President Donald Trump returned to the White House from a rally just before midnight Thursday. He was on the road again by midafternoon Friday to West Virginia and Indiana, where he was expected to whip up his supporters with back-to-back combative, high-energy speeches that draw crowds of people who want to witness the Trump show.
It’s all part of an 11-day rally sprint that Trump has signed himself up for ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections — the tail end of a travel schedule that has been a slog by design. By Election Day, Trump will have headlined 53 Make America Great Again rallies across 23 states, as well as 70 fundraising events since he took office in 2017. He has staged 30 rallies since Labor Day.
The schedule often has young White House officials flagging, trying to staff a president more than twice their age. “There are grueling days,” one White House official said. “I am on the helicopter, I can barely keep my eyes open and he is like, ‘Why don’t we do two more stops?’”
Trump hasn’t exactly built a reputation as a workaholic in his day job: At the White House, his schedule is often filled with large blocks of “executive time” — unstructured and unsupervised hours he spends in the Oval Office or the residence, watching television and tweeting (but also often also taking meetings with people that his staff wants to hide from his schedule).
And he has long believed that the image of energy and endurance is a political asset. In 2016, he successfully branded one of his early GOP rivals, Jeb Bush, as “low energy.” Trump also often mocked Hillary Clinton for lacking “the stamina” to be president.
Trump’s criticisms of his opponents — like accusing the media of propagating lies when his speeches and public statements are often rife with inaccuracies — are often a mirror of his own deficiencies.
But when it comes to sheer, physical stamina that does not appear to be the case.
Trump’s busy campaign schedule is striking for a 72-year-old man who doesn’t believe in exercise, and whose diet has long relied heavily on well-done steaks, McDonald’s quarter pounders and Diet Coke by the bucket.
“The guy’s a machine,” said Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, who traveled extensively with him during the 2016 presidential race. Lewandowski insisted that he’s never even seen Trump close his eyes on the plane between stops.
“The only thing I’ve seen him do is, he’s gone into his cabin,” Lewandowski said of traveling on Trump’s private plane during the 2016 campaign. “But I know he wasn’t asleep, because when you changed the TV channel, it changed all the channels, and he would change the channel.”
Trump doesn’t seem to sleep much in between his travel days. Last week, the president appeared to be online after 3 a.m., grievance tweeting about his media coverage. Trump has also recently been reaching out to aides early in the morning and late at night with questions about specific states and contests — asking for gut checks and demanding the latest polling. That would be consistent with the January claim of his then-White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, that Trump needs only 4-5 hours of sleep per night. (“[P]robably one of the reasons why he’s been successful,” Jackson said in a cloyingly flattering news conference about Trump’s health.)
That fits with Trump’s self-aggrandizing self-image of a vigorous, ageless leader constantly getting things done. During the 2016 campaign, he told Dr. Mehmet Oz that when he looks in the mirror, “I would say I see a person who is 35 years old …. I mean I feel the same.”
Trump’s breakneck campaign schedule isn’t just about boosting Republican candidates in the midterms, although he has been in great demand for candidates across most of the country. It’s also about competition with the men who have held his office before him, and part of a pass-the-blame strategy if Democrats make big gains on Election Day.
“It sets up some of the post-election narrative,” one former administration official said. “He can’t be blamed because he worked so hard, so the blame has to lie elsewhere. If anything, these events are just as much about optics, post-election, as it is about turning out the vote.”
The White House has made it an explicit priority for Trump to appear at more midterm events than his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush did. When his political shop presented Trump with a late fall campaign schedule back in August, Trump complained that it was too thin. “This isn’t enough,” he responded, telling to tack on more fundraisers and more rallies, goading them to send him out “as many days as possible.”
Some top Obama advisers don’t seem too worried about being outdone in the category of midterm campaign rallies. “Obama understood that making the case was important and necessary,” said his former top adviser, David Axelrod. “But he also was much more involved in the actual work of governing. Trump lives for the show.”
In some ways, the midterm campaign offers Trump a window to conduct the presidency that his family members, at least, always thought would be his preferred mode: “Making America Great Again” out on the road, energizing his followers, while outsourcing the grunt work of foreign and domestic policy to Cabinet officials and aides.
That model has not exactly come to pass — even if Trump has shown less gusto in complex national security briefings than he has before large, cheering crowds. But people close to Trump insist that his physical stamina is and always will be one of his greatest assets.
“He’s always been that way,” said his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. “Whether it’s business or politics, no one will ever outwork him. That’s just who he is.”