Analysis: Trump’s raw, personal attacks on the media, delivered in a press conference for the ages
Donald Trump entered the East Room of the White House on Thursday reeling from a week filled with resignations, withdrawals and continued questions surrounding his campaign’s contacts with Russia.
What followed was an hour-long, full-throated attack on Trump’s favourite foil: the media.
“Many of our nation’s reporters will not tell you the truth,” Trump said.
“The press honestly is out of control,” Trump said.
“The level of dishonesty is out of control,” Trump said.
And that was before he even took a single question.
It was a return for Trump to what worked for him during the course of the 2016 campaign: a circus-like atmosphere in which he uses the media - and his supporters’ distrust of the media - as a sort of tackling dummy to re-centre the narrative on ground more favourable to him. Trump didn’t just run down the media - although he did a lot of that - but he also mocked various outlets, reviewed shows on cable TV that he likes and doesn’t, told reporters to sit down and be quiet, and critiqued the quality of the questions he was being asked.
There was a rawness to his attacks, a personal invective that seemed well beyond the typically antagonistic relationship that exists between the media and the president they cover. This was not a piece of political strategy. This came right from Trump’s gut.
For his supporters, the media represent everything they dislike about American society: for people who feel like their voices weren’t and aren’t heard in politics - or culture more broadly - the media is the perfect scapegoat.
And Trump’s broadside against the supposed dishonesty of the media will leave lots of heads nodding around the US.
Trump’s appeal has always has been how he is able to speak t on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. He got people angry and worried in the 2016 campaign - and enough of them voted on it. Many likely went to the polls feeling as though the stakes were literally catastrophic; elect anyone other than Trump and watch America burn.
One example of that appeal came early in Trump’s press conference on Thursday. NBC’s Peter Alexander called Trump out on his plainly untrue claim that he had won the biggest electoral college victory of any president since Ronald Reagan - in fact, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton (twice), and Barack Obama (twice), all won bigger than Trump. “Well, I don’t know, I was given that information,” Trump responded. “I was given - I actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?”
For many politicians, that would be a bad - very bad - moment. But Trump’s appeal isn’t based on whether he got the exact facts on his electoral college margin right. It’s on the fact that he won - big league. And who cares if he was wrong? For his supporters, it’s just media nit-picking him to death, after all.
There were other moments that would represent dreadful blows, for any other politician - at one stage, he inexplicably asked an African-American journalist to set up a meeting for him with a group of African-American lawmakers.
Asked about recent reports that his now-departed national security adviser Michael Flynn had improperly discussed Russian sanctions with the country’s 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. That was in spite of Trump having asked Flynn to resign.
But Trump then made clear that he had no problem with Flynn discussing with the Russian ambassador the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the Obama administration, saying it was Flynn’s job to reach out to foreign officials - even before he had taken office.
“No, I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him if he didn’t do it,” Trump said. Again, supporting a possibly illegal act of freelance diplomacy could be regarded as a huge gaffe, at best, for any other president - but this was Trump. Being Trump.