Donald Trump served various television news personalities a lunch described by one White House guest as soup and filet of sole Tuesday—but soon the assembled anchorpeople were eating out of his hand.
Much to the disappointment of folks at CNN, nobody at the long table—who included NBC’s Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, ABC’s David Muir and George Stephanopoulos, and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and Margaret Brennan—bothered to ask why the president had gone out of his way to exclude the cable network run by Trump’s former friend Jeff Zucker.
“MSDNC isn’t here as well,” Trump quipped—to polite chuckles but zero protests (not even by Meet the Press and MSNBC anchor Todd) from his captive audience, who were there ostensibly for a briefing on tonight’s State of the Union address but instead were treated to a lot of presidential boasting about his poll numbers and the “through-the-roof” stock market, and a lot of gloating about the “fiasco” of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses and the general disarray in the out-of-power party.
Trump made sure to criticize his Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell for declining to lower interest rates further. Asked about the exploding trillion-dollar deficits his administration has created, the president claimed that lower interest rates will allow him to reduce the red ink in his second term.
“He was chill,” said a lunch guest. “He wasn’t angry at all. He was friendly, outgoing, and relaxed. He was confident that he’ll be re-elected.”
Trump also was sanguine about his participation in the fall presidential debates, saying, ”Yeah, I’ll do it,” even though, he claimed, “the debate commission is filled with a bunch of Never Trumpers.”
Trump and his lovingly admiring vice president, Mike Pence, sat directly across from each other. The president was flanked by O’Donnell and Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum; Pence, meanwhile, drew Todd and Fox News’ Bret Baier as his lunch partners. Also enjoying the cuisine—but staying away from the offered Chardonnay—were PBS’ Judy Woodruff, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, CBN’s David Brody, and Newsmax’s Emerald Robinson, formerly a firebrand pundit at the president’s favorite media outlet, One America News Network, who—among many outlandish claims—accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) of being an “al-Qaeda supporting Somali gangster.”
Trump indicated that tonight’s speech will run to one-and-a-half hours, and he planned to mention but spend little time talking about the ongoing impeachment proceedings. That, he said, will be reserved for the barn-burner he plans to deliver on Wednesday after the Senate acquits him.
“It’s going to be low-key,” Trump said.
“Are you sure you want to call it ‘low-key?’” Chuck Todd demanded—which was about as hardball as the questioning got.
While Trump fielded earnest queries about troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States’ recent confrontation with Iran (“Nobody knows how close we came to war,” the president confided in an answer to Holt), nobody saw fit to challenge him on his regular attacks on members of the press the “enemy of the people,” “scum,” and other choice epithets.
At one point Trump recalled that he had been an early donor to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s first House race, and added: “AOC is gonna run against him in the primary and she’s gonna kick his ass,” a lunch guest quoted the president as predicting.
As for his potential Democratic opponents, he said that Bernie Sanders “is the nastiest and the smartest”—a compliment of sorts—and said he didn’t understand the appeal of former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, the nation’s first out-gay major presidential candidate. Meanwhile he vowed to hammer Joe Biden “on Ukraine and Burisma.”
Trump also promised that the White House will spare no effort in blocking his former national security adviser John Bolton’s book from publication; he noted that he took a chance and hired Bolton “when nobody else wanted him,” and mocked Bolton’s use of the honorific “ambassador” because “he couldn’t even get confirmed; he was a recess appointment” to be George W. Bush’s top diplomat at the United Nations, Trump pointed out.
He said their relationship soured early on, in the midst of Trump’s meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, after Bolton went on TV to announce that the U.S. favored “the Libyan model” in its dealings with Kim—that is, a scenario where North Korea’s tyrant gives up his nuclear weapons, only to be killed anyway, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
In sum, at this White House lunch, a good time was had by all.
Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected to reflect that Emerald Robinson did not connect Jeffrey Epstein’s pedophile sex ring to the right-wing conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. We regret the error.