Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was running late and ‘‘tied up in the Oval,’’ an assistant explained. It was late on a Thursday afternoon in June, and I had not seen Spicer since the election that would supposedly transform the accustomed reality of Washington and had unquestionably upended his.
In the political order of the pre-Trump era, Spicer represented a Washington ‘‘type’’ in good standing: an amiable plodder in his job as spokesman for the Republican National Committee and a stock character of the local ensemble. He was an eager shooter of the breeze, visible at cocktail parties and serviceable on TV. I once described the pre-Trump Spicer as being a ‘‘lower-wattage aide,’’ which he would often remind me of whenever I used to see him around the city. He never appeared overly bothered by this and spoke in a tone somewhere between stage-wincing and sarcastic pride that he even rated a mention at all.
After I had waited 45 minutes, Spicer stepped out and apologized. In the same way that a dog can take on a resemblance to its owner, Spicer has acquired a swollen, hopped-up and somewhat persecuted countenance, as if he were the physical embodiment of a news cycle on steroids. Wattage, for better or worse, was no longer an issue for Sean Spicer, who has a legitimate claim to being the most well-known White House spokesman of all time. I told him that I would come back the next day and that I wanted to interview him. ‘‘No, you’re not,’’ Spicer said quickly. ‘‘Not on the record, you’re not.’’ Then, softening, he said he would consider it but that any spotlight trained on him would not be helpful ‘‘to my current status.’’
This phrase — ‘‘current status’’ — struck me as a perfectly of-the-moment representation of the city from which Spicer had derived a creditable identity for himself until he (and it) had become otherwise occupied. To begin with, it was well known that Spicer’s ‘‘current status’’ had been a volatile predicament from pretty much the start of this volatile presidency. ‘‘Embattled’’ or ‘‘beleaguered’’ effectively became part of his job title. There was the recurring ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ character (‘‘Spicey,’’ played by Melissa McCarthy), real-time chyron shaming (CNN: ‘‘President’s spokesman says he can’t speak for the president’’) and nonstop abuse and incredulity from much of the press corps. And yet in keeping with the Trump-era rule stipulating that ‘‘the enemy of the enemy of the people is my friend,’’ the mockery directed at this blandly ubiquitous greenroom denizen — just the kind of Washington political hack Trump ran against — propelled him to a golden status with ‘‘the base.’’ At Trump’s postelection rallies across the country, the press secretary was engulfed by squealing, selfie-seeking fans and drew a fuss meriting its own headlines (‘‘Spicer Treated Like a Rock Star at Trump’s Nashville Rally’’). His daily briefings became appointment cable viewing for groupies and hate-watchers alike, at least until the White House started disallowing cameras at many of them.
But now another Trumpian rule had kicked in, which is why Spicer was careful to marvel only privately at how big he had become. To be caught trumpeting your own fame and impact is a cardinal sin in Trump’s White House, where attention is zero-sum, and Trump is not one for sharing. By early June, Spicer had apparently taken a few turns in the revolving doghouse of this administration. You lose track of who is supposedly on the outs in any given week — Reince Priebus? Steve Bannon? Kellyanne Conway? Press reports have dutifully described Trump’s efforts to humiliate him (denying Spicer, a Catholic, an audience with the pope while at the Vatican) and listing his possible replacements at the lectern (Laura Ingraham being the evergreen mention). All of this had, perversely, compounded Spicer’s ‘‘current status’’ even more by making him a strange object of fascination in the capital: Washington loves a death watch, and Spicer has been seen as a dead man talking for months — and yet he kept showing up and taking it. ‘‘You know, at first I really didn’t like Spicer,’’ Senator John McCain told me. ‘‘Now I just feel sorry for the guy.’’
CreditIllustration by Andrew Rae
Spicer cuts an oddly compelling profile in that he represents a crossover player, someone who comfortably inhabited the old Tokyo-on-the-Potomac before Godzilla was elected and put him to work. He also seems to embody a particular neurosis of Trump-era Washington, where the lizard-brain logic of making a name for yourself is colliding with the imperative of survival in the shadow of a capricious force. To some degree, Washington will always learn how to adapt to the distinct styles, personalities and expectations of a new president. It will ascertain how decisions are made, the processes leading up to them and the factors that influence a White House organization. This is next to impossible in Trumpland, mainly because ‘‘process,’’ such as it is, resides purely with the whims of one man. It is all about Trump. Everything is at his mercy, and little about it is comfortable. It creates an overwrought environment to perform in, and the closer in you have to operate, the more intense it becomes.
