2011’s Grand Harmonic Convergence

March 12, 2016 4:57 p.m.

The New York Times is out with a fascinating look at what led to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the years of spadework and, in the Times telling, a night of humiliation in 2011 that helped galvanize Trump’s drive for power and respect in the political world. The night is the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, April 30th, 2011. Trump has already begun his bid to put a footprint in the political world by trying to become the leader of the ‘birther’ movement, which is to say, the tribal leader of idiots. So he’s come as a guest to the White House Correspondents Association dinner, which makes sense since it is where celebrity and political power meet up every year.

But Donald gets much more than he bargained for.

For backers of President Obama, watching him deliver a comedic routine – which every president does at this dinner – is a unique treat. Obama has impeccable comedic timing and an uncanny amount of what the French call sang froid – coolness under pressure. As comedy, it is biting.

Here is how the Times captures that evening …

Donald J. Trump arrived at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April 2011, reveling in the moment as he mingled with the political luminaries who gathered at the Washington Hilton. He made his way to his seat beside his host, Lally Weymouth, the journalist and socialite daughter of Katharine Graham, longtime publisher of The Washington Post.

A short while later, the humiliation started.

The annual dinner features a lighthearted speech from the president; that year, President Obama chose Mr. Trump, then flirting with his own presidential bid, as a punch line.

He lampooned Mr. Trump’s gaudy taste in décor. He ridiculed his fixation on false rumors that the president had been born in Kenya. He belittled his reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Mr. Trump at first offered a drawn smile, then a game wave of the hand. But as the president’s mocking of him continued and people at other tables craned their necks to gauge his reaction, Mr. Trump hunched forward with a frozen grimace.

After the dinner ended, Mr. Trump quickly left, appearing bruised. He was “incredibly gracious and engaged on the way in,” recalled Marcus Brauchli, then the executive editor of The Washington Post, but departed “with maximum efficiency.”

This pretty much matches what I remember sitting in the room – yes, in a table basically against the back wall – that night. Then TPMer Evan McMorris-Santoro actually caught up with Trump on the way out and filed this report.

And here’s the critical part, how the Times said it affected Trump …

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That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.

Here’s one of the jabs from the President’s monologue that apparently got so under Trump’s skin …

Donald Trump is here tonight! (Laughter and applause.) Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. (Laughter.) … [A]ll kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter.) For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice — (laughter) — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter.) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter.) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.

Here’s video of that part of the monologue

But here’s a part of the story no one has yet noted.

Above I mentioned Obama’s sang froid. After watching this all transpire down in Washington, I was back in my apartment in New York the next evening when the first hints started to emerge about what President Obama would announce later that evening: the death of Osama bin Laden. Only a few hours before Obama rattled off his jokes Saturday evening, he had given the final sign off on what was probably his single most momentous decision as President: sending a special forces raid deep into Pakistan to capture or kill the man whose catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States had hung over the country for almost a decade.

So as Obama was rattling off his jokes, the die had already cast. The situation largely out of his hands. As I rummaged through my memory then and now, there are numerous parts of the evening that are fascinating to consider in retrospect, not least of which is Obama’s joking reference to decisions that would “keep me up at night.” But the main one, as numerous commentators noted at the time, is the man’s poker face, his sang froid. As the President’s critics have long rightly noted, the raid on the bin Laden compound was the product of the work of countless members of the Intelligence Community who developed the lead on his whereabouts and the Navy Seals who conducted the raid. But the final decision was Obama. And he was accountable for the result – one which might well have ended his presidency and did likely play some role in his reelection 18 months later.

Now we know that even more was afoot that night: the injuries to Trump’s pride that night apparently propelled us forward to this moment as he stands at the verge of becoming the leader of the Republican party.

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