It was meant to be a relatively brief photo op to celebrate a relatively modest trade agreement with the Chinese.
But President Trump has never been one to honor “brief” when combined with “photo op,” much less risk accusations of modesty.
So as four Chinese government ministers and senior trade officials stood like blank-faced statues beside him in the gilded East Room, Trump began talking. And talking.
There’s “the great Lou Dobbs” in the front row, Trump said, adding that the Fox Business Network host “always liked me because he’s smart.”
“Tremendous audience. Everybody in this room watches,” Trump said, recounting the times Dobbs praised Trump as the greatest president ever, “even better than Reagan.” Or Lincoln. Or Washington, the president added.
Trump gave shout-outs to dignitaries from Congress, from Wall Street, from his Cabinet and elsewhere. He offered effusive comments about dozens of friends and allies before he let the Chinese officials — who had flown across the world to sign the trade deal — speak.
There was lavish praise for Nixon-era diplomat Henry Kissinger, whom Trump pronounced “impressed” with the deal. He hailed casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, “tremendous supporters of us and the Republican Party.”
He named members of Congress, thanking them one at a time for their support against the “hoax” impeachment battle, while urging them to keep up the fight.
He talked about South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s golf game, assuring everyone it was better than they might realize. He gave a cheery nod to the new Boeing chief executive, David Calhoun, telling him the 737 Max crashes were “not your fault” while reassuring that Calhoun could fix the company.
The teleprompter in front of Trump was a mere suggestion. Trump, who has been furious and anxious over the ongoing impeachment proceedings, was returning to his place of comfort, a microphone and a captive audience.
The president has turned events of almost every kind into stream-of-consciousness extravaganzas like this one. Often, foreign leaders and others invited to share the stage with him are left to stand silently while Trump ruminates over any number of domestic grievances and unrelated anecdotes.
At the NATO summit in London in December, the world caught a glimpse of what leaders forced to endure Trump’s monologues were actually thinking. A trio of allies was captured on video laughing among themselves hours later after sitting through marathon photo ops with Trump.
The laughs have hardly chastened the president. On Wednesday, he seemed intent on stealing attention from Congress for as long he could as the House named impeachment managers and prepared to send articles to the Senate.
It ultimately was a losing battle for Trump. After 15 minutes or so, cable news networks began showing a split screen with Trump and the House. Soon, even Fox News and C-Span had cut away from live coverage at the White House.
Somewhere around Minute 38, one of the many Chinese reporters squished in the back of the room behind the many television cameras asked another if Trump planned to go on forever. The other reporter shook his head incredulously before answering yes.
When Trump ran out of people in the room to cite, he began talking about those who weren’t there.
“Where’s Rupert? Is Rupert not here?” Trump asked, referring to Rupert Murdoch, complaining that the owner of his favorite television network was selling some of his assets to a group “that doesn’t like Trump as much.” (The Murdoch family retains control of Fox News after selling its entertainment properties to Disney last year.)
As the clock ticked past 1 p.m., an hour and 13 minutes after Trump had begun talking, there were notable rumblings and a message on the teleprompter instructing Trump and Vice Premier Liu He to walk to the desks that had been set up to sign the trade pact.
Trump and Liu finally signed the documents, before posing for the pictures that the event was meant to showcase.
Then it was off to lunch in the State Dining Room for the assembled dignitaries as a pianist played “What a Wonderful World.”
It’s not known whether the food had gotten cold.