Trump's Performative Presidency

The decision to handle the minor crisis of a North Korean missile launch in full view of Mar-a-Lago members makes little sense—except as an opportunity to act out leadership in public.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The most enduring image for the Obama presidency may prove to be the photograph that Pete Souza took of the president and his aides during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. There’s no one reason for that—the moment was historic, the tension is engraved on the faces of the participants, the composition is nearly classical—but one reason is that it was such a rare look at what the presidency is like behind closed doors, in rooms full of people with security clearances. It’s like Aaron Sorkin, but in real life, and with blessedly less dialogue.

There are, however, other ways of getting a look inside the presidency at a moment of drama. For example, you can join the Mar-a-Lago club (initiation fees are a steal at just $200,000)—or for those on a budget, be Facebook friends with a Mar-a-Lago member. As news broke over the weekend that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile, President Trump was dining at the club with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and some people present in the dining room got to see a crisis unfolding. From one perspective, this is a dangerous breach of security and protocol. From another, it’s a performative model of the presidency, though one that owes more to reality TV than to Sorkin’s The West Wing.

On Saturday night, Trump and Abe were eating at Mar-a-Lago, after meeting at the White House on Friday and retiring to Florida for golf over the weekend. They didn’t eat in a private dining room, mind you: They were right out on the terrace, where they dined on the regular menu, rather than some special menu. Richard DeAgazio, a retired investor who recently joined the club, snapped a photo with the officer he said carries the “football,” the briefcase with nuclear launch codes.

It was a perfect stage for Trump, a man often derided by his critics as “unpresidential,” to show just how presidential he was, performing his discharge of the duties, even hosting an important foreign leader, right there for the people (or at least his people) to see.

“He chooses to be out on the terrace, with the members. It just shows that he’s a man of the people,” DeAgazio told The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold.

But the show—the one being put on, and the one being witnessed—got even better when the news arrived of the North Korean missile launch. DeAgazio posted pictures on Facebook that showed Trump and Abe and their advisers huddling, trying to figure out what was going on. Here was history being made, albeit with some peculiarities as to the setting, beginning with the presence of Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who was dining with them. Fahrenthold notes a few of the security vulnerabilities the arrangement presents:

The two leaders could have discussed classified documents within earshot of waiters and club patrons. Those cellphones-turned-flashlights might also have been a problem: if one of them had been hacked by a foreign power, the phone’s camera could have provided a view of what the documents said.

Working at Mar-a-Lago, or joining the club, doesn’t require the same security screening that it generally takes to be in the president’s inner circle, either. Stranger still, Trump reportedly went straight from a brief press conference about the missile launch to crashing a wedding being held at the club and offering a toast—dragging Abe along with him. “Come on, Shinzo, lets go over and say hello,” Trump says he said. CNN reports Trump also said, “They’ve been members of this club for a long time. They’ve paid me a fortune.” What better prop to show your thanks than the head of government from America’s fourth biggest trading partner?

Trump has private spaces at Mar-a-Lago to which he could have repaired with Abe. It’s also not as if presidents don’t often encounter sensitive situations while away from the White House, for which they use a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a protected zone than can be temporarily established. But Trump didn’t do that. He wanted to conduct his business out in the open.

One could argue that this is a good thing. Isn’t the presidency already far too secretive? Wouldn’t a little more transparency do the American people some good? The same could be said, for example, of his continued tweeting from his personal account, which offers a remarkable window in the mindset (and media-consumption habits) of a president with little filter who’s prone to petty feuds.

It’s an argument that might be interesting in theory, but which founders in practice. For one thing, the members of Mar-a-Lago hardly represent “the people,” looking more like the American economic aristocracy.

Moreover, Trump’s performative exercise shares one crucial flaw with reality TV: It’s kind of real, and kind of not. Just as The Apprentice didn’t really show what it’s like inside a corporate boardroom, this display seems to impress Mar-a-Lago denizens—and really, who wouldn’t think it was kind of cool to take a picture with the guy who carries the nuclear football? The question is whether there’s any actual governing go on along with it, and the evidence is not promising. During the impromptu statements after the North Korea news broke, Abe spoke first, delivering a fairly by-the-numbers condemnation: “North Korea's most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable. North Korea must fully comply with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.” Trump, very much the junior partner in the conversation, tacked on an empty little statement at the end: “Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister.  I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”

By Monday, Trump’s public statements had barely progressed: “Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem and we will deal with that very strongly,” he said during an appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s dramatic executive-order signings are of a piece with this. The typical pattern goes like this: Trump sits at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and signs a leather bound order, gravely handing the pens to aides as souvenirs. Several hours later, the White House finally releases the text. And then, over time, the shortcomings of the orders become clear—none so clearly as the immigration order, which appears to have been poorly vetted, was not cleared with the relevant Cabinet agencies, and has now been temporarily frozen after two resounding defeats in federal court. Calling Trump’s performance “transparent” distorts the word: Transparency implies that people are being allowed to see something below the surface, when in reality it seems the surface is all there is.

Even if the transparency arguments held, they would represent a stark hypocrisy for Trump. He repeatedly argued that Hillary Clinton’s lax handling of classified materials on a private email server was disqualifying; by some analyses, the FBI’s revelation of a renewed investigation into her server, days before the election, might have cost her the presidency. Yet here is Trump, now ensconced in the White House, not just displaying a vexingly casual attitude toward secrecy but flaunting it. As Fahrenthold put it, they “turned their dinner table into an open-air situation room.”

The Mar-a-Lago performance is just one element of this. Trump is reportedly still using his old, unsecured Android mobile phone. “We must assume that his phone has actively been compromised for a while, and an actively compromised phone is literally a listening device,” Nicholas Weaver, a University of California at Berkeley computer scientist, told NPR. Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, trolled Trump on Twitter, noting that an Associated Press photo appeared to show a lock bag for classified material sitting out. The photos with the nuclear football may be of minimal real security concern, but Breitbart, Trump’s favorite media outlet, criticized Joe Biden for even mentioning its existence during an August campaign event.

These are all surprising breaches for a president who, as Press Secretary Sean Spicer put it in a statement on Monday, considers national security “the single most important subject there is.” Security is important, but then again, the show must go on.

In the early days of the Trump presidential campaign, it felt too easy—lazy, even—to compare the tactics and approach of a man whose most famous credit was The Apprentice to reality television. Yet when the president pits his advisers against one another, grouped into rival teams, or when he conducts crisis response openly in the dining room of his club, it’s hard not to see a president who is relying on the tried-and-proven tricks of his old job as he tries to grow into a new one.