The fourth week of Donald Trump’s presidency has been tumultuous, with his top national security official being forced out due to scandal, reports that members of his campaign staff and associates had contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials last year, and various factions of his White House apparently knifing each other in the press. Meanwhile, an initial flurry of new policy actions has slowed to a crawl, his major immigration order remains blocked in the courts, and a significant legislative achievement remains far away.
So on Thursday, Trump tried to change the narrative by giving an impromptu press conference — and what a press conference it was.
Trump made the case that his administration was “running like a fine-tuned machine,” and that he’s made “incredible progress” on fixing the nation’s problems so far. He made a case to “the American people” that he was keeping the promises he made on the campaign trail. He also made a plethora of false claims on matters from the size of his Electoral College win to just what his executive actions actually did.
But the larger strategic goal of the presser became clear with one theme Trump repeatedly returned to — the alleged “dishonesty” of the media, an institution that, it is now clear, Trump has decided to fully elevate as his most important foe.
Indeed, without Hillary Clinton (whom Trump was eager to bring up and disparage on Thursday, months after the campaign ended) or any of his GOP primary rivals as foils to fight back against, the Trump administration has seemed a bit adrift in its first month. Trump seems to feel that he’s at his best when he’s fighting, but it wasn’t clear who his main opponent was now that he’s the most powerful man in the world.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon early on suggested that it was now the media that’s “the opposition party” and therefore Trump’s most important foe. But it was only on Thursday that Trump truly threw himself into combat with the press on equal footing, by spending an hour or so taking questions from them.
“Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day?” Trump said at one point. “That’s how I won. I won with news conferences and probably speeches.” He added: “I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people, that’s for sure.”
Yet while Trump seemed to enjoy the freewheeling presser and is clearly experimenting with returning to his unscripted early primary days (he’s planned a big rally in Florida this Saturday), it’s hard to see it working.
He’s not in a campaign setting anymore — he’s responsible for results. And a combative back and forth will do little to obscure the reality of an administration increasingly beset by scandal that has achieved very little of substance so far.
President Trump wants another enemy to fight and defeat, and he’s picked the media
It was likely no accident that Trump used a lengthy event in which he took questions from the media to ... denounce the media.
Yes, he has been increasingly aggrieved at leaks and critical press coverage of late. But he’s perfectly capable of making those views clear through prepared statements, friendly interviewed, or tweets.
“Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that we deserve,” he said in his opening statement. “Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.”
Then he proceeded to take question after question from those reporters — even from outlets he says he considers hostile, like CNN, which he complained is full of “anger and hatred.”
In doing so, Trump both made the press a scapegoat for anything that’s gone wrong in his administration so far and elevated the media as an opponent to himself that he could fight back against.
The president was rarely at a loss for words in his answers — even if his train of thought was sometimes difficult to follow. Asked how he could deem leaks of accurate information to be fake news, he responded: “The leaks are real; you’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. The leaks are absolutely real. ... The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
Trump hand-waved away recent reports of scandal
When it came to the topic dominating news coverage of the administration this week — the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — Trump bobbed and weaved.
To recap: During the transition, Flynn made a series of phone calls with the Russian ambassador around the time President Obama was announcing new sanctions on the country in reprisal for election-related email hacking. Flynn maintained, both publicly and (the administration claims) privately, that sanctions were never discussed in the calls, and Vice President Mike Pence made that case in public.
However, it turned out that US intelligence agencies were keeping tabs on the calls and that sanctions were in fact discussed. Trump’s team was informed of that by acting Attorney General Sally Yates, but they did nothing about it until news leaked out into the Washington Post. Flynn was fired soon afterward.
Many have wondered whether Flynn was freelancing or whether he was acting on Trump’s instructions when he talked sanctions with the ambassador. That’s a potential problem because it could violate an obscure, rarely enforced law called the Logan Act.
But the line Trump took in the presser was essentially that even though he didn’t ask Flynn to talk sanctions, he wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that he did so. Flynn, he said, was just “doing his job.” However, he continued, “the thing is he didn’t tell our vice president properly and then he said he didn’t remember, so either way it wasn’t very satisfactory to me.”
What Trump elides here is that he had known that Flynn misled the vice president since last January but did not fire Flynn until the news leaked this week.
Furthermore, when asked about the recent report that some of his top associates were in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials before the election, Trump said it came from the “failing New York Times.”
He insisted his associates had denied that the story was true. “Speaking for myself, I know nothing in Russia, I have no loans in Russia, I don’t have any deals in Russia.” He insisted again, “I had nothing to do with it! I have nothing to do with Russia, I told you!”
“Russia is fake news,” he added. The “real news,” he said, was the leaking of information from “confidential investigations.”
“I was given that information, I didn’t know.”
At several points, Trump himself made statements that were, well, fake. The best example, which reporters confronted him over, was his demonstrably false brag about the size of his Electoral College victory.
“I put it out before the American people, got 306 electoral college votes,” he said. “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.”
That last part would be true — except for George H.W. Bush’s win, Bill Clinton’s two wins, and Barack Obama’s two wins. So almost all of them.
One reporter called him on this, and Trump clarified he was only talking about Republicans. But even that wasn’t true, because of George H.W. Bush. Finally, he admitted, “I was given that information, I don’t know.” He added: “I had a very big margin.”
Trump wants to paint a picture of success. It’s not convincing.
Perhaps the most narrative-defying argument Trump tried to make was that his administration has been extraordinarily successful.
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos, chaos,” he said. “Yet it’s the exact opposite. The administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
That doesn’t seem to be remotely true, as Matt Yglesias recently wrote. There was much less to Trump’s initial flurry of executive actions than met the eye. Many simply announced priorities or called on administration officials to draw up plans to solve some problems eventually.
Meanwhile, Trump’s most significant executive action — his immigration order — is stalled in court. On that topic, Trump insisted that “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban. But we had a bad court, a bad decision.” What actually happened was notoriously chaotic, led to hundreds of people being detained, initially applied to up to 500,000 green card holders before being modified, and was so poorly crafted that it was blocked in court. Now, Trump says, he’s going to pull it and replace it with a new version, which doesn’t exactly imply a smooth rollout.
The bigger picture is that the president has signed no significant new laws and made little progress on what were supposed to be the two biggest Republican priorities — Obamacare repeal and tax reform. As for the administration itself, its officials have spent much of their time leaking furiously to undermine one another and sometimes even the president himself.
And though Trump mostly stuck to the line that he’d achieved extraordinary things already, he did at one point acknowledge that his team was being at least somewhat distracted by the many controversies unfolding.
“Take a look at Reince,” Trump said, referring to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. “He’d rather be working on health care. He’d rather be working on tax reform.” Instead, though, “he’s working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires.” He added: “Isn’t that a shame?”