For four minutes the email sat in my inbox before I saw it. It was an urgent request from a White House official that I present myself at the designated rendezvous point where the rest of the group was being told to gather.
“The President is going to be participating in an Off the Record Interview with approximately 10 regional correspondents today at 11:30 a.m. in the Oval Office….” read the email, “we would like to see if you were around this morning to join.”
In the event that I’m able to make it, the email politely suggested, I should notify them at once. I had all of 42 minutes.
“I’m in,” was the fewest number of words necessary to convey that I was both interested and physically standing just outside the lower press area per their recommendation.
“Thanks,” was the fewest number of words necessary for the White House official to acknowledge the confirmation.
By now the small group had formed, mostly comprised of members of the Regional Reporters Association, an organization of Washington-based reporters who work together. The group represented a truly diverse set of media outlets. From The LA Times and Las Vegas Review-Journal in the West, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and McClatchy in the East. Most were print/online media, but there was even one ABC News affiliate.
At least one of the attendees said she had been invited to such a meeting with President Trump the previous year, while another reminisced about his experiences during the Obama years. (“Remember how Obama would have these kinds of meetings with us? All that took place during his first year, and then never again.”)
I used the final minutes to place a call to my editor, whose coaching advice I seek out in times such as these, and then began the waiting game, the longest part of the process. The stroll between the briefing room area and the Oval Office takes well under a minute to complete. Checking in at security in order to enter the Oval Office takes even less time than that. Essentially there is no security there other than the length of time it takes for the staffer escorting us to establish facial recognition—so never more than a second. But waiting for the signal that the time had come for us to enter felt like a proverbial eternity.
That the meeting was going to be off-the-record had been made abundantly clear (and none of the theories I could think of that would explain the rationale behind it made sense), but we had determined, as a group, to do whatever it would take to get the White House to agree to put as much of the meeting back onto the record.
Visitors to the Oval Office are rarely allowed to bring in their phones, but we reporters chose not to bring it up. We decided that we’d bring along our phones and recording devices, and in the event we were told to deposit them within a soundproof box then we’d have our note pads to fall back on.
Finally, our escort arrived, taking us through the tiny vestibule separating the briefing room from the lower press area. We arrived at the door leading out to the Western Colonnade and turned right and headed up the hallway and towards a Secret Service desk. From there we turned left, breezed past the doors leading into the Cabinet Room on the left and the office of the press secretary on the right. A small corridor brought us to the office of the president’s private secretary and an open door beckoned us into the Oval Office. Seated behind the Resolute desk, President Trump flashed a big smile and welcomed us in.
The Oval Office looked the same way it looked all the other times I had been there, but there were a few striking differences, too. During my past visits there was always something taking place, and on those occasions the Oval Office was quite packed (usually with VIPs, guests and press in addition to White House officials and staffers). Today, it was just the group of us reporters, POTUS and a handful of senior officials. I caught sight of things that I hadn’t noticed in the past. Like a pair of doors that blended in with the off-white wallpaper, a cannabis-looking plant with some gold figure above the mantelpiece, and come to think of it, had I noticed that there was even a fireplace there in the first place? The president seemed relaxed, even cheerful as he beckoned us towards him. He was greeting us like old friends. At no point was there any mention of “fake news” or “enemy of the people.”