Sean Spicer was angry. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period,” he almost shouted. Media attempts to “lessen the enthusiasm” for the inauguration were “shameful and wrong”. And today Donald Trump had been at the CIA where he was greeted by a “raucous” crowd “ecstatic” at his election. He delivered a “powerful” message and was given “a five-minute standing ovation”.
And then came the inevitable coda to the tirade. Spicer accused Senate Democrats of blocking the appointment of a new CIA director then berated us: “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering, instead of sowing division about tweets and false narratives.”
The press secretary, wearing an outsized suit, stomped out of the White House briefing room, ignoring a barrage of shouted questions. A journalist sitting next to me mused: “I feel like I’m back at school.” I said: “I feel like I’m back in Zimbabwe,” recalling my visits to Robert Mugabe’s regime when I was the Guardian’s Africa correspondent.
It was the first Saturday evening of a changed world. A day earlier, Barack and Michelle Obama had flown away from Washington by helicopter, leaving us to our fate. Trump had been sworn in as the 45th president and delivered an inaugural address that was like a mouth full of broken glass. “That was some weird shit,” George W Bush, suddenly regarded with nostalgia, reportedly said afterwards.
Trump, the reality TV candidate who trampled electoral norms, proceeded to trample presidential norms just as surely. There were the same bogus assertions, impetuous tweets, petty spats, brazen conflicts of interest, bilious attacks on the press (“the enemy of the people”) and a distinct whiff of authoritarianism. There was also a missile strike ordered over the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve seen”.
As on a rollercoaster, euphoria can very quickly turn to nausea
I have seen God’s gift to satire up close 10 times during the first 100 days – at press conferences, at ceremonies, at a rally (yes, he still doing them four months after the election), hosting an Easter egg roll and taking a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (looking at a stone auction block used to sell slaves, he apparently said, “Boy, that is just not good. That is not good.”) He does have stage presence: 6ft 2ins tall, an imposing build, that still puzzling hair. Usually he wears a red tie that shouts: look at me. By virtue of being president, seas part to make way for him.
But when Trump speaks, the English language runs for cover. There is also the dubious thrill of uncertainty, a giddy sense of danger in not quite knowing what the arm-waving man with the nuclear codes might do or say next. As on a rollercoaster, euphoria can very quickly turn to nausea.
His first solo press conference as president on 16 February was described by CNN as “an amazing moment in history”. He hurled verbal punches all over the place, denied any links to Russia and insisted the White House is running like a fine-tuned machine. Like an inmate at Bedlam, Trump protested: “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But – but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”
When Trump hosts a foreign leader, the property developer in him can’t resist boasting about the White House. “A very special place, I can tell you that,” he told King Abdullah II of Jordan in the rose garden. “I’ve gotten to know it well. Long hours. Very special.”
In the east room Trump reminded Theresa May that his mother was born in Stornoway, “which is serious Scotland”, and then, affronted by a question from the BBC, turned to May and said: “This was your choice of a question? There goes that relationship.” At the time it was treated as a throwaway line, but it was the sort of sinister half-joke, half-threat that is the privilege of powerful autocrats.
But when a visiting president, prime minister or secretary general holds court, Trump is forced to stand and listen, and seems uncomfortable in the role. He fidgets, looks around the room, winks at someone in the audience, peers over at the speaker’s notes as if checking how long this will carry on. Sometimes he uses an earpiece for language translation; sometimes he doesn’t bother.
Back in the White House briefing room - like Doctor Who’s Tardis in reverse, it is smaller on the inside – my spot is in the cheap seats on the back row. The front of the stalls is occupied by the major TV networks. About 100 reporters, half sitting, half standing, turn up to Spicer’s daily set pieces which, Trump observed recently, gets “great ratings” like a soap opera.
There is a murmur of voices as the room fills each lunchtime. Small talk about sports teams, or evening plans, or what unreasonable demand some editor has made. Familiar figures from TV stand at the front, clutching microphones, each speaking to their camera with tunnel vision. There are more conservative outlets these days and a sprinkling of overseas representatives. One time, as a blonde Danish journalist passed through, an old timer drawled: “Hello, beautiful.” Eventually a blue door slides open and someone shouts a two-minute warning.
Spicer is like a high wire act trying to keep his balance while also dodging a fusillade of tennis balls
The noise begins to fade as pens, phones and laptops are poised. In walk a few White House staff – sometimes they can include Kellyanne Conway or star of The Apprentice Omarosa Manigault – and then Spicer himself, short, thickset with cropped hair. He stands at a podium against the backdrop of blue wall and ersatz white doric columns that would not look out of place in Las Vegas, though they long predate Trump’s arrival.
What follows is, even from the back row, a mesmeric, nerve-wracking, can’t-bear-to-look but can’t-bear-not-to performance Q&A session. Spicer is like a high wire act trying to keep his balance while also dodging a fusillade of tennis balls. On 11 April, he fell. Drawing a contrast with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose name he kept mispronouncing, he said: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in world war II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
About five minutes passed, Twitter erupted and one of those TV reporters in the posh seats asked Spicer to clarify. It was painful viewing. The startled press secretary became incoherent. A journalist standing to his right shouted something about the Jews. The panic was visible in Spicer’s eyes, like those of a cornered animal. Then he dug the hole deeper by referring to “Holocaust centres”. That night he had to go on a humiliating apology tour of the major TV networks.
Aware that his boss is probably watching, Spicer is now making the briefings shorter and shorter, racing off the podium as if eager to escape, with yelled questions and grumbles ringing in his ears. The press secretary returns to his office upstairs in the west wing, where from his desk he can see multiple TV news channels and an electronic clock encompassing various time zones, including which ever one the president is in.
Where would we be on the 100th day of a Hillary Clinton administration? It is safe to assume that the daily press briefings would not have attained the cultural status of mash ups on Stephen Colbert’s show or parodies on Saturday Night Live starring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer (the casting of a woman in particular is said to get under Trump’s skin). It was remarked that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize; in the Trump era, it is the breath of democracy.
A hundred days? That was some weird shit.