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The year 2020 started on a promising enough note for the president, at least considering all we’d endured the previous three years. The economy was good, the impeachment effort on Ukraine looked like a dud and the polls were decent.
Trump was for the most part in a good mood and, as always, up for chatting about anything under the sun. Once, on Air Force One, I was sitting with him in his cabin, and for whatever reason — maybe he had just read something or seen his face on TV — Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau popped into the president’s head. Trump looked at me. “Are you OK if I say this?” That was always a troubling question. Who knew what was going to come out of his mouth? Sure, I nodded. “Trudeau’s mom. She fucked all of the Rolling Stones.” (In fact, Margaret Trudeau denied having affairs with any members of the Rolling Stones, but later said, “I should have slept with every single one of them.”)
On another occasion around the new year, a young boy started publicly challenging Trump to go vegan in TV ads and on highway billboards. If the president agreed, the boy said, the charity he represented would donate $1 million to veterans. I was communications director at the time and I playfully asked the president if he would ever consider doing that, since the challenge would raise a lot of money for a good cause. I knew he loved his steaks and cheeseburgers, but one month didn’t seem that long.
Trump’s response was swift, and his tone was suddenly very serious.
“No, no. It messes with your body chemistry, your brain,” he said, offering his views on vegetarian diets. “And if I lose even one brain cell, we’re fucked.”
In late February 2020, the president and first lady were scheduled to travel to India. The president had tentatively agreed to the trip during a bilateral meeting, and it had been added to his calendar as a placeholder. But that was before a new, contagious disease called Covid-19 began spreading across the world. As the date grew near, most of the senior staff, and the first lady, started to have misgivings about the travel because of the virus. For whatever reason, Jared Kushner was insistent that we go, and as he was the “real” chief of staff, that carried weight. A final meeting was set in the Oval to determine whether the trip should move forward.
As other members of the senior staff and I were waiting to enter, Jared and Ivanka Trump blew past us and into the president’s private dining room to speak with him privately first — shocker. The start of the meeting actually coincided with the impeachment vote, so we all ended up watching that together before discussing the India trip. Although the Senate acquitted him, the president was in a sour mood, and made his thoughts clear to the room, saying, “I don’t really want to go. It is a long trip for not even two days, and we’re dealing with Covid. I’ll explain to [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi that it isn’t a good time, and I will come later, in my second term.” Jared chimed in to remind the president that with all the visits he had already promised to undertake “in his second term” he would never be in the United States to do his job. When the first lady raised her concerns about Covid, many in the room assured her that the virus hadn’t really hit India yet.
The president stuck to his original plan to cancel the trip. Then Jared said, “OK, but you should talk to Modi personally to tell him.” This showed just how well Jared had his father-in-law’s number because, like the rest of us, he knew that the president had a hard time saying no to someone and that Modi would likely talk him into going. To this day I don’t know why that trip was so important to Jared, or what, if anything, he got out of it. Jared and his team also ended up negotiating with the Indian government directly over what our security assets and personnel would be on the ground — negotiations that were normally reserved for the Secret Service. It was another example of Jared sticking his nose into things that weren’t his expertise. It felt completely irresponsible and against protocol, which is the epitome of Jared Kushner in the Trump White House.
No one in the Trump inner circle seemed to be taking the new virus too seriously at first. During a meeting with Modi in India, Trump mentioned the 34 people who were suffering from Covid-19 in quarantine on military ships. He complained that the news was affecting the stock market. “I wonder if this is overrated versus the flu,” he said. Of course, those 34 people would not be the only ones to contract the disease. As the number grew, Trump still seemed resistant to doing anything too drastic. Contrary to what he would say later, he didn’t immediately want to ban travel to China. And he asked officials in the White House if we were making “too big a deal out of this.”
On March 11, 2020, one of my deputies came into my office to let me know that they had stumbled into a meeting among Hope Hicks (who had just returned to the White House as counselor to the president after a two-year stint at Fox), Jared, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. The WHO had just declared Covid a pandemic, and the three of them had apparently been discussing the need for the president to give an address to the nation on Covid-19 from the Oval Office that evening. An address to the nation is serious stuff, and whenever possible you need plenty of time to prepare properly — unless, of course, you were in the Trump White House, where everything was like a clown car on fire running at full speed into a warehouse full of fireworks.
A couple of hours later, a meeting was called in the Oval Office so that members of the Coronavirus Task Force could brief the president on the latest involving the virus. I wasn’t invited to that either, which was typical. Meetings just “happened” all the time in that White House. Random people would wander into the Oval Office and start talking about random things, and suddenly something would be decided or Trump would agree to do something — and anyone who wasn’t in the room would find out about it later on Twitter or on cable news. So I invited myself.
