At the White House with Trump

Entering the White House through the visitors’ entrance at the northwest corner of the grounds, I heard a uniformed Secret Service officer calling a colleague inside: “Press is coming in. Don’t let them wander around the West Wing.” Well, they’ve got my number, I thought to myself.

Directed to the press briefing room, the invited conservative media guests were gathering in advance of the reception called for 5:00 p.m. I was surprised to find my friend Charles Kesler, Claremont Professor of Government and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. Charles had flown in overnight on the redeye from southern California and was returning last night to teach today. We both owed our invitations to the friendly author of the single most consequential essay on the Clinton-Trump contest — “The Flight 93 election,” published on the Claremont Review of Books site — now inside the White House.

Among the other guests whom I recognized were Laura Ingraham and two of her colleagues from Lifezette, the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell and Lee Smith, Townhall’s Katie Pavlich, the New Criterion’s Roger Kimball and talk radio hosts Mike Gallagher, Larry O’Connor and Chris Buskirk (also of the American Greatness site). I estimated that the guests totaled somewhere in the vicinity of 60.

Shortly after the appointed hour we were led from the press briefing room to the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. I chatted with Charles as we waited for the president to arrive. By this point Charles had surveyed the crowd and advised that six of the guests (Laura included) were alumni of the Claremont Institute’s Publius program that he superintends and teaches.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 7.18.51 PM I had reached out to deputy assistant to the president Sean Cairncross and told him I would like to meet him at the event. Sean (class of 1993, I think) and I (1969) are fellow alumni of St. Paul Academy in St. Paul. Sean turned up in the Roosevelt Room to say hello. When I asked if we could take a photograph together he made it happen. I forgot to mention that Sean is a little taller than I am.

President Trump entered at 5:30 along with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, press secretary Sean Spicer and political adviser Steve Bannon. The president made preliminary remarks on the accomplishments of his first 100 days in office. He counted 28 bills “beyond executive orders” cutting back on regulations and facilitating economic growth. He referred to the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch.

He predicted that Congress would send him a health care bill, thought with “zero Democratic votes.” He also spoke confidently of the enactment of tax reform with dramatic corporate and personal rate reductions and simplification. Then he invited questions.

One of the first questions asked when he would call out China as a currency manipulator. Trump mentioned that the talked to China President Xi for an hour on Sunday evening. Since his election, he noted, China’s currency had risen against the dollar. He said that he had spoken at length to Xi about the problem of North Korea. He expressed confidence that Xi would be helpful on this front and asked how he could at the same time call him a currency manipulator. North Korea is clearly weighing on Trump’s mind; he has enlisted Xi’s support and believes that Xi is helping him.

He related the conservation he had with Xi at Mar-a-Lago when he advised Xi over dessert that the United States had hit Syria with 59 cruise missiles in connection with the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks. My notes reflect Trump’s reference to “a beautiful piece of chocolate cake.”

Trump characterized the Obama administration’s supposed resolution of the chemical weapons by their agreed removal from Syria as “false. [The Syrians] duped him.” It was, he said, “like taking candy from a baby.”

He related that President Xi asked for Trump’s report to be translated a second time. Xi, Trump said, “was terrific.” He quoted him saying: “I fully understand what you did.”

Trump fielded several questions on trade and announced the retroactive tariff on Canadian soft lumber that I wrote about last night. Canada, he asserted, “has treated us very unfairly.”

He defended departures from free trade in terms of “reciprocity” and “equalization.” Questions related to trade must have taken as much as half of the 30 minutes we were allotted. Trump addressed these issues with fluency and facility. He expressed sever criticism of NAFTA. He emphasized that he had a forthcoming statement on the International Monetary Fund. Next week, he said, he would be dealing with aluminum.

Susanna Pinto of EWTN News Nightly with Lauren Ashburn (a Catholic news organization) asked about the persecution of Christians in northern Iraq. “I’m Christian,” Trump responded, and stated that he had done very well with Christian voters in the election, not that it matters. This was the only point at which I groaned inside.

“Nobody has been treated worse in the Middle East” than Christians, Trump said. If you were a Syrian Christian “before the migration,” he stated, you had almost no chance to be admitted lawfully to the United States. “I’m going to be helping Christians big league,” he concluded.

He was asked a question about infrastructure and reverted to the Middle East. We have spent $6 trillion to no good effect in the Middle East, he said, but can’t find $1 trillion to address our own infrastructure needs. He conveyed the lament of a long-time over the road trucker whose trucks had been destroyed on decaying roads. Poorly constructed highway medians were a sore point for Trump. Their manufacturer, he said, must be the greatest salesman in America.

Roger Kimball asked the question I wanted: “What about Iran?” Good question! And it elicited a good response.

“We can never let Iran have nuclear weapons,” Trump said, and, by contrast with his predecessor, seemed to mean it. “Israel wouldn’t have a chance,” he added. “They’ve broken the feel of a deal,” he said. “We’re going to have a big report. It’s not going to be a positive report for Iran.” The report is to be released soon. He had given us a preview of coming attractions.

He derided the Obama administration’s Iran deal at length. The Iranian regime was on the verge of “going out of business” when it was rescued by the deal. They should have thanked Obama and Kerry for the $1.7 billion in cash up front. Instead, he said, the Iranians mock them. In his own way he expressed indignation on behalf of the Obama administration.

Asked about Obama’s DACA program for illegal aliens, President Trump responded that MS-13 is the focus of the administration. He referred to them as “so many horrible people who shouldn’t be here.” DHS Secretary General Kelly, he related, says “they are as bad as al Qaeda.”

With these comments the event concluded. I approached Professor Kesler to check my assessment against his. “An impressive performance,” we both said at the same time.

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