• No One is Immune to ‘The Trump Treatment’

  • Social distancing never met Lyndon Baines Johnson. Everyone who had something he wanted met the same fate. The imposing 6-foot 3-inch senator turned vice president turned president would hover above his target, inches from their face, cajoling them into political submission. It was called the “Johnson Treatment” and was such a dominant part of Johnson’s lore that it commands an exhibit at his presidential library.  

    Seven presidents later, George W. Bush became known, at least privately, for grilling advisors in what we called “policy time” in the Bush White House. In a timely reflection written on the occasion of the dedication of the George W. Bush President Center, former National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey, now a Stanford lecturer, wrote about the “Bush Treatment” – my description, not his. 

    “Every meeting was a dialogue,” Hennessey recalled. “And you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.”  

    A decade after Bush left office, the current occupant of the White House has his own way of doing things. Like Johnson he twists arms through negotiation and charm. Like Bush he peppers aides with questions. But this president doesn’t do it in private. He does it all in the eye of the camera. This is the “Trump Treatment.” And no one is immune.

    We were first introduced to the Trump Treatment in “The Apprentice” boardroom. It was there that pre-candidate Trump “would ask a lot of very to-the-point questions, he would put people on the spot, he would get information about contestants that would make the other ones mad at them,” according to Mike DeMatteo, a member of the show’s production crew. A former contestant, Season 6’s Heidi Androl, echoed the observation. “One thing he loves to do [in the boardroom] is put people on the spot – he’s said he’s never debated before, but he’s certainly been a moderator in many instances on ‘The Apprentice’.”  

    Now, instead of grilling reality television show contestants about their weekly tasks, he’s the moderator and host of a daily reality show who is publicly grilling subordinates and putting high-ranking guest stars on the spot. It’s the Trump version of a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear. If the grilling happened and no cameras were present, did it really happen? 

    The interrogations range from the mundane – like when he asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to confirm the day of an upcoming vote at the most recent Earth Day and Arbor Day event; to the harmless – asking then-Secretary Jim Mattis to confirm that we are, in fact, “making ourselves very strong again;” to the potentially harmful – inquiring as to whether Acting Under Secretary William Bryan and the Department of Homeland Security would study the feasibility of an “injection” of disinfectants into the human body to combat coronavirus. (For the record, Trump later called this line of questioning “sarcastic” and said he never once asked anyone to actually inject disinfectant into their body.) 

    Sometimes, he doesn’t ask a question, but instead calls people up to the microphone to “say a few words.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway were both called up to great fanfare at a Fort Wayne rally the day before the 2018 election. And Mike Braun, our then-candidate and now senator, was welcomed on stage at multiple events,  iconic blue shirt and all. Improvisational theatre training should be a prerequisite for senior staff and all future political endorsements. 

    Away from the campaign trail, Trump asked three players and the chairman of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to, you guessed it, “say a few words,” during a victory celebration in the Rose Garden. And who could forget when Trump put every single member of his cabinet on the spot, “Apprentice” style, to share their thoughts on the first six months of the administration? 

    Trump puts the media on the spot, too, by demanding they turn the camera to show crowd sizes at rallies or dismissing their questions as “unfair” as he did with Fox New Radio’s Jon Decker on Monday. I have yet to hear a question come from Decker in over 10 years of knowing him that is worthy of a response, so kudos to Trump on that one. 

    So, why does Trump do it? I can’t pretend to understand his psyche (I’m not a paid television commentator, after all). But I do have a few ideas. One idea is that the hard, impossible to answer, questions are often asked of senior administration officials as a way to provide Trump cover. Think I’m crazy? He/she agrees! Trump’s questioning of Acting Under Secretary Bryan fits into this category.  

    Another idea is he likes to lend the Trump aura, free of charge, to those around him from time to time. For all the grief he gets for his ego, Trump regularly steps aside and welcomes others to the podium to get their moment in the spotlight. Yet another idea is that he thinks the public grillings demonstrate leadership and show curiosity. His critics knock him for lacking intellectual heft, so what better way to show he’s thinking an issue through than to ask questions in front of everyone? More transparency and fewer leaks could put the New York Times out of business. 

    Come to think of it, we may have just figured out the opening exhibit at the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum. Step right up and say a few words. The television cameras are rolling and the hot lights are glowing. You’re on the spot. 

    Pete Seat is a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush and campaign spokesman for former Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Senator Dan Coats. Currently he is a vice president with Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis. He is also an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and author of the 2014 book,“The War on Millennials.”