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Trump’s latest press conference was a master class in gaslighting

Take a question. Answer it as you see fit or just change the topic. Move on.

President Donald Trump Departs White House For Midwest Trip
Trump speaks outside the White House on Friday.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spoke to and took questions from the media for about 30 minutes on Friday morning across a range of topics. He lied about just about all of them.

Trump took credit for legislation that was actually signed into law by President Barack Obama. Providing no evidence, he dismissed reporting that reflects poorly upon his administration as the result of reporters fabricating sources. He pushed baseless conspiracy theories about social media allegedly companies discriminating against conservatives. And that was just the beginning.

Trump’s helicopter-side news conference, which he held while leaving the White House for a trip to Wisconsin and Ohio, was a master class in gaslighting. The president took questions from a range of reporters, but he afforded them no opportunities to ask follow-ups. Instead, he took one question at a time — answering it on his own terms or completely changing the topic as he saw fit — before moving on to the next.

It illustrated how Trump carefully manages the settings in which he makes himself available to reporters so he can control his message, no matter how divorced from reality it may be.

Here’s a rundown of just some of the things Trump misled about during a single press availability.

Trump gaslights about Acosta and Epstein

The main headline coming out of Trump’s media available is that Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta is resigning. Acosta has come under increasing criticism for his role in cutting a sweetheart plea deal with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein back in 2008, back when Acosta was a US attorney. Acosta held a widely-panned news conference on Wednesday, after Epstein was arrested and indicted on new child sex trafficking charges in New York, in which he tried to rewrite history by shifting blame for the plea deal to everyone but himself.

On Friday, Trump announced Acosta’s impending resignation, then characterized Acosta’s deal with Epstein as one “people are happy with, and then 12 years later, they are not happy about it.”

“The fact is he has been a fantastic secretary of labor,” Trump added. “This is him not me, because I am with him.” (Acosta said he was resigning to not divert attention from the Labor Department’s work.)

But in reality there were a number of groups unhappy about Acosta’s plea deal with Epstein — Epstein’s victims being foremost among them. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that the 2008 Acosta-Epstein deal actually violated the law because Epstein’s victims weren’t looped in about it.

Trump went on to portray Acosta as a victim of a political witch hunt, saying all Democrats are doing “is trying to hurt people like Alex Acosta.” But Penny Nance, CEO of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, called on Acosta to resign last December, and the new scrutiny on Epstein came as a result of investigative reporting by the Miami Herald and work by federal prosecutors — not congressional Democrats.

Trump tries to rewrite history about his relationship with Epstein

Back in 2002, Trump referred to Epstein as a “terrific guy” whom he’d known for 15 years, and noted that “[i]t is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side” — comments that are an especially bad look in light of the new child sex trafficking charges Epstein faces.

So on Friday, Trump tried to rewrite history.

“I was not a fan of Jeffrey Epstein, and you watched people yesterday saying that I threw him out of [Mar-a-Lago], I didn’t want anything to do with him,” Trump said. “That was many, many years ago. It shows you one thing — that I have good taste.”

Trump at another point confirmed that he had a falling out of some sort with Epstein, though he didn’t detail exactly what happened. The New York Post on Tuesday reported that Trump banned Epstein from Mar-a-Lago for sexually assaulting a woman on the premises, citing court papers. But if that’s true, it’s unclear why Trump didn’t contact authorities to report the crime.

Trump tries to frame his citizenship question cave as a win

Trump’s press availability was his first since he announced on Thursday that he was giving up on his quest to add a citizenship question to the census — an announcement that many conservatives viewed as a sign of weakness.

But on Friday, Trump tried to spin it as a show of strength, saying, “Not only didn’t I back down, I backed up.”

“Anybody else would’ve given this up a long time ago,” he added. “The problem is we had three unfriendly courts.”

But the bottom line is that even though the Supreme Court recently left the door open to the Trump administration adding a citizenship question to the census if they could come up with a rationale for doing so that wasn’t transparently political, Trump decided not to even try. The path forward for the administration was full of “practical and legal difficulties that had only worsened in recent days,” as my colleague Andrew Prokop explained, but Trump’s decision not to keep fighting was a major victory for Democrats and activists who had challenged the move.

If that’s not a “back down,” then nothing is.

Trump takes credit for Obama’s legislation

While ticking through his administration’s accomplishments on Friday, Trump claimed that “the vets now have choice — they never had choice before.”

“For 44 years, they’ve tried to get Veterans Choice, I got it,” Trump said. “Nobody else could’ve gotten it.”

As I’ve previously detailed, this particular Trump talking point represents an especially egregious bit of gaslighting.

It makes sense that he would want to claim the Veterans Choice bill — it provides easier access to care by allowing veterans to see doctors and go to facilities outside the VA system — but the bill in question was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. Trump approved an expansion of the program into law last year, but even then other Republicans like the late Sen. John McCain were more instrumental in getting in passed than Trump was.

