WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday, President Trump came off the 18th hole of his golf course here and walked into the club house’s Grill Room. Waiters scurried to bring menus and drinks to a large round table reserved for him as he stopped to shake hands and make small talk with members eating lunch.
The president, in black pants and a white golf shirt, sat down with his golf partners for the day, including his son Eric and the pro-golfer Jim Herman. He took off his white hat, “45” emblazoned in black on the side, ordered a salad and began talking politics to his golf partners.
Usually I cover national security in the Washington bureau, but I spent the past week in Florida covering the president’s Christmas vacation to give my colleagues on the White House beat the chance to take some time off. It’s a familiar assignment for me; I also covered Barack Obama’s vacations in Hawaii in 2014 and 2016.
Until Thursday, my time in Florida had been quiet. But that afternoon, I went to Mr. Trump’s golf club with his longtime confidant Christopher Ruddy, who had invited me for lunch. We were seated at a table next to the president and a few minutes into our meal, Mr. Ruddy, who runs the conservative website and television channel Newsmax, went over to say hello to Mr. Trump. The president appeared excited to see Mr. Ruddy, who often goes on cable television to defend him.
I stood behind Mr. Ruddy, who told the president that Mike Schmidt from The New York Times was with him. As I made eye contact with the president, he appeared confused about who I was and why I was there. I walked up, shook his hand and reminded him that I had interviewed him in July in the Oval Office along with two of my colleagues, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker. He said he remembered me and, despite the fact that we’re “the failing New York Times,” he thought we had treated him fairly.
The president believes he is his best spokesman, and he immediately began touting the landmark tax legislation he signed into law last week. I was convinced that the longer I talked with him, the more comfortable he would be with me and the more likely he would be to allow me to interview him. So I got into a catcher’s squat next to his chair, conveying to him that I was listening intently but also forcing him to look down at me while he talked, which kept him from being distracted by the others at the table.
It’s been 20 years since I was a catcher in Little League, and a few minutes into our conversation my legs began to ache. But I knew I couldn’t stand up while I had the president one-on-one.
I began to think about what had happened a day earlier. On Wednesday, the president invited the press to a local fire department, where he shook hands with emergency medical workers. He said little of note, but I sensed from watching him that he was bored by vacation and wanted to engage with the news media.
With that in mind, I told him that I thought what he was saying was new and interesting and that I wanted to interview him about it. He said he liked the idea and promised that we would talk after he finished lunch. I went back to my table with Mr. Ruddy and two other guests he had for lunch: Andrew J. Stein, a former Manhattan borough president, and Lee Lipton, a local restaurant owner.
Five minutes later, I heard the president call my name.
“Michael, come on, Michael,” he said as he stood up.
“Come on, sit over there,” he said as he motioned to a large empty table.
We sat down next to each other, I asked whether he was O.K. with me recording, he agreed and we were off. Mr. Trump immediately told me that there was no collusion between his associates and Russia’s effort to influence the election — something he would repeat 15 more times during the interview.
It is unusual to land an interview with the president, but even more rare for a reporter to get him one-on-one. I knew that what I was doing was not going to go over well with the White House press office, which hates being blindsided by the president making news. But for much of the next half-hour, Mr. Trump and I sat alone.
During our conversation in July, I learned the challenges this president poses in interviews. He can jump from an issue like the Russia investigation to a policy matter before going off on a tangent about something like his golf game. If you try to interrupt him, he often continues talking. Given this, I employed a strategy in which I asked questions about the most pressing issues of his presidency and then allowed him to talk.
Some readers criticized my approach, saying I should have asked more follow-up questions. I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements. It was the best way to learn as much as possible about the president’s mind-set and his views on issues like North Korea.
In the interview, the president did make news. He contradicted members of his own party, saying he believes the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, will treat him fairly. He said for the first time explicitly that he had gone soft on trade with China in the hopes that Beijing would help put pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. And he said that he never thought Roy Moore would win the Senate race in Alabama and that he had endorsed Mr. Moore only out of obligation.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Trump, who had asked about my golf game, told me that I should go out and play his course that afternoon. I told him I would not do that and I needed to file a story off the interview on deadline. He asked me to treat him fairly, we shook hands and I headed for my rental car. As I drove away from the club, I called my editors to tell them I had just spent half an hour alone with the president.
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