For the first year of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump was a devoted exponent of the press conference. He seemed to revel in the format: the jousts with reporters, the free-associative possibilities, the chance to shock. But almost 1,000 days ago, Trump’s press conferences reached their apogee.
Speaking in Miami on July 27, 2016, Trump gave the final and weirdest press conference of his campaign. Calling the spectacle “bizarre even by Trump’s standards”—how naive I was!—I wrote, “Just when it starts to seem that Donald Trump can’t surprise the jaded American media anymore, the Republican nominee manages to go just a little bit further.” There was much to chew over (and spit out) in Trump’s comments that day, but the most enduring moment came when the Republican nominee answered a question about Kremlin interference in the election. Trump looked to the cameras and gave one of the more stunning remarks of his campaign.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said, referring to the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s deleted messages. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The release of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report provides a useful opportunity to reconsider the Miami press conference in light of what the public now knows. According to Barr, Mueller concluded that Russia had, in fact, interfered in the election, but that the Trump campaign did not criminally conspire with the Putin regime. That finding makes Trump’s July 2016 remarks perhaps even more baffling than they would have been had there been a grand conspiracy. More broadly, rewatching the press conference shows how Trump’s shtick, once so astonishing, has become familiar and numbing.
In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee announced that it had been hacked, and several cybersecurity-research firms concluded that Russia was likely to blame. Then, five days before the press conference, on July 22, WikiLeaks released a tranche of emails hacked from the DNC, and suspicion immediately fell on Russia. Trump had already been making favorable comments about Putin and Russia throughout the campaign, and reporters were curious to hear his take on the stolen emails. Setting the template for his response up to the present day, Trump cast doubt on the idea that Russia was behind the hacking. But he also pulled a neat trick: If it was Russia, he suggested, that was just a sign of how bad Barack Obama was.
“If it is Russia—nobody even knows this, it’s probably China, or it could be somebody sitting in his bed. But it shows how weak we are, it shows how disrespected we are,” he said. “Assuming it’s Russia or China or one of the major countries and competitors, it’s a total sign of disrespect for our country. Putin and the leaders throughout the world have no respect for our country anymore and they certainly have no respect for our leader.”
Yet Trump refused to tell Russia to stay out of the election.
“I’m not going to tell Putin what to do,” he said. “Why should I tell Putin what to do?”
In fact, he didn’t seem to have any problem at all with Putin, even if he had been behind the hacks. Trump also declined to say that he would defend America’s NATO allies in the Baltic states if Putin attacked them. “I hope that we get along great with Putin because it would be great to have Russia with a good relationship,” he said. “President Trump would be so much better for U.S.-Russian relations. You can’t be worse.” This has not proved true; both sides have acknowledged that the relationship has been at a low ebb recently.
Trump also noted that he had no business in Russia.
“No, I have nothing to do with Russia, John. How many times do I have to say that?” he said, addressing a reporter. “What do I have to do with Russia? You know the closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach, Florida.”
This was another lie. Americans now know that Trump had spent years trying to build a tower in Moscow, and that his company had signed a letter of intent and was in active talks about a project at the time Trump made the denial. The former Trump lieutenant Michael Cohen revealed to Mueller that conversations continued until the middle of 2016, and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times that the project only ended once he won the election. Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager had also met in June 2016 with Russians promising damaging information about the Clinton campaign, though there’s no evidence that Trump knew of the meeting at the time. (He later dictated a dishonest statement about the meeting for release to the press.)
While Mueller’s full report has not been revealed to the public or to Congress, Barr’s summary noted that the special counsel outlined the extensive ways in which Russia attempted to interfere in the election, despite Trump’s skepticism at the time and on many occasions since. Some of those efforts have already been revealed in court filings. As it turned out, Russia was listening to Trump’s press conference: Mueller revealed in July that the first Russian attempts to hack Clinton’s server came the very same day.
But Barr also reported that Mueller’s “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” In some ways, that makes Trump’s comments even stranger. It would be appalling and horrifying if Trump had been engaged in a conspiracy with the Kremlin. But if he was not, why was he so solicitous about Putin, so eager to get him off the hook, and so quick to appeal to Russia for help? Though there’s no shortage of theories, all of this remains definitively unexplained.
I recall watching Trump speak in real time and being floored, despite having seen dozens of his campaign press conferences by that time in 2016. Trump made a series of surprising statements over nearly an hour. He confused Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee and the former governor of Virginia, with the former New Jersey Governor (and Republican) Tom Kean. He made his infamous statement that “France is not France” anymore because of Muslim immigration. He promised to release his tax returns once they were audited—but soon after winning the election, Trump aides said he had no intention of doing so, arguing that his victory vindicated the decision. Trump also said that the Geneva Conventions were out of date and argued that torture “works.”
Even the opening of the press conference proved to be brazenly dishonest. “So, it’s been 235 days since crooked Hillary Clinton has had a press conference,” Trump said. “And you, as reporters who give her all of these glowing reports, should ask yourselves why. And I’ll tell you why. Because despite the nice platitudes, she’s been a mess.” After the July 27 presser, however, Trump didn’t hold another one until January 11, 2017, a few days before his inauguration.
Yet a strange thing happened as I rewatched video of the Miami press conference on Tuesday.
As bizarre as all of it felt at the time, much of it seems run-of-the-mill now. The things that made Trump so astonishing in July 2016 are now common features of the political system. It’s a fact of life that the president lies, makes allowances for autocrats, and gets confused about basic information. Trump’s comments about Russia, and particularly his call for the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails, are the exception. They remain as strange, and as inexplicable, as they were that summer.