In early June, I stopped by the White House to see Hope Hicks, the president’s longtime aide and another close-in operator, whom I came to know during the campaign. After about 15 minutes of chatting in an ornate West Wing conference room, she asked me if I wanted to ‘‘say hello.’’ I wondered to whom. ‘‘Reince? Spicer?’’
No, she said, ‘‘Potus.’’
Huh. It’s usually not this easy to infringe on the president’s schedule.
‘‘Uh, sure,’’ I said.
She walked me in.
The president was sitting alone in a small dining room just off the Oval Office at a wooden table covered with papers. His cheeks were the color of coral, not the usual glowing orange we see when he’s framed by a screen. Trump half-stood, said hello and shook my hand. I hadn’t seen him since the election, and I congratulated him on his victory. He thanked me and pointed out that ‘‘you treated me very badly’’ during the campaign, and that the ‘‘failing New York Times’’ had been ‘‘so unfair’’ to him, but he was perfectly pleasant about it. Trump also mentioned that his popularity with his base was ‘‘looking great’’ and that he had ‘‘inherited a mess.’’
It was 12:30, but the president was not eating lunch. He was watching a recording of ‘‘Fox and Friends’’ from about four hours earlier on a large TV mounted on the wall. This was one of those stretches when Trump was tweeting a lot, including attacks on the mayor of London following a terrorist attack on the city the previous weekend. The tweets were becoming a growing topic of concern among Republicans, many of whom were urging him to stop. But like most reporters, I found his tweets far more illuminating than anything the White House press office could ever disgorge. I urged him to keep it up.
Trump assured me that he would keep tweeting. ‘‘It’s my voice,’’ Trump said of Twitter, enumerating how many millions of followers he had. ‘‘They want to take away my voice,’’ Trump said. ‘‘They’re not going to take away my social media.’’
Nearly every White House job, as traditionally conceived, has been transformed by this president and his ‘‘voice,’’ none more so than trying to be the spokesman for the man who is always reminding everyone that no one speaks for Trump but Trump. When I stopped back at Spicer’s office a few days later, he had just completed one of his untelevised briefings, during which he appeared relatively serene, spared the camera’s eye and attendant scrutiny from the Oval Office. I found him at a standing desk, flanked by TVs playing audio-only versions of his performance. I brought up his debut in January, in which he insistently defended Trump’s risible claim that he had drawn ‘‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,’’ and then left without taking questions. ‘‘I’m not here to relitigate every [expletive] number,’’ Spicer said, and then launched into a lengthy relitigation about how the growth in online viewership, the advent of Twitter and the explosion of mobile devices made it entirely possible that more people watched ‘‘around the globe.’’ ‘‘If you do apples to apples, the attendance was larger for Obama, O.K., fair enough,’’ he conceded. He said he ‘‘owned’’ that, but then complained that the press perpetrates a bitterly unfair double standard against him. ‘‘I’m like, ‘Wait a second, you guys write corrections all the time,’ ’’ he litigated. ‘‘But when I do it, it’s treasonous?’’
Spicer’s adviser stepped in to remind him that he had a TV interview to do in a few minutes. He walked over to a small desk in the corner of his office and started rubbing on foundation. I made a verbal note of this into my tape recorder. ‘‘Don’t you dare,’’ Spicer said, ‘‘just so we’re clear.’’
‘‘You’re putting on makeup,’’ I said.
‘‘You’re going to say that in the story,’’ he charged, ‘‘that I’m putting on makeup?’’
‘‘Well, you are.’’
‘‘I’m going on my way to a television hit,’’ he said. He patted his cheeks a few times with a makeup puff.
‘‘That’s fine,’’ I said.
‘‘So, as long as it’s in context.’’
‘‘You’re going on TV,’’ I affirmed.
