Sweat-resistant shirts and the Trump White House

Washington DC -- Arriving in buttoned-down Washington from laid-back Rio de Janeiro as AFP's new White House correspondent, the first thing I needed to do was purchase a suit -- an actual suit and tie, not a bathing suit -- and while wandering the stacks of clothing at a department store, a sign caught my eye:

"Moisture Wicking Men's Dress Shirts."

It took a second to click, but yes, they were selling sweat-resistant office shirts. In the nation's increasingly nervy capital, it seemed just right.

Relaxing any way you can in the nervy US capitol -- a woman reads on a bench as others partake in an outdoor yoga class in Washington DC, May 15, 2018. (AFP / Andrew Caballero-reynolds)

A collective hysteria has overtaken the United States since I last worked here in what seem like the long-ago days of Barack Obama's presidency.

A study in contrasts -- US First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Christmas decorations viewing, December, 2013. (AFP / Jim Watson)
A study in contrasts -- US First Lady Melania Trump walks through Christmas decorations at the White House, November, 2017. (AFP / Saul Loeb)

 

 

Or not a collective but a decidedly split-screen hysteria, because everything today is filtered through competing prisms in which Donald Trump is either a breath of fresh air saving America from decay or an egomaniac in the process of pushing the country over a cliff.

 

Supporters of US President Donald Trump at a rally in Pensacola, Florida on November 3, 2018. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)
Protesters rally against US President Donald Trump's immigrant family separation policies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 30, 2018. (AFP / Dominick Reuter)

 

My first live sighting of POTUS came only a day or two into the job, when I joined other White House reporters in the Roosevelt Room where he was chairing a meeting on jobs initiatives. The occasion was routine, but I was a newbie, excited just to be there. Wondering when I'd see Trump up so close again, I noted everything: the thickets of military flags behind him, the heroic portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a "Rough Rider," the current president's hair…

 

Yes, his hair. My teenage children had asked me to check it out, so I did, clumsily attempting to draw a diagram in my notebook to map the contradictory directions taken by those citrus-colored locks as they run up, down and back and forth around the 45th president's head.

US President Donald Trump's hair blows in the wind as he boards Air Force One before flying to Vietnam to attend the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Beijing airport on November 10, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Well, turned out I needn't have worried about opportunities to get up close to Donald Trump. Despite having nearly killed off the traditional White House press briefings (more on that later), Trump is surprisingly, almost absurdly, accessible, holding impromptu Q&As so frequent and so liable to throw up a surprise that reporters get journalistic whiplash.

But the riddle of who Trump really is -- dangerous buffoon or unconventional savior -- remains unsolved. Just like the secret to his hair.

Working at the White House sounds pretty glamorous and it is. Occasionally.

Traveling with POTUS and his nuclear briefcase is the ride of a lifetime. Take Air Force One and you never sit in gates, wait for landing slots or so much as have to remove your shoes. The moment the doors close on the Boeing 747 -- beautifully polished on the outside and all understated comfort on the inside -- the pilot takes off like the getaway driver in a bank robbery. There's barely time to do up your seatbelt. Best of all? No one bothers to make you do up your seatbelt.

Air Force One, October 15, 2018. (AFP / Saul Loeb)

But then you return to Earth and things start getting weird.

Ahead of the midterm congressional elections earlier this month, I accompanied Trump to several of his Make America Great Rallies in the south and midwest of the country. This introduced me to the odd experience of flying in considerable luxury -- being fed vast amounts of comfort food that I will dub The Trump Diet -- before landing and being taken to arenas to be booed at by thousands of people.

Demonizing journalists is one of the mainstays of Trump's act. When he gives speeches, there's the economy ("hot"), there's illegal immigration ("invasion" of rapists and thieves), there's patriotism ("our hearts bleed red, white and blue") and there's the media: "dishonest," "fake news," "enemy of the people." Go to a Trump rally and you'll hear each of these ticked off. Go to another and you'll hear it all over again. Although accused of running a chaotic White House and making up policy on the fly, the president is in many ways remarkably consistent.

US President Donald Trump listens during a phone conversation with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto on trade in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on August 27, 2018. (AFP / Mandel Ngan)

It works like this. All of a sudden Trump will point to the penned off area where the reporters are kept and he'll tell the crowd that we invent everything, never tell the truth and are generally terrible. The crowd turns and boos, while Trump, egging them on, shakes his head, possibly murmuring something along the lines of "sad."

I can't say this bothers me on a personal level. It feels more pantomime than menacing. Mostly, I feel embarrassed for the grown men and women pretending to threaten us. I doubt they'd engage in that kind of thing back home or in the office the next day. What these scenes say about the health of debate and discourse in the United States is a more serious question.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump jeer the media at the Covelli Centre on July 25, 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio. (AFP / Getty Images/ Justin Merriman)
Supporters of President Donald Trump taunt the media after being egged on by the president during a campaign rally at the Amsoil Arena on June 20, 2018 in Duluth Minnesota. (AFP / Getty Images/Scott Olson)

 

Then the rally ends. We rush back to Air Force One, to our comfy seats and the rapid takeoff. Along comes The Trump Diet (macaroni and cheese, barbecue ribs, pretzel balls, large pieces of meat) and, because we're homeward-bound, offers of wine, whiskey or beer. Once, daughter Ivanka Trump came back with a birthday cake. As I said: weird.

