Does President Donald Trump sometimes call in with his reactions to what he reads in Playbook? Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, who are up at 4 a.m. every morning putting it together through red-eyed G-chats, won’t quite say.
With American politics feeling like an hourly lurch between existential crisis and unprecedented news, they’re now producing Playbook twice a day—and they could probably fill an evening edition if they really had to.
Now Palmer and Sherman are writing a book on the Trump era from the perspective of Congress, where both spent years reporting on before they took over Playbook a year ago. Already, they’re seeing noticeable changes to the Washington ecosystem, and not just because so far this president seems to want to talk to rank-and-file members of his party in Congress, in a big change from Barack Obama.
That’s meant noticeable changes to the ecosystem—cable news programs camping out on Capitol Hill, members of Congress cramming to get on camera, regardless of dubious presidential tweets like the one on Wednesday morning, “The W.H. is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching T.V.”
“We’ve heard countless stories about members of Congress saying they’ve walked into the White House and the president is like, ‘Good job on CNN, MSNBC, whatever,’” Sherman said, when I asked him for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast what people aren’t seeing about how Trump does business. Trump “watches a lot of cable, clearly—or else he wouldn’t know that. So daytime cable is like the main event now.”
“You have the rank and file and then Congressman X from nowhere is often asked to the White House to talk about whatever he was talking about,” Palmer said.
Maybe some of that comes from a lifetime running resorts, Palmer suggested.
“Someone was telling us about Mar-a-Lago—when he goes back, he wants to know how many covers have been turned. He’s been in the hospitality industry for so long, it’s all about service in some ways and it’s knowing who your customers are and all that kind of stuff. And you can see that kind of servicing members of Congress in a different way than maybe the typical politician,” she said.
So much has changed, been disrupted, been scrambled in the year since Palmer and Sherman, along with their compatriot Daniel Lippman, took over, but what’s particularly bracing for them as daily power readers is how news is now being produced and consumed at the speed of a superball soaked in espresso.
“We were talking to a source recently who was talking about a legislative item and that the heat that the right would give over this legislative item,” Sherman said, “we kind of just all came to the conclusion whatever the heat is, it’s only a day story, which is just so different than everything that we’ve come to know about politics in Washington.”
That leaves members of the House and Senate, especially Republicans who were wary of Trump throughout the campaign and never really expected or wanted him to win, in a weird spot. Asking whether they like or respect Trump, Palmer and Sherman say, maybe isn’t the right way to think about a transactional group of politicians who are primarily looking out for their own political interests.
“Many members of Congress deal in the immediate, right? So if they have to respect him at the moment, they do. I think actually that’s one thing that gets overstated is yes, all of the hot lights are on the White House, but Congress kind of exists in a bubble in a lot of senses,” Sherman said.
“I haven’t asked all 435 members of Congress if they respect Donald Trump. I think you get varying answers on every single different day based on what’s happening right then and there,” Palmer said. “I think they do definitely respect the fact that he beats all of the odds and was elected president.”
During his 2016 campaign, Trump did very little to campaign for other Republicans, though many were carried to victory on his unexpected coattails. Now for 2018, with the president’s approval ratings deep underwater, they’ll have to decide what to do.
There’s no doubt that Trump is more popular in many of these districts than the members of Congress who represent them, and some of those will probably be begging for his help on the trail. But that same dynamic, Sherman said, leaves Republicans mystified as to why nothing has ever come of the grand Obamacare repeal rally tour that the White House has repeatedly teased.
“Members of Congress who are Republican say, ‘If the president just did very tightly trained rallies where he rallied people to his side and rallied constituents…’” he said.
Then again, Palmer said, few want to risk being stuck on stage if Trump veers wildly in one of his trademark rally rants and rambles.
“The cost-benefit of analysis of if he’s not going to stay on script to come to your district,” Palmer said, “that’s a tricky equation.”