WASHINGTON — Choosing a single day that epitomizes Donald J. Trump’s presidency — amid the endless tangle of jaw-dropping, reality-bending, norm-shattering days — is a fool’s errand. But for a White House correspondent departing the beat after eight years, Thursday came awfully close.
From Mr. Trump’s morning Twitter rant (asking how anyone could vote for a Democrat over “what you have now, so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!”) to his social media summit (in which he praised a room of right-wing agitators for “the crap you think of”), to a news conference that ended with his merry band of provocateurs almost coming to blows with reporters, the White House finally surrendered itself to being a stage set for Mr. Trump’s greatest reality show.
It is not that real business wasn’t transacted there on Thursday. Mr. Trump went to the Rose Garden to announce his retreat, in the face of a Supreme Court ruling, from asking a question about citizenship on the 2020 census. But he upstaged his own effort to spin the defeat — by promoting actions that were underway already — with a theatrical outburst.
“Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” Mr. Trump said to reporters, sarcastically mimicking a data collector for the Census Bureau. “Oh, gee, I’m sorry, I just can’t answer that question.”
Mr. Trump took no questions either. He handed off to Attorney General William P. Barr, who profusely thanked the president for pushing to include the citizenship question on the census. After Mr. Trump stalked off the podium with Mr. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in tow, the real show began.
Sebastian Gorka, a right-wing commentator who worked briefly in the White House and remains an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump, got into a shouting match in the Rose Garden over journalism ethics with Brian Karem, who covers the White House for Playboy magazine. Mr. Gorka had been invited to the social media gathering and was sitting near the front, while the working press took seats farther back.
Sebastian Gorka, a right-wing commentator who worked briefly in the White House, argued with Brian Karem, a White House reporter.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
“You’re threatening me in the Rose Garden,” Mr. Gorka bellowed at Mr. Karem, who had challenged him to take it outside. “You’re not a journalist. You’re a punk.”
A chant of “Gorka! Gorka! Gorka!” broke out among the other social media activists, while Joy Villa, a singer-songwriter and Trump supporter, who was resplendent in a floor-length red, white and blue gown emblazoned with the word “Freedom,” laughed and declared, “Fake news is over!”
The fracas was filmed by James O’Keefe, who uses undercover videos to embarrass journalists and liberal political figures.
Historically, presidents have used the Rose Garden to dignify important moments. John F. Kennedy welcomed the Mercury astronauts there; Richard M. Nixon had his daughter Patricia’s wedding there. Mr. Trump is the first to turn the garden into a well-manicured mosh pit. Rather than telling his guests to watch their manners, the president scored the slugfest like a referee.
“@SebGorka Wins Big, No Contest!” he tweeted on Friday.
On Friday, Mr. Gorka was further rewarded with an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Mr. Gorka and Mr. Karem are each, in their own way, creations of the Trump era. A national security analyst with a specialty in Islamic extremism, Mr. Gorka labored on the fringes of Washington until he was hired to work with Mr. Trump’s former strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. He left the White House in August 2017, part of a housecleaning ordered by the former chief of staff, John F. Kelly.
On his radio show the day before he was invited to the White House, Mr. Gorka declared that the members of the world-champion United States women’s national soccer team “want to destroy everything that is wholesome in our country and in our Judeo-Christian civilization.”
Mr. Karem was until recently the executive editor of The Montgomery County Sentinel, a chain of newspapers in Rockville, Md. He separated himself from the jostling scrum of reporters at the White House daily briefing in June 2017 by confronting the former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, after she unleashed a lengthy attack on the credibility of the news media.
“What you just did is inflammatory for people all over the country who look at it and say, ‘See, once again the president is right and everybody else out there is fake media,’” he declared.
To judge by Thursday’s events, Mr. Trump has decided that inflammatory attacks on the news media are the best way to position himself for re-election. At the meeting with social media activists, Mr. Trump laid out a strategy of using the media as a foil while going around it to deliver any genuine news.
At times, it seemed, the news itself was less important than the drama of delivering it. Mr. Trump recalled how he electrified the world last March by tweeting that the United States would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the long-disputed Golan Heights — a decision that upended decades of American policy.
“I go, ‘Watch this — boom!’” the president said. “I press it, and within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”
Journalists were not the only ones surprised by the announcement. Mr. Pompeo, who was in Israel meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time, was blindsided by it.
“It’d be a rocket ship when I put out a beauty,” Mr. Trump said of his most incendiary tweets. “Like when I said, remember I said, somebody was spying on me? That thing was like a rocket.” Mr. Trump appeared to be referring to the tweet, early in his administration, when he accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping his phones at Trump Tower the month before the 2006 election.
The president spoke of the way the White House used to communicate as if it belonged to another age.
“You know, I used to put out, like, a press release. Right? And people would pick it up, sort of, you know. The next day, two days, they’d find it sitting on a desk,” he explained. “People don’t pick it up. It’s me, same. If I put it on social media, it’s like an explosion. Fox, CNN, crazy, MSNBC.”
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