WASHINGTON (AP) — A carousel spun joyfully within sight of the Truman Balcony. Members of Congress munched on fried chicken and their children watched toy boats float in a pool. Ivanka Trump lifted her daughter off her feet and spun her around in the Rose Garden.
For one night, the South Lawn of the White House was decorated to resemble Central Park, as a tribute to the New Yorkers who now call the executive mansion home. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, hosted their first congressional picnic Thursday, with the president using the convivial evening to pay tribute to Rep. Steve Scalise, hospitalized after being seriously wounded in a shooting last week.
Trump also paid tribute to the spirit of “unity” that was on display the next night at the annual congressional charity baseball game and declared that more of it was needed in a nation’s capital so often divided by partisan rancor.
“It’s our hope that the unity that was displayed that evening can maybe continue to grow and thrive between Republicans and Democrats. I think we’d all be doing a lot better and I know the country would be doing a lot better,” said Trump in brief remarks to the crowd. “Tonight, let us enjoy the comfort of our loved ones and tomorrow let us continue to do the people’s bidding and create the optimistic future our citizens so richly deserve.”
The night presented a rare escape for a president who, just hours earlier, finally admitted he did not record conversations with then-FBI director James Comey. Trump bluffed about the tapes just days after he fired Comey, beginning a chain reaction of events that led to the appointment of a special counsel and darkened the clouds of scandals that have settled around the White House.
The mood on the lawn, which truthfully did not much resemble Manhattan’s green jewel but was adorned beautifully with strings of lights and spectacular views of the Washington Monument, was a long way from the firestorms so often set off by the president’s early morning tweets.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sporting a short-sleeved collared shirt, smiled pleasantly as he worked on his dinner. A toddler kept trying to race past Secret Service agents toward the Oval Office despite his father’s best efforts to corral him. Several senior White House aides — including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway — mingled, occasionally stopping for photos.
Chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s powerful son-in-law, were at one moment spotted in an animated conversation, though the two men quickly displayed over-the-top smiles and walked off together once they realized they had been spotted by photographers.
Democrats were far outnumbered on the lawn, though a few, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, were spotted gliding through crowds of congressional families and aides. Trump did not spend much time mingling, and there was no sign that he was able to personally lobby any of the holdout Republican senators who voiced opposition to the GOP health care bill that was introduced hours before.
But the president paid tribute to the “wonderful tradition” that is the picnic and offered kind words for his family’s new home and their new neighbors, noting to laugher that he and his wife have “developed friendships with some really great people – mostly.”