In a few minutes, President Donald Trump will release a new set of tweets, flooding social-media accounts with his unique brand of digital smelling salts—words that will jolt his supporters and provoke his adversaries.
Nearly a dozen senior aides stand in the Oval Office, crowding behind couches or near door-length windows. This is the way he likes to work, more often than not: in a crowd. He sits behind his desk finishing the tasks of the day, which have included watching new Senate testimony about Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, by signing orders in red folders with a black Sharpie.
When he held the job, Barack Obama tended to treat the Oval Office like a sanctum sanctorum, accessible only for a small circle of advisers to break its silence on a tightly regulated schedule. For Trump, the room functions as something like a royal court or meeting hall, with open doors that senior aides and distinguished visitors flock through when he is in the building.
In practice, it feels much like his old corner office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, minus all the clutter of memorabilia, a place to convene an audience, to broadcast his exceptionalism, to entertain, take photos, amaze and make deals. Some aides still call him “Mr. Trump,” and everyone turns to listen when he speaks. His presence always seems to consume the room.
And the stream of visitors is constant. Just a few hours earlier, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had stopped by with a foreign military delegation. Vice President Mike Pence brought by the Prime Minister of Georgia unscheduled for a photo. The New England Patriots got to take pictures behind the desk recently, and the President says the billionaire Ronald Lauder, a great collector of art, went crazy when he saw the painting of George Washington above the fireplace. “Never had people,” Trump likes to say of Obama’s use of the space. “I use the room. I use it a lot. I had the biggest people in the country here.”
But right now, there is something else he wants to show. It’s down the hall, in his private dining room in the West Wing, a few steps away. As is often the case when reporters come through, he has a plan, a story he wants to tell. Tonight, at dusk on May 8, he invites three TIME correspondents for a tour of his home and office, followed by a four-course dinner in the Blue Room, the oval-shaped parlor on the first floor of the executive mansion. The first three months of his presidency have been unsettling, a blur of confrontation, policy pivots and regulatory revolution. Financial markets have climbed, cruise missiles have fallen, and the world has watched with trepidation and confusion. In less than 24 hours, Trump will roil the nation again by announcing the firing of his FBI Director, James Comey, who is leading an investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia. It will set off yet another firestorm. But for now, it’s showtime once again.
“You’ll see something that is amazing. It just happened,” he says as he stands up from the desk. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Each president leaves his mark on the building, and Trump has wasted little time making his. The modern art favored by the Obama family is mostly gone, replaced with classic oils, including portraits of Trump’s favorite predecessors, like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. Gold curtains have replaced the maroon ones in the Oval Office, and military-service flag stands have been added around the room, topped by battle ribbons and held in place by heavy brass bases that Trump praises to visitors.
But few rooms have changed so much so fast as his dining room, where he often eats his lunch amid stacks of newspapers and briefing sheets. A few weeks back, the President ordered a gutting of the room. “We found gold behind the walls, which I always knew. Renovations are grand,” he says, boasting that contractors from the General Services Administration resurfaced the walls and redid the moldings in two days. “Remember how hard they worked? They wanted to make me happy.”
Trump says he used his own money to pay for the enormous crystal chandelier that now hangs from the ceiling. “I made a contribution to the White House,” he jokes. But the thing he wants to show is on the opposite wall, above the fireplace, a new 60-plus-inch flat-screen television that he has cued up with clips from the day’s Senate hearing on Russia. Since at least as far back as Richard Nixon, Presidents have kept televisions in this room, usually small ones, no larger than a bread box, tucked away on a sideboard shelf. That’s not the Trump way.
A clutch of aides follow him, including McMaster, Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer. The President raises a remote and flicks on the screen, sorting through old recordings of cable news shows, until he comes to what he is after: a clip from the Senate hearing earlier in the day, as broadcast on Fox News. The first clip he shows is of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham speaking to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Graham asks if Clapper stands by his statement that he knows of no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump waits quietly, until Clapper admits that nothing has changed. Trump pantomimes a sort of victory.
“Yes. He was choking on that,” the President chortles. “Is there any record at all of collusion? He was the head of the whole thing. He said no. That’s a big statement.” Trump leaves unmentioned the fact that there is an ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion, which has not yet reached any conclusions. Nor does he note that Clapper, out of government for nearly four months, could not possibly know everything the FBI has learned, and likely would have not known all even when he was in office. Trump also leaves unmentioned that he had a meeting that day with his new Deputy Attorney General about firing Comey, the director of that investigation.
But for now, Trump is focused on his TV. He watches the screen like a coach going over game tape, studying the opposition, plotting next week’s plays. “This is one of the great inventions of all time—TiVo,” he says as he fast-forwards through the hearing.