 

Inside the White House, journalists are a kind of accepted annoyance, a bit like a nest of rodents or other wildlife camped in someone's basement or attic. We're  too much trouble to get out, but restrained from roaming far. When the inhabitants of the house throw out scraps of information, we pounce.

A turkey is shown to the press before US President Donald Trump participates in a turkey pardoning before the Thanksgiving holiday on November 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

The press wing, built over what was once a modest indoor presidential swimming pool, is tiny. Brimming with television equipment and work stations, there's not only a lack of space for journalists to sit -- there can be barely enough space to get through the door.

The famous briefing room, or what used to be famous when it appeared almost daily on the world's TV screens, is now a forlorn place. Pretty much abandoned as the stage for a White House spokesperson to give regular briefings, the room serves little discernible purpose other than as a place where correspondents without assigned desks can sit in the unused seats. Hunched over their phones and laptops, they look like lost airport travelers.

AFP is lucky enough to have three assigned desks -- really one and a half desks for three people -- in a corner nicknamed "Stills Country," where my AFP text colleague Jerome Cartillier  and I work among various agency photographers. "Stills Country" is a blast (photographers are great company and knowledgeable), but has the coziness of a broom cupboard. There's no natural light or ventilation. Our communal eating area doubles as the waiting room for the toilets. Oh and in case you thought the "Washington swamp" was only a metaphor, note that mosquitoes are a common sight in "Stills Country."

Us-politics-media'All the coziness of a broom cupboard' -- journalists in the "Stills Country" section of the press wing in the White House, November 2018. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

In the most important way, though, we're spoiled. Unlike the affable, but aloof Obama, this POTUS talks to us as often as several times a week. He professes to loathe the press, but in truth he can't get enough of us -- nor we of him.

US President Donald Trump speaks as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, on November 20, 2018. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Washington's filled with stuffed suits and people who'll find a hundred ways to say nothing. Trump, though,routinely strays from the script and speaks his mind. He has natural comic timing and an astonishing lack of inhibition. Then just when you think he can't go any further off-piste, off he goes.

He revels in outrageously self-praising comments, recounting how foreign leaders fawn over his accomplishments. He claims that he and North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un "fell in love." He boasts about simply ignoring the phone when allies attempted to persuade him against moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He makes up schoolyard nicknames for opponents -- "Pocahontas Elizabeth Warren," "Cryin' Chuck Schumer," "Crooked Hillary," etc.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press aboard Air Force One on September 7, 2018. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

He sounds alternately like a guy bragging at the bar, a stand-up comedian, a street tough, a schoolyard bully, a man of the people, and, at the bottom of it all, that same relentless businessman who made his name synonymous with New York's cutthroat real estate world.

I saw all of those sides on his trip to the wildfires in California last week. Coming back to talk with us in Air Force One, he described the hellish dangers faced by locals and firefighters but even then somehow managed to insert a joke about CNN, the network he loves to hate. Funny and tasteless. He just couldn't help himself. He also failed to see, let alone hug, any ordinary people who'd suffered in the disaster. But meeting with fire crews and local officials, including the deeply liberal governor of California, Jerry Brown, Trump couldn't have been more supportive. He looked devastated. Later, he took time to meet with relatives of people killed in the recent Thousand Oaks mass shooting. At the end of what turned into an 18-hour round trip from Washington, Trump said it had been "a rough day." You knew he meant it.

US President Donald Trump and Paradise Mayor Jody Jones view damage from the Camp fire in Paradise, California on November 17, 2018. (AFP / Saul Loeb)

In Season One of the Trump Show, the eponymous hero lived a charmed life. Through Republican control of Congress, he faced only toothless opposition. Through the force of his disruptive, headline hogging style he dominated every debate and set the news agenda.

Now, though, comes Season Two, with a host of new characters.

Starting in January we'll see a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, eager to write its own plot lines. With control of oversight committees they will be able to prise out information that until now the Trump administration has considered private property. The end of the midterm elections also means that special counsel Robert Mueller will enter the final stretch on his mission to probe alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russian agents in the 2016 election.

This isn't just regular pressure building up on Trump -- it's an existential threat.

And we're already getting a preview of how he'll react.

Within days of his party's loss of the lower house of Congress, Trump was on the warpath. He expelled a CNN journalist he finds especially annoying from the White House, mocked France for having been invaded by Germany in the world wars, and defied an uproar when he replaced his attorney general with an ally seen as agreeing with Trump that the Mueller investigation is "a witch hunt."

US President Donald Trump points to journalist Jim Acosta from CNN during a post-election press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2018. (AFP / Jim Watson)

A White House staff shake-up, possibly ejecting retired general John Kelly -- the so-called "adult in the room" -- as chief of staff may soon follow.

And that was just in the last few days. Imagine as the 2020 presidential election draws closer: it won't be pretty.

There's fear and loathing aplenty in the White House and in Washington more broadly. Even the laughter you hear is tinged with a sense of foreboding.

At a Trump press conference you may hear the president insult a journalist, calling him or her stupid, or a liar, or a bad person, and in the next breath crack a joke. He knows how to charm as well as shock.

But it's laughter of the nervous kind - the laughter that comes when you can't quite figure out who's in front of you.

Yep, those moisture-wicking shirts might really come in handy.

US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One prior to departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, August 4, 2017, as he travels on a 17-day vacation to Trump's golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. (AFP / Saul Loeb)

 

Sebastian Smith