Thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters started the chant before Air Force One had even touched down in Melbourne, Florida, for the president’s first “campaign rally” in office on Saturday.
“CNN sucks! CNN sucks! CNN sucks!” they yelled.
In one warm-up speech, Trump supporter Lynette Hardaway praised the president for “giving the media a spanking — and daring them to cry about it.” Before Trump started to speak, his wife, Melania Trump, decried “whatever it is they are saying about me.”
All of that laid the groundwork for how the president himself would rip on the press when it came his turn to grip the lectern: “Despite all their lies, misrepresentations, and false stories, they could not defeat us in the primaries, and they could not defeat us in the general election. And we will continue to expose them for what they are,” he said. “They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system.”
During the campaign for president, Trump concentrated his firepower on “crooked” Hillary Clinton as his main villain — the embodiment of the “corrupt system” he was trying to defeat. But winning isn’t enough to make Trump stop campaigning. While president, he has swapped out his Democratic rival for the Fourth Estate — and kept everything else from his stump speech more or less the same.
Running against the media, Trump returns to the campaign trail
Almost everything about Trump’s return to the campaign trail on Saturday felt like it could have been ripped from an October 2016 rally — except that the election had already happened.
The Trumps descended the stairs to Lee Greenwood’s country song “I’m Proud to Be an American.” They walked in front of a crowd of about 9,000 supporters, who cheered wildly, snapped photos, and waved campaign signs. “Hillary for Prison!” one read. Trump pointed at the crowd and gave a thumbs up.
With a few exceptions — praising his Supreme Court nominee, whose “writings are truly amazing,” reading directly from his executive order on immigration, and arriving on Air Force One — Trump’s speech could have been delivered at almost any point in the campaign.
“I’m here to tell you about our plans for the future: They’re big, they’re bold,” Trump said. “This will be change for the ages. Change like never before.”
The one exception, of course, was Clinton. Instead, Trump concentrated on flaying the press. Among other things, he:
- Complained about CNN polling. “My wife said when some of these phony polls were put out, the CNN poll was so far off, the phony polls,” Trump said. “We did very nicely with women. We did nicely with a lot of groups they didn't think we were going to do so nicely with.”
- Slammed “fake news” or the media on more than 10 separate occasions.
- Attacked the media for focusing too much on anti-Trump demonstrations. “There was a tiny group of protesters out there, and they were given as much publicity as this massive room packed with people,” Trump said.
- Read a quote from Thomas Jefferson knocking the media (while not also acknowledging that Jefferson had also praised the press as more essential than the American government itself).
- Lamented that the media would “never thank me” for brokering a deal on F-35 fighter jets.
- Accused the media of publishing stories with invented sources, “even though they pretend they have them — they make them up in many cases.”
“When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it,” Trump said. “I will do whatever I can to make sure that they don't get away with it.”
For the most part, the crowd appeared to eat it up. Trump seemed to be enjoying himself. Before landing, reporters had asked Trump why he had returned to the trail so soon into his term. “Life is a campaign,” the president had said. “Making our country great again, it’s a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign.”
Trump to press pool right before rally: "Life is a campaign. Making our country great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign." pic.twitter.com/OBnIpCymH4— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) February 18, 2017
What the hell is Trump doing campaigning already?
No president in American history has held a campaign rally this early in his term, according to Robert Dallek, a retired presidential historian who taught at Columbia University.
“This is unprecedented,” Dallek said in an interview. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Sometimes, he noted, presidents have delivered speeches that represent an attempt to circumvent Capitol Hill by speaking directly to the public. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance, both gave Oval Office addresses in their first years.
But as Dallek notes, Reagan and Clinton were doing something entirely different. Trump is holding a campaign rally that’s explicitly about his “movement,” rather than an attempt to reach out to the losers of the election. And while former presidents certainly criticized press coverage, Trump has taken that barrage to another level.
"Sometimes presidents try to go over the head of Congress and the press to the American people," Dallek said. "But this is different: Trump is waging open war on the press. And that's genuinely different."
Trump’s defenders will say there’s a conscious strategy at work. Jeffrey Lord, a pro-Trump talking head on CNN, argued that Trump is trying to replicate his campaign strategy to pressure lawmakers on Capitol Hill into working with him.
“They’re very conscious of how he got there — you have to rally your base and keep them posted, and energize them,” Lord said in an interview.
Others are more skeptical. They note that Trump has appeared to grow increasingly frustrated in the White House — lashing out over leaks, tweeting incessantly and erratically, and placing 3 am calls to advisers.
Basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd, even for just one night, may be one way to relieve the pressure. “We observers, who want to make sense of what’s happening, like to think of what presidents do in terms of their strategic incentives — to figure out the calculation behind their every move,” says David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. “But that’s not always useful for explaining Trump. It’s long been clear that Trump does things that can only be explained by psychology. There are things he does that clearly come from a personal, emotional instinct on his part. And it’s clear he loves and has had a lot of fun getting positive affection at these rallies. So it’s possible he’s just doing that.”