Few presidents have been as good as Donald Trump is at reading the mood of an audience, so he knew immediately that something was off-kilter when he began his usual recitation of what he sees as his accomplishments. All he had said was that he had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” The difference this time was not what he said but who was in the audience. For one of the few times this year, he was not addressing a carefully selected group of supporters whose enthusiasm for all things Trump could be counted on.
This time, he was addressing a sophisticated, world-wise group of diplomats at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and their laughing response threw the president off to the point where he paused in his delivery and admitted, “Didn’t expect that reaction.”
The uncharacteristic laughter of the diplomats and Trump’s reaction has drawn much attention since it occurred on Sept. 25. There has been little focus, though, on why the president was so surprised that such a reliable applause-getting line failed him on that occasion.
To a degree unknown in any other modern White House, the president has been spoiled by schedulers who place a high priority on putting him in front of audiences who already embrace him and his message. His aides keep him away from groups that did not endorse him for president, or work for him now, or want the benefits of federal programs he is pushing. More than any other president since Richard Nixon, they keep him away from students and campuses. Except for his interactions with the press, more than any other president in three decades, they keep him away from town halls and unscripted questions from potentially nonsupportive citizens.
A National Journal analysis of Trump's schedule, partly using numbers from Mark Knoller of CBS News, for the first nine months of this year shows he prefers friendly events—23 meetings with groups of Republicans in Congress, six meetings of his Cabinet, 24 lunches with Vice President Mike Pence, 36 Republican fundraisers, and 28 meetings listed on his schedule as simply with “supporters.” Topping it all is Trump’s unique contribution to an early presidency—the large-scale, big-venue, live-televised Make America Great Again rallies. There have been 18 of those this year from January through September.
No one at the rallies laughs at the litany of accomplishments he reprised in his U.N. speech. Inside those big halls, things play out differently from most political rallies. Here, the president freelances and ad-libs while the crowds stick to the script. The careful choreography was unexpectedly on display at Trump’s rally in Billings, Montana on Sept. 6 when it went wrong. As the president spoke, a young man—who came to be known on the internet as “the plaid-shirt guy”—could be seen prominently over the president’s shoulder. Unlike others around him who were applauding, this man—Tyler Linfesty, a 17-year-old high school student—grimaced and winced and shook his head in disbelief, even mouthing “What?” after one presidential comment.
This challenge to Trump rally protocol was not tolerated. Organizers quickly yanked him from the crowd and replaced him with someone who would applaud and smile. His political apostasy even brought him a brief grilling by the Secret Service.
Aides privately acknowledge they schedule so many rallies because the events pick up the president’s spirits. Most presidents complain about being “in the bubble.” But Trump savors being cosseted and sent to places where he’ll get adulation. That helps explain the one type of event never found on his schedule even though a hardy staple for other presidents: the town-hall meeting with questions from the public.
The closest Trump has come to a town hall in 2018 required him to go only as far as the State Dining Room in the White House. That was on Feb. 22 and featured students, families, and officials from Parkland, Florida, who had been traumatized by the killing of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Uncharacteristically, Trump opened the subdued session declaring, “I want to listen.” He has not wanted to travel about the country hearing unscripted questions, though, with the exception of some travel related to the opioid crisis.
President Obama, by contrast, embraced town halls, telling a crowd at one in Ohio in 2010, “Nothing beats a day where I can make an escape” and break out of the bubble. He held 13 town halls in the first nine months of his second year in office, fielding 114 questions. Bill Clinton had six; Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush each had one; Jimmy Carter had eight.
The same is true for Trump’s avoidance of campuses. He has not gone to a single four-year college (other than military academies) this year. The comparable numbers for other presidents is ten for Obama, 12 for George W. Bush, four for Clinton, eight for George H.W. Bush, and three for Reagan.
The White House brushes aside any suggestions that Trump is shielded. “This president is surrounded by unfriendly comments every day,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told National Journal. She added, “Following the traditional playbook is not what he came here to do. The other presidents who have preceded him and have followed the traditional playbook have lost the midterms. So why would he keep doing something that he knows doesn’t work? Let’s do something different. Let’s do something that fits this president.”
What works for him, she said, are the big rallies, something she said his predecessors could not do. “They couldn’t turn out crowds like that,” she said. “The size and the enthusiasm of the crowds that President Trump can turn out in an election year that is not his own—that is unheard of.”
And, she noted, he has met with student groups. One of his favorites was his Oval Office meeting last May with the model-rocket team from Victory Christian Center School in North Carolina. The students had named their award-winning rocket “Trump.” When he asked them why, a student responded, “Simply because it conquers all.”