‘‘I believe there are too many reporters who are looking for some snarky angle,’’ he said.
We walked out of the White House, and Spicer, looking perfect, veered off to the front lawn to tape his second on-camera interview of the afternoon with Fox News.
In 2013, I published a book called ‘‘This Town,’’ an anthropological snapshot of the gilded, inbred carnival of early-21st-century Washington. It portrayed Washington as a permanent feudal village of bipartisan politicians, former officeholders, celebrity staff members, lobbyists, journalists, hangers-on and usual-suspects of all stripes. No one seemed to ever leave, because why would they? So-called change elections came and went — Obama in 2008, Tea Partyers in 2010 — but nothing seemed to change, except that the people involved seemed to grow richer. Washington kept celebrating itself while the rest of the country became more and more disgusted. The book’s original subtitle, ‘‘The Way It Works in Suck-Up City,’’ reflected a city of norms, fixed positions and predictable guidelines. This was a static system, and you could always figure out how to game it if you stuck around or paid someone who did. This was the Swamp that Trump had promised to drain.
To outward appearances, This Town in the time of Trump seems as fat and cozy as ever. The city is thriving with construction projects, abundant lobbying, government contracts, media gigs and bull-market wealth. This is hardly a Trump-specific phenomenon. Washingtonians have claimed the highest average income in the country for years. Every recent administration has put its mark on the boom, and this one is no different. Trump-connected consultants and administration officials show up in chic restaurants along 14th Street, K Street, Penn Quarter and Georgetown. (‘‘WHAT A TOWN!’’ exulted Playbook, Politico’s tip sheet, on June 2. ‘‘E.P.A. ADMINISTRATOR SCOTT PRUITT celebrated exiting the Paris agreement by dining last night at . . . Le Diplomate, the French bistro on 14th Street with some aides!’’) The swamp feels anything but drained; more like remodeled into a gold-plated hot tub.
But as Trump’s impulsive, vindictively personal style has been transferred, unhumbled and unpivoted, to the White House, it has also introduced new variables into the capital’s power calculus — one being that access to power governs status. Since Trump is everywhere, ‘‘access’’ in the traditional sense holds much less currency than it once did. Getting close to him requires sucking up to fewer people than it did with pre-Trump presidents: The most direct path might be to suck up to a cable-TV booker, get on one of ‘‘the shows,’’ say something nice about him and wait for the thank-you tweet. The ability to ascertain ‘‘what the White House is thinking’’ or ‘‘the president’s mind-set’’ once accounted for many hours (often billable) of analysis. Now it only requires a Twitter account.
Unlike previous presidents’, Trump’s unpredictability makes playing the power game treacherous, to say the least. Lobbyists and corporations live in fear of doing something that would agitate the White House, something that could incite a tweet and tank a stock. You hear of longtime Washington lawyers, operatives and consultants who are shunned and disparaged (usually off the record) for deigning to work with Godzilla. Trump also presents a particular challenge for Republican members of Congress. For officeholders, Trump becomes a test of coping and courage, particularly within the family he has chosen as his own, the Republican Party. Members of Congress can be seen scurrying down hallways, fake-talking on their cellphones and ducking out back doors to avoid reporters’ questions about the latest tweet.
In some ways, this is the definition of ‘‘unnerving’’ the establishment. Trump certainly presents a riddle to members of the Washington consultant class who are accustomed to certain truths and personalities enduring from administration to administration. Insofar as there is a ruling class of ‘‘influencers’’ in this destabilized landscape, the new Trump hotel in the Old Post Office Building serves as its radiant center. ‘‘The Swamp Hotel,’’ as it was recently christened in a Time magazine cover story, has become a haven for Trump loyalists, favor-currying lobbyists and foreign governments: grand chandeliers and cozy couches, a Washingtonian mix of bustling scene and discreet areas well situated amid the White House, the Capitol and Downtown.
I made my first visit there in late spring to meet Trump’s former campaign manager and still-confidant Corey Lewandowski. He held court in the middle of the lobby bar, seated at a table marked ‘‘Reserved’’ with a shiny glass plate. The last time I saw Lewandowski was in February, before the Super Bowl in Houston. He was there as a guest of Microsoft, wearing shorts and a red-and-white New England Patriots polo shirt and chatting with Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner and a Trump friend, at a V.I.P. reception before the game. Lewandowski was now dressed in a sharp gray suit and shiny black dress shoes. Potential clients were knocking down his door, he told me. He was, by any measure, a made man.
