Wednesday, January 18, 2017

That time I met the 45th president

It was over in about 60 seconds, but I had the chance to ask one question — just one — of the incoming 45th president of the United States. Here's how it went down:

At the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25 of that year, despite not having the proper credentials, I managed to finagle my way from The Washington Times “party” and downstairs to the back of the red carpet press receiving line, where I got in a few minutes with Al Roker, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, all of whom were friendly.

Then I saw him coming, unmistakable as an exploding volcano on a glacier. 

My boss Cheryl was there, and she managed to catch the first photo of me as Donald Trump came down the receiving line — my face a mixture of drunken bravery and “can I really do this?”

It was getting near time for everyone to go inside the ballroom for dinner — off-limits to anyone except guests and employees of the lone media outlet allowed access: C-SPAN. (I tried every door to get into the dinner itself but was rebuffed at each.)

Pressing up against a phalanx of other journos and a general stream of gawkers, I managed to get to within about 10 feet of the New York billionaire when a tall woman with perfectly coiffed hair stopped me.

“Who are you with?” she asked in a tone that meant business.

“The Washington Times,” I responded.

Her face brightened.

“Oh, he loves The Times. I'll make sure you're his last interview before he goes into the ballroom.”


“But you will only have 30 seconds, so one question.”

One question. Just one to ask of the star of “The Apprentice.”

I had it.

As he got closer, I made photos behind his back, mocking the famous sourpuss visage. Mocking the powerful is not just fun, it's more or less a necessity.

Unsurprisingly, as I was on deck, Trump and Melania were accosted by another reporter, with her final query the predictable: “Are you going to run?”

Remember, this was months before Trump descended that escalator at Trump Tower to proclaim that he was going to shake up the system the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to “pump up” California and “hasta la vista, baby” Gray Davis.

Both office runs seemed improbable (and I lived in L.A. at the time of the Ahnold contest and voted in that election too), yet here we are.

Anyway, in quick reply to the question about running for president Trump said, “We're looking at it.”

His handler, the lady who had stopped me to learn who I was with, then shuffled The Donald and Melania over to me.

Now or never.

“Hi, Mr. Trump, I'm Eric from The Washington Times,” I said. “I'm from New Jersey, so I'm really curious about your thoughts on removing your name from your casinos in Atlantic City.”

Maybe I imagined this, but I swear I saw just the hint of a twinkle pass over his eyes, almost as if the guy, who has never been a stranger to microphones, was thankful to finally be asked something different.

“Let me tell you about Atlantic City,” he began. “They made a lot of mistakes down there, and a lot of people told me I was smart to get out when I did.” (You can hear the entire exchange here.  Apologies the audio quality ain't that great.)

He barely looked me in the eye, seemed distracted, perhaps even annoyed at being the center of attention…but that can't seem possible. I put on the plastic patient reporter's smile as he talked up how thoroughly brilliant he was for getting out of AC when he did. (However, those pesky facts must intervene, as a report by The New York Times shows that while Mr. Trump indeed made out like gangbusters on the Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Marina Hotel Casino, his employees, investors and, let's be frank, the city of Atlantic City itself were all left hanging out to dry.)
After my 30 seconds, I thanked Trump and reached out to shake his hand, which he proffered.

He and Melania then disappeared into the ballroom, where President Obama would spend much of his speech that night ribbing his eventual successor.

It's probably unfair — and certainly unscientific — to think you can get the measure of a man in only a half-minute of interaction, and I won't even pretend that I “know” Donald Trump any better than I did in the moment before we spoke as reporter/interviewee. But, having been there, I can offer what little I was able to gather in impressions:

While the WHCD is certainly a big to-do, and it is an absolutely public event, my feeling in the moment was that he was seemingly, uh, more subdued than one might expect. I expected him to scream at me in a loud voice — you know, with me being “dishonest media” and all — but to reiterate, he seemed to present a certain disinterest in the proceedings, as if this were one more lily pad he had to hop in order to leap to the White House.

While I wouldn't precisely classify our interaction as friendly, he certainly wasn't mean either. I had a question that was of interest to me given that I'm from the state where Atlantic City is located, and here I had a chance to ask a man whose decisions have shaped that sinkhole by the sea (sorry, but it's true) for decades, rightly or wrongly.

He gave me a straightforward answer, which is about all I could hope for — and yes, one certainly tinged with braggadocio.

Never mind that it was nearly identical, word for word, to a response he gave to Chris Wallace of Fox News at one of the first Republican debates less than four months later. You can watch the fireworks here, including a moment where Trump rips Chris Christie for presiding over such a mess.

I'd ask how we got here, but the evidence is everywhere.

(The article I wrote for The Times about that interchange is here.)

For Christmas 2015, Cheryl gave me a four-panel photo frame of four of the photos she took of me with The Donald that night.  I hung it up over my desk at home last year, where it would be either hilarious when he ran and lost or a source of journalistic pride that I once got to ask a president a question.

Now, actually, it's both.