The next clip starts to play, this time showing Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley asking Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates if they ever requested that the names of Trump, his associates or members of Congress be identified by name, or unmasked, in a legal intelligence intercept. “Watch them start to choke like dogs,” Trump says, having fun. “Watch what happens. They are desperate for breath.”
Clapper, on the screen, pauses several beats to search his memory. “Ah, he’s choking. Ah, look,” the President says. After a delay, Clapper finally answers, admitting that he had requested an unmasking, which would have been a routine occurrence in his former job. The running Trump commentary continues. “See the people in the back, people are gasping,” he says, though it’s unclear who he is referring to on the screen. He also mentions the sound of photographers’ cameras clicking on the television.
Moments later, the President watches as both Clapper and Yates testify that they had reviewed intercepts containing the unmasked identities of Trump, his associates and members of Congress. This, to Trump, is yet another victory, the lead-lined proof of his still unproven claim that Obama surveilled him before he was sworn in. “So they surveilled me,” he says. “You guys don’t write that—wiretapped in quotes. They surveilled me.”
The powers of the presidency are vast, but Trump has discovered in these first months in office that they do not include much influence over how his words and actions are consumed by the American people. Among the many frustrations, none seems to burn quite as much as the disrespect he feels he has received from the press, which has steadily failed to reflect his version of reality. The story he wants told is not the one the nation reads and sees.
In his view, the past months have included a steady string of successes, broken only by occasional missteps, which are invariably overplayed and misinterpreted. After a rough start, an Obamacare replacement passed the House. A red line against the use of chemical weapons has been re-established in Syria. Political prisoners have been released from Egypt.
China has offered new cooperation to prevent the further development of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. American companies have been arm-twisted into staying in the country, while Trump has personally inserted himself into a handful of negotiations over weapons systems and trade agreements to try to get Americans a better deal.
But the turmoil of his presidency has so far dominated the headlines, pushing out much of what he considers to be the good news he thinks he deserves. The press has focused on the disruption; his false statements in office; the fear and dislocation in immigrant communities; the many campaign promises, from eliminating the export-import bank to declaring China a currency manipulator, on which Trump has equivocated.
Of the many firestorms he has had to fight, none has burned as brightly as the tweets he sent accusing Obama of wiretapping him at Trump Tower. The head of the FBI, Comey, whom he had discussed firing earlier that day, had testified that there is no evidence that this happened. So he has been arguing that the wiretapping he alleged could include routine surveillance, which was not directed by the White House, of legal surveillance targets who spoke with people in his campaign. That’s why he cares so much about the “unmasking” testimony. He seeks vindication.
“The truth is, I got a raw deal,” he says later in the evening, the frustration unmistakable for a man who has spent so much of his life grading himself by headlines. The détente with the press after the election that he had hoped for never came. “It’s gotten worse,” he says. “It’s one of the things that surprises me.”
To cope with this new reality, the President says he is trying a mindfulness trick: he has tried to tune out the bad news about himself. “I’ve been able to do something that I never thought I had the ability to do. I’ve been able not to watch or read things that aren’t pleasant,” he will say later in the night, listing off the networks he tries to tune out and the newspapers he struggles to skim. Of course, as his public outbursts indicate, he does not always succeed, but he says he no longer feels a need to know everything said about him. “In terms of your own self, it’s a very, very good thing,” he says. “The equilibrium is much better.”
The following day, the news of the Senate hearings will once again fail to comport with the meaning he derived from his TiVo. The focus instead will be on Yates’ description of how she warned the White House about the apparent duplicity of Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, who misled the Vice President about his contacts with Russia. Flynn is now facing an investigation into foreign payments that officials say he failed to report.
Trump can’t do anything about that, for the most part. But he can still tweet. So now he walks out of his dining room, followed by the same substantial entourage of senior aides. Back in the Oval Office, he checks in with his waiting staff. “Did you get that stuff out?” the President asks of the tweets he had prepared. “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” one reads, “when will the taxpayer funded charade end?” Dan Scavino, his social-media director, is sitting on the couch. “Yes, sir. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. It’s everywhere,” he says.
“The real story is the surveillance,” the President responds, before ribbing his staff. “But my comms people can’t get it out.” They start laughing. But there are even more pressing matters. Trump turns to McMaster, who was the subject of a column on Bloomberg earlier in the day, quoting anonymous sources saying the President was unhappy with his performance. It’s another story that Trump declares false. The President thinks he knows where the leak is coming from, which provides some comfort. But for now, he will counterprogram: “I’m so happy with him,” Trump says. “I think he’s wonderful.” And with that, he decides, it is time to go home.
