Eric Schultz, a senior aide to then-President Barack Obama, delivered the line with a perfect deadpan. The delivery, including the glance toward reporters, summed up the Obama administration’s view about hobnobbing with Congress.
“On Thursday, the president and first lady will attend the Congressional Ball at the White House,” Schultz said on Dec. 2, pausing for a second before delivering the punchline — “one of our favorites.” Reporters gathered in the White House briefing room responded with a combination of knowing chuckles, groans and hoots.
It conjured up a scene from the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when Obama revealed his feelings about socializing with lawmakers.
“Some folks still think I don’t spend enough time with Congress,” Obama joked at the annual gala. “‘Why don’t you have a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t ‘you’ get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
Fast forward nearly two months from Schultz’s telling remark. The new president, Donald Trump, spent his first two full days of work doing what his predecessor rarely did. Trump used the White House, its many ornate rooms and the power of the Oval Office, to chat up senior lawmakers from both parties, and to impress corporate executives and union workers.
Obama clung to his senior staff and thick briefing books. But Trump kicked off his tenure with what amounts to a charm offensive, bringing in CEOs and congressional leaders on Monday and Tuesday.
Playing the room
He used the showy State Dining Room to chat with House and Senate brass on Monday as rain fell outside. On a credenza, an assortment of finger foods were available, including meatballs, shrimp cocktail and sliders.
Journalists who were allowed into the room captured pictures of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer chatting with Trump. Off to the side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaned over and said something quietly to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
On Monday evening, McConnell returned to the Capitol and told reporters he enjoyed the president and Schumer trading notes on everyone they knew in New York, their shared home state.
The State Dining Room was all laughs when a press pool entered to find Trump and the senior Republicans and Democrats seated around a massive table. “We’re about to make a deal,” the new president joked.
“He’s taking every ... opportunity to forge strong bonds with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.
On Tuesday morning, the president used the stately Roosevelt Room to host U.S. auto industry executives — just a day earlier, he had done the same with other private-sector honchos.
As the meeting got started, the president, whom House Speaker Paul D. Ryan says wants to push “an ambitious agenda,” employed chivalry and humor.
As his high-powered breakfast guests took their seats, Trump played the role of gentleman, holding General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s chair.
“Let me help you with that,” said the victorious presidential candidate, whose campaign trail comments and a leaked “Access Hollywood” video caused millions of women around the globe to protest last Saturday.
Then came more humor that got a big laugh from the car executives, when the president suggested they go around the table for introductions: “I’ll start. I’m Donald Trump.”
Over the last eight years, Obama and his aides hosted private-sector officials and stakeholders from the nonprofit world regularly. But the 44th president was often criticized for not socializing more with lawmakers, though his top aides near the end essentially argued a president should not have to — and expressed their belief that Republicans poisoned the relationship from the start.
George Mason University public policy professor James Pfiffner wrote in his book “The Modern Presidency” that “presidents are … well-advised to ‘court’ Congress, that is, build up a reservoir of goodwill that can be called upon when it is needed in a close vote.”
Former presidents have invited members to the executive mansion for dinner, cocktail hours, movie-viewing in its theater — Harry Truman even hosted poker games, Pfiffner noted. “These were not occasions for arm-twisting or lobbying for specific votes, but rather for low-key socializing and building up the rapport that might help in later situations,” he wrote.
The 45th chief executive seems to realize that all jokes are funnier — and more memorable — coming from POTUS inside the walls of the executive mansion. (Consider Obama’s highlight reel of “dad jokes” for instance.)
On a mission
But the meetings with lawmakers and the titans of industry haven’t been merely social occasions. During the Monday evening session, the president “made it clear” to congressional leaders that “he expects no delays in getting his agenda through Congress and out of Washington,” Spicer said Tuesday.
Trump and his team clearly believe the meetings are a strong suit of the new president. Spicer told reporters Tuesday he wants to expand them by bringing in governors and other factions from Capitol Hill.
Though he delivered that stern message about the agenda to congressional leaders this week, Spicer described Trump as largely treating the meetings like a listening tour.
The new president enjoys “hearing the feedback” of corporate bosses, lawmakers and union workers, Spicer said, noting that Trump wants their ideas on easing regulations, creating jobs and bolstering the U.S. manufacturing sector.