8 min read

A rare trip inside Camp David

Here’s what it’s like inside the secretive grounds of the historic presidential retreat in Maryland.
A rare trip inside Camp David
President Biden and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida listen to South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol during a Camp David press conference. (Photo by Gabe Fleisher)

Good morning! It’s Monday, August 21, 2023. The 2024 elections are 442 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Welcome back to Wake Up To Politics! In this morning’s newsletter, I have some behind-the-scenes footage and details for you from President Biden’s Friday summit at Camp David. But first, let’s look ahead at the upcoming week...

The 2024 campaign will enter a new phase this week as Republicans gather in Milwaukee on Wednesday for their first presidential primary debate of the cycle.  

As I’ve written, this has been one of the most stable presidential primaries in recent memory, with Donald Trump boasting a larger polling lead than any non-incumbent frontrunner in the modern era. The debates have long been viewed as the most likely moment to break that logjam, building anticipation for the showdowns all summer.

Heading into the first debate, Trump’s lead is only growing. Most polls now show his GOP support closing in on 60%: Echelon Insights has him at 55%, Quinnipiac and Morning Consult have him at 57%, CBS has him at 62%.

In Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, Trump’s advantage is smaller, but still significant. A Des Moines Register/NBC News poll out this morning — conducted by Jo Selzer, widely considered to be the best pollster in American politics — put Trump at 42% in the state, compared to Ron DeSantis’ 19%. It was the largest Republican caucus lead Selzer has found in Iowa since George W. Bush in 2000.

That polling prowess is the reason Trump cited yesterday when announcing that he will not be joining his fellow candidates on stage in Milwaukee. Bragging that he led his rivals by “legendary” numbers, Trump wrote on Truth Social that “the public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had.” Then, the kicker: “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”

The announcement, after months of being teased by Trump, was not surprising, although it was surely a blow to the debate hosts at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, both of whom had publicly and privately urged the ex-president to attend. Trump is expected to release a pre-recorded interview with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox host, that night instead.

Trump’s absence further raises the stakes for DeSantis and the other GOP hopefuls, who now have an opportunity to introduce themselves to a national audience without his dominant presence to contend with. (Unfortunately for them, though, it will also likely mean fewer TV viewers and, for candidates like Chris Christie, no chance to take the fight to Trump directly.)

As his polling slide continues, even after several unsuccessful “resets,” DeSantis continues to face questions about the (mis)management of his campaign, which has largely been outsourced to an allied super PAC. Most recently, the group publicly posted a debate memo that only fed the perception that DeSantis is stilted, formulaic, and afraid to challenge Trump. (Advice included “attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times,” label Ramaswamy “Vivek the Fake,” and “defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”)

If DeSantis does not confound expectations on Wednesday, the Republican elites that make up his donor base may look elsewhere for a Trump alternative. Per Axios and the Washington Post, top GOP power-brokers — including Fox chief Rupert Murdoch — are continuing to dream about late entrants into the race, especially Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Even if DeSantis or another candidate does have a breakout night (Ramaswamy? Tim Scott? Nikki Haley?), their performance could soon be overshadowed — as is the story of this campaign — by Trump’s legal battles. The former president has until Friday to surrender to authorities in Atlanta, along with his 18-codefendants in Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis’ sweeping racketeering indictment.

Trump is expected to turn himself in on Thursday or Friday, conveniently just after the debate. Plans are still being finalized, but the local sheriff’s office has signaled that a mugshot of Trump will be taken when he surrenders, unlike after his three previous indictments. Coverage of the debate will soon be swamped by the inevitable appearance of Trump campaign t-shirts, stickers, magnets, you name it, graced with that instantly historic image.

What I saw on a rare trip to Camp David

(Photo by Gabe Fleisher)

Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in the Maryland countryside, has long played host to some of the most storied meetings between U.S. presidents and foreign leaders.

Franklin Roosevelt brought Winston Churchill there in 1943 to chart the course of World War II. It’s where Jimmy Carter holed up for 12 days in 1978 to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, resulting in the Camp David Accords. In 2000, Bill Clinton held a summit there with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, trying (and failing) to achieve a similar feat.

Every president has a different relationship with Camp David, which is about two hours outside Washington. The past two presidents barely went: Michelle Obama reportedly said her husband was too much of “an urban guy” to enjoy the retreat; Donald Trump had his own vacation properties.

