I had never met Donald Trump when I began serving in his White House. I took the job expecting that I would never meet him. My (former) role—head of communications at the National Security Council—is not one whose occupant traditionally interacts with the president all that much (my immediate predecessor notwithstanding). The NSC comms director’s “principal,” as we say in the flak trade, is the national security advisor, not the president. The president has higher-ranking aides to look after his interests.
Plus, the top NSC flak has a rather large organization to worry about. Within the Executive Office of the President, only the Office of Management and Budget is bigger than the NSC. And given the latter’s somewhat secretive nature and placement at the center of various secretive yet intensely interesting agencies, keeping track of its happenings and fending off mis- and disinformation tends to be a full-time job in and of itself.
Anyway, having worked there before (in the George W. Bush Administration) and seen the NSC up close, I had definite ideas about how its comms office should function. As a supporter of the new president, I wanted to use that experience to help his administration communicate the significant changes he intended to make to American foreign policy. All that, I assumed, would be done without him having any knowledge of my role, or even of who I was.
But to my surprise, I ended up spending a great deal of time with President Trump—far more, for instance, in my 14 months in his administration than I spent with President Bush over my four years with his.
The first time I talked to President Trump was unexpected. I had to tell Hope Hicks about some crazy thing the North Koreans had just done or were about to do (I don’t remember the details). Her desk, in those early days, was the first one outside the Oval Office door, which the president likes to keep open.
But Hope was on the phone. She held up one finger as if to say “Give me a minute.” So I waited. I was, without quite realizing it, directly within the president’s line of sight. Somehow my eyes wandered in his direction and I saw him, behind the Resolute Desk, looking right at me. He raised a hand to wave me in. I panicked. This is not what I came over here for!
I turned to Hope and blurted out: “He’s waving for me to go in!”
“So go!” she said, annoyed.
She put her hand over her phone’s mic and cut me off. “Anton”—in nearly four years of working for and hanging out with Hope, I don’t think she’s ever once called me “Michael” or “Mike”—“DJT likes to talk to and get to know all the people who work for him. This was going to happen sooner or later. Go,” she said, shooing me with her left hand.
So I went. There was someone sitting in front of the president’s desk; I don’t recall who, nor did I ever learn what I was interrupting. I introduced myself as “Michael Anton from the NSC.”
The president replied, “I know who you are,” in a tone that mildly suggested, “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
I almost said “No, sir,” as if he had actually asked that question, but caught myself and quickly told him what I had come to tell Hope. He asked me what we were proposing to do, and I told him. Then he asked me if I thought that was a good idea, and I said I did. And he said, fine, do it.
From that point on, I saw a lot of President Trump. I saw him in large meetings where I was just an observer, some of them secret conferences of his “war cabinet,” others with foreign leaders. I saw and spoke to him in many staff prep sessions or “pre-briefs.” I was in the Oval Office, and sometimes upstairs in the residence, for nearly every foreign leader call. I saw him in public with foreign leaders overseas and in private, around no one but staff, at embassies and hotels. Since I left the White House in April 2018, I’ve seen and spoken to the president a handful of times.
Here are three things I learned firsthand over the course of those interactions that are directly relevant to the latest phony controversy. First, Donald Trump loves his country—and not just as it might someday be, but as it is and has been. Second, he loves American troops, and especially enlisted men and women. Third, he loves performing the ceremonial duties of the presidency.
Hence it is utterly impossible to imagine President Trump disparaging American servicemen, as recently alleged, and doubly impossible to imagine him doing so within 100 miles or 48 hours of a ceremony honoring America’s fallen.
I’ve seen the president at U.S. bases interact with the military. I’ve seen him sit down and have lunch with enlisted soldiers. I’ve seen such meetings and meals extend long past the time on the printed schedule because the president enjoys so much talking to our troops and hates to leave if that would mean even one soldier who wants a moment or picture with him can’t get it. And I’ve seen him in daily, sometimes round-the-clock contact with his military aides (there are five at any given time), whom he consistently treats with gratitude and respect.
I’ve also seen the president in more than one unguarded moment. I’ve seen him at the end of long, grueling days and after meetings with people who sorely tried his patience. And I never, ever saw or heard him say anything remotely like what has been, I am confident, falsely attributed to him. A comment like that doesn’t just emerge from nowhere. It would have to reflect the speaker’s true sentiments. Sentiments which, in this case, I know President Trump does not hold.
A story alleged that the president had disparaged American troops by comparing them to “waiters.” I knew instantly to what that referred, and knew also that while technically true, in the much larger sense it was a monstrous lie.
Since leaving President Trump’s White House, I’ve declined to recount the details of my service there. I’m going to break my own rule now, this once, to tell a story that’s directly relevant and also shows how “fake news” of this type is made.
In the summer of 2017, a National Security Council meeting was convened to discuss one of America’s long-running wars. Technically and legally, the “National Security Council” is a meeting of top cabinet secretaries and other officials that the president chairs. The instant he leaves the room, the meeting becomes a “Principals Committee” or “PC.”
I was in the room, back-benching and just listening, for this entire meeting. It was long. The president had a lot to say and asked a lot of questions about America’s seemingly endless involvement in overseas conflict. His questions were pointed. Many around the table were clearly taken aback, suggesting that they had never been questioned like that before. Few, it seemed, had any good answers.
If some in the room had gone in expecting a quick and easy approval of more war, they left disappointed. The president clearly tasked them to come back with answers to his questions, and with better options.
A day or two later, an account of the meeting appeared in the press. The gist was to allege that President Trump doesn’t understand the world, the “evidence” being that he won’t rubber-stamp whatever senior officials put in front of him; in other words, pretty standard for coverage of the Trump presidency.
But one detail caught my eye. The story alleged that the president had disparaged American troops by comparing them to “waiters.” I knew instantly to what that referred, and knew also that while technically true, in the much larger sense it was a monstrous lie.
Here’s what the president actually said. He told his advisors that it’s impossible to learn the truth about any operation from talking only to senior management. They’ll either mislead you or not understand the situation themselves. To fully understand what’s going on, you have to talk to those on the ground who do the actual work.
Then he told a story about a friend who owned a popular restaurant whose revenues had been declining. The friend hired a consulting firm, paid them a lot of money, and implemented all their advice. Revenues continued to fall.
The frustrated and bewildered friend reported all this to Trump. “I told him,” the president said at our meeting, “‘You wasted your money. Talk to the waiters. Talk to the cooks. Talk to the busboys. They know. They know what’s working and what isn’t. They can help you fix this faster than any fancy consultants.’”
Then, to the bigshots sitting around the table, he said that he wanted to talk to soldiers about the war. And he didn’t want to talk to generals. He didn’t want to talk to colonels. He didn’t even necessarily want to talk to officers at all. He wanted to talk to enlisted soldiers—and only those who’d been there, fighting, on the front lines. All I will say about that later meeting is that it took place.
As for the other ginned-up scandal about President Trump questioning the wisdom of World War I, hasn’t skepticism of the value of that war been the pan-ideological scholarly, historical, and political consensus in all participating nations since, roughly, 1919?
Is this latest bit of fake news similarly twisted out of some semi-factual detail? Not having been there, I have no way of knowing. But I doubt it.
Many others have blown holes in all aspects of the “reporting.” I have nothing to add to all that but will close by asking: why this lie, right now? The alleged incident took place in November 2018—22 months ago. What makes it breaking news in September 2020?
The answer, obviously, is the election. And more to the point, Democratic attempts to get around the election by saying in advance that Trump is going to “lose” and then refuse to leave office. Many elite luminaries, up to and including Joe Biden himself, are urging the military, when the time comes, to “escort [Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” (to use Biden’s words).
Apparently, they’re not confident the military will go along. If they were, public lies like this would not be necessary. Those behind the effort could just privately tell military leaders the plan.
Instead, they’re trying to generate disdain for Trump within the military via an obvious psyop. In a way, this disgusting affair should give us hope. It suggests that the coup plotters may not be in quite as strong a position as they pretend to be.
Will the psyop work? I doubt that, too. First, because I doubt the military—even the most anti-Trump among the brass—will want to be and be seen as interfering in an election. Second, because I believe enough servicemembers know their president, if not personally, then through his deeds and words. They know his sentiments toward them are the opposite of what those who libel him allege.