Americas

Candidate Trump tries to salvage an embattled President Trump

Candidate Trump tries to salvage an embattled President Trump
US President Donald Trump answers questions during a news conference at the White House in Washington, US, on Feb 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Wild, unscripted 77-minute press conference held
Published: 5:55 PM, February 17, 2017
Updated: 6:05 PM, February 17, 2017

WASHINGTON — In a wild, combative press conference on Thursday (Feb 16), President Donald Trump tried to erase doubts about his early days in the White House by returning to what got him there: Being Donald Trump.

Blunt and unscripted, the president lambasted the media as dishonest and unfair, blamed Democrats for the “mess” he inherited and bragged about the scope of his electoral victory.

He was, by turns, menacing and jarringly playful, calling reporters by their first names — only to accuse them of not just spreading “fake news”, but a new, more sinister category of dishonesty, “very fake news”. He talked over a question about anti-Semitism and asked an African-American reporter to set up a meeting with black lawmakers.

Almost incidentally, he made some news, including at least one potentially pivotal statement: A declaration that he was not aware that any of his campaign advisers were in contact with Russian government officials. “Nobody that I know of,” he said.

The 77-minute news conference, easily his longest and most unrehearsed encounter with the media since last summer, appeared to satisfy his itch to duke it out with a press corps he feels has treated him unfairly since his inauguration. His supporters no doubt ate it up, but if they watched closely they saw that Trump seemed to enjoy his banter with reporters, so much so that he could barely pry himself away from the cameras.

“I’m actually having a very good time, OK?,” Mr Trump said. “Don’t forget, that’s the way I won. Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech? Which was like every day.”

CAMPAIGN MODE

But the event was more than a good time, suggesting Mr Trump is taking a new approach to his job not even four weeks into it — a return to campaign mode. It’ll continue on Saturday, when he appears at a public rally in Melbourne, Florida, the first such event since Christmas.

In the end, President Trump may be looking for salvation by Candidate Trump.

If so, it is a marked departure from the opening weeks of his presidency.

The plan had been to paper Washington with executive orders, personnel choices, and a series of meetings designed to show Mr Trump taking charge of the country and moving quickly to enact change.

Instead, the administration bungled implementation of an executive order barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, generating nationwide protests and a crushing defeat in court. Damaging reports on contacts between Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and a Russian envoy forced Mr Trump to fire Mr Flynn on Monday. Mr Trump’s first nominee to lead the Labour Department, Mr Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration on Wednesday after several Republican senators signalled they wouldn’t support him.

Mr Trump’s team has meanwhile gone to lengths to insulate the new president from chaos and controversy in seemingly every corner of the government, and he has avoided candid exchanges with reporters, selecting only politically conservative news outlets to ask questions at three prior news conferences with foreign leaders.

DEEPENED ANIMOSITY

Mr Trump was once among the most accessible presidential candidates in modern history, but animosity between the president and the media deepened since his inauguration.

A bunker mentality took hold at the White House, as Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered abbreviated press briefings in which conservative news outlets and bloggers, including some connected remotely by Skype, got priority. Crowds of reporters from mainstream outlets have taken to gathering outside Mr Spicer’s office in the afternoon, hoping for private answers to questions avoided in public. Planned presidential trips have been cancelled just days in advance.

But Mr Trump has always preferred to barrel head-first into controversy, an approach he exhibited on Thursday.

Clearly upset by the coverage of his presidency so far, Mr Trump opened his news conference with a 21-minute diatribe largely focused on his treatment by the press. He claimed his administration was “a fine-tuned machine”, and that he inherited a divided nation rather than furthering the divisions.

He then fielded questions from a wide variety of reporters, theatrically choosing from among raised hands rather than working from a predetermined list.

While frequently denouncing “very fake news”, Mr Trump made obvious he is among the media’s most avid consumers. He offered specific critiques of shows on CNN and Fox News, as well as recent front-page stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He argued that he was good for ratings and bantered with reporters, even joking with CNN’s Jim Acosta — a White House correspondent for what is likely Mr Trump’s least-favourite outlet — that he would “check the family tree” to make sure his new Labour nominee, Mr Alex Acosta, isn’t related to the reporter.

RISKS AND REWARDS

As on the campaign trail, the strategy paid some dividends, with media navel-gazing taking time away from coverage of the controversies embroiling Mr Trump’s White House. The news conference provided Mr Trump an unfiltered platform to denounce leaks that had embarrassed his administration and to try to shame the media for publishing the information.

And Mr Trump largely avoided difficult questions about his associates’ contacts with Russia, or about near-daily stories on palace intrigue within his White House.

But the downside of the approach was also evident. Mr Trump made misstatements and may have planted the seeds for new headaches in the future.

Mr Trump erroneously claimed that he had won 306 electoral college votes — the correct number is 304 — that his election margin of victory was larger than any president since Ronald Reagan. He was informed by a reporter, during the news conference, that in fact he won fewer electoral college votes than Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George HW Bush.

“I was given that information, I don’t know,” Mr Trump said, undermining his argument that it is the US media that shouldn’t be trusted.

His admission that recent leaks about his administration’s inner workings were “real” made his next claim — that “the news is fake” — difficult to reconcile. He again invited controversy over his regard for the judicial branch, calling the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals “frankly in turmoil”.

His Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has told senators that such remarks are demoralising and disheartening.

‘QUIET, QUIET, QUIET’

And there were a pair of cringe-worthy moments. Mr Trump asked Ms April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, who is black, if she was friends with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and whether she could arrange a meeting. He bristled when a reporter from a Jewish publication asked whether Mr Trump felt responsibility for recent incidents of anti-Semitism.

“Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said, interrupting the reporter, after declaring himself “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life”.

The question for Mr Trump and his advisers is whether a return to his campaign style, and the controversies that may follow, are worth the reinvigorated momentum and support among his base that may result.

The certainty is that if it’s up to him, Mr Trump will do it his way.

“I won with news conferences and probably speeches,” the president told reporters. “I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure. But I’m having a good time.” BLOOMBERG