Presidential press conferences will never be the same again.
Donald Trump, giving press conferences as president, is like a cross between Fidel Castro’s long-windedness and machismo and Christopher Walken’s theatrical presence — and nobody else in the room can compete with that.
This was on display Thursday, when after a week’s worth of his administration being buffeted by a hurricane of negative media coverage — some of it deserved, some much less so — the president turned himself loose in the East Room.
An hour and 15 minutes later, he walked out of what could be described as a smoldering ruin.
Trump touted his administration’s achievements and advertised major reforms on the way in health care and tax policy, hinted that he’ll have a new immigration/travel order next week to moot the judicial assault on his constitutional power by the Ninth Circuit, announced a new Labor Secretary nominee to replace Andy Puzder — Alex Acosta, who is (we learned) not related to CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta — and absolutely took the mainstream media to task for their snarling behavior since his inauguration. It was a freewheeling, wide-open, raucous barroom brawl of a presser, with Trump taking on every questioner with swagger and New York moxie — Ari Fleischer called it a “friendly hostility” — while pushing back against narrative after narrative.
Trump’s effectiveness in punishing the Democrat press for its feeding frenzy surrounding the Mike Flynn resignation could be seen by the reaction. Jake Tapper accused him of “whining.” Shepard Smith cast aside any pretense of — not objectivity, but composure. Chuck Todd screamed about his “delegitimization” of the press, calling it “un-American” and “not a laughing matter.” John King claimed he received a text from a Republican Senator (he wouldn’t say whether it was John McCain, Lindsey Graham, or Susan Collins; my money’s on Graham) that “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.”
Trump spent no small part of the stem-winder especially castigating CNN for what he called their “anger and hatred” of his presidency and person, poking Don Lemon for his weak ratings and the “constant hit” his show carries on against his administration, and harassing Acosta on the question of “fake news” — Trump said he wasn’t going to call it the Fake News Network anymore, but instead he’d say CNN’s offerings constitute “very fake news.” Even Acosta couldn’t resist laughing at that crack.
Todd’s howling aside about the president’s supposed assault on a free press, Trump deserves a great deal of credit for pushing back against the media following its performance of the last two weeks. The First Amendment doesn’t single out the freedom of the press idly; it guarantees its role in a free society under the tacit understanding that it seeks the truth.
And it’s clear many of the major news organizations do nothing of the sort. Particularly where Trump is concerned.
Trump gave a perfect example from this week, noting a front-page article at the New York Times which contained a screaming headline: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” In the third paragraph of the story, the paper admitted there was no evidence of any cooperation between Trump’s campaign and any Russian operatives. “Russia is fake news,” Trump said, categorically denying he is influenced or controlled by Vladimir Putin.
The Times piece was pathetic. It probably shouldn’t have been published, because other than its clickbait headline it contained virtually no news. And Trump was correct in calling it out. He was also correct in noting that what is far more newsworthy than the Russian connections the Times and others have attempted to pin on him is the leaks themselves; after all, the screaming about Russia where Trump is concerned has been going on since last spring, and if there was any real meat on those bones we surely would have seen it by now.
And incidentally, what was lost in the screeching about Trump and the Russians is that the Trump administration is hardly solicitous of Putin and his regime — the most fatal weakness of all the Russia accusations is a complete lack of any evidence that Trump is giving them anything. Moreover, this week Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both laid the wood to the Russians. Speaking in Brussels at the NATO meeting, Mattis ruled out any possible military cooperation with Russia and trashed Putin’s regime for violating international law and destabilizing its neighbors. Tillerson, meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Germany, demanded a de-escalation of the violence in Ukraine and said that while America “will consider working with Russia when we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people,” the United States will “stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies” when we cannot see eye to eye.
Trump does a service to the First Amendment in demanding the press do a better job of objective coverage, at least if it purports to brand itself as unbiased. He’s right that the Democrat propagandists at the Times and other organizations masking as honest brokers with the public have damaged if not destroyed the credibility of their industry.
But that he could get such a message across in a manner that both connects with everyday Americans and entertains as no other president was capable makes him a direct threat to the media establishment. Acosta and his colleagues seeking to take the president down now know, if they didn’t before, that they’re up against a star communicator and a populist hero.
It might as well be Castro or Walken at that podium, but Trump is even worse for the press — he’s both of those two rolled into one.