As with many people that populate the inner ring of Trumpland, Lewandowski has virtually no cachet independent from his relationship to the president. He has spent his career as a journeyman political operative, a two-time failed candidate for office (in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) and a police officer. Yet where the Clintons were surrounded by a vast horde of ‘‘friends,’’ Trump ran a family business with a small network of flag-wavers. His campaign was a tiny operation, and Lewandowski got in early, stuck around and stayed loyal. Never mind that he was bounced as campaign manager in June 2016, one reason being that he had run afoul of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump; Bloomberg reported last month of a détente between Lewandowski and Kushner, consummated on a ‘‘stroll through the White House Rose Garden,’’ ending in a hug.
Being one of ‘‘Trump’s guys’’ positions Lewandowski at the apex of Washington influence in 2017. He is clearly close to the president. He can decipher his moods, know which buttons to push and when to stay away. Rather than ‘‘going in’’ (local shorthand for ‘‘going in to an administration’’), Lewandowski leveraged his big-fish status in Trumpland to open a lucrative Washington consultancy to help corporations and clients ‘‘navigate’’ the new administration. Unlike Spicer’s position, this inside-out role enables Lewandowski to pick his spots and steer clear of the West Wing infighting and fiefs and, maybe most of all, the day-to-day dramas inherent in being too close to Donald J. Trump.
Lewandowski warned me to keep my voice down, as he suspected that the guy sitting on the couch behind him was an eavesdropping reporter — a familiar hazard at the Trump Hotel. After a few minutes, we were joined by Anthony Scaramucci, the Long Island-born financier, fund-raiser and Trump acolyte — known as ‘‘the Mooch’’ to fellow Trumpians, New York tabloid-headline writers as well as his long-ago Little League teammates. Scaramucci, whose sculpted jaw, hair and form-fitting suit give the impression of an infomercial host, had been having trouble landing a top White House job. He had apparently been up for a role as an adviser and public liaison to government agencies and businesses, but that stalled because of complications related to the sale of his company, SkyBridge Capital, to foreign buyers.
‘‘Thanks for that thing at the White House today,’’ Scaramucci told Lewandowski, the first of four times he would thank him in the five minutes that we were together. The men locked eyes and nodded simultaneously: Gratitude acknowledged, accepted. Lewandowski had to rush off to catch a flight home to New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and four children. The Mooch thanked him again.
I found out later that Scaramucci was now in line to be the Paris-based ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pending Senate confirmation. In the interim, Scaramucci has been appointed chief strategy officer of the United States Export-Import Bank, an institution that Trump derided during the campaign as ‘‘excess baggage.’’ But the Mooch says the plan is now to keep the bank open. The excess baggage, in other words, has been claimed.
Trump was elected in part by portraying and revealing politicians to be feckless weenies — and many of them went out and reinforced this view by displaying their willingness to be rolled by Trump in the campaign and unwillingness to stand up to him in office. This gets to one ethic of This Town that has endured and that Trump has reinforced: The interests of self-perpetuation drive nearly everything. Much of the Republican base still loves Trump, and few Republicans in Congress can afford to alienate these voters by defying him too forcefully, even though many of them — particularly senators — plainly hold the president in low regard.
There have been exceptions, but by far the most vocal critics of Trump on the right have been the columnists, political consultants and former Republican officeholders who don’t need to face voters. Trump ‘‘has been a complete disaster’’ in office beyond foreign policy, said John Boehner, the former Republican speaker — the key word being ‘‘former.’’ (He was speaking at a private event in Houston; he later tried to walk the comment back.) You encounter many elected Republicans these days who struggle to calibrate their reactions to the president by what the Republican media consultant Rick Wilson refers to as ‘‘F.O.M.T.’’ — ‘‘Fear of Mean Tweets.’’ ‘‘It’s the great dichotomy of my life right now,’’ says Wilson, an outspoken anti-Trump voice who speaks often to clients and friends who are Republican officeholders. ‘‘I have guys call me literally on the verge of tears some days, like, ‘This guy is going to get us killed,’ ’’ Wilson told me. ‘‘And then they go out the next day, and they can’t wait to build the wall, they want to ‘make America great again’ all day long.’’
