You may be wondering why, throughout the second half of August, the president of the United States has been standing in the Rose Garden and yelling.
On August 17, he yelled about manufacturing. On August 18, he yelled about trade and, later that day, he yelled about meeting with foreign leaders. On August 22, he yelled about the stock market. And on August 24, he yelled about the economy. The resulting video clips, which range from 23 to 60 seconds in length, are like stream-of-consciousness infomercials for the flimsy concept of #AIGGADW (America Is Getting Great Again, Don’t Worry). With his hands conducting dramatically at his sides, he began the first episode like this: “Made in America is back! Now, some people would say ‘Made in the USA’ — I personally don’t care. The fact is, we’re back.”
According to — I swear to God — five current and former officials from both Donald Trump’s White House and campaign as well as one former official from the Trump Organization, the purpose of this on-camera exercise is simple: It makes him feel (and, he believes, look) good. It’s also a reminder of a freer time in his life, on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, when he first perfected the cockeyed art of digital media virality with an off-the-cuff series of videos called From the Desk of Donald J. Trump and Ask the Donald.
“The president didn’t like the sitting down, read prompter, lights-inside-a-room at the White House. So, he told the digital guys at the communications shop to come up with a couple of new ideas, and this was one of them. The president liked it, and we’re trying it out,” one senior White House official told me.
“He is the most TV-savvy president in history. Somebody said to me today, ‘Reagan was, too!’ Well, Reagan was a little bit more movies,” the senior official said. “Because of The Apprentice and everything else this gentleman has done in his life, he understands all of this — he understands lighting and, to some degrees, in some rooms of the White House, he’s not a big fan of it. So, we’re just trying to help him.”
The lighting is key. In fact, it’s the first thing you notice, in the half-a-second before the yelling starts. Soft and flattering, it creates a sort of airbrushed effect when judged against his weekly addresses, which may explain why the White House hasn’t released a weekly address since August 3, just before the introduction of the Rose Garden videos. (Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond when asked why the addresses had stopped and if these Rose Garden videos will be replacing them.)
“Outside has the best lighting. If you look at most of the things we’ve done that look really good, it’s been outside,” the senior White House official said.
Before the era of Bill Shine, the former Fox News president who joined the White House staff in July, the video content produced by the communications department was mostly limited to footage from official events and those boring, scripted addresses, closely cropped around his face, with a flag and blah wood paneling from one room or the other as backdrop. One attempt to liven things up, in which Trump and his staffers were asked to weigh in on the great philosophical debate of 15 weeks ago, Yanny or Laurel, was a critical flop.
As during the Obama administration, the lighting, teleprompter, and camera were provided by the White House Communications Agency, which may not meet the standard NBC set for the president during his time as the network’s premiere reality star. Justin McConney, the director of new media at the Trump Organization from 2011 to 2017, remembers the simple directions the future president had for professionals who filmed him: “He liked the way he looked on The Apprentice,” McConney told me. “That’s always the way he’d come back to, ‘Shoot me like I’m shot on The Apprentice.’” Several hundred miles south of his old life, Trump has been known to complain about everything, including Air Force One, where he dislikes being filmed because he says the lighting is unflattering.
McConney said when he got to the Trump Organization, Trump was so unfamiliar with the internet that he’d have McConney come into his office to read him his Twitter mentions out loud. Trump loved them. “He would say, ‘I wanna see more of these! Get me more, get me more!’” So McConney would print them out and bring them to his boss, who would take out his famous black Sharpie marker. “He’d circle ones he wanted to reply to, and I’d go back and do the replies.” This was back when Trump had a flip phone. (In 2012, when he got an Android, he began tweeting himself.)
McConney also taught Trump that the internet, beyond an ego boost, could have real value if you knew how to use it. “To him, unless it’s on TV or in the newspaper, because he’s old school, it’s not going to mean anything. So the first thing I thought of, What if I did these low-budget video blogs?” McConney said he would walk into his office with a small camera, ask him to respond to the news, and then post the video with the hopes that it would be aired on TV. The result was From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.
“The first one that was really a hit was, I don’t know if you remember this, but him and Sarah Palin went out to eat pizza, remember? And he used a fork and knife to eat pizza.” McConney walked up to Trump at his desk. “I said ‘Mr. Trump, can we do a video asking why you eat pizza with a fork and knife?’” After the video was posted, “every TV show’s playing it, every comedy show.” Trump called McConney back into his office the next morning. “He goes, ‘That was fantastic, I just had to shoot this little thing on this little camera, and it’s on every single TV station. It’s great,’” McConney said, doing a (pretty good) Trump impersonation.
“From that point on, he really saw the potential with social media … with free, earned media.” McConney began walking around with a camera in his pocket so he could leap into action whenever Trump decided he had something to say worth sharing with the world.
How the product looked was not of particular importance to Trump then, at least not compared to how well the product was doing by the numbers. McConney said there was a sort of mental barrier, where Trump didn’t consider images produced by an iPhone or existing only on the internet to be legitimate. “If it was shot on an iPhone, he didn’t seem to care. But if it involved professional equipment, he wanted to review them.” A second video series McConney premiered in 2013, Ask the Donald, was, unlike From the Desk of Donald J. Trump, produced with professional equipment, in a conference room on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. For the first one, the question Trump answered was: When are you going to run for president? “That was, by far, the most popular question,” McConney said.
In the White House, things have been less freewheeling. But McConney said he was happy to see the nod to Trump’s past in the Rose Garden videos. “I started seeing those pop up last week, and I’m like, You know, outside the messy desk, if you change the background, these are a lot like what we used to do between 2011 and 2015. I don’t know what made him go back to doing those, but I think it’s good. I think they’re funny and they make him more relatable.”
The senior White House official told me that the similarities between the Rose Garden videos and From the Desk of Donald J. Trump was “maybe not a coincidence.”
According to those who worked with him in the White House during the first year of his administration, it’s easy to see why this experiment may have looked like a good idea. “He frequently would comment on the lighting, in particular. He would make suggestions about what lights to turn up and turn down, et cetera, and he was just concerned about the overall quality of the product,” a former White House official who was a part of the video production team told me. “He’s keyed into two things: one, how the shot looks and how he looks, and the second is the metrics. He wants to know how many people have watched the last video we did.”
A second former White House official said that Trump’s negative reviews of lighting or other matters of staging were proxy complaints for deeper frustrations about how he looked to the public. “He was always upset about everything from a communications perspective. I think a lot of it was he was transposing his anger with the way the media was portraying what he was doing against lighting and everything like that. He wouldn’t be able to sit there and be like, ‘The media is pissed off at me because I’ve been doing a bunch of crazy shit that falls way outside the norms of political discourse and political behavior in this country.’ He can’t really say that. That requires the ability to have some self reflection. So instead he blames things like the lighting, or the team, or stuff like that.”
Whether or not there was actually an aesthetics problem, Trump’s new communications director Bill Shine saw a solution in the grounds of the White House. For the majority of his 35 years in television, he’d worked alongside Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, once a media consultant for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, creating the flashy cable programs that would eventually help create Trump. “I definitely think having Bill Shine there now is really good for video production stuff, because that’s what he did — he produced all these TV shows, a lot of shows Trump likes and watches on a daily basis,” the second former White House official told me.
To a TV producer, a place like the Rose Garden — a lush patch of greenery that, lit by the sun, looks like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting — was an underutilized set. Upon joining the administration, he made it a point to tell associates inside and outside the government that he would be making changes to improve the production value of official President Donald J. Trump content, and, according to the senior White House official, he has helped with the “choreography” of the Rose Garden videos. The official added that there are plans to increase the output of such content in the coming weeks, as Trump embarks on a 40-stop tour ahead of the midterm elections: “You’re gonna hear and see a lot more of this president.” If things continue going to shit with Shine around, at least Trump will be well-lit.