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Served coffee with cardamom, President Donald Trump and his senior advisers sat side-by-side with Saudi leaders in upholstered armchairs. Ornate moldings lined the walls of the palatial room, with floor-length gold draperies covering the windows. Steve Bannon glanced around. Ivanka Trump chatted with the two diplomats flanking her.
I watched it all, just 20 feet away…
...from a television. Inside a hotel conference room. One-and-a-half miles from the Royal Court.
Welcome to life in "The Bubble." It’s par for the course for presidential travel: You don’t see all that much all that often — at least, not firsthand.
Our live shots are set up at a separate spot because of the logistical tangle of satellite trucks, fiber lines and camera space. And because of security and space reasons, only a small group of reporters gets close contact at these presidential events. That’s called the “pool,” and it rotates for each foreign trip. (This time, for the television networks, CBS drew the straw.)
The Bubble existed on the campaign trail — kind of. But we had more independence, with our own car and a smaller footprint. I made a point to have “mini-adventures” on the road. In Tucson, that meant swinging by a massive airplane graveyard. A quick detour through the Grand Tetons was a Wyoming highlight. We stopped for cheese in Wisconsin and barbecue in South Carolina.
Now? I’m staring at the back wall of a Marriott, waiting for the TV to switch to the pool feed. Kristen Welker walks in with a plate of chicken from the hotel buffet. “It’s a little aggressive to wake up to lunch,” she says. I have my third cup of coffee. Kelly O'Donnell deadpans: "Being more wound up is not something I think you have a need for.”
The president, on screen, looks comfortable. It may be the most at home he feels all trip: the Trump Tower-esque gilded finishes, the pageantry, the prospect of knowing he’ll leave able to tout a successful “negotiation” with Saudi leaders (a military equipment deal had been worked out before the trip.)
And unlike the Trump's upcoming stops at the Vatican (after his fight with the Pope), Israel (after he revealed our ally’s sensitive intel), Brussels (after his flip-flop on NATO), and Sicily (after his tough talk on trade), he’s entering Saudi meetings with almost automatic goodwill: He’s not President Barack Obama. To the Saudis, that’s a good thing — and their warmth was reflected in the spectacular greeting they gave him at the airport, with seven jets overhead trailing plumes of red, white and blue.
Later, the Saudis will host the president at the historic Murabba Palace.
We won’t get to see it — at least, not this trip. The Bubble strikes again.
How to manage it? Savannah Guthrie gave us some advice when we saw her in Washington the day before the trip: On the quick bus rides from airports to hotels, stop checking email and look out out the windows instead. It may be your only chance to see the sights.
So after we landed in Riyadh, I pulled out my phone, ready to snap some photos. Almost instantly, my screen flashed. It was The New York Times scoop on the president calling James Comey a “nut job.” Minutes later, the Washington Post dropped new reporting on the FBI’s Russia investigation pulling in a current White House official. I fired off a flurry of emails and texts.
Later, I remembered to look around as we zoomed through the city. I spotted a gorgeous dome: The mosque at Princess Nourah university, an all-women’s college. Five minutes later, we pulled up to the back entrance of the hotel. Bubble time.
Today, our local producer, Lubna, promises an adventure: “I’ll take you on a magical mystery tour!”
We laugh, then turn back to the television. The president has another meeting.