WASHINGTON — The leaks are real. But the news about them is fake. The White House is a fine-tuned machine. Russia is a ruse.
For its stunning moments and memorable one-liners, Donald Trump’s first solo news conference as president has no rivals in recent memory. For all the trappings of the White House and traditions of the forum, his performance was one of a swaggering, blustery campaigner, armed with grievances and primed to unload on his favorite targets.
In nearly an hour and a half at the podium, Trump bullied reporters, dismissed facts and then cracked a few caustic jokes – a combination that once made the candidate irresistible cable TV fodder. Now in office, he went even further, blaming the media for all but sinking his not-yet-launched attempt to “make a deal” with Moscow.
That matters, Trump said in one of his many improvisational asides, because he’d been briefed and “I can tell you … nuclear holocaust would be like no other.”
This was his and his aides’ attempt to get the boss his groove back. Trump used the event to try to claw his young administration back from the brink after a defeat in court and the forced resignation of his top national security adviser.
He taunted reporters and waved away their attempts to fact-check him in real time. He (incorrectly) touted his Electoral College total and repeatedly blasted his November opponent – somehow mentioning Hillary Clinton more than anyone else in his defense of his administration’s early days. He bragged that his White House is “a fine-tuned machine” and claimed “there has never been a presidency that has done so much in such a short period of time.”
If only the news media would give him credit. Over and over, he accused the political press of being dishonest and suggested that any negative coverage of his administration was “fake news.” He unloaded a torrent of grievances while positioning himself as the stand-in for the everyman, who, he declared, hates and distrusts reporters as much as he does.
“The press – the public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now, maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you,” Trump charged. “But you’ve got to be at least a little bit fair, and that’s why the public sees it. They see it. They see it’s not fair. You take a look at some of your shows and you see the bias and the hatred.”
The hastily called news conference was not on the White House’s original schedule for Thursday, and some of Trump’s own aides were surprised when the president let slip at a morning meeting that he would hold the event in the East Room just hours later.
The performance was vintage Trump, a throwback to the messy, zinger-filled news conferences he held during the early stages of his campaign. And, when combined with a rally slated for Saturday in Florida, it appeared to be the start of a one-two punch meant to re-energize a president whose White House in recent days has been buffeted by crisis and paralyzed by dysfunction.
Yet it was a far cry from the “buck stops here” mantra popularized by Harry Truman and other presidents who believed that the ultimate responsibility for any White House struggles lay with the president himself. Trump was eager to assign blame elsewhere, ignoring the nation’s healthy economy and relative peace when he took office to say “to be honest, I inherited a mess, a mess, at home and abroad, a mess.”
He mostly blamed the media for his woes, rebuffing suggestions that he was undermining confidence in the press or threatening the First Amendment by trying to convince the nation that “the press honestly is out of control.”
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people,” he said. “Tremendous disservice.”
Never before has a president stood in the White House and so publicly maligned the press or attacked reporters by name, according to presidential historians. Not even Richard Nixon in the days of Watergate.
“It was bizarre theater,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. “He turned a presidential press conference into a reality TV show in which he can be the star and browbeat anyone who objects to him with the power of his office.”
But for Trump, it continued a defining theme and amplified his chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s decree that the media are “the opposition party.”
Trump had put claims of press prejudice at the center of his campaign in an unprecedented way and earlier this month falsely accused the media of refusing to cover terrorist attacks across the world. Though Thursday’s news conference was a messy, fact-challenged affair, it may well have been cheered by Trump supporters across the country who had packed arenas last year to jeer reporters and chant “tell the truth” at the press pen.
An Associated Press-GfK poll taken on the eve of the election revealed that 87 percent of Trump’s supporters saw the media as biased against him.
Trump retains support among Republicans, and solid majorities of Americans say he is following through on his promises and is viewed as a strong leader, according to a Gallup survey. But his overall job approval rating is much lower than those of past presidents at the same point in their administrations. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 39 percent of Americans approve of his job performance while 56 percent disapprove.
For all of Trump’s complaints, he appeared to delight in sparring with reporters in what was only his second news conference since last July. Several times he extended the event in order to field more questions.
Not that he answered them all. He dodged inquiries about his campaign’s links to Russia and talked down several reporters before they could finish their questions.
On one subject in the news, he did defend the national security adviser he recently fired.
But he also made a point of complimenting a softball inquiry about the first lady as “a very nice question.” He teased CNN reporter Jim Acosta for having the same last name as his new pick for labor secretary – Alexander Acosta, whose appointment was ostensibly the reason for the news conference – and said he asked his staff to make sure the men weren’t related.
There were startling moments aplenty.
He chided a Jewish reporter wearing a kippah for asking a question about anti-Semitism. He asked an African-American reporter whether she could help set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. He displayed a rare moment of introspection when he discussed his love for kids amid his “very, very hard” decision whether to potentially deport young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.
But mostly it was Trump’s bravado on display, as when he incorrectly asserted that his Electoral College victory had been the largest of any president since Ronald Reagan — and then simply dismissed a reporter’s attempt to correct him.
“Well, I don’t know, I was given that information,” said Trump. “But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?”
Story: Jonathan Lemire