WASHINGTON — In a confrontational, grievance-filled press conference punctuated by flashes of introspection, President Trump on Thursday accused the news media of exaggerating or manufacturing turmoil inside a White House he described as “running like a fine-tuned machine.”
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos! Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he said in the hastily arranged question-and-answer session, his first since taking office.
Trump’s first four weeks have featured the firing of his national security adviser for misleading his vice president, the withdrawal of his labor secretary nominee for lack of Republican votes to confirm him, typo-filled official statements about terrorism, jarring telephone confrontations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, the chaotic rollout of his order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, reports that the nation’s spies are spooked by his team’s alleged relations with Russia, a spat with China, and newly belligerent actions by Moscow. Through it all, some of Trump’s senior aides have anonymously fed the news media a steady diet of backstabbing palace intrigue and gossip while publicly insisting that everything is fine and nervously trying to anticipate the president’s next angry tweet.
At the same time, Trump has forged ahead with some core campaign promises — like starting the process of repealing and replacing Obamacare, moving ahead with building a wall along the border with Mexico, removing undocumented immigrants from U.S. soil, formally pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and taking aim at government regulations.
In the East Room of the White House, Trump deployed a tactic that embattled presidents have used for decades and that served him well in his unorthodox, history-making 2016 campaign: bludgeoning the news media as an unfair, unreliable and even undemocratic institution out to smother his presidency in its infancy. And he repeatedly plugged a campaign-style Saturday rally in Florida — a chance to draw on the energy of supporters at a time when aides say that the president feels that critics who wrongly said he never had a chance now predict that he will fail.
“The press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control,” the nation’s most prominent media critic declared. “The media’s trying to attack our administration because they know we are following through on pledges that we made, and they’re not happy about it for whatever reason.”
Moments after the press conference ended, his campaign emailed supporters a “Mainstream Media Accountability Survey” requiring respondents to provide a full name, email address, and ZIP code — a classic prelude to a fundraising pitch.
Trump denounced reports that some of his advisers were in touch with Russian officials ahead of the 2016 election as “fake news.” Pressed repeatedly on whether he could rule out such contacts, Trump bobbed and weaved but finally said “nobody that I know of” was involved.
And he expressed fury at law-enforcement and intelligence leaks on everything from his contentious conversations with leaders of Mexico and Australia to contacts between his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russian officials during the presidential transition.
Asked how real leaks could generate fake news, Trump replied: “The leaks are real. You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. I mean the leaks are real. You know what they said. You saw it, and the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
Trump confirmed that he had fired Flynn for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about December 2016 contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Ostensibly on Flynn’s say-so, Pence denied that the conversations had touched on sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. Flynn backtracked after a series of leaks disclosed that the government possessed transcripts proving him wrong.
In the press conference, Trump insisted that Flynn “was just doing his job.” But while the retired Army lieutenant general most likely won’t face legal trouble — at least over the conversations themselves — he appears to have violated the principle of “one president at a time” by discussing a specific policy — American sanctions — with a foreign official before Trump took office.
The president also indignantly denied being under Russia’s sway.
“I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia,” he said. “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”
He disclosed that he had “actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks,” a statement that might call into question the department’s independence.
And Trump complained that media reports were making it harder for him to improve the relationship between Moscow and Washington, while saying he would politically be better off taking a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water,” he said, referring to reports of a Russian spy ship off the East Coast.
Through it all, Trump was a one-man “good cop, bad cop” with reporters. Amid a war of words between his White House and CNN, the president took multiple questions from the network’s White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, and even joked about the reporter sharing a last name with his new labor secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta.
“I looked at that name. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Is there any relation there? Alex Acosta?’” Trump said. “They said, ‘No, sir.’ I said, ‘Do me a favor. Go back and check the family tree.’”
At another point, Trump told Jim Acosta, “I’d be a pretty good reporter — not as good as you.”
The president’s angriest exchange came with an Orthodox Jewish reporter whose Twitter handle is embossed on his yarmulke. The reporter promised to ask a friendly question and said that he knew that Trump was not anti-Semitic, but that his readers worried about Trump’s silence in the face of a spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the United States.
“See, he lied about — he was going to get up and ask a very straight, simple question, so you know, welcome to the world of the media,” Trump said, calling the query “very insulting.”
The president also had a curious back-and-forth with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, the only black reporter to ask a question.
“This is going to be a bad question, but that’s OK,” the president said. After Ryan asked about his plans to help inner cities, Trump allowed, “That was very professional and very good.”
But when Ryan asked whether Trump would get input from the Congressional Black Caucus on the issue, the president responded brusquely. “Do you want to set up the meeting?” he asked. “Are they friends of yours?”
He boasted of his victory margin — as he has done over the past four weeks to audiences as diverse as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a black history month roundtable, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a group of sheriffs. But one part of his boast, that he had won “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan,” was easily disproved by George H.W. Bush’s landslide win in 1988. “I was given that information, I don’t know,” he said when a reporter asked him about the false claim.
Throughout the press conference, Trump repeatedly insisted the media was judging him unfairly, declaring, “I inherited a mess,” and repeatedly noted that he won in November — an implicit rebuke to those, including many in the East Room, who thought, or predicted, that he would fall short.
“I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people,” he said.
At the same time, Trump hinted that he hoped for a better relationship with a press corps that he reliably labels dishonest.
“I don’t mind bad stories. I can handle a bad story better than anybody as long as it’s true and, you know, over a course of time, I’ll make mistakes and you’ll write badly and I’m OK with that. But I’m not OK when it is fake,” he said. “I would be your biggest fan in the world if you treated me right.”
At another point, Trump declared, “There’s nobody I have more respect for — well, maybe a little bit — but the reporters, good reporters.”
And, he professed, “I’m actually having a very good time, OK?” before predicting the next day’s headlines.
“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it. But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves.’ I’m not ranting and raving,” he said.
In fact, he said at the end of the one hour and 16 minute back-and-forth, “It’s a great honor to be with you.”
Read more from Yahoo News: