Three Men And A Fedora — I Spent The Night With The NYT
NYT’s reporter Glenn Thrush greeted me with the ideal salutation for someone – me — who was mired in Chutzpah-Gate late last week.
(At this point, the details of the brief scandal aren’t that important. But if you must, here they are.)
“Good Yontif!” Thrush exclaimed when I ran into him, his colleague Peter Baker and lefty radio host Bill Press in an obscure basement room of Hill Center in Washington’s Eastern Market neighborhood Tuesday night.
“Is this it?” I asked. “Just the four of us?”
Press assured me that the evening’s soirée would be on the second floor, where he would interview the pair of New York Times reporters about covering President Trump and the current political climate.
So off I went, leaving them to their prepping.
I quickly learned that this space is a community center that is a bonanza of self help. They offer everything from sushi rolling and CPR to beginning French, meditation, knife skills, something called “Tippi Toes,” freezable appetizers and sewing.
Per event organizers, I had to abide by one rule in order to be there. I could not ask a question during the Q &A portion of the evening. I briefly considered wearing masking tape across my mouth in protest.
But in the end, I agreed to sit there quietly – which is what I would’ve done anyhow without being mandated to do so.
By the time I arrived, most of the white wooden folding chairs in the cozy room were filled. I had to maneuver my way through the mostly graying and white heads of hair to make my way to an empty seat in the far corner behind a column.
The audience was nearly all white – I spotted one African American woman in the entire room. For a bunch of liberals this struck me as odd. But whatever.
A woman two seats away sat there sipping white wine out of a small plastic cup.
As I soon learned, these people weren’t going to get drunk on booze. Brooding in their dismay of Trump, they couldn’t inhale enough insider-y details fast enough. If Trump is what ails them, these New York Times reporters were their crack pipe to sanity.
The fashion in the room was bland Washington weekend wear, which is worse than Washington mid-week. It’s less careful but not in a good way. Think outlet shopping on Metamucil – tweed blazers, sweater vests, hot pink golf shirts (on men), flip-flops, and popped collars. Let’s call it sloppy preppy chic.
A surprise – it’s raining mustaches! I’ve never seen a crowd with this many mustaches. When did they come roaring back in vogue with such a vengeance?
Soon, Press, Thrush and Baker arrive and situate themselves on stage – Press on the left, Thrush in the middle and Baker on the right.
Press wore a mismatched ensemble of a French blue shirt, a gray blazer, khaki’s and muted brown leather shit-kickers. Thrush exuded a style in a red and blue plaid shirt, khaki’s, no tie and a dark blazer. He took off his signature fedora as soon as he sat down. Baker was the most polished in a clean navy suit, powder blue button-down, navy tie and hard black shoes.
The microphone initially caused a minor but deafening snafu. When Press attempted to adjust the mic on his lapel, a couple of long, blistering honking sounds rang out that nearly destroyed the eardrums of the audience.
No real harm. The trio was ready to go.
The two reporters did their mic checks without killing anyone. “Hello,” joked Thrush. “Do I have to keep doing this?”
And Baker: “I’m Glenn Thrush.”
Laughter bubbled up from the audience.
These people are easily amused — and that’s not a bad thing.
Press introduced his guests by describing them the way Trump might – “from the New York times, or should I say from the failing New York Times?”
Press didn’t try to play moderate just in case there were any stray righties in the room. He spoke of the “sad day when Obama walked out and the sad day when Trump walked in.” He described Thrush as “best known” for his appearances on Saturday Night Live, referring to SNL comedian Bobby Moynihan who played Thrush in several skits.
Moynihan is no longer with SNL. “I’m the kiss of career death,” Thrush explains.
Press asked the duo about Trump’s performance Tuesday in Puerto Rico, where he threw paper towels into a crowd of Hurricane Maria victims and dotted his speeches with bizarre commentary about how great everything was going.
“Trump never felt your pain, that’s not his strength,” Baker says. “Never has he had the experience of being the Consoler-in-Chief. This is a test for him. He can’t quite stick to message. Today he’s going to Puerto Rico and he’s off script.”
The reporter momentarily gives Trump the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think he means to be off message or tone deaf,” he says. “He doesn’t wrap his arms around people. These are moments when we want our president to be our leader and make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.”
Thrush strikingly refers to Trump as “the guy.”
Like this: “This is a huge issue for the guy,” he says. “He tends to orientate all issues toward himself … he’s sort of an emotional one-way street.”
Thrush says Trump is “physically uncomfortable” with regular people. “This is a feel-your-anger president,” he says. “So when you modulate your emotions, this is a president who is out of his depth.”
The audience is rapt. They’re shaking their heads in disbelief. They’re totally relating to these reporters. And Press, Thrush and Baker are their clairvoyant spiritual advisors.
Baker explains that Trump’s “skillset” is not empathy. He says Trump always needs a target. Thrush says, “This is a man who is very much in fear of losing his base.”
Soon Press asks the men about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. They look at each other as if to say, ‘Should we really tell them?’
Thrush says, “Sarah doesn’t have a sterling record of truth.”
When pressed, he laughs. “Have you guys checked out the artwork?” he says, gesturing to another room. And then: “I like Sarah Huckabee Sanders personally,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I think she tells the truth a lot. The nutritional value of the daily briefing is low.”
He says he and Baker have had philosophical discussions about this.
“Do we like to be lied to, just in a nicer way?” he says, glancing at Baker. “Part of the problem with Sean Spicer is he’s just a crappy liar. Have we just been reared on a better lie?” (He’s of course referring to the former White House press secretary who quit back in July.)
Ever the optimist, Baker says, “We have lost some of the ridiculous drama that we had under Sean.”
