WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump harkened back to the free-wheeling style of his unconventional 2016 Republican primary campaign in a 77-minute press conference Thursday during which he touted his poll numbers and took on the “dishonest media.”
Payback was in the air as the newly-elected president took on the role of media critic. He excoriated CNN for its poor ratings, mocked the BBC as “that’s another beauty,” and responded to a question about anti-Semitism, saying to his questioner, “OK, sit down, I understand the rest of your question.”
Ditching decorum and diplomacy, Trump told the press, “the public doesn’t believe you anymore.”
The president took on the White House press corps after a week of negative news. Monday night National Security Adviser Mike Flynn resigned after the Washington Post reported that a Justice official had told the White House Flynn was susceptible to blackmail because he had misled senior administration officials about a conversation with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Then the New York Times reported that unnamed U.S. officials believed some Trump backers were in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign. Wednesday the Wall Street Journal ran a story that suggested intelligence officials were withholding information from the commander-in-chief.
When Trump refused to take TV news reporters’ questions about Flynn and Russia at Wednesday’s joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, CNN’s Jim Acosta charged that Trump’s decision to call on only conservative and Christian media meant, “The fix is in.”
At a news conference called ostensibly to announce the nomination of law school dean Alexander Acosta as Labor Secretary, Trump joked to the CNN reporter that he had his staff “check the family tree” to make sure that his nominee with the same last name was not related.
“You can’t say he’s not responsive to the press,” Alice Stewart, a former reporter and current CNN contributor, GOP strategist and Trump supporter, said after the news conference. “He answered all the questions from all over the press corps and put to rest the long-standing dialogue that he shuts down certain news outlets.”
A week’s worth of pent up questions gushed forth at the briefing.
Did Trump fire Flynn? Yes, but not for what he said to the Russian ambassador, but because Flynn withheld information from Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump dismissed “the failing New York Times” story on alleged campaign contact with Russian officials as “a joke” and “fake news” — fabricated to explain away Democrat Hillary Clinton’s election loss. The problem, Trump contended, are leakers “probably from the Obama administration” who have been feeding classified information to the media.
“I said to myself,” said Trump, “‘What happens when I’m dealing with the problem of North Korea?’”
So how can Trump complain about leaks of from his shop when he said he loved Wikileaks when it was releasing e-mails from Clinton campaign operatives? The difference, said Trump, is that this week’s stories involve “highly-classified information” — not Clinton campaign chairman “John Podesta saying bad things about the boss.”
At one point, Trump suggested that “false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia.”
As is his habit, Trump fudged a few facts himself – he said he won 306 electoral college votes, when in fact he won 304. He wrongly claimed that his win was “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” when George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama fared better in the electoral college.
“It’s just crazy,” opined former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno, author of the book, “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change.” “I know that this may scratch an itch that he has about the media and he feels this a really unfair situation and it may resonate with his base. This does not play well over time.”
Stewart is not so sure. “From a communications standpoint, I think attacking the media is not a smart move, but it’s worked for him,” she said. “His goal was to change the narrative and all you can say now is, ‘Mission accomplished.’”
On that point, Trump cited the latest Rasmussen poll, which found 55 percent of Americans approving of his performance in office.
For his part, Sesno believes the optics are bad as Trump came across as overly obsessed with the media. “He’s certainly not winning over the skeptics and the fence sitters.”
Trump, however, thinks the optics are bad for those who cover him. “And I’ll tell you what else I see,” Trump said during the epic press conference. “I see tone. You know the word ‘tone.’ The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such — I do get good ratings, you have to admit that — the tone is such hatred.”
At the White House, however, Trump argued life is good. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,” he said. “Chaos. Yet, it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.