WASHINGTON — One by one, they praised President Trump, taking turns complimenting his integrity, his message, his strength, his policies. Their leader sat smiling, nodding his approval.
“The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” Mike Pence said, starting things off.
“I am privileged to be here — deeply honored — and I want to thank you for your commitment to the American workers,” said Alexander Acosta, the secretary of labor.
Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, had just returned from Mississippi and had a message to deliver. “They love you there,” he offered, grinning across the antique table at Trump.
Reince Priebus, the chief of staff whose job insecurity has been the subject of endless speculation, outdid them all, telling the president — and the assembled news cameras — “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda.”
So it went on Monday in the Cabinet Room of the White House, as Trump transformed a routine meeting of senior members of his government into a mood-boosting, ego-stroking display of support for himself and his agenda. While the president never explicitly asked to be praised, Pence set the worshipful tone, and Trump made it clear he liked what he heard.
“Thank you, Mick,” he told Mick Mulvaney, his budget director. “Good job,” he told Scott Pruitt, his EPA chief. “Very good, Daniel,” he said to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.
The highly unusual spectacle occurred before the Cabinet meeting got down to business and the TV cameras were banished. It seemed designed to deflect attention from the president’s faltering agenda and the accusations leveled against him last week by the fired FBI director, James Comey, which are threatening to further overshadow his agenda and haunt his presidency.
Days before, Comey had charged that Trump had lied about his firing and inappropriately sought to influence the Russia investigation. On Monday, the president said the country was “seeing amazing results” from his leadership.
“I will say that never has there been a president, with few exceptions — in the case of FDR he had a major Depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Trump said. “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be, and at a just about record-setting pace.”
Trump has yet to sign any major legislation, and his White House has been buffeted by legal and ethical questions surrounding the investigation into his campaign’s possible links to Russia and his firing of the FBI director who had been leading that inquiry.
The tableau in the Cabinet Room drew instant derision from critics. And within hours, Democrats had pounced.
“GREAT meeting today with the best staff in the history of the world!!” Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said in a post on Twitter.
In a video posted with the tweet, Schumer, a New York Democrat, sat at a table with young staff members who, at his prompting, praised his performance on Sunday talk shows and the appearance of his hair. One repeated Priebus’s quotation word for word, prompting the senator and his aides to erupt into laughter.
The endorsements from the administration’s highest officials may have served as a comforting counterpoint to Trump’s sinking poll numbers. Fifty-nine percent disapprove of the job he is doing as president, according to a June 11 Gallup tracking survey, with only 36 percent approving.
After his upbeat introductory remarks on Monday, the president went around the table asking for a statement from each Cabinet member. One by one, they said their names and — as if working to outdo one another — paid homage to Trump, describing how honored they were to serve in his administration.
“Thank you for the opportunity to serve at SBA,” said Linda McMahon, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, trumpeting “a new optimism” for small businesses.
Ben Carson, the housing secretary, called it “a great honor” to work for Trump, while Perdue offered congratulations for “the men and women you have gathered around this table.”
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told Trump: “It was a great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year, and an even greater honor to be here serving on your Cabinet.”
A few Cabinet members diverged from the apparent script. Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense whose reputation for independence has been a comfort to Trump’s critics, refrained from personally praising the president, instead aiming his comments at US troops fighting and dying for their country.
“Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense, and we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength,” Mattis said as Trump sat, stern-faced.
But the meeting still struck White House officials of past administrations as odd.
“I ran 16 Cabinet meetings during Obama’s 1st term,” Chris Lu, former president Barack Obama’s Cabinet secretary, wrote on Twitter. “Our Cabinet was never told to sing Obama’s praises. He wanted candid advice not adulation.”
The show of support for the president was in keeping with an intense effort by the White House to boost Trump’s mood and change the subject from Comey’s damaging testimony last week.
“Finally held our first full @Cabinet meeting today,” Trump tweeted later, along with a video of the meeting-turned-pep rally. “With this great team, we can restore American prosperity and bring real change to D.C.”