Elected Republicans operate in their own distinct habitat when figuring how to deal with this White House. They are, in a partisan sense, on Trump’s team. They share policy goals and agenda items. They need each other, ostensibly. But members of Congress live in their own parallel power centers, with their own districts, voters and issues to worry about, not to mention the peculiar dynamics of their institution. Being married to Trump can make for tense and uncomfortable times, as any Republican of Capitol Hill these days can attest when they’re not running away.
On the day that the former F.B.I. director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was walking around the Senate side of the Capitol and noticed that whenever Republican members were asked about Trump, as they inevitably were, they looked as if they were bracing for a chandelier to drop on their heads. I approached Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker is typically one of the more thoughtful and relatively candid voices on Trump, with whom he has had ups and downs but to whom he has essentially been encouraging. Corker had recently praised Trump’s first international trip as president as ‘‘executed to near perfection.’’ This was seen as puzzling, given that the trip’s end and immediate aftermath were dominated by bipartisan consternation over Trump’s refusal to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, the sacred provision stipulating that NATO allies must come to the aid of an ally under attack. I asked Corker if he stood by his assessment. ‘‘I said near perfection,’’ he said defensively. ‘‘It would have been really perfect,’’ Corker said, if only Trump had mentioned Article 5. Given the uproar the omission caused, Corker’s caveat conveyed a distinct sense of ‘‘Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln. . . . ’’ He seemed to realize this and smiled a little sheepishly.
When approached, Republican members attempt to fashion boundaries on Trump-related engagement. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has gone through numerous strategies. He has tried to place Trump’s tweets off-limits (‘‘I typically don’t quote or comment on the tweet of the hour,’’ he said in February), chide reporters for focusing on these trivial matters (‘‘I’m going to do my job. I’ll let you guys do yours with respect to how you report, or what you don’t report’’), suggest he has more important things to do (‘‘I’m not going to comment on this stuff,’’ in response to a reporter’s question about something Trump said about Arnold Schwarzenegger) and plead (‘‘Let’s talk about policy’’).
As a general rule, the most time-efficient and foolproof approach for a Trump-weary Republican is to simply walk through the Capitol as if protected by a selectively permeable bubble filtering out certain unwelcome words (e.g., ‘‘Trump’’). Mitch McConnell is the master of this, and I caught the Senate Republican leader as he walked off the Senate floor on the day of the Comey hearings. ‘‘What’d you think of Comey?’’ I asked as he headed back to his office. He kept walking, remaining impassive. The McConnell Zombie Walk is familiar to any reporter who has spent time on Capitol Hill. But this was a rare privilege to be exclusively blown off by McConnell. It was just me alone with him and his security detail moving down an empty hallway. I asked the question twice more, until we passed Lindsey Graham, who was walking in the other direction. Of late, Graham had been a font of backhanded Trump defenses. ‘‘He can’t collude with his own government,’’ Graham said last month on ‘‘Face the Nation.’’ ‘‘Why do you think he’s colluding with the Russians?’’ (He had also suggested to reporters that it was no big deal that Comey had accused Trump of lying, because ‘‘everyone in the primary accused him of lying.’’) I asked Graham how he would characterize this moment in the capital, given that he has seen many Washington circuses over the years. He paused and took a breath, as if he were about to deliver the first line of a sermon. ‘‘I yearn for the good old days of impeachment,’’ he said, then ducked into a meeting.
