For Trump, opulence, golf and nuclear threat

By Tara McKelvey
BBC White House Correspondent, Bedminster

  • Published
A velvet rope separates reporters from the man with the nuclear codesImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
A velvet rope separates reporters from the man with the US nuclear codes

US President Donald Trump usually keeps reporters at a distance. This week, however, members of the press pool were offered a glimpse at his private world.

Trump National Golf Club smells like freshly mown grass. It has 18-hole courses, wooden bridges and silky-looking sandpits (one had a rake lying next to it).

It's easy to see why he likes the place. It's lovely - and was designed as a monument to him.

On Thursday afternoon he spoke with reporters in front of a clubhouse filled with Trump memorabilia. In that spot and later in a nearby building, he discussed North Korea, leak investigations and Afghanistan.

It was an unusually candid exchange, providing reporters with a behind-the-scenes look at his club as well as insight into how he sees the world. Since the election, only a small number of reporters have been allowed into the club, which reportedly charges initiation fees of up to $350,000 (£270,000).

He has been spending time here in August while the White House is being renovated.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Secret Service scan the horizon outside a room where Trump holds a meeting

I am among members of a press pool, a group of about a dozen photographers, writers and soundmen who travel with the president and send reports to colleagues.

The material we document is distributed to the public through radio and TV stations, websites and newspapers across the US.

Pool duty, said Anita Kumar, one of my colleagues from McClatchy Newspapers, is "the best and worst job". You spend hours sitting in a van, waiting for the president. Sometimes you see history unfold or hear surprising things.

On this day, Mr Trump greets reporters in front of the clubhouse - apparently he thinks the entrance looks like 10 Downing Street.

Image caption,
Pool reporters file their copy and watch CNN as the information is relayed to the American public
Image source, Reuters

Later that afternoon he sits in the centre of a table with HR McMaster, the national security adviser, on his right, and Mike Pence, the vice-president, on his left.

The stakes are enormous: the possibility of nuclear war hangs in the balance, with threats from the North Koreans and Mr Trump himself.

Yet he seems at ease in his surroundings and happy to spend the afternoon with the reporters.

Others in the room seem less relaxed. As Mr Trump speaks, Mr McMaster glances at his watch.

The issue of leaks and other matters - at least in Mr Trump's interpretation - centres on him.

In this way the subject is like his foreign policy - and his domestic policy, too: he casts himself in a starring role.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Trump listens to a pool reporter's question while seated beside (from left) McMaster, Pence and Pompeo

Describing Afghanistan, he says: "I took over a mess." He promises the reporters he'd make it "less messy", though he doesn't explain how. He speaks about his call to ban transgender soldiers: "I've had great support from that community," he says. "I got a lot of votes."

Discussing North Korea, Mr Trump also makes things personal. He says if Kim Jong-un "does something in Guam", then the North Korean leader would face consequences, "the likes of which nobody has seen before".

Regarding the leaks, Mr Trump is gentle. "They're all fighting for love," he says about the White House officials who tell reporters things they shouldn't - sometimes to raise their own status or to put down colleagues.

Trump adds: "I'm somewhat honoured." He describes the leaks in a way that contributes to palace intrigue, a fitting subject in his setting. The golf club is certainly palatial.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The White House is being renovated while Trump is away

He acquired the property, a piece of New Jersey land with rolling hills and trees, about 45 miles (72km) from Manhattan, in 2002 and at one point said he would like to be buried there.

The club features a pool with turquoise-blue water and a food truck in the car park for workers (pulled-pork sandwiches are on the menu ).

Inside the clubhouse, walls are decorated with magazines that feature Mr Trump: Bloomberg Businessweek (the 2011 caption said: "Seriously?"); New York Times Magazine and Golf Inc.

A hardback edition of Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools sits on a bookshelf, and the bar is filled with photos of Mr Trump and friends with '80s-style haircuts.

A soundtrack from that era plays, featuring Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

The main room has eight chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling windows, a dance floor and a Blue Bunny freezer (the ice-cream sandwiches are rock solid).

Some of the golfers ignore the presidential drama: a man walks across a carpeted floor in golf shoes, while the commander-in-chief discusses North Korea.

Meanwhile, locals say they like his style.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A Secret Service agent patrols the golf course

Kim Duffy, a petrol pump attendant who works near the club, said: "He needs to be strong."

Her garage has a military-style poster: "ISIS Beware. We Don't Work for Your Brother Anymore," showing disdain for former President Barack Obama and admiration for Mr Trump.

Yet others seem ambivalent. One golfer, a woman in a dark-pink miniskirt, said she's seen the president and his entourage pass by when she was sitting on a patio, adding: "It was surreal."

The mixture of foreign policy, golf and veiled threats about nuclear war is unprecedented and jarring.

Yet this is Trump's world.

For the moment at least, it is also the world that reporters - and all Americans - inhabit.