WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday, President Trump got here off the 18th gap of his golf course right here and walked into the membership home’s Grill Room. Waiters scurried to deliver menus and drinks to a big spherical desk reserved for him as he stopped to shake arms and make small discuss with members consuming lunch.
The president, in black pants and a white golf shirt, sat down together with his golf companions for the day, together with his son Eric and the pro-golfer Jim Herman. He took off his white hat, “45” emblazoned in black on the facet, ordered a salad and commenced speaking politics to his golf companions.
Often I cowl nationwide safety within the Washington bureau, however I spent the previous week in Florida masking the president’s Christmas trip to offer my colleagues on the White Home beat the possibility to take a while off. It’s a well-known task for me; I additionally lined Barack Obama’s holidays in Hawaii in 2014 and 2016.
Till Thursday, my time in Florida had been quiet. However that afternoon, I went to Mr. Trump’s golf membership together with his longtime confidant Christopher Ruddy, who had invited me for lunch. We have been seated at a desk subsequent to the president and some minutes into our meal, Mr. Ruddy, who runs the conservative web site and tv channel Newsmax, went over to say hey to Mr. Trump. The president appeared excited to see Mr. Ruddy, who typically goes on cable tv to defend him.
I stood behind Mr. Ruddy, who informed the president that Mike Schmidt from The New York Occasions was with him. As I made eye contact with the president, he appeared confused about who I used to be and why I used to be there. I walked up, shook his hand and reminded him that I had interviewed him in July within the Oval Workplace together with two of my colleagues, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker. He mentioned he remembered me and, even if we’re “the failing New York Occasions,” he thought we had handled him pretty.
The president believes he’s his greatest spokesman, and he instantly started touting the landmark tax laws he signed into regulation final week. I used to be satisfied that the longer I talked with him, the extra snug he can be with me and the extra probably he can be to permit me to interview him. So I received right into a catcher’s squat subsequent to his chair, conveying to him that I used to be listening intently but in addition forcing him to look down at me whereas he talked, which stored him from being distracted by the others on the desk.
It’s been 20 years since I used to be a catcher in Little League, and some minutes into our dialog my legs started to ache. However I knew I couldn’t get up whereas I had the president one-on-one.
I started to consider what had occurred a day earlier. On Wednesday, the president invited the press to a neighborhood hearth division, the place he shook arms with emergency medical employees. He mentioned little of notice, however I sensed from watching him that he was bored by trip and wished to have interaction with the information media.
With that in thoughts, I informed him that I assumed what he was saying was new and attention-grabbing and that I wished to interview him about it. He mentioned he preferred the concept and promised that we might discuss after he completed lunch. I went again to my desk with Mr. Ruddy and two different visitors he had for lunch: Andrew J. Stein, a former Manhattan borough president, and Lee Lipton, a neighborhood restaurant proprietor.
5 minutes later, I heard the president name my title.
“Michael, come on, Michael,” he mentioned as he stood up.
“Come on, sit over there,” he mentioned as he motioned to a big empty desk.
We sat down subsequent to one another, I requested whether or not he was O.Ok. with me recording, he agreed and we have been off. Mr. Trump instantly informed me that there was no collusion between his associates and Russia’s effort to affect the election — one thing he would repeat 15 extra instances throughout the interview.
It’s uncommon to land an interview with the president, however much more uncommon for a reporter to get him one-on-one. I knew that what I used to be doing was not going to go over properly with the White Home press workplace, which hates being blindsided by the president making information. However for a lot of the following half-hour, Mr. Trump and I sat alone.
Throughout our dialog in July, I discovered the challenges this president poses in interviews. He can soar from a problem just like the Russia investigation to a coverage matter earlier than going off on a tangent about one thing like his golf sport. If you happen to attempt to interrupt him, he typically continues speaking. Given this, I employed a method by which I requested questions on essentially the most urgent problems with his presidency after which allowed him to speak.
Some readers criticized my method, saying I ought to have requested extra follow-up questions. I believed it was extra necessary to proceed to permit the president to talk and let individuals make their very own judgments about his statements. It was one of the best ways to be taught as a lot as attainable in regards to the president’s mindset and his views on points like North Korea.
Within the interview, the president did make information. He contradicted members of his personal get together, saying he believes the particular counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, will deal with him pretty. He mentioned for the primary time explicitly that he had gone delicate on commerce with China within the hopes that Beijing would assist put strain on North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program. And he mentioned that he by no means thought Roy Moore would win the Senate race in Alabama and that he had endorsed Mr. Moore solely out of obligation.
On the finish of the interview, Mr. Trump, who had requested about my golf sport, informed me that I ought to exit and play his course that afternoon. I informed him I might not try this and I wanted to file a narrative off the interview on deadline. He requested me to deal with him pretty, we shook arms and I headed for my rental automobile. As I drove away from the membership, I known as my editors to inform them I had simply spent half an hour alone with the president.