Trump unleashes fury after four long weeks After stewing in anger during four rocky weeks in the White House, President Donald Trump had his say on Thursday.
He spent 80 minutes in an impromptu East Room news conference shredding his critics, relitigating the election, bragging about his crowds, crowing about his accomplishments and denying, deflecting and obfuscating a series of mushrooming bad stories that have dogged his presidency and depressed his approval ratings.
It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump hits the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds will be “massive.”
“I won,” Trump said at one point, explaining to the media why they weren’t important, even as he dissected their coverage and said he coveted better stories. “The people get it.”
He put blame at the feet of his predecessor, Barack Obama, as he lamented that his administration doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess,” he said.
Trump said he was baffled by the “hatred” coming from the media, and insisted that he’s being unfairly picked on — “I’m really not a bad person, by the way.”
It appeared to be a cathartic moment for a president who has found his early days in the White House overwhelming at times, and has found running the government harder than he expected, aides and allies say. He has grown especially frustrated with the leaks streaming from within his government, which he calls “illegal” while claiming the resulting stories are “fake news.”
But on Thursday, he seemed to be in his element, the TV showman jousting with reporters, dissecting individual questions, telling reporters to hush and asking for a friendly reporter in the room. “I love this. I’m having a good time doing it,” the president said as he found his groove.
It was Trump’s decision to hold such an extended news conference and it was made Thursday morning, according to a White House aide briefed on the matter. After weeks of getting pounded by the media — something the president has privately and publicly fumed about — he made it clear to advisers that he wanted to speak in an unfiltered way.
Prior to taking the podium, the president consulted with a handful of key advisers — including chief of staff Reince Priebus, counselor Kellyanne Conway, spokeswoman Hope Hicks and policy adviser Stephen Miller.
Aides understood that Trump’s remarks could extend well beyond an hour — which it did, as Trump kept appearing to wrap it up, only to take more questions.
One person close to Trump said he showed an “unusually long” attention span they hadn’t seen often in the White House. And two sources close to the president said he was happy with his performance — and that he felt he was seizing back control of a narrative of his presidency he had lost.
The reviews outside the White House were more mixed. “The guy up there seems crazy,” said one senior GOP aide. “I’ve thought that the whole time.”
The aide acknowledged, though, that the audience wasn’t necessarily Washington. “But how does this play outside the Beltway? It might play pretty well. I can’t say if he killed it or if he was terrible. I just know I was watching the whole time, the whole hour and 20 minutes,” the aide said.
“We were all riveted. Were you not? Have you ever seen a press conference like that from a president?
In Trump style, the news conference was heavy on braggadocio and light on specifics. It also had a surprise element to it. The event was supposed to be about his new labor secretary nominee, but was only about Alexander Acosta for the first few minutes. Acosta wasn’t even in the room. Instead, it was about turning fire on the media and trying to regain momentum in a wounded presidency that hasn’t presented a clear policy agenda moving forward.
“There has never been a president that has done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump said, reading a list of his own accomplishments.
He said his administration is a “fine-tuned machine” after weeks of damaging leaks from his own aides and advisers about chaos and infighting that have slowed progress. He defended Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, who has come under fire from his own advisers.
“We had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban,” Trump said, though he has griped for weeks to allies that the introduction of the controversial executive order wasn’t smooth, with protests across the country and widespread complaints at airports and from his own Cabinet officials.
Even as he said the rollout was done well, Trump promised a new executive order next week after being rebuked by judges who have put his earlier one on ice.
He seemed to weave all over the place on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, saying he cared about the children but also that some could be dangerous.
He said a story by The New York Times on his campaign’s frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials had been “discredited,” though it hasn’t. He called reporting on his campaign’s contact with Russia “fake news” and a “ruse.” But asked about whether any member of his campaign had communication with Russia, he wouldn’t definitively say no. The matter is currently under federal investigation.
“I have nothing to do with it,” Trump said, when asked whether any associates had communications with Russia. He seemed peeved at the continuing questions.
He went over the campaign’s greatest hits and fixated on gripes. For example, he said the media should focus more on the idea that Hillary Clinton received a question in advance of a debate during the primary. Aides say he has talked about it for months.
He sometimes painted a picture of a bleak world, a characterization that has dominated his campaign and presidency. “ISIS is spreading like cancer,” he said.
The president said he received 306 Electoral College votes when he received 304. “It was a substantial victory, do you agree with that?” Trump said when pressed on the matter, not mentioning he lost the popular vote by about 3 million when pressed on the discrepancy. He then blamed others for giving him bad information on his Electoral College win.
The president said he wasn’t “ranting and raving” even as he ranted and raved. “Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars,” he said, without specifying what drug or what candy bar. He said “80 percent” of a court’s rulings were overturned and admitted there was no proof for the number, saying that he heard the number somewhere.
He torched the intelligence community for leaking damaging information about his administration and said the reporting was “fake” from the news media. “The leaks are absolutely real,” he said, complaining about them. Seconds later, he said: “The news is fake.” It was difficult to understand how both could be true.
He said former national security adviser Michael Flynn did nothing wrong and had been unfairly attacked, though he also said Flynn didn’t tell the truth to Vice President Mike Pence and had to resign. He also said he would have told Flynn to discuss the sanctions.
He seemed sometimes unclear on the details and determined to confuse reporters. There was little concern for policy or negotiations with Capitol Hill, on repealing the Affordable Care Act or moving on tax reform. After the news conference, a top aide to House Speaker Paul Ryan sent a note headlined: “Meanwhile on Capitol Hill…” with an article about the tax plan.
The news conference seemed to be a bid by Trump to seize control of the agenda again, after four weeks of being battered in the White House. He is heading to Florida this weekend for a campaign rally with his reelection four years away.
But some Republicans said it’s time for Trump to move on and focus on running the country.
“There’s a campaign mode and there’s a governing mode. So far, we haven’t gotten to the governing mode,” said Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson. “You often say to those that lose an election and can’t get over it, and you’ve heard him say to the Clinton supporter, ‘You lost, get over it!’ This is the first I’ve ever had to say to somebody, ‘You won, get over it!’ He just can’t let it go.”
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, no stranger to sensational headlines, piled on. “We got to tell him that the TV show’s over and he’s gotta move on now,” he said.
At one point, Trump seemed to do a lightning round with a reporter who asked about the military. What did he think, for example, of a Russian spy ship hovering off the coast of Connecticut? “Not good,” Trump quipped. What did he think of a North Korean missile test? “Not good,” Trump said. What did he think of a Russian plane buzzing an American ship? “Not good.”
He said the American public liked his policies and his proposals, citing a travel “ban” that has been ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court — and has been called “not a ban” by Sean Spicer, his press secretary.
What seemed crystal clear from the news conference is his obsession with his media coverage. He dissected morning shows and particular panelists on CNN. He called The New York Times “failing” and trashed The Wall Street Journal. He repeatedly and frequently went after CNN, even referring to its president Jeff Zucker, as “Jeff” and partially blaming him for the coverage.
“The press has become so dishonest, the press honestly, is out of control,” he said. He said the news media didn’t matter and that he no longer watched CNN.
People close to Trump say the idea he doesn’t watch CNN anymore is laughable. He called the BBC a “beauty” and compared it to CNN. And in one of the final questions, he responded to a question from African-American journalist April Ryan about meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus by asking if she could broker the confab.
“Do you want to set up the meeting?” Trump said, in his trademark style. “Are they friends of yours?”