August 17, 2017

Election Night from inside the White House

By Don Surber
The alcohol began flowing before 7:30 p.m. The chicken fingers and waffle fries (but not from Chick fil-A, peasants) had just arrived. For two years, they had called Hillary the PIW — president in waiting. Soon it would be official.

Or so a man who was there, White House communications underling Pat Cunnane, wrote in New Yorker:

The returns started rolling in shortly after the first of the chicken fingers had vanished. Donald Trump was up in the Electoral College, 19–3. I turned to the group and joked, “Oh no, we’re losing!” Of course, we were fine. But it was a little disturbing to see the actual check mark of victory next to his face.

The beer and bourbon flowed. Some of the early returns from the bigger states started appearing on the screen. Too close to call. Trump up. No problem: the Democratic-leaning counties hadn’t reported yet. Ohio. Florida. North Carolina. We did what any sports fan does when he needs to regain the mojo. We switched positions. Around 9 p.m., a group of us went into the Rose Garden and did breathing exercises.

Breathing exercises?

At 10:21 p.m., somebody got a notification that Ohio was called for Trump. The remaining viewers in Josh’s office were pacing nervously. One of the longtime White House press aides, Peter Velz, left to comfort a despondent staffer. Behind closed doors, away from the news, they began reading aloud a history of the White House.

These are the people who were the front line if the balloon went up. And they needed safe spaces over an election?

At 11:07 p.m., North Carolina was called. I left to find David Simas, the political director at the White House, who was analyzing the results as a number of other staffers huddled around his conference table, staring at a torrent of tweets. Hoping for reassurances, I found only disbelief and grim predictions. I tried to imagine what the President might say if the night wore on like this, but I couldn’t hear his voice.

The bubble was turning into a bunker.

At 11:23 p.m., Chris Christie, then responsible for leading the potential Trump transition, called the woman seated next to me. There was a deep silence following the call. A small blue fish swam in circles on a nearby desk. 

Christie must have said, “Now what are the measurements of those windows in the Oval Office again?”

At 11:30 p.m., Simas said that Hillary had a 33 percent chance of winning but that “everything has to go right on a night where nothing has gone right.”

President In Waiting? She will have to wait another four years, mate. Maybe eight.

We woke up to a gloomy, rainy day. It was fitting, but also a bit much—like we were living a movie with a lazy script. In the basement of the West Wing, gallows humor was a way to cope with the shock. I heard a White House aide facetiously plead with a counterterrorism staffer, “Please tell me it was the Russians.”

Which explains last week’s talking point about the election.

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Later, Cunnane broke down crying in front of President Obama.

We now know the name of Pajama Boy.

President Kennedy had the best and the brightest.

President Obama had the vain and the wussiest.

Don Surber is a retired newspaperman living in Poca, West Virginia. In July, he published Trump the Press on Amazon, a look at how the experts got the Republican nomination wrong. Next month, he will soon publish Trump the Establishment, a sequel on the general election.