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The print reader-in-chief: Inside Trump’s retro media diet

The print reader-in-chief: Inside Trump’s retro media diet

He slams the mainstream media as dishonest liars. He calls journalists the “enemy of the people.” He rages at the television hosts he watches during his “Executive Time.” He hasn’t held a traditional White House press conference for almost 10 months, preferring to go around the “fake news” filter he perceives as hopelessly biased and blast out 280-character proclamations on Twitter instead.

Yet there’s one form of media President Donald Trump consumes to a surprisingly voracious degree, despite the widespread assumption that he’s not much of a reader: the printed word. At a time when the newspaper industry has lost at least 2,000 jobs nationwide since Trump was elected, and a quarter of its total jobs since 2008, Trump’s ink-stained reading habits are striking.

They’re also fundamental to understanding his presidency.

In addition to his diet of major newspapers, Trump relies on paper copies of articles pulled from elsewhere that are culled each day by his staff. The papers and printouts are cherished tools that allow him to monitor the coverage of his administration, reward allies and rebuke critics with dashed-off personal notes.

It’s also a system that gives aides and would-be influencers ample opportunity to flatter, manipulate and steer him — and various attempts to exert firmer control over the president’s print inputs have largely failed, according to nearly a dozen current and former officials interviewed for this article.

There’s an official process for submitting articles or other material to Trump: Go to the staff secretary’s office for approval and inclusion in his daily reading file — an inch-or-two thick file folder containing authorized copies of the latest coverage.

But savvy access-seekers know how to subvert the system.

“In the Wild, Wild West” era, a current senior White House official recalled, “people would put articles on the president’s desk that were things he didn’t need to see, things that were meant to gin him up or get him mad at somebody.”

“That’s how people stabbed you in the back! They would just walk up to him and say, ‘Hey. Mr. President, did you see this story in POLITICO? Here’s a copy of it,’" recalled a former senior White House official. “When somebody prints something off to hand to him, good or bad, that’s when you knew somebody was out for you. ‘Hey, how come there’s a copy here of a story from Breitbart?’"

When John Kelly became chief of staff, he sought to more rigidly control the president’s sources of information and shut down these unofficial channels, but eventually gave up in frustration.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, has gone through a similar evolution. He was “disappointed early on” that staffers snuck articles in front of the president that hadn’t been approved, said a current White House official. “How did he get this?” he would complain.

But Mulvaney either does not want to or has not tried to revamp the process of getting clips in front of the president, one administration aide noted — though he has tried to get news coverage to Trump much faster.

Under Mulvaney, as one senior White House official put it, the process is now “looser [but] in a productive way.”

***

Every morning before dawn, according to current and former White House officials, Trump has four daily newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — delivered to the White House residence.

In wire photos, Trump body man Nick Luna can be seen walking to Marine One holding newspapers for Trump to read or carrying a legal box full of newspapers, magazines and other printed materials, a vessel often simply known as “the boss’ papers,” according to a former White House official.

“If he wanted them in the morning, that’s great. If he doesn’t, then he has it in his office. If he doesn’t get to it at that point, then we have them on the plane” when he’s traveling, said a current White House official.

Trump — who reads newspapers “all the time,” per another White House official — scans the papers for names he knows, especially when the people are quoted. When he spots an article he wants to send along, he does not text or email a hyperlink. Instead, he often tears or pulls out the article himself and then directs assistants to put them in the mail once he’s affixed a black-Sharpied note, usually accompanied by his jagged John Hancock.

“He’s not a fan of the New York Times or the Washington Post but he never misses a day reading them,” said a person close to the White House. “And if he doesn’t read them that day, he’ll put them in a box and read them a few days later.”

While the staff sleeps on long airplane rides on foreign trips, Trump sometimes stays up and goes through the entirety of four to five boxes of newspapers, magazines and other printed matter, added a senior White House official.

“He would literally sit on Air Force One for, like, 12 hours and go through stacks of newspapers,” marveled one former senior administration official. “It was amazing how religious he was about his newspapers.”

Because Trump doesn’t use a computer or read the news online, the staff secretary’s office prints out the Drudge Report every day to show the president, according to a former White House official.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a close Trump ally, recalled that he’s been with the president on Air Force One as he read newspapers and signed specific articles, often making notes in the margins before directing them to be sent.

“He’s a very active reader when it comes to circling and underlining or starring things that have gotten his attention,” said Gaetz.

The president has even been known to sends printouts of tweets he likes. After he liked one Gaetz tweet, he had it printed by a staffer, signed it and requested that it be sent to Gaetz’s congressional office, where the now-framed tweet hangs.

Recalling Trump’s past as a hotelier, Gaetz said, “This is the proverbial Trump gift basket waiting for you in your suite or sent to you.”

***

Past presidents, from George H.W. Bush with his famous hand-written thank-you notes to Barack Obama and his secure BlackBerry, have used various means of communication to foster relationships and break out of the White House bubble.