In attendance at the meeting were the two new stars of the Trump administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. I guess you could include Robert Redfield, the CDC director, on that list, but he was kind of an afterthought. Fauci and Birx — especially Fauci — ran that particular show. Trump had liked Fauci — for about ten minutes. Then he had decided, as most everyone in the White House did, that Fauci was a showboat who liked seeing his face on television. The Office of the Vice President tried to keep him in line and make sure his statements were coordinated with ours, but it seemed that Fauci couldn’t care less what we thought. I will say this: He sure knew a heck of a lot more about Covid and other infectious diseases than the rest of us ever could. So I couldn’t blame people for listening to him. But let’s not pretend he didn’t love being a media hero.
The meeting was packed. Redfield, Birx and Fauci were sitting in front of the Resolute Desk, along with Vice President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. I sat on one of the couches with Ivanka to my left, which I found odd as she hadn’t been involved in anything to do with Covid until now. Jared stood behind us, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (who had replaced John Bolton) and his deputy, Matt Pottinger, were sitting in the chairs to my right. Across from me on the couch was Keith Kellogg, Pence’s national security advisor, and standing behind him was Hope Hicks. No one was wearing a mask — not the president, not Fauci, not Birx. There was no social distancing. The subject didn’t even come up.
Hope had left the White House about two years earlier. I think she had been understandably stressed out by the communications director job and didn’t like the fact that she had been subpoenaed and had had to testify in the Robert Mueller investigation (during which she admitted to congressional investigators that she had, in her words, told some tiny “white lies” on behalf of the president). She was also being hounded by the paparazzi about her personal life. She had left for a sabbatical at Fox, where she had a great title and reportedly made close to $2 million. I can’t pretend that her presence didn’t irritate me. In my eyes and the eyes of others who had stayed to deal with all of the craziness, Hope had taken the easy way out. We all would have loved to take a cushy job somewhere else for two years so that we would be begged to come back to the White House to “save” the administration.
The meeting began in a pretty standard way. Members of the task force, which was led by the vice president, updated the president on what information they had, the numbers of infected by country, and the projections for the weeks ahead, which were quite sobering. Their recommendation was to temporarily close the country’s borders to travelers coming from Europe. Obviously that was seen as a drastic move, the logistics of which would be huge and complex. If there were U.S. citizens across the pond, could we get them home first? What about connecting flights from other countries to the United States? How would the move impact the economy? What about trade? How long would the travel ban last?
In the middle of all the discussion, Ivanka kept chiming in, “But I think there should probably be an address to the nation tonight.” I let that pass because in my mind there was no way we could pull one off with no speech prepared, no communications strategy, no consensus on anything we had just started discussing, and only a few hours’ notice. We did a lot of random things in Trump World, but that just seemed too crazy even for us.
As the discussion continued, Mnuchin kept raising the potential impact on the economy. He felt that the recommendation to shut down the borders was far too severe and the financial impact to our country and the world would be something we would not recover from for years. The discussion got quite heated, especially between the secretary and National Security Advisor O’Brien, who at one point said to Mnuchin, “You are going to be the reason this pandemic never goes away.” Hope Hicks continued to chime in with questions and ideas that had been discussed weeks before. And Ivanka, the women’s rights / small-business / crisis communications / and now Covid expert, just kept repeating, “There should be an address from the Oval.”
Finally, Ivanka turned to her most powerful ally besides her father. “Jared, don’t you agree?” Any guesses as to what Jared replied?
When I worked for the first lady in the East Wing, we had all come to call Jared and Ivanka “the interns” because they represented in our minds obnoxious, entitled know-it-alls. Mrs. Trump found that nickname amusing and occasionally used it herself. Now, during one of the most important crises to hit the country in a century, the interns were behaving true to form.
At one point I called Ivanka out on her plan with what seemed an obvious question. “What is it we’d be saying?” Because if she had a message she wanted her father to deliver, it was still a mystery to me. She just looked at me, seemingly confused.
Birx, Fauci and the other professionals in the room watched all the nonsense without comment. To their credit, they pretty much kept straight faces, although I imagine they thought they were surrounded by lunatics. In my mind I kept saying, “This is not a reality TV show. We cannot address the nation with a bunch of mumbo jumbo just so he looks presidential. That’s not how this works.” This was some serious shit, and all they were thinking about was TV and image and optics. But regrettably, I kept those thoughts in in my head. One of my other biggest personal regrets is that I didn’t have the courage to speak out against Jared, Ivanka and Hope about the potential dangers of addressing the nation without any Covid response strategy in place, and what a disservice it could be to the country and the president.
