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TIME magazine offers portrait of Trump facing realities of the White House

May 11, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
As questions swirl around President Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey, earlier this week TIME magazine was given unusual access behind the scenes at the White House. Judy Woodruff talks to Michael Scherer of TIME magazine about what he learned about the president’s perspective from their meeting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s decision to fire FBI Director Comey, the various rationales that are being given, and the interview the president gave today to NBC are again prompting many questions about the way Mr. Trump makes decisions and carries out his job as chief executive.

A TIME magazine team had a chance earlier this week to get a look at what life is like inside the Trump White House.

Michael Scherer, TIME’s Washington bureau chief, was part of the group that met with the president, as it turned out, before the Comey firing. And he joins me now.

Michael Scherer, welcome back to the NewsHour.

You and the TIME magazine folks had an unusual access at the White House. Tell us about what it was like.

MICHAEL SCHERER, TIME: We got there about 6:30. And we were invited into the Oval Office, where he was meeting with a number of senior staff, signing the final orders of the day, and from there began an almost three-hour, two-and-a-half-hour evening, in which he took us to many parts of the White House that most presidents never take the press.

That includes starting in his private dining room, which is just down the hallway from the Oval Office in the West Wing, where he played us some DVRed clips of that day’s Senate hearings with color commentary attached.

And then we walked down the Colonnade. And he took us in his elevator up to the residence on the second floor of the executive mansion and toured us through the rooms there. That was followed by dinner in the Blue Room, which is the big oval room on the first floor of the residence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you take away from this? I read the piece today. And you had, as you said, an extraordinary two-and-a-half-hours with him.

From the outside, this is a presidency that’s almost bathed in controversy. Did you sense that kind of tension inside?

MICHAEL SCHERER: There’s an enormous amount of grievance he feels to the way he’s been treated. And that was evident almost from the moment we got there.

He was talking about how the press has mistreated him. Sometimes, he included us in that, although he was also very gracious and hospitable, and talking about how his message had not gotten out, how the good things he had been doing were not being recognized.

And he returned to that time and again. So, there was a clear frustration. And, at times, he was very emotional. Even when he was watching the day’s hearing, he was sort of mocking the witnesses — and these are former federal officials testifying before the Senate — because I think he’s angry at the way the American people have been presented the story of his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think he wanted to get across most to you?

MICHAEL SCHERER: I think he wanted to get that across. He wanted to make the case that his presidency is far more successful than has been recognized.

There was an interesting moment where I asked him, do you think there has been too much conflict at the White House at some points? And he actually answered by saying, I think that may be true, and then he said, but you have to understand there’s so much meanness out there.

And then he reverted back to name-calling of various other television correspondents and things like that. But I feel like he is someone who is trying to adjust his own personality, his own history, his own instincts to an office that is a very different structure around him.

And I think he’s waffling back and forth between the desire to lash out, to come back over the top, to confront, which has been actually very successful for him through his career, and the realities of the White House, which are that the president has enormous power, but he also is enormously limited in his power, that there are lots of institutions, the press, the courts, the Congress, that can constrain him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting. I think you were telling us earlier today that it was almost like there were two operations going on at the same time. He has one operation around him to sort of protect him, make sure he’s all right, protect his brand, you said, and then, on the other hand, the operation to keep the business of the presidency going.

MICHAEL SCHERER: Yes, he is enormously focused on his personal reputation and experience in office.

And I think he spends a lot of time watching TV at night, seeing how things are being digested. He’s an incredibly erudite media critic, which we saw during the campaign. And that is really separate, I think, from what the business of the presidency is, which is running a very large and complicated government.

Now, he’s involved in those issues, too. It’s not as if he’s not engaged in the details of, you know, getting Obamacare repeal through Congress or something like that. It’s just that I think, more than other presidents, he’s spending a lot of time focused on this other thing.

And he does have staff around him who are essentially personal staff. They’re not staff that are plugged into the hierarchy of a traditional White House. They’re not reporting directly to the chief of staff, and they help him with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And any inkling — of course, this was Monday, before we knew about the firing of FBI director — any inkling something like that was coming down?

MICHAEL SCHERER: There was no discussion of the FBI director, Comey.

The only inkling was, he returned several times to his frustration about the press not reporting that his wiretapping tweet of a few weeks ago saying that Barack Obama wiretapped me in Trump Tower, he still believes, he still argues, was true, even though Director Comey testified that there was no evidence …


JUDY WOODRUFF: That he was wiretapped. He argues that that …


MICHAEL SCHERER: And his argument is a little complicated. He is saying wiretapping is in quotes. It includes any unmasking by any officials of anyone in my campaign, which may have happened.

And he said he believes that, if an official was unmasked in a foreign intelligence tap, that would count as wiretapping. It’s a stretch, but his anger at — his feeling of being wronged by the way that’s been discussed, and I think that includes what the FBI director said before Congress, was very apparent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Scherer, TIME magazine, fascinating.