In another break from protocol under Barack Obama, the White House did not release a list of the books that Donald Trump took on holiday over Christmas. The 45th president is better known for golfing and tweeting than reading.
On his first day back at the Resolute desk on Tuesday, Trump made clear his new year’s resolutions do not include abstention from Twitter. Between 7.09am and 1.11pm he fired off 10 messages on topics including Iran, an aide to Hillary Clinton, tax cuts, North Korea, airline safety, the New York Times, Dreamers and veterans.
It was then left to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to mop up the spills at the first daily briefing of 2018. In short, this may have been the first day of term in Washington, a city that mostly goes dark over the holiday season, but it felt very much like business as usual.
Sanders gave a relatively conventional opening statement, praising an “organic popular uprising organised by brave Iranian citizens”. For a moment it could have been any White House dealing with geopolitical matters of great import. But soon enough came the questions about those tweets. It seems the old fallback from the podium – “the president’s tweets speak for themselves” – no longer holds.
Trump’s second post of the day, complete with misspelling of “aide” and echoes of the “Lock her up!” chant, had said: “Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others.”
What, asked one reporter, did the president mean when he said the “deep state” justice department? Does he mean there is a shadow government plotting to sabotage him?
Sanders parried: “Look, the president finds some of those actions very disturbing and he thinks that we need to make sure, if there is an issue, that it’s looked at … Obviously, he doesn’t [think] the entire justice department is part of that.”
As for Abedin, Trump “doesn’t feel that anyone should be above the law in terms of any investigation”, the press secretary said.
Just after 9am, Trump had tweeted about North Korea, recycling his “rocket man” insult for leader Kim Jong-un. “Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea,” he declared. “Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”
But, one journalist contended, it emerged on Tuesday afternoon that Kim is apparently making preparations for another missile launch, either this week or next. So could Sanders point out ways these pressures are having a “big impact”?
She didn’t, offering instead: “Again, the focus here is to continue, like you said, to apply maximum pressure on North Korea.”
Next, a Trump tweet about Iran: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets’. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!”
Was he calling for change in leadership or policy, or both?
Sanders replied that the priorities were human rights and stopping being a state sponsor of terrorism.
“If they want to do that through current leadership, if that’s possible, OK.”
But in the Trump White House, it is only ever a short step to the theatre of the absurd. The president’s most mocked tweet of the day read thus: “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”
A journalist in the room noted that there has not been a fatal US commercial airline crash in the country since 2009. Did Obama therefore deserve credit too?
Whereas her predecessor, Sean Spicer, might have looked panicky and sounded squeaky at such a moment, Sanders is never burdened by self-doubt.
“Look, the president has raised the bar for our nation’s aviation safety and security,” she declared. “He certainly is very grateful. Last year, the president announced his initiative to modernize air traffic control. And under his leadership, the Department of Homeland Security released enhanced security measures to ensure safer commercial air travel.”
She kept a similarly straight face when someone asked about Trump’s golf habit, noting a report that the president has so far visited courses 91 times and played at least 75 times, including often over the Christmas break. The pointed question: “Can you tell me the biggest single thing the president has accomplished for the American people during his time on the golf course?”
Without missing a beat, Sanders replied: “I think it would certainly be developing deeper and better relationships with members of Congress in which those relationships have helped push forward the president’s agenda, specifically when it comes to helping get the tax reform and tax cuts passed.
“A lot of that, I think, and the success of that came from the strong relationships that the president has. And he’s played golf with a number of senators and used that time, certainly, to accomplish that.”
It is the press that has an issue with Trump’s time on the golf course, she added, before saying: “I don’t think anyone can argue: it was probably one of the most successful first years in office.”
At which half the nation erupted, quite ready to argue.