When I went to see John McCain, Graham’s Senate sidekick, the next week, he seemed to be in a darker place. Now 80, McCain has been traveling the globe to the point of weariness, seemingly on a personal mission to reassure allies unnerved by Trump. It was Trump’s ability to deceive with impunity while still claiming the mantle of the tough-talking truth-teller that seemed to gall him most. ‘‘If I were a Democrat right now, I’d be going after Trump for not telling the truth,’’ McCain said. ‘‘I’d leave the issues, and just say, ‘Look, you can’t trust this guy, you can’t trust him.’ ’’ McCain told me he had arrived at a coping strategy. ‘‘After about a month, I decided I’ll just watch what he does, not just what his tweets are,’’ McCain said. ‘‘And whatever, I don’t care.’’ He caught himself. ‘‘I care,’’ he said, ‘‘but I’m not going to react. I think it was gradual. First shock, then surprise, then Whisky Tango Foxtrot’’— military slang for a three-letter abbreviation that you also hear a lot these days.
Ryan, who was persuaded by his House colleagues to replace Boehner as speaker in 2015, has perfected his ‘‘I don’t need this job’’ shtick. He will frequently express longing for his previous post as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. When I interviewed him in his grand office at the Capitol, I asked what he liked best about being speaker. ‘‘The impact, the big impact I can have,’’ he said.
What’s the worst part?
‘‘Everything else,’’ Ryan said. He laughed and then tried to declare what he’d just said ‘‘kinda off the record.’’
As the highest-ranking Republican outside the White House, Ryan has been lacerated as one of Trump’s chief enablers and portrayed as a weak supplicant. ‘‘He feeds me dog food,’’ Mikey Day, playing Ryan, exclaimed in a brutal ‘‘S.N.L.’’ sendup in which the apron-clad speaker scurries in to deliver the president’s ice cream (‘‘Here’s two scoops!’’). Ryan shrugged me off when I brought this up. ‘‘They’re going to say that anyway, so it doesn’t really bother me,’’ he said. Ryan told me that he had settled on a method of sharing his opinions and criticisms with Trump, but only privately. ‘‘We have pretty candid conversations,’’ he assured me. ‘‘I find that public fights don’t achieve anything.’’
When I talked to Ryan again 16 days later, he had, the day before, visited Steve Scalise, the House majority whip and one of his closest friends, who had been critically wounded after a gunman opened fire at an early-morning baseball practice in Virginia last month. Scalise’s condition was improving, Ryan said, but the speaker sounded shaken. He had just presided over a meeting in his office for everyone who had been at the baseball field, encouraging them all to speak about their experience. He made everyone aware of grief-counseling services available. The news cycle might have moved on from the shooting, Ryan told me, ‘‘but it hasn’t moved on in people’s minds, I’ll tell you that.’’
The perpetually breaking news cycle of the Trump era has become its own suffocating force. It has never been more difficult to consume and process what has just happened before the next thing explodes. To wit: The baseball practice shooting was sharing headlines and chyrons only a few hours after it happened with an another bombshell (a Washington Post report that Trump was being investigated for obstruction of justice), followed by a presidential tweet the next morning (“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history”) and whatever else.
A few This Town veterans told me that this scary new normal has instilled in them a greater appreciation for old-normal rituals. The congressional baseball game, which obviously took on greater significance this year, is one of these. Traditionally, it has been a sleepy-but-nice event in which dorky partisans in the crowd can be heard chanting sick burns at their opposition. ‘‘Justice Roberts!’’ Democrats taunted Republicans in 2012, after the conservative chief justice cast the deciding vote upholding Obamacare. Well, then, Republicans took to chanting ‘‘T.P.A., T.P.A.’’ in 2015 — as Obama was trying to secure trade promotion authority from Congress (ouch!).
Scalise was supposed to be playing second base for the Republican team. On June 14, the morning he was shot, he had been standing just down the baseline from Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, who played first base. As it happened, I met Rooney two months before, though I didn’t realize he was in Congress. We were in Pittsburgh, at the funeral of his uncle Dan Rooney, the Hall of Fame member and owner of the Steelers. Tom introduced himself to me as ‘‘someone who works in politics in D.C.,’’ and I assumed he was a lobbyist or consultant or some other Swamp-dweller. He was not wearing a congressional pin, the telltale way to identify a member. But Rooney rarely wears his pin, and when he does, he often tries to cover it up. He does not wish to be fussed over, lectured or hectored, or worse.