Trump claims Article 2 gives him nearly unlimited powers

On the topic of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s forthcoming testimony before Congress, Trump brought up Article 2 of the Constitution, the portion that addresses the executive branch, and claimed it gives him nearly unlimited powers.

“Nobody ever mentions Article 2,” Trump said. “It gives me all of these rights at a level that nobody has ever seen before.”

The absurdity of Trump’s suggestion that nobody heard about the Constitution before he started talking about it aside, the point he’s trying to make is that there’s nothing untoward about his moves to fire then-FBI Director James Comey amid an active investigation of his campaign or his repeated efforts to remove Mueller, because Article 2 gives him the power to basically do whatever he wants.

This argument is controversial at best. Last year, Duke law professor Samuel Buell told the New York Times that he doesn’t think the constitution gives the president the power to fire officials if the intent is to cover up crimes.

“This becomes a kind of ‘the king can do no harm’ argument, which just isn’t consistent with American criminal law or constitutional law,” Buell said.

It’s also worth remembering that the American system of government was set up in opposition to kings who wielded unchecked power. But Trump — who has made no secret about his admiration for despots like Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping — doesn’t seem to grasp that.

Trump claims the New York Times makes up sources

Questioned about the dire conditions migrants are being forced to endure in detention camps near the southern border, Trump sought to discredit a recent New York Times report about them by claiming the paper fabricates sources.

“They have phony sources. They don’t even have sources. They write whatever they want,” Trump said. “What they do is a tremendous disservice to this country. They are truly the enemy of the people, I’ll tell you that. They are the enemy of the people.”

The New York Times story in question does include accounts from a number of current and former Border Patrol agents and supervisors who talked to the paper anonymously, but the painstaking detail in the story makes it clear that the information they conveyed wasn’t concocted. Furthermore, any publication of the stature of the New York Times or Washington Post would immediately fire reporters if they were found to be making up sources.

The irony is that Trump has more intimate experience than most reporters when it comes to making up sources. In 2016, the Washington Post revealed that Trump used to call reporters using the pseudonyms “John Miller” and “John Barron” and brag about himself.

Trump claims Border Patrol and ICE agents “love” migrants

Still on the topic of detention camps, Trump tried to deflect from reports about the mistreatment of migrants by saying Border Patrol and ICE agents “love those people coming across the border. They love them. And I’ve seen it.”

While it’s undoubtedly true that many Border Patrol and ICE agents have respect for migrants, Trump’s comments come amid the backdrop of NBC reporting on Tuesday that migrant children in overcrowded facilities have accused Customs and Border Protection agents of misconduct ranging from sexual assault to retaliation for complaining about the taste of water and food they were given.

Last week, ProPublica broke news about a secret Border Patrol Facebook group of current and former agents where members expressed indifference about the death of detained migrant children and called Latina lawmakers who are working on behalf of migrant children “scum buckets” and “hoes.”

While Trump was holding his helicopter-side presser on Friday, one of those Latina lawmakers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), testified before the House Oversight Committee about what she saw during her recent trip to the border. Here’s some of what she said:

And so when these women tell me that they were put into a cell and that their sink was not working -- and we tested the sink ourselves and the sink was not working -- and they were told to drink out of a toilet bowl, I believed them. I believe these women.

I believe the canker sores that I saw in their mouths because they were only allowed to be fed unnutritious food.

I believe them when they said they were sleeping on concrete floors for two months. I believe them.

So even granting Trump’s point that some Border Patrol and ICE agents “love those people coming across the border,” it doesn’t mean much against the backdrop of those conditions.

Trump claims he loses “billions of dollars” as president

One of the last questions Trump took was about Iran, but he misheard it and starting talking about his border wall. Somehow that turned into a rant about all he purportedly gave up to become president.

“People don’t know that by being president, I lose billions of dollars,” Trump said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody say I give up my salary. I’m not looking for credit, but I give up my salary. I get zero.”

There is scant evidence that Trump is even worth billions, let alone that he’s lost that much by becoming president. But it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions so long as Trump refuses to release his tax returns.

Of course, if Trump really didn’t care about money, he could’ve followed decades of precedent and divested from his business interests before taking office. Instead, he still owns and profits from the Trump Organization, including a hotel located just blocks from the White House that’s regularly patronized by foreign governments, Republicans, and businesspeople looking to curry favor with the president. According to a financial disclosure form released in May, Trump International generated nearly $40.8 million in revenue for the president in 2018 — a huge sum compared to the roughly $450,000 presidential salary he donates back to the federal government.

In an ideal world, reporters would have a chance to push back on some of Trump’s obviously misleading and false claims right after he makes them. An argument could be made that the press corps could do more to work in concert, as they sometimes did back when the White House held press briefings, and follow up on each other’s questions.

But Trump’s world is not an ideal world. And so he ended the press availability on his terms, with a pro wrestling-style flourish.

“Iran better be careful,” Trump said, looking directly into the camera. “They are treading on very dangerous territory. Iran, if you’re listening, you better be careful.”

And then Trump boarded Marine One en route to Air Force One, from which he continued to post misleading tweets about Acosta’s resignation.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.