NEW YORK — There has been no sudden national crisis this week, like the underwear bomber who on Christmas in 2009 forced President Barack Obama to react to a terror attack dressed in an open collar shirt while enjoying his annual Hawaiian vacation.
But President Donald Trump, perhaps feeling too constrained by Twitter’s 140-character limit, decided Thursday was a good time to react, anyway. To everything.
On Day Four of his working vacation, Trump summoned reporters to his Bedminster National Golf Club twice in one day, in order to unburden himself on everything from the North Korean nuclear threat, to Vladimir Putin’s decision to oust U.S. personnel from the American Embassy in Moscow, to his growing frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
It wasn’t a full news conference — Trump took questions only from the small group of rotating reporters who make up the traveling press pool when the president leaves Washington, D.C. But it was Trump’s most extensive back-and-forth with reporters since he last held a full press conference in February.
A White House official said the decision to answer questions was made solely by Trump, who did not give his staff a head’s up that he planned to engage on any topic that happened to be lobbed at him. He had only warned staffers that he would see if the press had any questions when they entered the room, in a building next to a swimming pool filled with guests, for a photo-op ahead of a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He said he would decide from there how he would react. The result was a fusillade of news.
“I want to thank him,” Trump said of Putin’s response to new U.S. sanctions — a cut of 755 American embassy officials. “We’re trying to cut down on payroll and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump added, in what was perhaps the most shocking, if not out of character, news he made all day.
He also doubled down on his impromptu and alarmist “fire and fury” threat to North Korea, saying that the comment “maybe wasn’t tough enough.”
In the past, when Trump has made news on Twitter or in interviews — like when he first publicly castigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the New York Times, or when he accused morning show host Mika Brzezinski of “bleeding badly from a facelift” on Twitter — White House officials admit that the president is simply venting publicly the thoughts he has been stewing on privately for weeks.
But his comment thanking Putin, on Thursday, caught even senior White House officials by surprise — it was a sentiment some said they had not yet heard him express, even behind closed doors. The rest, however, was not news to those who speak to Trump regularly.
When asked if he thought McConnell, the man he will need as a partner to get any piece of his legislative agenda accomplished, should step down, Trump did not say no. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If he doesn’t get repeal and replace done, and if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question.”
McConnell in the hot seat seemed to take the pressure off of Trump’s ongoing anger with Sessions. When asked about the state of their relationship, Trump said, resignedly, “it is what it is.”
Trump also declared the country’s opioid epidemic a “national emergency,” defended his decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military, said he has not considered firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and distanced himself from his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, whose house was raided by the FBI late last month, saying he hadn’t spoken to him in “a long time.”
"You know, they do that very seldom, so I was surprised to see it,” he said. “I was very, very surprised to see it. I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever."
The decision to hold a mini-press availability in the middle of his vacation was a departure from how previous presidents and their staffs have tried to organize their limited down time.
“We weren’t ever looking for opportunities to make news,” Josh Earnest, who served as Obama’s press secretary, said of the former president’s getaways to Hawaii or Martha’s Vineyard.
Earnest explained the old process: staff would try and squeeze the necessary phone calls and security briefings into a 90-minute morning session they had with Obama, following his daily workout. The rest of the day, the president would spend playing golf, or hanging out with his family. Obama would carry his Blackberry with him for emergencies, and his staff would make sure that he responded to crises, like the flooding situation in Louisiana in 2016.
But even a provocation from North Korea, Earnest said, would not be something the president would react to from vacation — or even from the Oval Office.
“We would look for ways to downplay their provocations, knowing what they were seeking was international attention,” Earnest said. Instead of having the president respond directly, the administration would push out a paper statement from the National Security Council, and release a photograph or a readout of Obama making calls to allies like South Korea or Japan.
“Trump did not have to say anything,” Earnest said.
But Trump’s decision to engage in two days of disquieting threats that could potentially escalate a nuclear war, happened, according to White House officials, like most things do in his administration: because the president felt like it.
“The president’s here to work,” Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign operative, said of the cascade of news the president created out of nowhere in the past two days. “That should never surprise anybody.” Trump has been resistant to the notion that he might be taking some time off — even as public Instagrams of him posing with fans on the golf course emerge daily. “This is not a vacation!” he tweeted Monday. “Meetings and calls!”
Whatever it is, Trump’s cocktail of tee times and threats to a nuclear-wielding enemy have been unsettling to Americans watching from home, and especially alarming to his critics.
"He’s spent his summer vacation, frankly, threatening a BBQ the likes the world has never seen before,” said Philippe Reines, a former top adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But it’s par for the Trump playbook — and is exactly how the president, who is struggling with steadily tumbling poll numbers that hit a new low point this week, has self-soothed for decades.
On the back book jacket of “The Art of the Comeback,” his 1997 sequel to the “Art of the Deal,” Trump lists some of his favorite “comeback tips” for getting back on top. Those include: “Play Golf. Stay Focused. Get Even.”