All Presidents must contain multitudes. But for Trump, the situation is, as usual, bigger, bolder and more complex. At core, he has always been a transactional person. That means he reacts, often in the moment, to the information and people around him. He comes to office with no well-formed ideology and with an evolving understanding of history and government, and a clear goal of using his business acumen to help his most fervent supporters. He is extremely confident in his own judgment, often willing to act alone, to take risks, even when those around him plead caution.
During the campaign, this proved to be an enormous asset, allowing him to dispatch more than a dozen opponents and remake the rules of presidential politics. Life in the White House, he has found, is somewhat more restrictive, with far greater stakes. Escalating conflict, which works so well on the campaign trail, has not always yielded results now that he is governing. And at several points, he has had to absorb the fact that the President isn’t all-powerful, with his orders blocked by the courts, his wish lists discarded by Congress, a steady stream of leaks from the intelligence community sparking turmoil in his Administration and a media that writes and broadcasts as it pleases.
From the Oval Office, it’s a 60-yard stroll down the sloped colonnade to the Palm Room doors that lead into his government-funded mansion. An elevator operator is waiting for him off the ground-floor hallway. “Stop up at the second floor, would you?” asks the President. Then he turns to his guests. “Did you ever see the Lincoln Bedroom?” The Vice President, who has walked over as well, takes the stairs. As a matter of protocol, to ensure continuity of government, the two men do not share the same airplane or ride the same lift.
Trump has lived most of these first months alone in his upstairs palace, inhabiting 20,000 square feet of the residence by himself most weeknights, catered to by a household staff that totals nearly 100, including a couple of valets and a handful of butlers. During the Obama years, the second and third floors of the executive mansion were treated as private housing, not a governing space. Obama’s daughters and mother-in-law lived in a few of the extra bedrooms. The first time most staff ever got to see the place was the night Obamacare passed in March 2010, when the Obamas decided to throw a party.
The current President has taken a different tack, inviting staff up regularly for meetings; hosting dinners for old friends, staff and supporters; giving tours; calling foreign leaders from Lincoln’s old desk in the Treaty Room, where he will also stay late into the night doing work with his longtime personal aide and bodyguard Keith Schiller. “The phone system is so amazing here,” Trump confides as he enters the space. “This one phone, it splits the words”—a reference to scrambling technology meant to disrupt eavesdropping.
The space is far larger than it looks from outside, with a long great hall, appointed with freshly cut yellow flowers. “This is the kitchen here, a beautiful kitchen,” he says. “This is the dining room. Here is a room where we have a guest room.” Trump shows off the Presidential Seal over the closed door to his suite and the Yellow Oval Room, which opens out onto the Truman Balcony, where Trump’s security detail has discouraged him from spending too much time.
It is the Lincoln Bedroom, however, that for him holds the most symbolic value, with its display of the Gettysburg Address. “Isn’t this incredible?” Trump asks. “He was very tall, and this bureau was built for him, with a tall mirror.” If there is a pressure from the office that he feels in this building, this is where it manifests. The current President talks sympathetically about Lincoln’s struggles, the death of his 11-year-old son in this building, the ghosts that haunted him afterward. “He was a great genius, but he had some difficulty,” Trump explains. “He was very distressed after his son died. They say melancholy.”
But this is not something to dwell on. A few moments later he is back downstairs, gazing at the East Room. Presidents from Bill Clinton to Harry Truman have joked that the White House was a sort of prison. He doesn’t feel that way, he says. “You have to be a certain type of person,” he explains. “People have no idea the beauty of the White House. The real beauty of the White House.”
In about four weeks, Trump expects his wife and youngest son to join him in the mansion, and when they arrive, life is almost certain to change. But tonight, it’s all business, and the Blue Room has been lit with nearly a dozen votive candles, the table is set with yellow roses, and the Washington Monument is neatly framed in the South window.
The waiters know well Trump’s personal preferences. As he settles down, they bring him a Diet Coke, while the rest of us are served water, with the Vice President sitting at one end of the table. With the salad course, Trump is served what appears to be Thousand Island dressing instead of the creamy vinaigrette for his guests. When the chicken arrives, he is the only one given an extra dish of sauce. At the dessert course, he gets two scoops of vanilla ice cream with his chocolate cream pie, instead of the single scoop for everyone else. The tastes of Pence are also tended to. Instead of the pie, he gets a fruit plate.
Trump sees the dinner with TIME as a pitch meeting as much as anything else, with an audience that he does not entirely trust. He wants to go through his many accomplishments, regularly deflecting questions to keep on task. “The big story is that we are doing a good job for the country,” the President says. “We’re cutting costs, big, big costs.” He runs through the tales of his renegotiations with Lockheed and Boeing on the F-35 and F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters. He speaks of asking Apple’s Tim Cook to build new manufacturing plants in the U.S. He talks of his plans to renegotiate any future military contracts to make sure they have fixed prices.
