President Trump used a news conference ostensibly meant to announce his new choice to head the U.S. Department of Labor to rail against intelligence leaks that have connected his aides to Russia, explain why he fired Mike Flynn as his national-security adviser, and defend the rollout of his executive order on immigration.
Trump also used the occasion to launch a broadside on the media, bemoan the state of the country and the world he inherited (“I inherited a mess at home and abroad”), and cited the gains he’s made in the three weeks he's been in the White House. He also declined to criticize the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S., appearing to attribute some of the them to “our opponents.”
It was a classic Trump performance, a return to the many themes from the campaign trail that ultimately won him the White House. He presented himself as a leader willing to work with anyone, one who would show “great heart” in dealing with children in the country illegally, only to find himself thwarted by the Democrats and the “hateful” media.
Several reporters asked Trump about the contacts his aides reportedly had with Russian intelligence officials. Trump dismissed those stories as “fake news,” a “ruse” to detract from Hillary Clinton’s loss in the election, and denied he had any business or personal ties to anyone in Russia. When asked if he could definitively say if any of his aides were in touch with Russia during the presidential campaign, he said: “Not that I know of.”
Russia, who Trump appeared to court during the presidential campaign, has been one of the main sources of controversy since his inauguration less than a month ago. The nature of the conversations Flynn had with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. ultimately resulted in the national-security adviser’s resignation from the post just 24 days after he assumed the position. Flynn is reported to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about what he discussed with the envoy, saying that recently imposed sanctions levied in retaliation for Russia’s alleged interference with the 2016 election never came up. That led to an embarrassing televised appearance in which Pence falsely stated the Flynn and Kislyak never discussed sanctions.
Trump insisted Flynn had done nothing wrong, noting that while he did not explicitly ask the retired Army general to discuss U.S. sanctions on Russia with the ambassador, he “would have done.” The conversation, he said, was appropriate. “I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence,” Trump said.
The president also lambasted the almost daily leaks in the media about the administration’s actions, calling them “a criminal act,” and he chastised the media.
“It’s an illegal process and the press should be ashamed of itself,” Trump said. He used the occasion to criticize coverage of him, calling it “fake news.” Asked if the leaks that were being published were fake, too, he said: “The leaks are real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” He said the Justice Department would investigate the leaks, and predicted the leaks would now stop.
On several questions, Trump returned to some of the themes he’s touched upon in past news conferences: the size of his electoral-college victory (he mistakenly claimed it was the largest since President Reagan), Clinton (“Does anyone really think Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Russia?”), his own administration’s performance (“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”), and the refusal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reinstate his travel ban on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“The rollout of the order was perfect,” he said, dismissing the reports of chaos, the massive protests, and the legal challenges to his executive order. He said his administration would issue a new order next week tailored to the court’s “bad decision.”
In a bizarre moment at the news conference, Trump was asked by a reporter from an ultra-Orthodox publication about the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. He asked the reporter to “sit down,” criticized the question, stating that he was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. When pressed on the matter by another reporter, who raised the issue of bomb threats called into synagogues and swastikas appearing across the country, Trump replied: “Some of it is put up by our opponents.”
Trump’s critics will likely have watched his replies in either dismay or mirth, but the president has used such occasions to great effect in reaching out to his supporters, many of whom are convinced the media are incapable of giving Trump fair coverage.
“The press has become so dishonest that if don't talk about it, we’re doing the American people a great disservice,” Trump said, adding: “I’m here to take my message straight to the people.”
It’s likely he did.