WASHINGTON — The Donald Trump who turned up in the press cabin of Air Force One on Wednesday evening, as his plane crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Paris, was starkly different from the one who publicly pillories the news media but surprisingly familiar to reporters who know him well.
The president had taken off his tie but kept on his jacket — a wardrobe change that for him qualifies as casual Friday — and he was in a happy-hour frame of mind. Expansive, engaging, even at times ebullient, Trump held forth for an hour, addressing reporters by name and alighting on topics as different as Chinese history and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
It was a loose, good-humored side of Trump that the public rarely sees amid the fusillade of angry speeches and tweets that have characterized the president’s first six months in the White House. And it came to light only because he retroactively put the session on the record, asking a reporter the next morning why she had not quoted his remarks.
White House aides say they see more of this side in the Oval Office, where the president has debated advisers about issues like sending more troops to Afghanistan. Diplomats say their bosses see more of it in meetings, where Trump has engaged even those who are skeptical of his views, like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
But this is hardly the view most people have of a president who built his populist appeal on contempt for the mainstream media; who thundered on Inauguration Day, “This American carnage stops right here”; and who told supporters on his 100th day in office, “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade.”
In some ways, Trump has reversed the usual dichotomy between the public and private president.
“One of the great differences between Trump and more successful politicians, like JFK and FDR, is that they would vent their spleen in private, but in public, they would project a more humorous and civilized face,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.
John F. Kennedy, he said, canceled the White House’s subscriptions to The New York Herald Tribune out of pique at its coverage, even as he wooed and won over reporters. Trump has publicly tarred reporters, like Jim Acosta of CNN, while continuing to watch their networks.
The White House’s antagonism toward the news media is born of genuine grievance and a calculated strategy that it plays well with Trump’s political base. But his hunger for press — which he nourished over 40 years of cultivating reporters, taking their calls on virtually any subject and calling them out of the blue to chat — remains undiminished.
When Trump came to the back of Air Force One, his deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, stipulated that the conversation would be off the record. Despite suffering one of the worst weeks of his political career, he was in a buoyant mood. He fended off Sanders when she interrupted him to suggest he should return to his cabin so the reporters could get some sleep (they assured him they were not tired).
For reporters who covered Trump before he became president, there was a familiar discursive rhythm to his remarks.
They ranged from quirky boasts — “I’m a tremendous fracker” — to frustrated outbursts. “What do you do?” he asked after recounting that President Vladimir Putin twice denied to him that Russia had meddled in the presidential election. “End up in a fistfight with somebody?”
They revealed a man getting a crash course in the world — “They have an 8,000-year culture,” he said of the Chinese — but one who still sees things through a real estate prism. The White House was built largely in 1799, he noted, so China views it “like a super modern building.”
And they showed someone who recognizes that his observations occasionally edge into the surreal. “As crazy as that sounds,” Trump said, after explaining why the border wall with Mexico needed to be transparent: to prevent drug dealers from throwing 60-pound sacks of drugs over it and hitting unsuspecting Americans on their heads.
Ever the negotiator, Trump shared his tradecraft for trying to pin down Putin on Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
“I said to him, ‘Were you involved in the meddling with the election?’ ” he recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely not. I was not involved.’ He was very strong on it. I then said to him, in a totally different way, ‘Were you involved with the meddling?’ He said, ‘I was not — absolutely not.’ ”
The tension between Trump’s public and private demeanor mirrors a broader tension over the direction of his administration. Some of Trump’s advisers — including his daughter Ivanka; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Gary D. Cohn, his chief economic adviser — want to draw him toward the political mainstream, keeping the United States in the Paris climate accord, for example, or avoiding a trade war.
Others, led by his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon and his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, want to pull him in a staunchly nationalist direction on issues like trade and immigration. Bannon and Miller had a hand in the inauguration address and the angry jeremiad he delivered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to celebrate his first 100 days. They argue that Trump’s brawling approach is what got him elected, and what will secure his base.
This week, as Trump dined with President Emmanuel Macron of France in the Eiffel Tower, his advisers were back home wrangling over plans to impose tariffs and quotas on countries that export steel to the United States. Bannon, several officials said, favors tough measures against big exporters like Japan and South Korea. Cohn and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, worry about picking a damaging fight with allies.
Trade is one of the few policy issues for which Trump’s views are fixed and long-standing. During the session with journalists, he returned repeatedly to the subject, railing about what he said were unfair, poorly negotiated trade deals with South Korea and China.
“To me, ‘reciprocal’ is a beautiful word,” he said.
Trump’s aides have cut his exposure to reporters, curtailing interviews and scrapping even the brief news conferences that typically follow meetings with foreign leaders. But friends say that talking to reporters is almost a form of therapy for him. On Wednesday, he seemed relieved to be at it again.
“This is more than a press conference here,” he said, showing no displeasure with that prospect.