In fact, I was impressed with Mnuchin for that very reason. He did not hesitate to make his views clear. He kept pushing back, over and over, against a roomful of people who supported closing the borders completely. After about an hour of going around in circles, the president told us all to go to the Cabinet Room and “figure out what to do.” I remember thinking to myself how ridiculous it was that the president of the United States had to tell his own staff to go figure this out and then come back to him.
We all headed to the Cabinet Room. We were coming up on 3:00 p.m., and it started to seem inevitable that an address to the nation from the Oval Office was going to happen that night — even though we had no idea what the president should say. The discussion began, and it was much like the previous one. Most everyone except Mnuchin agreed that we needed to close the borders to flights from Europe. What struck me in that meeting was that Jared, who was sitting next to the vice president of the United States, commandeered the meeting and was calling all the shots. As many times as I had seen him behave that way with members of senior staff, that particular time made me uneasy because it was with the vice president. It was disrespectful, and I remember feeling both embarrassed and disgusted.
Ivanka was also doing her “my father” wants this and “my father” thinks that routine, making it impossible for staff members to argue a contrary view. At some point I think Birx decided she’d ridden on the crazy train long enough and excused herself to get back to work. I used that opportunity to leave as well.
I instructed one of my deputies to call the networks to reserve airtime for that evening — which no one else had even thought to do. Katie Miller, an aide to the vice president, was married to speechwriter Stephen Miller. So she went into Stephen’s office and sat there while Jared Kushner frantically dictated the address to Stephen, who wrote something out. Katie did her best to keep us looped in, sending me updates as she knew them.
Meanwhile, members of the press, having caught wind of the address, lined up outside my door to find out what was in the speech. I wish I knew! They were as frustrated with me as I was with myself.
Working as Trump’s spokesperson was like sitting in a beautiful office while a sprinkler system pours water down on you every second and ruins everything on your desk — except in this case the water took the form of tweets and words and statements. I can give you endless metaphors to describe the Trump White House from a press person’s perspective — living in a house that was always on fire or in an insane asylum where you couldn’t tell the difference between the patients and the attendants or on a roller coaster that never stopped — but trust me, it was a hot mess 24/7. How people did the job without going crazy was a question in itself. Maybe none of us did. Trump, by the way, never understood that he usually was the one screwing up the messaging. Instead, he would complain to me, “I need a P. T. Barnum!” as his spokesman, just as he would always say, “I need a James Baker!” whenever he was complaining about his current chief of staff. By P. T. Barnum, I think he meant a communications whiz who could somehow charm reporters into writing whatever he wanted them to write. But maybe he just meant he wanted some expert con man. After all, P. T. Barnum’s most famous line was “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Unable to do the basics of my job, I felt helpless and demoralized. And the more I thought about it, the more outraged I grew at Jared’s behavior. He was not an expert on any of those things — shutting down borders, the economic consequences, the health consequences — yet he alone seemed to be deciding the nation’s first actions to address one of the most devastating crises in our history. After he wrote the speech, there was no time for fact-checking, vetting, or notifying friends and allies on the Hill or abroad. There was hardly any time for the president to read it and make changes to it. It was a total clusterfuck from start to finish because Ivanka and her crew wanted her father to be on TV. And of course the speech that night contained a number of misstatements and sloppy wording — some caused by the president stumbling over a few phrases — that sowed confusion about such things as which countries would be affected by the new travel restrictions and if international trade would be banned. News outlets all over the world picked up on the discrepancies in the speech. People from various federal agencies started to call and ask us how to explain or clean up some of the things that had been said. Once again a line of reporters formed outside my office. Of course, it was our problem, not Jared’s or Ivanka’s or Hope’s. No, they were in the dining room off of the Oval Office, Trump’s usual hangout, congratulating themselves and telling the president how awesome he was.
I had shared with Mrs. Trump many times my opinion that if we lost reelection in 2020 it would be because of Jared. She didn’t disagree with me. It was my fervent opinion that his arrogance and presumption had grown over the years, and he threw his power about with absolutely no shame. I would venture to say that being in the White House changed Jared as a person. There was no reason that he should be sitting with the speechwriter laying out our nation’s plan to fight a global pandemic. And I knew that if things went badly with the speech, which felt inevitable, he would be the first person to say in the president’s ear that the comms team had fucked it all up. He was Rasputin in a slim-fitting suit.
But as it turned out, I would have other problems to deal with soon.