On March 1, 2017, nearly six weeks after President Trump had raised his right hand and swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, he struggled to read aloud the words of the founding document. A film crew had come to the White House to record the new president reading a section of the Constitution. Trump chose to participate in the HBO production because he did not want to forgo the chance to be filmed for history, and he knew that as the sitting president he would be the documentary’s most important character.
The documentary, titled The Words That Built America, was directed by Alexandra Pelosi, a daughter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Her conceit was that the country was starkly divided after the ugliness of the 2016 campaign, but the founding documents remained a unifying force for the nation’s factions. Pelosi and her team had a novel and distinctly bipartisan hook: All six living presidents, as well as six vice presidents, would join in reading the Constitution on camera, and other political figures and actors would read portions of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Each performance would be edited to create a lively, unabridged reading of the treasured documents that have united the nation for more than two centuries.
On March 1, Pelosi and her crew arrived at the White House, and as they were getting ready in the Blue Room, Trump entered the opulent parlor, which sits at the center of the residence’s first floor and opens onto the South Portico. The Blue Room, distinguished by its French blue draperies and gold wallpaper, is steeped in history. It was where President Grover Cleveland and his wife exchanged wedding vows in 1886, and every December the White House’s primary Christmas tree is erected at the center of the oval-shaped room.
On this day Trump seemed stiff and uncomfortable. Though he was technically in his own home, he did not greet his guests. Rather, he stood waiting for someone to approach him. Pelosi moved in to thank Trump for participating in this special history project, but he appeared to have no idea who she was, apparently not briefed on her political lineage or her role as the director. The president asked for some water, and with no staff bringing any to him, Pelosi handed him a bottle of Aquafina from her purse. “I’ve been into the White House,” Pelosi later said of visits to see previous presidents. “There are always protocols. Here there were no rules, no protocol.” She added, “There’s so much wrong with the whole thing. I’m thinking, Isn’t there someone who’s supposed to guard what he’s eating and drinking?”
Meanwhile, a White House staffer gave the other crew members instructions about what they could and could not do with the president. The very first rule was for the makeup artist: Do not touch the president’s hair. On his face, light powder only. The next instruction was for the technical crew: Could they make the lighting a little more orange? The president preferred a warm glow on camera. The mention of “orange” struck some in the room as an odd choice. Outside the bubble of the White House, late-night TV show hosts and cartoonists had been mocking the perpetually orange hue of Trump’s skin.
Pelosi had let presidents and vice presidents choose the portion of the Constitution they wanted to read. Many were wary of reading the section on the rules for impeachment or foreign emoluments. Trump had selected the opening of Article II, the part of the Constitution that addresses a president’s election and the scope of his or her power. It would normally have been the perfect selection for a president—but was an ironic one for Trump, who had spoken of his desire to exercise his executive power as much as possible, including by threatening Congress and challenging the judiciary.
With LED lights on stilts in front of him, Trump took his seat. “You’re lucky you got the easy part,” Pelosi told him cheerfully. “It gets complicated after this.” But the president stumbled, trying to get out the words in the arcane, stilted form the founding fathers had written. Trump grew irritated. “It’s very hard to do because of the language here,” Trump told the crew. “It’s very hard to get through that whole thing without a stumble.” He added, “It’s like a different language, right?” The cameraman tried to calm Trump, telling him it was no big deal, to take a moment and start over. Trump tried again, but again remarked, “It’s like a foreign language.”
The section, like many parts of the Constitution, was slightly awkward—an anachronistic arrangement of words that don’t naturally trip off the tongue. Members of the crew exchanged looks, trying not to be obvious. Some believed Trump would eventually get it, but others were more concerned. The president, already bristling about his missteps, was getting angry. He chided the crew, accusing them of distracting him. “You know, your paper was making a lot of noise. It’s tough enough,” Trump said.
“Every time he stumbled, he manufactured something to blame people,” another person in the room recalled. “He never said, ‘Sorry, I’m messing this up.’ [Other] people would screw up and say, ‘Ohhhh, I’m sorry.’ They would be self-effacing. He was making up excuses and saying there were distracting sounds.… He was definitely blaming everyone for his inability to get through it. That was prickly, or childish.” Though stiff, he eventually made it through without any errors.
Trump presented a stark contrast to many other readers, including the Supreme Court associate justice Stephen Breyer, who read as if he knew the full text by heart, and Senator Ted Cruz, who “knew it from beginning to end” as a result of performing dramatic readings of the Constitution as a high school student, according to Pelosi. “Donald Trump is a celebrity and he came to perform,” she said. “He had not practiced it beforehand. I don’t think anyone would show up to read the Constitution without practicing it first.”
Whatever the reason for Trump’s discomfort with the reading, several watching agreed on this much: He behaved like a brooding child, short-tempered, brittle, and quick to blame mystery distractions for the mistakes. “I didn’t expect this, but I felt sorry for him,” another witness said. “When [Vice President] Pence is reading it, when [former vice president [Dick] Cheney is reading it, I knew they knew the Constitution. And I thought, Before he got this job, he really should have read it.”
From A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, to be published on January 21, 2020, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig.
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