When President Barack Obama felt he needed to show off his common touch, he’d go for cheeseburgers at Ray’s Hell Burger — where he treated the Russian president to an onion-jalapeño-and-mushroom-topped patty — or to Five Guys, where he ordered burgers for his staff in front of gawking lunchtime diners in May 2009.
President Donald Trump’s decision to stick to the restaurant inside his Pennsylvania Avenue property two blocks from the White House underscores his deep and growing isolation.
In his 14 months as president, Trump hasn’t yet followed his predecessors’ habit of dropping by local watering holes (even though he’s made no secret of his love for junk food) or public service events either at home or on the road. He hasn’t gone to a baseball game or stopped at a soup kitchen. On Saturday, he ventured out of the White House to attend the annual Gridiron Dinner, taking a baby step into Washington’s elite social scene. But his appearance at the white-tie event did little to bring him closer to ordinary Americans.
Outside Washington, Trump follows a careful routine of visiting factories or local law enforcement headquarters. When he stopped recently in Parkland, Florida, on his way to Mar-a-Lago, he took a smiling photo with a girl who had been shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a sharp contrast to images of Obama sitting in a small room with his head in his hands grieving with the parents of first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Trump promised the night of his victory to govern on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.” Yet as president, he rarely comes into contact with regular people except in the structured setting of the White House or during tightly orchestrated events set up by staff, including a West Wing listening session last month with Stoneman Douglas families that featured some attendees who were critical of his proposals. His announcement last week of new tariffs, the timing of which surprised even some senior staffers, came at a table packed with industry executives rather than at a Rust Belt steel mill.
Trump has always been more of an executive-in-chief than a uniter-in-chief. He has persisted in the habits of a celebrity, positioning himself as someone whose lifestyle is just a bit out of reach. His mingling happens chiefly at his private clubs in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia, where he is not walled off by the Secret Service.
It’s another way that Trump has obliterated the norms of the presidency, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former White House officials, Trump friends and close advisers. Rather than trying to project an air of accessibility, Trump has unapologetically stuck to his insular White House life, avoiding and more or less eliminating the optics of the president appearing in public as a citizen.
The approach keeps Trump in his comfort zone but makes it harder for him to do the work of being president — both when it comes to bridging divides on polarizing issues like immigration and selling highly partisan victories like his December tax reform legislation. And in recent weeks, Trump’s growing paranoia and profound frustration with his staff have further isolated him, according to aides, who describe the president as deeply unpredictable and increasingly unwilling to listen to many of his top advisers.
“President Trump has never lived a governing life before the White House. When you lead an institution and you have to govern, you create a climate of invitation. You invite people to be part of the initiative rather than dictate,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “If you come from the background of running a private company without a challenging board of directors or shareholders, that is much different than having to build coalitions. That has been a challenge for him.”
Bush spent about six weeks visiting different states following one State of the Union to pump up support for his policy to-do list, like the No Child Left Behind Law and tax cuts, Card said. Obama similarly traveled to promote the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus plan, and was often photographed sitting down for one-on-one conversations with people he’d traveled to meet.
While several aides and outside advisers counseled Trump to embark on a similar post-State of the Union roadshow, he delivered just one speech outside the White House in the immediate aftermath of his address to Congress, appearing alongside workers at an Ohio manufacturing plant in early February.
Unlike other presidents, Trump was famous for decades in private life before entering political life. Aside from attending events, he was rarely seen out in New York except at haunts like the 21 Club, preferring to stay at Trump Tower and order in from its grill restaurant.
As president, Trump has traveled often: A POLITICO analysis of Trump’s domestic trips in his first year shows that he’s kept par with Obama. As of mid-February, Trump had taken 44 domestic trips, excluding jaunts to his own properties and stops in the greater Washington area, while Obama took 43 trips during the equivalent period after taking office.
But, following a habit established during the campaign, when Trump would often take late-night flights back to New York rather than stay overnight out in the country, the president has stayed only once overnight domestically at a place he doesn’t own or operate — at an Omni resort in Phoenix, after holding a rally there.
And he has largely avoided visits to key blue states that supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Over the past 13 months, he has visited just seven states he didn’t carry in the election, four of which (Virginia, New Jersey, Hawaii and New York) are home to properties he or his family owns and another, Maryland, that is close to the White House and is a must-visit state for all presidents because both Joint Base Andrews and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are located there. Obama visited six states he didn’t win in the 2008 election during the same period.
Trump’s White House is only now planning a trip to California, the most populous state in the country and one that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s economy — a seeming must-stop for a president obsessed with his economic legacy, as well as his legitimacy as an elected leader.
Advisers largely have urged him to avoid visiting blue states because they consider it a waste of time, according to one former campaign official and two close White House advisers.
