Bridgewater, New Jersey (CNN)The President’s two unscripted appearances before the press here Thursday revealed a commander in chief with a well of pent up opinions looking for an escape.
As Donald Trump’s presidency enters a new phase — with an order-minded chief of staff and a West Wing reorganization on the horizon — the President seemed eager to return to the looser style that helped him win.
In Washington, the President has been loathe to engage in public with reporters. He departed the White House last week having held fewer solo news conferences than any of his recent predecessors.
His events on Thursday don’t qualify as news conferences — only the small group of pool reporters were present, and he wasn’t standing behind a presidential podium.
But on the brick steps of his clubhouse and inside one of his banquet rooms, Trump engaged publicly with the press more than he has in months. He made eye contact with reporters and encouraged more questions. He didn’t balk at even the most uncomfortable topics, like the FBI raid on his former campaign manager’s home or his schoolyard feud with his own attorney general.
In total, Trump took more than 30 questions from reporters bused onto his golf compound, ostensibly there to witness him being briefed about national security.
He hadn’t been subjected to that level of interrogation since a freewheeling East Room news conference a month into his presidency.
There were glimmers of the candidate who, during last year’s presidential campaign, answered question after question from his golf cart as reporters pursued him around his Scotland course.
Seemingly every festering issue of his presidency was thrust into plain view, with moments both awkward and outrageous that, even 200 days into Trump’s norm-busting presidency, managed to astonish.
Asked about two high-ranking members of his own party, Trump sniffed.
“It’s fine,” was all Trump could muster to describe his relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse him who has withstood taunts from the President for weeks.
“It is what it is,” Trump shrugged. “It’s fine.”
“All I hear is ‘repeal and replace,’ ” Trump said. “And then I get there, and I said, ‘Where’s the bill, I want to sign it,’ first day.”
“And they don’t have it,” he sighed, with all the indignation of a person who’s just learned their dry-cleaning was lost.
He was more enthusiastic about his embattled national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has been subject of a right-wing assault led, his allies believe, by Trump’s own strategist Steve Bannon.
“He’s our friend. He’s my friend,” Trump said as McMaster sat feet away, his jaw set. “And he’s a very talented man. I like him and I respect him.”
All of Trump’s simmering resentments emerged, one after the other, in his answers to questions about foreign and domestic policy.
Former President Barack Obama, he said, didn’t want to talk about North Korea.
“But I talk. It’s about time,” he said. “Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to do it.”
Hillary Clinton, he said, was a lackluster candidate who earned her loss on her own — and wasn’t aided by the Russian interference campaign that US intelligence officials have identified as meant to help Trump.
“Look, I won because I suppose I was a much better candidate than her,” Trump said. “I won because I went to Wisconsin. I went to Michigan. I won Pennsylvania. I fought a smart battle. That’s why I won.”
Aides have said they continually look for ways to allow Trump to feel himself in a job that’s placed him outside him comfort zone. The raucous re-election campaign rallies he’s already begun convening are meant, in part, as a way to elevate his mood.
This weekend, he’ll return for the first time as president to Trump Tower — a homecoming that aides say he is eagerly anticipating.
His new top aide, John Kelly, has placed sharp curbs on who engages with the President, even at his private club. No longer can old friends reach him easily or informal advisers drop by his office.
Perhaps as a result, Trump on Thursday seemed eager to talk.
Twenty minutes into Trump’s second unconstrained question-and-answer session, his newly installed press secretary signaled it was time for him to stop.
“One more question,” read the sign held aloft by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Trump kept going.