In what will surely go down as one of the most bizarre and combative presidential press conferences in American history, President Trump redirected what was slated to be an announcement about his labor secretary nomination (sorry, Alexander Acosta) into an oratorical version of a Trump tweetstorm.
The focus of his outrage—the media––was not new, but the unvarnished disdain, unhinged fixations, and wild accusations were most certainly firsts for a sitting president. “The public doesn’t believe you people anymore,” he announced to the room full of reporters. “Now, maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you.” It was a boast disguised as a lament.
Throughout the 77-minute mindbender, Trump responded to legitimate questions about uncomfortable, unflattering, and deeply problematic allegations with complete dismissal. Most often, this was in response to questions about his administration’s ties to Russia, in the aftermath of (former) national security adviser Mike Flynn’s resignation. “It’s all fake news,” he said at the start of the question-and-answer period. “It’s all fake news.”
His responses on the topic ranged from belligerent to nonsensical—the kind of dialogue that might reasonably be found in an SNL skit, rather than an official White House transcript: “Well, the leaks are real,” he asserted. “You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them, I mean the leaks are real.”
Then he added, “The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
When pressed about a recent New York Times story detailing calls between his campaign staff and Russian intelligence, Trump offered, “The failing New York Times wrote a big, long front-page story yesterday. And it was very much discredited, as you know. It was—it’s a joke.” (For the record, Trump gave no citation as to where and how the Times’ reporting was actually discredited).
But this shrugging-off of facts was not limited to questions about Trump’s connections with Russia. After incorrectly stating that, among Republican candidates, his electoral victory was second only to Reagan’s, NBC’s Peter Alexander pointed out the truth: It was not (George H.W. Bush bested Trump by 120 electoral votes. What’s more, every president since—other than George W. Bush—has had bigger victories). Trump remained defiant. “Well, I don’t know,” he said, “I was given that information. I was given—I actually, I’ve seen that information around.” If he was mistaken, it was someone else’s fault.
Frustrated by the fusillade of tough questions, Trump scanned the room: “Let’s see,” he said, “I want to find a friendly reporter.” Even for a press corps that long ago ceded normalized relations with the White House, it was a gasp-worthy moment. “Are you a friendly reporter?” Trump asked, shamelessly, to a reporter near the front of the pack. “Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.”
The reporter, Jake Turx, who writes for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish publication Ami, asked about an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes since Trump’s inauguration. The president was upset—this was not a friendly reporter kind of question! “He said he was gonna ask a very simple, easy question,” the president complained. “And it’s not. It’s not a simple question, not a fair question.” The audacity.
Trump began to answer: “Number one, I am the least anti- Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person.” (Never mind that Turx had not asserted either—in fact, he’d gone out of his way to stipulate that no one in his community understood Trump to be an anti-Semite.) But, clearly, the president was still hung up on the fact that he was even being asked about this to begin with.
“See,” he circled back to the premise—the alleged friendly reporter question. “He lied about — he was gonna get up and ask a very straight, simple question, so you know, welcome to the world of the media.” (Or: welcome to the world of the presidency.)
At last, someone did ask a friendly reporter sort of question, about Melania Trump’s forthcoming plans for her duties as first lady.
“Now, that’s what I call a nice question,” said Trump. “That is very—who are you with?” The reporter answered, inaudibly.
“Good,” said the president. “I’m gonna start watching, all right? Thank you very much.” Here was the apparent reward for a softball question: presidential endorsement, the spoils of capitulation.
In between the sideswipes and frontal assaults, there were plenty of meandering, wound-licking asides. Trump spoke at length of the “hatred” that suffused CNN anchor Don Lemon’s 10 p.m. show: “You just take a look at that show. That is a constant hit. The panel is almost always exclusive anti-Trump. The good news is he doesn’t have good ratings. But the panel is almost exclusive anti-Trump. And the hatred and venom coming from his mouth; the hatred coming from other people on your network ...” He trailed off, incredulous.
In their way, these moments might have been most revealing: Trump made clear to the public that he’s hurt by all the bad press. Yes, he is immediately defiant and consistently combative, but underneath these two emotions, his feelings, apparently, are tender. “The tone is such hatred,” he said at one point. “I’m really not a bad person, by the way.”
Maybe he had a point: Why did all these reporters hate him so much, want to write all these nasty stories? Here he was, the straight-talking 45th president of the United States, a man who had single-handedly buoyed an entire news industry, given them not only choice bon mots but soaring ratings, increased ad rates, and endless amusements. What was everybody complaining about?
Plenty, as it turns out.
Trump seems to have little conception of the fact that journalism is not the art of the personal attack, but the search for truth. Reporting is not driven by vengeance, but a desire for transparency. He does not understand the basic principle of the fourth estate as something that exists independent of him, and in service to the American public.
Through this distorted lens, each pointed question becomes an indignation, each scoop a repudiation, each headline an offensive, causing him to behave, as he did on Thursday, recklessly. And what he does not grasp further––and more importantly––is that his incredible treatment of the reporters gathered before him, whether physically or virtually, does not dim their search for truth or transparency. It makes it all the more urgent.
Inevitably, for a few hours after the press conference, there were eyerolls and laughter and a lot of head-shaking in newsrooms across the country.
And then everybody got back to work.