The president’s schedule shows huge swaths of his day unplanned, allowing his whims and momentary interests to drive White House business.
President Donald Trump had about three times as much free time planned for last Tuesday as work time, according to his private schedule. The president was slated for more than nine hours of “Executive Time,” a euphemism for the unstructured time Trump spends tweeting, phoning friends and watching television. Official meetings, policy briefings and public appearances — typically the daily work of being president — consumed barely more than three hours of his day.
The president was slated to spend 30 minutes on the phone with CEOs and make brief remarks at a state leadership conference. He was briefed by senior military leaders in the evening and joined them for dinner. Aside from an 11:30 a.m. meeting with White House chief of staff John Kelly — his first commitment of the day — the rest of his day was unstructured, some in blocks as long as 2 hours and 45 minutes.
A review of one week of the president’s private detailed schedules, from Monday Oct. 22 through Friday Oct. 26, showed the president had more free time on Tuesday than on any other day that week, but his Tuesday agenda was hardly atypical. And while the notion of Executive Time, and the president’s increasingly late start to the day, has come under scrutiny over the past year, this new batch of schedules obtained by POLITICO offers fresh insight into the extent to which that unscheduled time dominates Trump’s week and is shaping his presidency, allowing his whims and momentary interests to drive White House business.
“The president’s time is, in many ways, his most valuable commodity because it’s finite,” said Mack McLarty, who served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton’s first year in office. “It reflects his priorities. It reflects what he’s trying to get done with the country.”
As a freewheeling president in one of the world’s most regimented jobs, Trump appears to be redefining the nature of the role. Past presidents were disciplined in their scheduled time, squired from meeting to meeting, event to event, from the moment they arrived in the Oval Office until they headed up to the residence at night.
Trump, by contrast, enjoys huge blocks of unscheduled time in which he can do as he pleases. He is hardly the first president to have an erratic schedule. Clinton and Jimmy Carter were known to make middle-of-the-night phone calls, and every president has kept different hours: George W. Bush was an early bird, Barack Obama a night owl. But even Trump allies who say the president is always working concede that the Trump presidency is uniquely defined by his down time, when his short-term bugaboos become the drivers of his agenda, rather than any long-term vision.
“He might read something in the paper and immediately you’d get an impromptu meeting on trade,” said a person familiar with the president’s scheduling. “It’s just more impromptu than like a month in advance you have a policy time set that you’re going to work up to.”
Some White House aides insist the president is productive during these open stretches, calling lawmakers, Cabinet members and world leaders, and scheduling meetings rather than simply watching television in the private dining room off the Oval Office. One aide even described Trump as a “workaholic.”
But the president’s official commitments last week began no earlier than 11 a.m. according to the schedules obtained by POLITICO, and on Tuesday — in the midst of a potential serial bomber and two weeks ahead of the midterm elections — they didn’t start until 1 p.m.
Trump’s work activity also reflects much more time spent on the performative aspects of the job, like signing ceremonies and media interviews, than on the actual work of policymaking.
A bulk of the president’s time last week was spent traveling to and from political rallies and campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates ahead of next Tuesday’s midterm elections. On Wednesday, which began with an 11:30 a.m. meeting with John Kelly, Trump delivered brief remarks on the opioid crisis and sat for a media interview before departing for an evening rally in Wisconsin. The rest of his day, according to his schedule, was open.
Last week’s schedules are remarkably light on policy discussions. The president spent a little more than two hours of his week in policy briefings, according to the schedules, and he was scheduled to receive the President’s Daily Brief on just two of the five days reviewed.
Obama, by contrast, was generally booked throughout the day, according to Mona Sutphen, who served as his deputy chief of staff for policy from 2009 to 2011. “I’d say it was significantly, fundamentally a different pace of intensity of workload,” Sutphen said. Her successor, Nancy-Ann DeParle, recalled schedules packed with policy meetings — on average, six to seven hours a day, she said.
“If the president was taking nine hours of Executive Time, we would just say the president was down for the day or something like that,” said a senior Obama White House aide, who declined to be named.
For Trump aides, scheduling presented a challenge from the outset. Accustomed to conducting business largely over the phone from his office in Trump Tower, the president chafed at back-to-back meetings that kept him off his phone and away from the television, according to a half dozen current and former White House aides.
The concept of “Executive Time” was Kelly’s response to the president’s complaints that he was over-scheduled under his previous chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and “didn’t have any time to think,” one of those aides said.
“There was always this tug and pull early in the administration when Priebus was there because if there were too many things on his schedule, he would complain. But if there were too few things on his schedule, the senior staff would complain because he would be left to his own devices and spend more time watching TV or calling people on the phone or calling in advisers unscheduled to the Oval Office,” said a former White House aide familiar with the evolution of his schedule and the president’s gripes about it.
What is unclear is how much thinking and working actually takes places in these off-hours, despite the protestations of some Trump aides — as opposed to tweeting, television-watching, gossiping and venting with friends and allies by telephone.
Last week, White House aides say, Trump was briefed on the spate of attempted pipe bombings that targeted some of his political enemies, last-minute meetings that did not appear on his private schedule. On Monday afternoon, the president said on Twitter that he had just spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, calls also left off the schedule.
But dozens of the president’s trademark tweets, driven by TV news coverage, have also emerged during this down time. He complained Friday morning during a three-hour block of Executive Time, for example, that the rash of attempted pipe bombings had driven coverage of the midterms out of the news.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics,” Trump wrote. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
During another block of unstructured time last week, he complained about a story published by The New York Times, revealing that Chinese and Russian intelligence agents routinely eavesdropped on his unsecured cellphone calls, arguing that the “long and boring article” was “so incorrect I do not have the time here to correct it … Story is soooo wrong!”
For better or worse, Trump’s demand for a White House organized to answer to his immediate impulses — the good and the bad — will emerge as a defining feature of his presidency.
“Different presidents spend their time differently and it makes sense that his schedule would reflect his preferences to some degree,” said Yuval Levin, the vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served as a domestic policy aide to President George W. Bush.
“But the lack of structure yields a lack of orderly decision-making and discipline that can be a huge problem given the demands of the job,” he added. “’Executive’ is the last thing I would call unstructured time.”