President Trump at the White House last month. (Evan Vucci/AP)
From all outward appearances, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was speaking with the full weight of the building on Wednesday. In response to a question about the Stormy Daniels scandal, she replied, “Look, the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true. This case has already been won in arbitration. And anything beyond that, I would refer you to the president’s outside counsel.” She repeated the line about this arbitration victory — a flimsy claim — a couple of times more. Which is to say, someone in the upper ranks of the White House wanted it out there.
And yet! CNN reports that President Trump is “upset with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders over her responses Wednesday regarding his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.” Says who? A “source close to the White House,” according to the article by CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta and reporter Veronica Stracqualursi, with assists from Jeff Zeleny and Kevin Liptak.
As Acosta’s piece points out, Sanders’s comments about arbitration amount to an “admission” that a much-reported nondisclosure agreement with Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — is for real. “POTUS is very unhappy,” CNN’s source said. “Sarah gave the Stormy Daniels storyline steroids yesterday.”
CNN’s reporting touched off more reporting. John Roberts, who represents Fox News in the White House briefing room, tweeted a different conclusion:
I am told by sources familiar with the situation that the reports @realDonaldTrump is angry with @PressSec are patently false— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) March 8, 2018
And scoopster Jonathan Swan of Axios sided with Roberts:
yup https://t.co/N81KNFem0V— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) March 8, 2018
Too bad Sanders herself isn’t scheduled to do a briefing on Thursday, so she could tie-break the media’s dispute over whether the president was really mad at her. In this White House, anything is possible. Even though Sanders appears to have released an official talking point at Wednesday’s briefing, sure — the president could still be mad about some aspect of the proceedings. He’s like that.
Whatever the case, let’s not diminish the importance of mood reporting in the Trump White House. It’s a worthwhile, if dicey, pursuit. Evidence comes from a penetrating March 3 article by Stephanie Ruhle and Peter Alexander of NBC News. Titled “Trump was angry and ‘unglued’ when he started a trade war, officials say,” the piece sought an explanation for the ham-handed non-rollout of Trump’s new tariffs days earlier. White House lawyers and staffers had never reviewed the plan. “According to two officials, Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team,” notes the story. “On Wednesday evening, the president became ‘unglued,’ in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.”
They say personnel is policy; well, personality is policy, too. “I think in this presidency, the president’s state of mind is more important than usual because of much more of the policy is driven by his personal views and emotion,” says New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller. Nor is that merely one journalist’s opinion. It draws on a Wednesday statement by Sanders herself. Asked about all the high-level White House departures, Sanders responded, “At the end of the day, the American people voted overwhelmingly for President Donald J. Trump. They voted for his policies, his agenda, and for him to be the ultimate decision maker,” said Sanders. “And I think that everyone can rest assured in the American people’s choice on that front, and that they’ve made the right one.”
Another specimen of presidential mood measurement popped up in early January, when CNN, citing two sources “familiar with the President’s mindset,” reported that Trump was furious with his legal team for its “shifting” assessments of the Russia investigation timeline. A bunch of erratic behavior clumped around the emotions, CNN reported — including this memorable tweet:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Emotion seeped from the lead of this well-read New York Times article from last December: “Late to his own meeting and waving a sheet of numbers, President Trump stormed into the Oval Office one day in June, plainly enraged.” In his state of agitation, Trump riffed about the number of immigrants who’d received visas to enter the United States in 2017. “More than 2,500 were from Afghanistan, a terrorist haven, the president complained,” according to the New York Times story. “Haiti had sent 15,000 people. They ‘all have AIDS,’ he grumbled, according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there.” Sanders denied that the president had made “derogatory statements about immigrants during the meeting.” Weeks later, The Post broke the story of Trump’s “shithole countries” commentary.
Rage, too, appears to drive the president’s approach to his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Daily Beast politics editor Sam Stein, who oversees an aggressive White House reporting effort, says, “His mood and mental state have tangible impacts on what the entire White House focuses on that day. I mean, right? The guy will wake up, watch a segment on ‘Fox & Friends’ and, depending whether he liked the segment, got enraged by it or found it comforting,” he’ll bang out some tweets that can move markets or shift the country’s standing in the world. Or do something else dramatic.
So, by all means: Report on Trump’s moods. They matter. At the same time, be careful. In a White House that runs a gaping trade deficit with the truth, nailing down immutable facts is a large challenge. Ascertaining mutable facts is AP Calculus. “The definition of a moody person is in part that they jump between different moods, so everything is temporary in some respects,” says Stein. Plus, he adds: “Speaking generally, the real risk of doing this type of reporting is that you can be used as a vehicle for someone who has a vendetta in the administration. They can characterize the president’s thinking in a certain way that suits their own interests and there’s simply no way to completely fact-check it.”
The final complication relates to Trump’s very own reliability. Who knows whether he’s authentically mad about something, or just blowing off some steam? “Obviously you can’t get inside somebody’s head,” says Bumiller, “but if we hear from a good source or several sources that the president was angry and were in the room or know the president well,” then that’s a story.
CNN declined a request to speak with Acosta.