EXCLUSIVE: Inside the situation room when the “Rocket Man” insult was coined

I was granted exclusive access to the situation room at the White House when the president and his advisers brainstormed potentially damaging insults to throw at Kim Jong Un.

Late on Friday, President Trump called an emergency meeting of his staff in the situation room of the White House.

I was already walking with Kellyanne Conway, interviewing her for a lifestyle piece on Satanic rituals, when the emergency call went through to her office. As she listened to the receiver, I watched her face fall even further off her skull and we were hustled out of the West Wing immediately.

In such emergencies, all important White House staff are rushed by the Secret Service to the famous underground bunker, built to withstand nuclear blasts, chemical weapons and, now, JK Rowling retweets.

In the time of President Trump, important staff include his speechwriters, photographers, PR managers and his hairdresser.

… the famous underground bunker [is] built to withstand nuclear blasts, chemical weapons and, now, JK Rowling retweets.

Kellyanne invites me to join them to observe as she is well versed in my record of stellar journalistic integrity. This is a trust I don’t take lightly and will always honour, I tell her as I get a draft tweet ready.

The room itself is quite small, lit mainly by a bay of fluorescent lights reflecting off President Trump’s forehead. The resulting orange cast reminds me of Apocalypse Now, which doesn’t ease the sense of tension.

His staff of advisers and speechwriters are huddled around the famous oak table, almost buried in notes and post-its. It doesn’t look too dissimilar to any other writers room. Half eaten donuts scatter the floor. The smell of body odour and fake tan is difficult to ignore. Cardboard cups filled with black instant coffee crowd the table. It’s going to be a long night.

“What if,” one of the speechwriters chimes in, “we call him Kim as if it’s his first name?”

The speechwriters are scattered across the room in different positions: some standing, some leaning back with their legs on the table, one defacing a copy of The New York Times. The scene is like a tableau of the last supper, Jesus surrounded by his disciples, all arguing while he is at peace. The Jesus at the centre of this picture is Donald J Trump, which is fitting because he is stuffing his face with a Mediterranean style Panini and there are no women here.

It seems we have interrupted the meeting mid-brainstorm.

“What if,” one of the speechwriters chimes in, “we call him Kim as if it’s his first name?”

It is at this point that I realise I have walked into the emergency meeting of the century. Here, in front of my eyes, Donald Trump is deciding how to set the tone of diplomacy with what might be his greatest hair rival, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

“I mean Kim like Kimberley. You get it?” the writer tries again to a cold reception.

I learn throughout the meeting that President Trump is trying to toe the fragile line of insulting the most dangerous despot on the planet in a way that significantly reduces his ability to reign, while also not provoking all out nuclear war. It’s a tactic of military strategy that has been discussed and debated for millennia, ever since described in The Art of War.

“Your enemy cannot fight if he is rendered a jackass,” I recall Sun Tzu writes.

Trump is clearly running a similar thought through his head as he interrupts a suggestion to leak a Christian Bale-style rant with his trademark candor:

“This isn’t about hollow words, people. We need to strike him where it hurts. I will not risk all out nuclear curse words unless absolutely necessary. Jared, how are we going on the nickname option?”

Trump son in law and chief advisor Jared Kushner begins to read from a whiteboard at the other end of the table.

“At the moment the best we can do is ‘Rocket Man’.”

The room falls to a tense silence. I can tell that not many moments like this would happen in the course of history, but eventually every president must be faced with one. It is here, hundreds of feet beneath the White House, that the major turning points of history pivot.

War or no war, tweet or no tweet, these are the men who will decide the fate of all of us.

Trump takes his time, considering the phrase over the top of his enormous hands. In a last line of defence he turns for advice:

“General?”

General Walter Montgomery, 70 year old veteran and war hero sits to the right of the president, and seems surprised to be acknowledged.

“Mr President, with respect, I’m missing my granddaughter’s wedding for this.”

Trump nods solemnly.

“He’s right. Let’s do it.”

“Mr President, with respect, I’m missing my granddaughter’s wedding for this.”

General Walter Montgomery

And with that the room bustles into action yet again. All the phones are simultaneously grabbed and through the chaos and chatter I can just discern the president shaking hands with his closest advisors and opening Twitter on his phone as I am escorted out of the room and down the reinforced hall. War or no war, tweet or no tweet, these are the men who will decide the fate of all of us.

As I walk out the gates of the White House into the late afternoon Washington sun, it occurs to me that nobody up here is aware of the goings on beneath their feet. Unbeknownst to us, another crisis has been diverted. The situation is now no longer a situation. For now.

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