“I’ve told the president to stay away from California. It’s a hostile place for an American to go,” said one former campaign official. “All you have are elected officials that will just try to upstage you, and it doesn’t serve the public good to get into silly little fights with local politicians.”
With the constant pressure of the Russia investigations and the roller coaster of chaos in the West Wing, Trump has also come to view his presidency as something closer to a four-year-long cage match than an exercise in governing. Many of his close aides have adopted and reinforced that attitude as well.
“There is a lot of staff from the campaign that still holds grudges against members of Congress, because they feel like the lawmakers did not support Trump enough during the campaign,” said one former White House official. That’s led staffers, in some cases, to nix or advocate against trips to certain congressional districts as punishment — further reinforcing Trump’s bubble mentality.
The Trump administration also lacks a big-picture thinker in a high-level position to move the White House beyond its daily battles and to help staffers think strategically about the best way to approach the midterms, notch legislative wins or map out agenda items, according to current and former White House officials.
“They don’t have a Karl Rove or Barry Jackson, who can say, ‘Hey, you just pitched these ideas. Here’s how we can make them happen,’” said one former White House official, referring to two top George W. Bush advisers. “It is one thing to the next, and White House staffers all have their own fiefdoms.”
Instead, the president relies on personal friends and longtime allies for a line to the outside world, according to people close to him. Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, recently took a meeting in the Oval Office, while the president lately has resumed phone conversations with Anthony Scaramucci, the ex-White House communications director who lasted just 11 days, close White House advisers say.
Trump keeps in touch by telephone with a couple of dozen friends and allies who — almost to the person — reinforce the worldview he imbibes from watching Fox News and other cable TV shows. That includes boosters like Fox host Jeanine Pirro, to whom Trump granted an interview last month.
Multiple recipients of Trump’s phone calls describe being immediately bombarded with questions about everything from gun control to his recent speeches. While Trump rarely gives a clear indication about what he’s thinking, the regular surveys of his friends and allies often deeply influence him, according to friends.
The president also keeps tabs on life outside the White House by spending several hours each day watching cable news channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN. Valets bring him several newspapers early in the morning at his residence, including The New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and he’s installed a massive flat-screen TV in the dining room just off the Oval Office, said one close adviser to the White House.
He also keeps tabs on what his base is thinking via Twitter, where he still occasionally engages directly with strangers and retweets messages from seemingly random supporters.
Close advisers to the White House argue that Trump is merely redefining the institution of the presidency for the digital age by connecting with constituents via social media, rather than in person.
“He sees Twitter as his own TV network, and it’s bigger than any network out there,” said a former campaign official. “Through Twitter, he is communicating to his followers and speaking as a ‘we.’ It is the nuance of the language that people do not get. It’s not just to communicate but to motivate them.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But former Obama adviser David Axelrod said that not going outside the White House bubble can warp a president’s perception of how successfully he’s leading.
“If you surround yourself with acolytes and stay on your property and never actually mix with people in an organic and real way, you get what you want, but you don’t get what you need,” Axelrod said.
Even when Trump meets with everyday people, he often turns the conversation back to himself. In a recent phone call with a Parkland shooting survivor, who’d been shot in both legs, Trump told the teenager that he’d heard she was a big fan of his. “Talking to the president, I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life,” the teen, Samantha Fuentes, told The New York Times. “He didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.”
Her comments echoed claims that Trump unintentionally made the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, a special forces soldier killed in Niger, cry during a condolence call — allegations that sparked a week of angry exchanges between White House chief of staff John Kelly, who defended the president, and Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, a personal friend of Johnson’s family.
But people close to the president describe his off-the-cuff, free-verse remarks — at rallies or in smaller interactions like phone calls — as the closest the public will ever get to the real Trump. And many in the White House believe his unorthodox remarks, even when they have unintended consequences, help make him seem authentic to voters.
As the midterm elections approach, Trump is increasingly fixated on Republicans’ electoral prospects, and he regularly talks to friends about his own 2020 reelection bid. The president has always been more comfortable with campaigning than with governing, and allies say he’s eager to move back into campaign mode.
That appears to be Trump’s strong suit as a leader — always campaigning, communicating and strategizing while leaving the governing and nuances of policy debates to Capitol Hill.
Close advisers and current and former White House staff say that, despite his strength as a perpetual campaigner, he actually loves living in the White House, from the history of the Lincoln bedroom to the fleet of helicopters and airplanes at his disposal to the army of valets and chefs who attend to his every need.
Trump’s friends say being president hasn’t changed him — even as he has drastically overhauled the institution of the presidency and the notion of who that office serves.
“In some fundamental ways, he hasn’t changed at all,” said one person close to the president. “He is a guy who is who he is more than almost anyone I’ve ever met.”
Elizabeth Castillo and Ayanna Alexander contributed to this report.