Inside the Donald Trump bubble: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ but no talk of Michael Cohen
The president's West Virginia rally was business as usual even as courtroom events in Washington and New York escalated the legal and political threats he faces.
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Lorraine Woellert on politico.com on August 22, 2018.
My window seat on Air Force One was like a prison. It was late afternoon, and all day major news had threatened to come crashing down on President Donald Trump. But here we were, headed to a campaign event in West Virginia. Business as usual.
As the plane throttled for take-off, everything hit: Trump’s former campaign manager had been convicted of a felony and the president’s one-time fixer was turning against him in a campaign corruption case.
We were wheels up. Our phones blinked out. No Instagram-addicted teen has felt withdrawal the way I did at that moment.
The rumours had started before lunch. A verdict was due any minute in the prosecution of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
And reporters in New York were picking up signs that the president’s long-time buddy, Michael Cohen, was about to betray him. Barricades had gone up outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan.
As the threat of major news simmered, thunderclouds rolled in over Washington and unleashed an epic downpour, flooding the roads around Joint Base Andrews, where we waited for the president.
By the time Trump climbed the steps to the plane, the rain had slowed but the rumours had picked up. He gave a thumbs up as we shouted questions.
The presidency seemed on some sort of brink. But I was trapped on a plane with a silent president, no phone and no Wi-fi.
At the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, the president finally stopped to chat with his travelling press.
“I must tell you that Paul Manafort is a good man,” he said. The appearance lasted less than two minutes.
We hopped into the motorcade and transcribed our tapes.
I was determined to get some reaction from Trump supporters at the campaign rally. From the confines of the press pen, I cast my hook, with a smile and wave, toward a couple guys in suits. They didn’t bite.
A woman with a glittery phone stopped, but ignored my questions. She took a picture of CNN reporter Jim Acosta instead. In the background, Mick Jagger was singing Sympathy for the Devil.
A fellow named Rick Hunt swung by to chat, so I jumped into action: Rick, Manafort was just convicted and Cohen said Trump directed him to commit a crime. What do you think?
“All I know is everybody makes mistakes,” Rick said.
“But if they try to take Trump out of office, there’s going to be a revolt.”
I gave Rick my business card, checked my email, and found an alert from the Justice Department. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and one of Trump’s earliest backers, had been indicted on corruption charges.
Inside the Charleston arena, Jagger had given way to Pavarotti. I was confused.
But here was Trump, finally, walking up to the podium. In the few hours since he’d left Washington, his former campaign manager had become a felon, his one-time fixer had implicated him in an election-related crime and yet another staunch political ally was facing criminal charges.
I was jumpy. What would the president say?
“It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful anthem, and defending our flag, they decided they just won’t broadcast,” Trump said.
Trump changed the subject. He marvelled at “beautiful” coal and took shots at Senators Joe Manchin – a Democrat – and John McCain – a fellow Republican.
It was just after 7:30pm. Back in Washington, reporters were dialling into a call with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who said that the company had purged hundreds of accounts with secret ties to Iran and Russia, apparent efforts to influence voters ahead of the midterm elections.
“I don’t want to brag about it, but man do I have a good record of endorsements,” Trump was saying.
“U.S.A.!” the crowd chanted.
A fellow reporter wondered aloud if Trump would pardon Manafort on live TV. The president talked about the gross domestic product.
Finally, at 7:50pm, Trump turned to the news of the day. My adrenaline kicked in.
“Where’s the collusion? We want to find the collusion!,” Trump thundered. The crowd went nuts.
But it was over in less than a minute. Trump had already changed the subject.
“The beating heart of this election is border security,” he said.
“We have to have it.”
My phone pinged with a Bloomberg news alert: “It was a terrible day for Trump.”
If the president had had a terrible day, he wasn’t letting on. He was talking about Chevys.
“How many Chevrolets are there in the middle of Berlin? Not too many. Maybe one?”
Trump talked about North Korea and Elton John. The crowd turned to boo at us again. The president talked about real estate and Nato.
“What’s going on?” another reporter asked. I had no idea.
It was 8:08pm. I could not concentrate. The president talked about his mom. “She made the greatest turkey you ever had.”
Wait – he was talking about Chevys again. In Beijing, a Chevrolet Camaro costs US$119,000, he said.
It was 8:13pm and by now a lot of people were sitting down. A guy in a blue blazer thumbed through his phone, oblivious to Trump’s applause lines.
My phone buzzed with another news alert. The Facebook news had hit. Trump talked about his Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh.
“Central casting! How do you vote against him?”
Trump moved on to military spending, his proposed Space Force and veterans. It was 8:21pm. The guy in the blazer left.
Trump gave a plug to West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey and a Trump staffer told us it was almost time to bug out. But Trump was just winding up, and the crowd was getting a second wind.
“You’re the elite,” Trump said.
“You’re the super elite!”
“I have a lot more money than they do. I have a much better education than they have. I’m smarter than they are. I have many, much more beautiful homes than they do. I have a better apartment at the top of Fifth Avenue. Why the hell are they the elite? Tell me. Because you're the elite, just remember that. You're the elite. They're not the elite.”
The crowd cheered. Trump talked about carpenters and coal miners and ministers and metal workers. The crowd cheered some more.
“The people of West Virginia never give up, they never give in and they never back down. Because we are Americans and our hearts bleed red, white and blue. We are one people, one family, and one glorious nation under God.”
The crowd rose to their feet.
“We will make America strong again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again,” Trump said.
“Thank you, West Virginia.”
The press pool ran for the plane as the clear voices of a boys’ choir filled the arena. It was the Rolling Stones again.
“You can’t always get what you want.”