At length, he discusses the small details of military procurement, including the reasons why the more costly digital catapult systems on new aircraft carriers don’t work as well as the old steam-driven systems. “Time and material means you’re going to get your ass kicked,” he says of the common government contracting method, which often leads to cost overruns. “Who ever heard of time and material?” He marvels at the technology behind the cruise missiles he launched on an airfield in Syria, noting their ability to maneuver to destroy planes hiding under concrete shelters. He even brings up his efforts to ensure that an African leader, from a country he declines to name, can buy American military equipment despite decades-old human rights concerns.
This is the part of the job that he has clearly come to enjoy, playing businessman for the American people. He brags about the close relationships he believes he has formed with foreign leaders, complimenting Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on inviting his daughter Ivanka to speak overseas. He boasts of convincing Egypt’s leader, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, to release several political prisoners, including an American. He even runs through the many ways he has revised the rules of engagement in the war on the Islamic State. “They keep coming to me, at weird times too,” he says of requests for approval for drone strikes and Special Forces raids in his earliest days in office.
His priority was ensuring that the military didn’t wait long for the operations to commence. “I authorized the generals to do the fighting,” he says. Trump has shifted the authority for final approvals from the White House back to combatant commanders. Other Obama-era restrictions, like strict force-management levels in Syria, proscribing the number of troops or vehicles that can be used at any one time, have been relaxed. As a result, the reliance on foreign contractors to support U.S. forces has ebbed. He mentions the recent death of a high-ranking Islamic State fighter and promises more to come.
As the dinner goes on, he loosens up, but only a little. He admits a few small mistakes, including a misstep in the fight in the House to repeal Obamacare. “There was a mistake. We set a date,” he says of the first deadline by which he hoped to get a vote on the floor in mid-March. “And when we didn’t vote, everyone says, ‘Trump fails on health care.’”
He joins Pence in describing the hours he spent on the phone with dozens of lawmakers, cajoling them from no to yes. Asked if dealmaking is any different in Washington than in real estate or entertainment, he has a quick answer. “It’s always the same,” he says. “You have to know your subject.”
Then there are the emotional costs of the job, he says. He describes his visit last month to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, just outside of Washington, where he met with wounded service members from Iraq and Afghanistan, as “incredible and terrible.” He met one wounded warrior who lost his leg but is learning to walk again with a prosthesis. “All he wants to do is go back. It’s amazing,” Trump says. “The spirit is so incredible.”
And for the man who centered his campaign around the notion of “America first,” he explains that he is deeply moved by the violence against children in Syria, particularly Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his people. “I mean, when he actually said they were child actors, who would even think of that?” Trump says with disgust of the young bodies that were shown on television. “I felt something had to be done.”
It would be wrong to say that the presidency has softened Trump. His willingness to fight is unabated and unfiltered. But he is no longer tethered to a one-way strategy of disruption and conflict. He is willing to back down at times, to adjust course. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who has argued for a dark, generational clearing away of old institutions, found himself effectively demoted, though he remains an important player. On a wide variety of policy issues, Trump has edged toward the center, most notably allowing Congress to negotiate a spending bill that left out a number of his priorities.
When asked directly if he feels his Administration has been too combative, he makes a brief allowance. “It could be my fault,” he says. “I don’t want to necessarily blame, but there’s a great meanness out there that I’m surprised at.” The inner conflict is clearly evident. This is the same man who just a couple hours earlier had joked about former federal officials choking “like dogs.”
One senior White House official recently outlined the three rules of Trump for a group of reporters: When you’re right, you fight. Controversy elevates message. And never apologize. All of these rules have survived his time in office, if in slightly more modest forms. After bringing new levels of combativeness to the political process, “the only way you survive is to be combative,” Trump says now. “I’ll read stories in the New York Times that are so one-sided. Hey, I know when I am successful. I know victory.”
But that is not all he has to say. Before the dinner breaks up, the President begins to muse about an alternative world to the one he has helped create. “It never made sense to me, the level of animosity,” Trump says. “All you want to do is, like, Let’s have a great military. Let’s have low taxes. Let’s have good health care. Let’s have good education.”
For a moment, he seems to be proposing a more civil public space in American democracy, one the Trump campaign did little to foster and which the Trump Administration is unlikely to experience.
Is this real introspection or just more performance for his guests? The answer isn’t long in coming. Within a day of the plates being cleared away, Trump takes to Twitter to attack “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” the Democratic Senate leader. He belittles Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal for once misrepresenting his military service—“he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness.”
No truce is around the corner. President Trump fights on.