WASHINGTON – Around 6:30 each evening, Secret Service agents gather in the dim hallways of the West Wing to escort Donald Trump home.
For some presidents, the short walk between the Oval Office and the White House residence upstairs is a lifeline to family and a semblance of normal life. Others have used the grand residence for late night entertaining and deal-making with lawmakers.
For Trump, life in the White House residence is so far a largely solitary existence. With his wife and youngest son living in New York, and his grown children busy with their young families, Trump’s first evenings have been spent largely alone, tethered to the outside world only by his phone and his television. The dramatic change of scenery has left the 70-year-old president, a known creature of habit, a little adrift in the evenings, according to one person who spoke with him recently.
Another regular contact described the president as still adjusting to this new digs and his somewhat more confined schedule. His advisers initially said they expected him to spend his evenings holding working dinners, like one scheduled Thursday with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
While Trump has marveled at the history and beauty of his new home, “it’s still government housing,” said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a friend of the president’s.
A half-dozen other friends, advisers and associates of the president spoke about his first weeks in the White House on the condition of anonymity in order to detail private conversations.
The interviews underscore the relatively large circle of people who have spoken with the new president, despite the busy schedule and enormous pressures of the job. Trump has been spending his nights making and taking calls to an expanding network of old friends, lawmakers and others.
Calls often come in to Trump’s personal cellphone, which he fought staff and his security team to keep. Rather than hold lengthy conversations on the unsecured line, Trump often calls people back on other lines, sometimes going through the White House switchboard.
The president, who says he’s sleeping four or five hours a night, is dialing up associates late at night and early in the morning, before he returns to the West Wing. He recently reached House Speaker Paul Ryan while the Wisconsin Republican was in the middle of an early morning workout.
Ryan has become a more frequent point of contact for the president, who has been touting his improved relationship with the speaker in conversations with advisers and associates. Their discussions are said to largely focus on policy, including health care and tax reform, the latter an issue where the speaker’s office is trying to bring the White House closer to House Republicans’ position.
Trump has privately conceded some early missteps after a turbulent start to his term, including the flawed rollout of his controversial refugee and immigration plan and a lack of clear lanes for his top advisers. But despite public opinion polls showing less than 50 percent of Americans approve of his presidency thus far, Trump has sounded confident about his standing.
During one late night discussion, Trump was already talking about seeking a second term. When an associate suggested he was weakening Democrats by usurping some of the party’s best policy ideas, the president readily agreed.
When he isn’t talking about his early presidency, Trump – who is sometimes joined by his longtime security chief, Keith Schiller – is often watching others talk.
The president’s advisers have tried to curb his cable news consumption during the workday. But there are no limits when the president returns to the residence. During another recent telephone conversation, Trump briefly put down the phone so he could turn up the volume on a CNN report. When he returned to the call, he was complaining about “fake news.”
In some ways, his new lifestyle in the White House resembles the routines he created during decades living atop Trump Tower. He long has preferred the comforts of home, eschewing much of Manhattan’s social scene in favor of evenings in his penthouse with close friends, family and his television.
First lady Melania Trump and the couple’s 10-year-old son, Barron, are staying in New York at least until the end of the school year. Mrs. Trump hasn’t been seen in Washington since the weekend of the president’s inauguration, and Trump has yet to return to New York. The Trumps did spend last weekend together at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s palatial South Florida club.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, made the move to Washington, but have focused on getting their young family settled into life in a new city. The couple also spend some evenings dining with business and political contacts.
Trump is returning to Mar-a-Lago again on Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and may keep making weekend trips for the rest of the month. Friends who saw the president at the coastal estate last weekend described him as relaxed, particularly at a black tie gala for the Red Cross and on the golf course with some of his regular playing partners.
Despite Trump’s weekend escapes, advisers say he has taken to the White House. He’s told associates it feels like a movie set and has spent time making sure it looks up to his standards, according to one person who has been in contact with him. The Trumps have hired Tham Kannalikham, a low-profile interior designer, to help put their touch on the White House residence.
During a recent interview with Fox News, Trump said he was walking into the main entrance of the White House one day and said to himself, “This is sort of amazing.”
“It’s like a surreal experience, in a certain way,” Trump said. “But you have to get over it.”
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