Trump wields his daily print clipping ritual as both carrot and stick, praising those who praise him and torching his critics. His outbox is also an internal management tool, a tactic to buck up sagging staff morale during a tumultuous first term.

To White House staffers and Cabinet members, he’ll send a signed and inscribed copy when a newspaper or magazine article makes even glancingly positive mention of their work. As he reads, Trump will often lightly annotate stories he intends to have delivered internally or entrusted to the postman.

After articles Trump signs are “captured” for archival purposes and sent to the staff secretary’s office, the task of actually mailing out the clips usually falls to Oval Office operations chief Madeleine Westerhout or Molly Michael, another executive assistant.

Staffers appreciate the praise — especially because Trump isn’t as effusive in person, several former top officials said.

“The only way he could ever compliment people was to sign a newspaper article, ‘Great job.’ He’d never compliment you to your face,” one former senior administration official complained.

When Stephanie Grisham was appointed First Lady Melania Trump’s communications director in March 2017, she found a signed article about the promotion folded on her chair in her office. Trump had written, “Stephanie, you will do a great job!” It’s now framed on her office wall in the West Wing.

“When people come in and visit, whether it’s a work meeting or a personal visit, they all happen to notice it,” Grisham, who is now White House press secretary, told POLITICO. “Everyone thinks it’s pretty cool. He’s the president of the United States, but he will still take the time to do these nice little things.”

The president also has been known to send autographed printouts to members of his Cabinet, to personal friends, and even to the journalists who cover him.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest congressional allies, earlier this year received several Trump-signed copies of the New York Times when it ran an editorial praising a policy on which they’d agreed, recalled a person to whom Graham has relayed this story.

“Graham’s response was, ‘What am I supposed to do with these?’” this person said.

***

The staff secretary’s office is also responsible for Trump’s inbox, in theory: They are supposed to control the flow of articles and op-eds administration officials want the president to see.
To get stories to Trump, administration officials and others often send articles to top staffers like counselor Kellyanne Conway, social media director Dan Scavino and Westerhout, with the understanding that if merited, links will be forwarded to the staff secretary’s office before being brought to the president’s attention.

The “vast majority” of articles they forward over to that office wind up placed among his daily documents, according to a White House official.

When an article contains contested information, the staff secretary’s office puts that information “into context” for the president, said the official. It’s also the staff secretary’s job to tell the chief of staff, press team and appropriate policy staffers what Trump is receiving.

The office will use staff secretary letterhead to simply say, “Here’s an article from so-and-so,” said another White House official. The staff secretary’s team will then put together the articles in a folder that sometimes says “reading file” and usually put it with Trump’s briefing book and a schedule that is given to him or sent to the residence every day, according to a former White House official, who said Trump looks at it during his “Executive Time.”

The size of the folder, which varies in color, depends on the news of the day but can be “voluminous” and varies from a quarter-inch to several inches thick of material with more than 50 pages, current and former White House officials say.

“It’s actually a very effective way to clue him into an issue,” a current White House official said. “One thing I would do if I was heading up a policy council is feed him a steady diet of information on whatever issue I was keyed up on.”

But Trump’s reverence for print has proven exploitable. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for instance, has been known to come to meetings with the president carrying hard copies of articles from conservative print publications praising a move he’s made in an effort to sway Trump’s decision-making.

Sometimes Trump’s advisers duke it out in his inbox. Top economic aide Larry Kudlow, a free-market evangelist, and hawkish trade adviser Peter Navarro, for instance, will send the president articles to inform and influence him on pending economic issues. Navarro in particular has tried to subvert the normal process, current and former White House officials say. One administration official also said that there’s a perception in the administration that Navarro “feeds one-sided information to him.” (Navarro declined to comment.)

Like other senior White House officials, Trump’s daughter Ivanka has “never stopped” feeding articles directly to the president, said one person close to the White House, who added that early on in Trump’s tenure, she particularly used to enjoy “bombing people out with newspaper articles.”

A senior White House official denied that, but noted that in the first year of the administration, Ivanka would sometimes share news stories with her father about colleagues she did not think were “constructive forces for good.” She would point out articles she suspected they had leaked to reporters that were hurting Trump and his agenda — after which Trump would eventually get rid of her targets, this person said.

***

While Trump loves positive coverage, critical pieces hold his attention longer, according to one former senior White House official.

This habit of the president’s is so widely known internally that officials trying to reach him will sometimes plant both positive or negative items in his favorite outlets to further their own arguments, “knowing that he was a voracious reader of the newspaper,” another former senior official recalled.

Last year, Trump fumed over immigration coverage, often in the Washington Times, that portrayed his administration as ineffective and sluggish. He often sent or mentioned critical stories by the Times’ Stephen Dinan to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to prod her to act faster.

