It’s a talent Perez has honed over nearly four years in what some describe as one of the White House’s toughest jobs. Hired by chance after the Trump campaign Googled “teleprompters” and the company he worked for in New York came up, Perez has become the one person Trump trusts to manage his oratory acrobatics, embellishments and ad-libs during even the most scripted appearances.
“It’s like a high-wire act with no safety net,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s former communications strategist said.
It may seem like a minor job, but Perez’s ability to sync up with Trump during speeches is key to how the president communicates his message — and how he rose to power. Trump’s brash and captivating style at the pulpit has always been key to his appeal and how he connects with his base. And on the global stage, teleprompter Trump is how the president translates “America First” for the rest of the world.
The president’s speeches can be likened to a roller coaster ride. They may begin with pre-written policy points, but will inevitably swerve into talk of windmills, dip into jocular opinions on light bulbs, corkscrew into savage commentary on immigration, then free-fall into musings on news of the day. Throughout the turbulence, Perez must listen closely to scroll through pre-written script, then pause and recalibrate when the president chooses to go in a different direction.
On Tuesday night, Perez and the White House Communications Agency will face one of their biggest annual challenges — the State of the Union address. Nearly 50 million people will be watching as Trump tries to make his case for re-election. Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, Perez will likely have to navigate up to 100 applause breaks that constantly threaten to disrupt the speech’s flow.
But the challenge is now one Perez has mastered.
The Trump campaign stumbled upon Perez in 2016. As Trump began making more consistent speeches on the trail, Trump campaign advance man George Gigicos Googled “teleprompters,” according to Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie’s account in “Let Trump Be Trump.” They came upon VIP Prompting, which has worked with the White House on teleprompters since the Lyndon Johnson administration. Perez, through VIP Prompting, was soon working for the future president.
“He made the device user friendly for the boss, learning just how he liked it positioned,” Bossie and Lewandowski wrote. “He became a whiz at breaking down and setting up the teleprompter, because he’d fly with us on Trump Force One around the country.”
Since that serendipitous moment, Perez has played a role in some of the most important and high-stress moments of the Trump presidency. At the White House, however, Perez has kept a low profile. He declined an interview request for this report. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Perez can often be spotted in the corner of the East Room with the WHCA staffers, sitting in front of one of two laptops, scrolling through the president’s prepared remarks. Just in case something goes awry, there is a backup system to ensure the president is able to continue with his remarks. Sometimes, before a speech begins, the president’s senior policy advisor and speechwriter Stephen Miller will huddle with Perez to change or add a phrase.
“Any time you see Stephen [Miller] head over to Gabe before a speech starts, there’s always a hold your breath moment like, ‘What’s going on here?’” Miller said.
Adam Belmar, who served on President George W. Bush’s communications staff and worked with the teleprompter, said the operator needs an intimate knowledge of the speech, the speaker’s tics and the audience’s reaction.
“You need to make sure you’re on the same page in terms of applause and what they’re saying,” Belmar said. “Any time you get out of sync, you lose the confidence of the boss.”
“I wouldn’t want that job,” said another Bush administration senior official.
That Trump even uses a teleprompter is somewhat remarkable.
At first, the president was reluctant to use a prompter. He had mocked President Barack Obama’s reliance on using one everywhere he went. “We have a teleprompter president,” Trump teased in 2015.
But Trump, too, found it was a useful tool, even as he rarely stuck to the script. It soon became apparent that there were two Trumps: “Twitter Trump,” the unpredictable, discursive president, and the more formulaic, “teleprompter Trump.”
“It’s much easier to tell when he’s ad-libbing,” said former Obama speechwriter David Litt. “You can tell when he’s not read through the material he’s seeing.”
For ex-Obama aides, Trump’s reliance on the teleprompter to deliver pre-written speeches can be grating after hearing constant taunts from Trump and other Republicans about Obama’s teleprompter use.
“For years, Republicans would criticize Obama for using a teleprompter, meaning that he doesn’t know what he’s saying, which isn’t true,” Litt said. “And now Trump uses a teleprompter and you can tell he doesn’t know what he’s saying, and those Republicans are nowhere to be found.”
Leaning on a teleprompter is far from foolproof — it can even generate embarrassing headlines for a president.
Multiple former communications staffers pointed to President Bill Clinton’s 1993 address to Congress on health care as the biggest teleprompter mishap, when the wrong speech was loaded into the machine. Clinton spoke extemporaneously for seven minutes as every member of Congress and millions of Americans looked on. Behind the scenes, George Stephanopoulos, then a communications aide, scrambled to load the correct version into the machine.
Years later, the phonetic pronunciations displayed on President George W. Bush’s teleprompter for locations like Kyrgyzstan “(KEYR-geez-stan)” was accidentally published on the United Nations website after an address, playing into criticisms that Bush was naive about foreign affairs.
Trump has also been known to have a few frustrating moments with the teleprompter.
In 2016, then-candidate Trump said to a cheering crowd he makes speeches better without a teleprompter, then, much to the dismay of advance staff, dramatically pushed the expensive machine off the stage, causing the glass to crash to the ground.
Three years later, Trump blamed the teleprompter for several gaffes that set Twitter ablaze during his Fourth of July speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Trump, recounting the American Revolution — but confusingly referencing historical sites from the War of 1812 — made the eyebrow-raising remark that the American army had occupied airports.
“Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare it had nothing but victory,” Trump said. “And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”
On Twitter, #RevolutionaryWarAirports instantly took off.
“It kept going on and at the end it just went out,” Trump told reporters about the teleprompter after his speech. “It went kaput … and that’s not a good feeling, when you’re standing in front of millions of millions of people on television.”
More recently, at an August campaign rally in Lima, Ohio, the president said he pronounced the name of the city incorrectly — like the city in Peru rather than the bean — because the phonetic spelling was wrong on the teleprompter.
“They have it wrong on the teleprompter,” Trump said. “But the good news is I don’t use the teleprompter too much. If I did, you would have been out of here a long time ago, because it gets very boring when you do the teleprompter deal.”
Arun Chaudhary, an Obama White House videographer who was later Bernie Sanders’ 2016 creative director, said in moments like that, the prompter operator has to be “zen.”
“You’re speeding up and slowing down according to how you think the speaker is going to be or how they want,” Chaudhary said.
One of the VIP Prompting’s co-owners, Chris O’Brien, said teleprompter operators are trained to handle the machines in tense situations.
“The stress level is high because if you make a mistake, millions of people find out,” O’Brien said.
But for a president who is so conscientious about his public image and not embarrassing himself, Perez has managed to stay on as one of the few staffers who has been in the White House since the campaign.
“He’s been seamless in his performance and he’s outlasted multiple chiefs of staff, and so he’s doing something right,” Miller said.