ERIE, Pa. — The president appears to be in a good place.
He is standing in the catacombs of the Erie Insurance Arena, hidden from the stands directly above him, where thousands of supporters are gathered to see him in this northwest Pennsylvania industrial town. Donald Trump is the calm in the center of the storm that surrounds every move he makes during his visit here.
While White House staff members — such as senior adviser Stephen Miller, assistant to the president Johnny DeStefano and deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters — bustle around him, the Secret Service agents and military personnel are like stone sentinels whom everyone else artfully moves around.
When I interview just about anyone, it always involves an audio recorder. When I interview the president of the United States, it always involves at least three audio recorders. It takes only one time for a recorder to fail you before you learn to always bring a backup.
Trump laughs as I sloppily place three of them on the floor at his feet and one in my hand.
“I’m very impressed. She doesn’t want to blow the interview,” he said to a room full of laughter and then shook my hand.
The president wants to know if I am staying for the speech and then notes that not only is the inside filled to the rafters but the outside is also. “They said it’s the biggest. … You know, there’s 10,000 people outside that can’t get in,” he says of the overflow crowd about to watch him on a Jumbotron set up outside the arena.
This is not your grandfather’s Erie. A generation ago, this town boomed in industry, and its residents were born mostly Catholic, with a union card in one hand and a registration card for the Democratic Party in the other.
Erie has been on its knees for years but is working its way back thanks to a dedicated business and civic leadership community that has called this area home for generations and is working to plug the flow of job losses that hit 10,000 between 2010 and 2016.
John Persinger, the Republican candidate for mayor last year, who lost by some 1,200 votes to Democrat Joe Schember, is part of that coalition of civic leaders as CEO of the Erie Downtown Development Corp.
Their goal: to revitalize the city of Erie.
Persinger, 37, says when he arrived Wednesday for the rally that the line stretched for four blocks “and then wrapped around the Federal Courthouse.” He added, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“The crowd was very peaceful and calm and happy to stay even if they didn’t get in,” he said.
“They are filled with hope,” said Trump when he again mentions the people waiting outside.
Our interview goes for 20 minutes, far longer than his aides want, but he doesn’t stop, and I don’t stop asking. He discusses the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which Democrat he’d like to face in the 2020 presidential election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Hillary Clinton, Kanye West, closing a trade deal with China and bringing the country back together.
Trump also discusses whom he’d like to face in 2020. “All of them,” he joked, but he does not want to give anyone too much fame. He then takes a jab at some of the potential Democratic opponents, claiming that Sen. Elizabeth Warren “made a living” dishonestly from being “an Indian under minority protections.” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has “destroyed Newark,” he says.
“Mr. President, there’s a lot of people waiting for you,” someone said from behind me.
Trump shakes my hand and thanks me. As he walks away, he turns and asks if I want to continue walking with him as he makes his way from one end of the arena to the other, toward the stage.
He pauses to straighten his tie in a mirror. We pass scores of Secret Service agents in suits, and as we move down the hallway, a line of men in drab-green full combat gear, including night vision goggles and automatic weapons, follows.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst.