A Capitol Conversation: An Encounter with President Trump
This time, it’s personal. Well, sort of. I thought I’d share some reflections of a recent working trip to Washington, D.C. It afforded me a rare and interesting opportunity to meet with the President of the United States in the Oval Office.
On Friday, May 18, as I was waist-deep in the final day of the 2018 Missouri legislative session, I learned that KRCG 13 had been invited to the White House for a meeting between President Donald Trump and a small group of out-of-town reporters. Such meetings are not unusual and not unique to this administration. What I did find curious was the inclusion of a small-market station from a flyover state in a group that turned out to include news reporters and anchors from Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Miami, as well as media groups that included Sinclair (KRCG’s parent company), Nexstar, and Gray.
In any case, there was precious little time. The meeting was set for the following Tuesday, May 22. Our management decided that, to make it worth going, we should gather interviews with members of Missouri’s congressional delegation and be prepared to report live over a couple of days.
The next 96 hours were a whirlwind. They involved KRCG 13 operations manager (and cameraman extraordinaire) Riccardo Montgomery and me driving 14 hours in a car loaded with television equipment to Washington, DC. We negotiated the restricted accesses of the area surrounding Capitol Hill to get into the offices of senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill as well as congress members Blaine Luetkemeyer and Vicky Hartzler, all of whom were remarkably accommodating in the face of only a day or two of advanced notice of our coming. All the while, I was preparing to raise my level of focus for the challenge ahead: reporting on an experience that I could not show and which I was restricted in describing.
You see, our meeting with President Trump was fully off the record, a condition to which everyone in our group had agreed in order to be included. We all were required to surrender our cell phones before entering the Oval Office, meaning no selfies. A White House photographer did document the encounter, but at this writing, I have not yet received those photos.
The meeting itself lasted about half an hour. After waiting briefly in the Roosevelt Room, our group was escorted through a short corridor into the Oval Office. A row of chairs was positioned in front of the Resolute Desk, facing the fireplace at the opposite side of the room. President Trump entered, greeted each of us individually, and took a seat in a cushioned Queen Anne chair in front of the fireplace. I sat in one of the chairs in front of the desk, while others took seats on the two sofas that face one another in the middle of the room. Staff and Secret Service agents surrounded us.
During most of the meeting, the President sat forward in his chair, his suit coat unbuttoned, tie dangling between his legs, his forearms occasionally resting on his knees. I remember thinking this was the posture of a businessman in negotiation, drawing us in. Without betraying the agreed-to confidentiality, I can tell you he answered questions about matters of local and regional interest, as well as matters of national and international interest. At one point, someone asked about his participation in an upcoming event. The question was redirected to presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, who had slipped into the empty seat next to me so quietly that I hadn’t noticed. At that point, I also spotted Vice President Mike Pence standing in an adjacent office through an open doorway. When it was time to end the meeting, Pence entered the room and thanked us all for coming. President Trump then did the same, shaking our hands before we were ushered out.
I returned to the White House press briefing room, focusing my thoughts for the live reports I would do from there for our evening newscasts (we wanted to go live from the lawn in front of the North Portico, but a thunderstorm thwarted that plan). I was distracted by the lingering question of why I really was there, why KRCG 13 was included in this exercise.
At one point, Conway entered the room, and Riccardo and I muscled our way into the reporter gaggle that had surrounded her. I put the question of our Oval Office invitation to her. She responded as you might expect, saying only that it is important to President Trump to reach beyond the beltway media to convey his message. We all understood enough about his relationship with the White House press corps to know what she meant. Beyond that, I was left to speculate.
I suspect the answer has more to do with the fact that the White House is very focused on the U.S. Senate race in Missouri, and perhaps in the midterm elections in the other states represented by our group. I did ask Conway if the President, who has visited Missouri three times since August, would return to the Show-Me State over the summer to help the GOP here unseat Claire McCaskill. She said she would not discuss the political environment this year, but then added with a smile that she was sure I already knew the answer to that question.
And then, there was that 14-hour drive home… CBT