It was only after Rooney and I became reacquainted through a colleague in Washington that he told me he had been a member of Congress since 2009. He said he had done much soul-searching over the years about whether his coveted position was worth the grind, sacrifice and abuse. ‘‘You’re putting yourself at risk,’’ Rooney said. ‘‘Is that what we’re signing up for?’’
We were sitting in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill on a late June morning. A week earlier, Rooney, 46, was at baseball practice with his colleagues, but he left just after 7 a.m. to take his children to school. He texted his wife at 7:05 to tell her he was on his way. The gunman began firing shortly before 7:09, according to police reports. ‘‘If Steve had screamed and went to the ground, my instinct would have been to walk over to him,’’ said Rooney, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 230 pounds. ‘‘I would have been a big, fat target.’’
Rooney says he has been going through many emotions since the shooting, including guilt over having left practice early. He consulted his Republican colleague Adam Kinzinger, who in 2006 wrestled and disarmed a knife-wielding attacker in Milwaukee. ‘‘I definitely had some P.T.S. on the stabbing thing,’’ Kinzinger said. ‘‘It changes you, definitely.’’ Political violence has worried him for a long time, he said, and he is also concerned about where the insanity of the Trump-era news cycle will lead: ‘‘When your engines are constantly on red line, it’s going to overheat and it’s going to crush and eventually break.’’
As with most of their colleagues, Rooney and Kinzinger are largely unknown outside their districts. The most important thing many people will judge them on is what team they play for — the Rs or Ds. They both have friends in the other party. ‘‘You almost have to hide the fact that you like them,’’ Rooney said, of Democrats. ‘‘Nobody understands what it’s like to be a member of Congress except another member of Congress.’’ That has become another hallmark of life in the modern swamp: Common humanity is best expressed in private. Rooney observed that the increasingly pitched tone of our political dialogues — in campaigns, in Congress and certainly online — can become mutually reinforcing. ‘‘There’s a sense that people out in the country can see the far left and the far right on social media, and they think it’s O.K. to act out any way they want,’’ Rooney said.
Suddenly, as he spoke, Rooney’s tone acquired an edge. There was something he wanted to say, something that made him mad. The newly sworn-in representative Greg Gianforte had just given his first House speech. Gianforte, a Montana Republican, will be forever known as the guy who body-slammed the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of his May 25 special election. He won anyway. And Gianforte used his maiden remarks on the floor to call for mandatory term limits, a ban on lobbying for any former member and a suspension of congressional salary if the House does not pass a balanced budget.
‘‘And that was his speech,’’ Rooney said. ‘‘That was it. He’s like, ‘I’m coming here, you all suck and this institution sucks.’ ’’ I mentioned to Rooney that Gianforte, who pleaded guilty on a charge of misdemeanor assault, had become a partisan cause célèbre over his willingness to fight back against the enemy of the people. He enters Congress with a higher profile than nearly every one of his colleagues. ‘‘He might be a real man,’’ Rooney said. ‘‘But he’s got a criminal record now that’s going to follow him forever.’’
Rooney told me about ‘‘a really tender moment’’ he had just shared with his older brother, Pat, ‘‘whose job it’s been to bust my balls my entire life.’’ The Rooney brothers saw each other for the first time after the baseball-practice shooting at their family vacation home in Pennsylvania. Pat put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and said it was really good to see him. ‘‘It was the most sincere moment I’ve ever had with my brother,’’ Tom said. ‘‘And then he’s like, ‘You need to find another job.’ ’’
Rooney told me he did not know if he would run for re-election next year, but said he was reluctant to be too critical of Trump, in case he did. Like many of his colleagues, he is ambivalent about the president, but his frustrations with Washington long predate Trump’s arrival. His fondest hope for change with Trump was that Republicans might finally accomplish things. ‘‘Things do need to change,’’ he told me. The shooting, and the feeling of vulnerability it engendered, would be something he considered in his ‘‘Is it worth it?’’ calculus.
But as I was finishing this article, a few days after Trump was tweeting an old wrestling clip of himself going Gianforte on a CNN logo, Rooney decided that it was, in fact, worth it, and that he would run again. I asked in a text message what had gotten into him. ‘‘I guess I’m a hopeless romantic that politics will actually work someday,’’ he wrote back. ‘‘And I want to be a part of it.’’