But Joe Biden, who has likened the White House to a “gilded cage” and expressed discomfort living in the executive mansion, has more frequently sought refuge at Camp David. Per presidential statistician Mark Knoller, Biden has spent all or part of 98 days at Camp David, compared to 20 days and 48 days for Trump and Obama, respectively, at this point in their presidencies. (George W. Bush was even fonder of Camp David: he had spent 194 days there by this point in his tenure.)

Until last week, though, Biden had never taken the well-worn step of bringing foreign leaders there. On Friday, he took his first stab at Camp David diplomacy, hosting a trilateral summit with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol. I was there along with other reporters when the three leaders held a press conference following their meeting, a rare instance of outsiders being allowed onto the secretive retreat grounds. It was the first time any journalists had been there since 2018.

The meeting was historic in its own right: the leaders of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea had never held a standalone trilateral meeting outside the auspices of a larger international summit. The diplomatic significance was considerable: Japan and South Korea have had a historically uncomfortable relationship, dating back to when the former ruled over the latter from 1910 to 1945. But the trilateral alliance between them and the U.S. has become newly important as a means to counter rising threats from China and North Korea.

Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer, a prominent foreign policy analyst, called the summit Biden’s biggest diplomatic victory thus far. Dennis Wilder, who ran East Asia policy in the George W. Bush White House, hailed the summit as “mind-blowing,” writing: “We could barely get South Korea and Japanese leaders to meet with us in the same room.”

The three leaders produced several deliverables from the summit to strengthen their trilateral ties, including a new three-way hotline for crisis communications, plans for joint military exercises, economic cooperation like a warning system to catch supply chain disruptions, and public health cooperation like work on Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative.

A joint document summarizing their discussions, titled “The Spirit of Camp David,” condemned North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea, giving name to the adversaries that are drawing these three countries together into a deeper bond.    

In diplomatic circles, it is considered a rare honor to be brought to Camp David instead of the White House. A Camp David invite means a leader is being brought not to the president’s formal office space, but into his private sanctum; presidents generally bring leaders there as a way to show how important they are to the U.S. and to signal how much the president values their relationship.

All three leaders noted this significance at the press conference: “I can think of no more fitting location to begin our next era of cooperation [than] a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities,” Biden said.

“Here at Camp David, numerous historical meetings have taken place,” Kishida said. “And it is a huge honor to have printed a fresh page in its history with this meeting.” Yoon expressed hope that, “from this moment on, Camp David will be remembered as a historic place” where South Korea, the U.S., and Japan forever solidified their relationship.

“This is not about a day, a week, or month,” Biden said. “This is about decades and decades of relationships that we’re building.” The trio announced plans for the leaders of their countries to hold trilateral summits annually going forward.

Outside the stuffy confines of the White House, Biden seemed relaxed while at the presidential getaway. “Welcome to Camp David,” he began his remarks. “If I seem like I’m happy, it’s because I am.”

Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside Camp David? I was recording video the whole time I was there, in order to give you an inside peek at the rarely seen retreat grounds.

Watch my first-ever TikTok for some behind-the-scenes footage, including glimpses at the bus ride there, the journalistic stampede to the camp gift shop, and the historic trilateral press conference:  


Come with me on a rare trip to Camp David, the presidential retreat! #campdavid #whitehouse #president #presidentialhistory #politics

♬ original sound - Gabe Fleisher

And make sure to follow me on TikTok, @gabefleisherdc, for more behind-the-scenes video in the future.

More news to know.

California’s first tropical storm in nearly a century has made landfall.

850 people are missing after the Maui wildfires. At least 114 people have perished, making them the deadliest wildfires in modern U.S. history.

Close calls involving airplanes have happened multiple times a week this year, on average, per the New York Times.

The first GOP candidate to be endorsed by an Iowa statewide official? Vivek Ramaswamy, backed by the Iowa state treasurer this morning.

Mike Pence thinks Trump still might show up on Wednesday night. “I served alongside the president for a long time,” the ex-VP said. “And one thing I realized about him, it’s not over till it’s over.”

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will travel to Maui today to receive briefings on the wildfire recovery effort, meet with survivors, and thank first responders. Biden has received criticism for his response to the wildfires, which he barely addressed for several days while on vacation.

After the Maui trip, Biden will return to his vacation in Lake Tahoe, where he is staying at the home of billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, the party megadonor with whom he briefly competed for the Democratic presidential nod in 2020.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe