Donald Trump was already 40 minutes late when the deep Wrestlemania voice came over the speaker in the Rose Garden with an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the program will begin in two minutes.”
We knew that “the program” would address the temporary end of the longest government shutdown in history, during which 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or asked to work without pay for two consecutive pay periods over 35 days. The White House scheduled the event at the very last minute, as news began to break that the president had reached an agreement with congressional leaders.
But standing on the freezing dirt waiting for it to begin, what was less clear was The Art of the Keel, or how Trump would attempt to spin his defeat. The shutdown was unpopular from the beginning, and over time, as negotiations fell apart and members of his administration said one callous and idiotic thing after another, Trump only received more of the blame. Accepting the very kind of deal he said he’d never accept — one to temporarily end the shutdown with no funding for a Southern border wall — would do nothing to satisfy those already mad at him and everything to upset his base of far-right supporters whose top priority had consistently been ensuring that he wouldn’t “cave.”
It’s not as though Trump could be expected to deliver a sober statement assessing where he’d gone wrong and apologizing to everyone his decisions had harmed. Yet he had to speak, and at times, as he did, it felt like the exercise was a form of catharsis, as if the way in which he spoke — not the specific words he said, but the machine gun stream of consciousness, the off script riffing — was a way for him to work through his frustrations about this entire self-made crisis.
Seven minutes after the two-minute warning, Trump eventually walked out of the Oval Office and to the lectern. The press was assembled before him, with the cameras positioned farthest back and the correspondents arranged in two sections in front. Between the two sections, there was a pathway leading directly from the president to a large teleprompter, positioned among the cameras, that contained his speech, each word typed so large that it could hardly fit a dozen at a time.
Members of his administration — Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, John Bolton, Elaine Chao, and others — looked on. They stood off to the side, as far away as possible from the reporters and cameras, applauding like we were at some kind of hometown game.
“I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government,” he said, “ ‘cause everyone knows I have a very powerful alternative but I didn’t want to use it at this time. Hopefully it will be unnecessary.” He thanked federal workers “and their amazing families” for their devotion, acknowledging their suffering and applauding them for not complaining. He claimed “in many cases” federal workers had encouraged him to continue the shutdown. “When I say Make America Great Again, it could never be done without you! Great people.”
As he delivered his remarks, Trump seemed to go off script more and more. This is something he always does, but it was difficult to ignore with the teleprompter so close by. I found myself getting distracted, watching as the scrolling of the prompter slowed and stopped to accommodate his ad libbing. I noticed other members of the press turning to look back, too. At one point, he was veering from his prepared remarks so often that I thought I might get whiplash as I turned to watch him speak and then abruptly turned toward the prompter and then back to his face and back to the prompter and what is he even saying? Something about duct tape?
The entire extended, violent fantasy involving women bound with duct tape did not appear to be preprogrammed into the teleprompter at all. “Human traffickers!” he said. “The victims are women and children, maybe to a lesser extent, believe it or not, children. Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces” — as he said this, he motioned his right hand as if he was wrapping his own head with duct tape — “around their mouths. In many cases, they can’t even breathe. They’re put in the backs of cars or vans or trucks. They don’t go through your port of entry. They make a right turn going very quickly, they go into the desert areas or whatever areas you can look at, and as soon as there’s no protection, they make a left or a right into the United States of America. There’s nobody to catch ‘em, there’s nobody to find ‘em. They can’t come through the port, because if they come through the port, people will see: four women! Sitting in a van! With tape around their face” — again, he gestured to his own face — “and around their mouth. Can’t have that.”
Somewhere in the middle of the nearly 20 minutes of remarks, I felt like I was forgetting why we were there. This was ostensibly a speech about the reopening of the government, but it served more as an informercial for the supposed merits of a Southern border wall that Trump seems less likely to get today than at perhaps any other point in his presidency.
“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15th — again — or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” Trump said, in conclusion. “We will have great security. And I want to thank you all very much. Thank you very much.”
As the press shouted questions about the shutdown and about the other big news of the day — the arrest and indictment of Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and adviser of more than 40 years — Trump walked through the door and back into the Oval Office without another word.