But if you live in the reality that mainlines Fox News, you saw something else—a strong president. You heard Trump assert America’s resurging greatness: Steel mills are being built, farmers will thrive, and the economy is doing better than even he predicted. Trump suggested that he was wheeling and dealing on trade with everyone from South Korea to Mexico, and showing everyone who’s boss. World leaders at the UN were laughing with him, not at him. He was too busy chairing the Security Council to pay attention to Kavanaugh’s latest accuser. And his genuine solidarity with the accused reinforced the narrative taking hold in conservative circles: Don’t fear that your daughters’ lives will be ruined by assault; fear that your sons’ lives will be ruined by false accusations.
The truth, as we now know, is irrelevant in this reality. To anyone who already believes that Trump is strong, Trump’s language was comforting. You saw a man in his element, blocks away from his very own building with his very own name on it, standing quite literally at the center of the world stage, and clearly enjoying himself. He exuded what his base so desperately hopes he and, by extension, they have—power.
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Trump hasn’t done many of these solo press conferences. (My former boss President Barack Obama used to get heat for not doing more, but Trump has famously avoided them without much criticism.) And yet, in his few appearances, he has completely upended the medium. Gone are the predictable if tense affairs where reporters asked questions and presidents would either answer them or give the appearance of answering them. They have been replaced with a reality show where the president pits reporters, nations, his staff, and even his own controversies (Kavanaugh v. Rosenstein) against one another, all to demonstrate that he alone hands out roses.
And while some of America sees this for what it is—unhinged chaos—others see it filtered through the prism of right-wing media, where all such performances come out looking strangely authoritative.
Whether Trump’s obsessive references to Obama are a tic or a strategy, they serve his cause. On Wednesday, the president said he would have the chance to nominate 145 lower-court judges, because “President Obama wasn’t big on picking judges.” Why? “They got tired, they got complacent—something happened.” That “something” was, in fact, Mitch McConnell, who brought the process to a halt when Republicans won the Senate. But that’s a pesky detail; what Trump supporters heard is that Obama was weak and lazy, while he is a man of action.
When a question was asked about the administration’s policy toward Cuba, the president again invoked his predecessor, saying that Obama “gave them a pass,” as if Obama’s groundbreaking deal with Cuba had been a free-for-all. From the economy to North Korean hostages to Iran, he couldn’t help but invoke the former president’s name.