On Christmas morning, Brian Bennett, the senior White House correspondent for Time magazine, was up early with his wife and their 7-year-old son.
But what happened next would change the rest of his holiday.
An email from the White House came in at 8:30 a.m., but he didn’t see it right away. “I saw the email during breakfast. We had opened some presents, seen what Santa brought,” Bennett told The Daily Wire on Thursday morning.
The email, Bennett said, was “cryptic, saying to ‘show up at JBA at 9:30 p.m.'” “JBA” is “Joint Base Andrews,” the Air Force base outside of Washington, D.C., that is home to Air Force One.
President Trump was going … somewhere. “No one told us where we were going,” Bennett said.
Bennett knew he was next on the list for foreign trips, which is kept by the White House Correspondents’ Association. For some presidential trips, especially secret outings, only a “pool” of reporters are included — a TV network, a radio outlet, the three wire agencies (Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg), some photographers and a print reporter. The reporters send out “pool reports” to other journalists, who can then freely use all the information in their own articles.
And Bennett said he wasn’t completely surprised, saying he “sensed that something may have been up and was prepared mentally that the president might want to go on a trip to a combat zone during the holiday.”
He was right. Still, before he left home, Bennett told his wife: “I don’t when I’ll be back.”
The White House email told Bennett where to go at JBA — a different gate than usual. He took a car service to the base, but it “took me a while to find the gate” in the dark. When he got to the right spot, “the only thing lighting the parking lot was headlights and a few overhead lamps, maybe not even that.”
Other reporters were gathered there, too, awaiting word. No one was sure where they were going, but Bennett said “some of the reporters were told we’d be back in a day or a day and a half, so it seemed likely that we were going to Iraq.” He said he “packed a bag small enough to put in the plane seat in front of me.”
They were, though, told that the dress code was “casual and we were told to prepare to stand outside in 40 to 50 degree weather.”
The pool was loaded into vans — first, they had “to give up all electronics” — and taken into a “pristine, brightly lit hangar where Air Force One was parked.”
“Trump left the White House late on Dec. 25 for an unannounced movement to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland,” Bennett wrote in a pool report — which he could not send until the White House lifted an embargo. “Pool was prepositioned on the plane and did not see Trump board. Air Force One was wheels up at 12:06 am ET on Dec. 26. POTUS landed at 11:16 am ET/ 7:16 pm local time at Al Asad Air Base, a joint U.S.-Iraqi military base west of Baghdad.”
(A quick aside: S.V. Dáte, the senior White House correspondent for HuffPost, was the “intown” pool reporter. Just before 10 a.m., while Trump was still flying to Iraq, Date put out a pool report that said: “The White House has not issued any daily guidance for today, but the press office did issue a lunch lid until 1 p.m.” No one knew at this point that Trump was headed to Iraq.)
“Shortly after Air Force on took off from Andrews Air Force base bound for Iraq, Melania Trump came to the press cabin and briefly talked off the record to convey seasons greetings to reporters and say hello,” Bennett also wrote.
The Time reporter said he grabbed four hours of sleep on the 11-hour flight. What followed was a frenetic three-hours on the ground in Iraq. And the landing was interesting, too.
“For the landing, all the windows were closed and all the lights were off,” Bennett said. When they got out of the presidential plane, there were still no lights. “It was the first time I’d ever seen Air Force One in the dark, no lights, just the silhouette.”
“POTUS and FLOTUS entered a large tan hangar at 1:56 pm ET / 9:56 pm local time. Hundreds of troops in uniform cheered. Melania took to the microphone said gave the troops and their families holiday and new year greetings. ‘I’m very proud of you,’ she said,” he wrote in his first pool report.
“The hall was decorated for Christmas with bells, foil balls, twinkling red green and blue colored lights, the tables were covered in red and green table cloths. There were snowmen made of stacked tires painted white and Christmas trees fashioned from cut two by fours,” Bennett wrote.
While in Iraq, Trump met with U.S. military leaders and spoke to troops. A scheduled in-person meeting with Iraq’s prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had to be changed to a phone call as he was in a different part of the country. And Trump delivered remarks to a group of about 100 mostly U.S. special operations troops engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.
Bennett was not allowed to file until the embargo was lifted just before wheels up from Iraq, after Trump’s speech. In every reporter’s nightmare, Bennett said it was “logistically very difficult to file” because the wifi didn’t work well.
And Bennett added some color from the Iraq stop: “A general note on the smells and sights of Al Asad Air Base: Air Force One landed in the dark, with no lights on, and much of the base was pitch black as we drove through it. Where there was a flood light, the rays were filtered by a haze of pollution and dust. Like many American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the air at Al Asad Air Base smells slightly of diesel fuel and raw sewage, and there is a constant purr of generators and air conditioners running in the background. Walking on base is punctuated by the crunch of the gravel laid down between buildings and tents to keep the dust down. Al Asad Air Base is located west of Baghdad.”
At 10:53 p.m. local time — with Bennett’s pool report finally sent to other reporters — Air Force lifted off on it’s way to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
“President Trump came to the press cabin during the flight from Iraq to Germany and spoke off the record for about 25 minutes. He wore a white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar and a blue blazer. He generally seemed relaxed and pleased with his visit to Iraq,” Bennett wrote in a later pool report.
At Ramstein, home to the 86th Airlift Wing, the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing, and the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing, Trump delivered more remarks.
“Around 2:30 am 8:30 pm ET Dec 26 / local time Dec 27, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump entered a large hanger where hundreds of service members were arranged in a large semi circle to greet the president. ‘Hello folks,’ Trump said, stretching out his arms. He was wearing his signature long red tie and a black overcoat. The First Lady was in black and white sneakers, a black bomber jacket and olive green pants. A few troops in uniform had brought red hats and held them as POTUS and FLOTUS shook hands and greeted troops. Pool was ushered out into a van after 15 minutes,” Bennett wrote, but Trump stayed for 45 minutes.
That early move to the press vans was “frustrating,” Bennett said.
“Toward the end of President Trump’s time with the troops, pool could see through the windows POTUS speaking into a microphone, also could hear cheers. Pool was not ushered back into the room so didn’t hear any remarks. The First Lady spoke too. Pool was told the remarks were not planned,” he said in a pool report.
“It was frustrating to be in the pool to see him speaking and not be able to hear him,” he told The Daily Wire.
The whole throng loaded back onto Air Force One, but Bennett’s work wasn’t done. He still had to write a story. He said he slept just two hours on the trip home.
While it had been a crazy 31 hours, Bennett was still thankful that Trump had not gone until very late on Christmas Day. “I felt lucky it wasn’t the night before so I could be home for a big family dinner.”