He agrees with Thrush that the daily White House briefing has lost its luster. “I don’t find that there’s a lot coming from the briefing worth writing,” he says.
Press wants them to compare Trump’s White house to former President Obama‘s White House.
“Day, night,” Baker starts. “Winter, summer.”
(Audible sounds of chuckles.)
Baker says Trump “goes with the impulse of the moment.”
Thrush says Trump lives in 10-15 minute increments.
“I stole it from Maggie Haberman who stole it from Roger Stone who won’t admit she stole it from Roger Stone,” Thrush explains, referring to his friend and coworker Maggie Haberman and Trump whisperer Roger Stone.
Thrush is on a roll and the audience is eating up his every word.
Language, he says, “ain’t a problem with this guy.”
“He sits down in his bathrobe – and yes, he wears a bathrobe – and tweets whatever the hell he wants.”
Thrush slams the White House press office, saying, “It is extremely jarring to see misspellings of people’s names and grammatical errors in presidential press releases.”
Baker sees some of this as a positive. In other words, we have a far better window into who Trump is, as opposed to Obama, who was something of a robot hidden behind a steel wall.
“I could tell you what he said,” he says of Obama. “I couldn’t tell you what he was thinking. With Trump, what you see is what you get. There is no filter. [With Obama], you couldn’t necessarily get past the barrier, the shell.”
Thrush dwells more on the negative. “I think he craves our approval,” he says of Trump’s relationship with the media. “Trump is a needy character.”
More on Trump’s tweeting: The reporters point out that 65-70 percent of the country disapproves of his tweeting. “But this is the man’s bullhorn,” Baker explains. “If he cut off the Twitter we’d have to get rid of 60-65 people in the bureau.”
The biggest audience response of the night comes when Thrush reveals that Sec. of State Rex Tillerson wants out of the White House but wants to wait out a year for a potential tax break.
The audience unravels into snivels. A woman behind me lets out a completely disgusted “oh grossssss.”
Soon another laugh track comes as Thrush explains Trump’s nickname for Korean President Kim Jong Un. “One of the reasons he calls him ‘Rocket Man’ is because he doesn’t know how to spell his name,” he says.
Press wants to move away from Trump and laser in on Obama’s legacy.
“Right now we haven’t had a ‘her’ [but] we will get there,” Baker says, offering members of the audience a balm for their psyche. “Trump seems determined to take everything Obama did and take a sledgehammer to it.”
He explains that Obama’s numbers have risen in the past year because of Trump’s presidency.
Thrush throws them a bone of hope. “It seems that Obamacare is more durable than some thought,” he says. “I think Obama is going to serve as a bridge to whatever comes next.”
Press wants to know about the historical role of former Veep Joe Biden.
“He actually was important in a lot of ways,” Baker says. “He humanized Obama, who could be robotic.”
But he shoots down any notion of Biden running in 2020.
“Biden today among Democrats comes off as pretty good,” he says. “The idea that he runs again seems fanciful.”
Thrush chimes in, saying Obama made it “very clear” that he didn’t want him to run with pollster David Plough as his “hatchetman.”
The point is made that Biden has a lot in common with Trump in that neither man is particularly private.
Thrush has an anecdote from a press plane.
“I sometimes have trouble flying on airplanes,” he admits, describing it like something of a phobia or nervous disorder that happens in the air.
In one instance, “I look up and Biden is holding my hand.”
Thrush grasps onto Press’s hand with both hands to show the audience what happened. He’s like, ‘Buddy, everything is going to be okay!”
(Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh.)
It’s now time for the Q & A portion of the night. I try to restrain myself (joking).
First up to the microphone is a woman who really doesn’t pose a question as much as she expresses that Trump in Vegas “wasn’t horrible” but he’s not religious and wasn’t helpful, either.
Baker will take this non-question.
“He’s not suddenly changing, but he recognized it was important to stick to the script,” he says.
Thrush goes in a diatribe in which he explains how Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks to Trump.
“Sir, your best intentions will be served…”
“Let me help you…”
He explains, “I think Kelly is selling Trump on the traditional aesthetics of the presidency.”
Somewhere in this part of the conversation Baker notes that the picture frames in the White House have changed to gold since Trump’s arrival to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A young man in the audience wants to know if Oprah will run for president.
Thrush and Baker are mildly horrified at the thought.
“A year and a half ago I used to say things like ‘that can’t happen,’” Baker says. “I try not to say that anymore. But that can’t happen!”
He adds, “I hope she runs. I think it would be fun.”
Thrush plays bad cop to Baker’s good cop strategy.
He says John Kelly is “essentially the President of the United States” and says Trump has a lost a significant number of Independents and educated Republican females.
The topic turns to first lady Melania Trump. There’s a certain tension and hushed tone in the audience. A blonde woman asks, “Is she there on her own free will?”
Baker replies, “We don’t know. We haven’t had any real exposure to the first lady. She hasn’t given the impression that she’s thrilled to be there.”
But to be fair, he adds, “Michelle [Obama] didn’t either.”
Thrush is the good cop on this one.
“Her stiletto heel thing was a blip,” he says, referring to Melania wearing high heels to a flood. “She can appear plastic, but those who know her don’t experience her like that.”
Let’s move on to Trump lying.
“He’s the Michael Jordan of this stuff,” Thrush says.
Baker goes into a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the New York Times using the actual word: “lying.”
“We take that very seriously, but how do we do it?” he asks. “We’ve only used the l-word two or three times.” (He says we don’t want to cheapen the word by overusing it.)
Press ends the evening on a note of exalted praise for the journalists.
“I am in awe every morning when I pick up the paper and read Peter Baker and Glenn Thrush,” he says.
The audience, now satiated, claps and claps and claps.