“If a story was a negative piece about how efforts at the border weren’t working or how apprehensions were going up or if the numbers were the same under President Obama, the articles would rile him up,” said a former administration official, who relayed that Trump would then call Nielsen to chastise her. If the story struck Nielsen as inaccurate or unfair, she would attempt to calmly explain her view of the situation, this person said.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump became well-known for sending angry notes to journalists who covered him critically. After he didn’t like how the New York Times covered one of his rallies, he fired off a rocket to Maggie Haberman, and then had communications aide Hope Hicks snap a photo of it and zap it over to the Times reporter. (The note said “something to the effect of, ‘You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there,’" recalled Haberman, who had been watching the rally on a livestream.)

When she worked at the Wall Street Journal, Janet Hook received an email from a Trump aide early in the 2016 campaign with a note from the candidate complaining about a Journal story she had written about a recent WSJ/NBC poll. “It was mostly insults about me and the WSJ,” said Hook, now at the Los Angeles Times.

In 2011, Trump annotated a Vanity Fair story by Juli Weiner, circling her name, next to which he wrote in his distinctive scrawl, “BAD WRITER!” (One outside ally of Trump’s, who has often received articles from the president, gently mocked his dramatic penmanship, saying his signature “looks like a richtograph. It looks like a printout of an earthquake. It suggests a lot of inner turmoil.”)

Trump has also continued his decades-long tradition of sending journalists signed copies of their own articles when he likes a headline. But it’s sometimes clear he hasn’t read the article thoroughly.

The president sent one such note to National Review editor Rich Lowry, who wrote a New York Post column about Ed Gillespie’s loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2017 — when Gillespie tried to run away from Trump, but couldn’t. Trump ripped out a copy of the article and drew a big arrow pointing to the headline, “There Is Only Trump.” He also wrote, in all-caps, “RICH — SO TRUE,” and signed his name.

Twitter sleuths later determined that Trump must have read the story on a trip to Asia, since the column was clipped from a special version of the Post that is only available in certain hotels. Lowry, who keeps the article on a stack of papers in his office but hasn’t gotten around to framing it, doubts Trump actually fully read his column.

“The article was not really favorable in many ways,” said Lowry, whom Trump blasted at various points in 2015 as a “loser” and “incompetent” who “should not be allowed on TV.”

Trump seems to especially relish sending top officials copies of favorable stories from publications that have criticized him in the past, including the Weekly Standard, the death of which he celebrated when owner Phil Anschutz shuttered it last December. “SCOTT GREAT STORY — YOU GET IT!” he wrote to former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on a Fred Barnes profile of Pruitt (who “was super proud of his Trump mementos,” according to a former EPA official).

Pruitt is hardly unique — a number of top administration officials, including Mulvaney, make sure to prominently display their missives from Trump in their offices.

Even Trump’s own son in law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, has a framed New York Times article from Trump about the president’s proposed trade deal with Canada and Mexico that noted Kushner’s work on the issue.

Trump has also given signed newspaper articles and magazines to former communications director Hope Hicks and several signed articles to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, including one Wall Street Journal front page in which Trump encouraged him to get the economy up to 4 percent GDP growth, a framed version of which Mnuchin shows people visiting his office.

Trump has sent signed stories to former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former top economic aide Gary Cohn and former press secretaries Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sean Spicer as well as senior officials he later scorned, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to a person who saw the clippings.

World Bank President David Malpass also had “a lot” of signed and framed articles in his old office at Treasury, according to someone who’s seen his office. Before he left the White House, chief strategist Steve Bannon had a framed signed front page of the Times that showed Bannon talking to Priebus at CPAC in 2017.

***

It’s not just newspapers: Trump has long liked to frame articles and magazine covers about himself and loves to brag about how many times he’s been on the cover of Time magazine, for example, even when he gets the number wrong. He’s also been known to hang fake Time covers at multiple Trump properties. In the White House, he will skim through Time, The New Yorker, National Geographic, ESPN The Magazine, Golf Digest and many other magazines.

In his current job, Trump often reads the newspapers while he’s watching television and often seeks feedback from whoever is around him on newspaper stories that are not just about politics, Gaetz said. Knowing Trump’s love of the paper, Gaetz has also adopted the habit of sending stories on a variety of topics to Trump. Trump does the same, Gaetz said — but hard copies only.

The intelligence community exploits Trump’s hardwired preference for print as well. Visually arresting infographics and hard copy, high-resolution maps sometimes make their way into the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, to help Trump comprehend complex national security matters. Intelligence officials know that he best digests complex information when it is coupled with visual aids and laid out on a tactile page, according to an administration official.

Now well into his third year in office, it’s clear the government has adapted to the president’s idiosyncratic reading habits — rather than the other way around.

“The unofficial channels of sending the president newspaper articles for all kinds of political purposes never ended. It continues,” one person close to the White House said. “It’s a practice that has never been able to be halted and will continue on forever. No chief of staff has been able to stop people around Trump handing him articles to try to influence his opinion.”

Nancy Cook contributed to this article.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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