By Ashley Parker
President Donald Trump on Thursday aired his grievances against the news media, the intelligence community and his detractors generally in a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness news conference that alternated between claims that he had “inherited a mess” and the assertion that his fledgling administration “is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
“To be honest, I inherited a mess,” Trump said, in news conference that lasted more than an hour and was at times rambling, combative and pointed. “It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country.”
Yet moments later, the president seemed to acknowledge the widespread reports of turbulence and upheaval emanating out of his West Wing, only to claim that his White House – which so far has been marred by staff infighting, a controversial travel ban, false statements and myriad leaks – was operating seamlessly.
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos – chaos,” he said. “Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my Cabinet approved.”
Asked about recent reports that Mike Flynn, his former national security adviser who resigned Monday evening, had improperly discussed Russian sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump was sworn in, the president defended Flynn as a “fine person,” saying he had done nothing wrong in engaging the Russian envoy.
But, Trump said, Flynn had erred by misleading government officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations, which is why the president ultimately demanded his resignation.
“He didn’t tell the vice president of the United States the facts,” Trump said. “And then he didn’t remember. And that just wasn’t acceptable to me.”
Trump was asked several times about whether his campaign had contact with Russia and grew testy as reporters pushed him for a yes-or-no answer.
He said he certainly hadn’t and that he was not aware of such contacts during the campaign.
Trump also used the questions to press his case that the United States would be well-served by a better relationship with Russia and to mock his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for her efforts to “reset” the relationship between the two countries while she was secretary of state.
Trump derisively referred to that “stupid plastic button that made us all look like jerks,” a reference to the red “reset” button that Clinton presented to the Russian foreign minister early in the Obama administration.
Trump also pushed back on reports that members of his campaign and other associates had repeatedly been in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign, saying “nobody that I know of,” and adding, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
The news conference was ostensibly billed as a chance for Trump to announce his new pick to head the Labor Department – Alexander Acosta, who would be the first Latino in Trump’s cabinet – after Andy Puzder, his original choice, withdrew from consideration Wednesday amid mounting opposition on Capitol Hill. But for one hour and 17 minutes, the president offered the verbal equivalent of the brash and impetuous early morning tweets that have become the alarm clock for much of Washington, taking aim at everything from “illegal immigrant violence” to the “criminal leaks” within his intelligence community.
Though the president began on a subdued, almost melancholy note, looking down repeatedly to read from prepared remarks on his lectern, he became more fiery and animated – joyful, even – when he began to banter and joust with the assembled reporters. At times, he seemed to reprise some of his favorite themes from the campaign trail, complaining about Hillary Clinton and criticizing President Obama’s policies, from his Affordable Care Act to his failed reset with Russia.
Trump repeatedly lambasted the “fake news” media – which at one point he upgraded (or downgraded) to the “very fake news” media – while promoting some dubious claims and fake news of his own.
Pressed on his incorrect assertion that he had the largest margin of victory in the Electoral College since former President Reagan, Trump blamed faulty facts.
“I was given that information,” he said. “Well, I don’t know, I was given that information.”
During the news conference, Trump alternated between showering the media with scorn and taking a more playful tone.
At one point, he insisted he was enjoying himself. “I’m not ranting and raving – I love this,” he said. “I’m having a good time doing this.”
Trump’s Thursday performance seemed an acknowledgment, by the president, that he may be his own best press secretary and adviser, and allowed him to appear both confident and comfortable. While many of his comments, as well as the sometimes disjointed nature of his delivery, are certain to alarm official Washington, they are also the sorts of red-meat talking points that delighted his base during the campaign and helped propel him to victory.
“I won with news conferences and probably speeches,” he told the assembled reporters. “I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people.”