once reliably Democratic states that delivered him the White House — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — will be more fiercely contested by his opponent in 2020 than they were by Clinton. And Democrats believe they also have a chance to expand their map in states like Georgia, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and possibly even Texas. Trump’s most likely target for expansion is Minnesota.
Most analysts do not believe Trump can win a second term by merely maintaining the popular vote totals he received in 2016. So far, though, he has shown no inclination to build on those totals.
In 2004, Dowd said, he realized that for Bush to be re-elected he would need to expand his support among Latino and suburban voters. He also faults himself for “running a campaign based on getting 50 percent, plus one.”
“But Trump,” he said, “is running a 40 percent plus one campaign.”