Be careful what you wish for. You might get it. No one quite knows who first said that but now everyone says that, as if that’s a clever thing to say, but it isn’t that clever. It’s just a useful reminder. Donald Trump doesn’t do news conferences – he tweets – and at recent photo-ops with foreign leaders, when a few reporters would shout questions at him, he’d answer only the questions from the Christian Broadcast Network and obscure alt-right organizations. Those questions were softballs. Questions about Michael Flynn and what the real problem there was, and about all the reports of his campaign folks’ many chats with the Russian government and the Russian intelligence services, that our intelligence services leaked that they could document, were met with stony silence. Donald Trump just sat there. The room paused. Reporters waited. There was nothing – but they were reporters from the major news outlets – the Washington Post and New York Times and CNN and the Associated Press and whatnot. Trump froze them out. They asked their questions. He sat there. They gave up.
They didn’t like that. His base liked that, but he finally gave the major news outlets what they wished for – an actual news conference. He’d answer their damned questions, but they’d be sorry. He’d rip them to shreds. He’d mock them. He’d embarrass them. He’d ramble and shift and shimmy and they wouldn’t know what to report, and then they’d report that he had lost it, and that was fine by him:
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.
Be careful what you wish for, which Politico reports here:
After stewing in anger during four rocky weeks in the White House, President Donald Trump had his say on Thursday.
He spent 80 minutes in an impromptu East Room news conference shredding his critics, relitigating the election, bragging about his crowds, crowing about his accomplishments and denying, deflecting and obfuscating a series of mushrooming bad stories that have dogged his presidency and depressed his approval ratings.
It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump hits the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds will be “massive.”
“I won,” Trump said at one point, explaining to the media why they weren’t important, even as he dissected their coverage and said he coveted better stories. “The people get it.”
He did rant and rave, with a touch of paranoia:
He put blame at the feet of his predecessor, Barack Obama, as he lamented that his administration doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess,” he said.
Trump said he was baffled by the “hatred” coming from the media, and insisted that he’s being unfairly picked on – “I’m really not a bad person, by the way.”
He was whining, but he had done no planning or preparation:
It was Trump’s decision to hold such an extended news conference and it was made Thursday morning, according to a White House aide briefed on the matter. After weeks of getting pounded by the media – something the president has privately and publicly fumed about – he made it clear to advisers that he wanted to speak in an unfiltered way.
This would be a stream-of-consciousness thing, which had always served him well before. He’d be authentic. He didn’t have to make sense, as making sense is not what people really want. They want authenticity, a real guy blowing off steam, just like they’d like to blow off steam. He’d be their avatar. This would be expression not explanation – two completely different things, which those pathetic fools the “mainstream” press never understood. So he offered heartfelt nonsense:
The event was supposed to be about his new labor secretary nominee, but was only about Alexander Acosta for the first few minutes. Acosta wasn’t even in the room. Instead, it was about turning fire on the media and trying to regain momentum in a wounded presidency that hasn’t presented a clear policy agenda moving forward.
“There has never been a president that has done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump said, reading a list of his own accomplishments.
Those were his executive orders, small tweaks to existing laws, one of which, the travel ban, had blown up in his face. Fareed Zakaria points out that at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had signed into law an almost-trillion-dollar stimulus bill to revive the economy, extended health insurance to four million children and made it easier to challenge discriminatory labor practices, and that in their respective first one hundred days in office, FiveThirtyEight calculates that Bill Clinton had passed 24 bills, John Kennedy had passed 26, Harry Truman had passed 55, and FDR had passed 76, and Trump, with his Republican House and Senate has passed next to nothing. “Despite having a Republican House and Senate,” Zakaria points out, “Trump does not seem likely to crack ten.” But never mind. Trump will believe what Trump will believe:
He said his administration is a “fine-tuned machine” after weeks of damaging leaks from his own aides and advisers about chaos and infighting that have slowed progress. He defended Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, who has come under fire from his own advisers.
“We had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban,” Trump said, though he has griped for weeks to allies that the introduction of the controversial executive order wasn’t smooth, with protests across the country and widespread complaints at airports and from his own Cabinet officials.
And there was this:
He said a story by The New York Times on his campaign’s frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials had been “discredited,” though it hasn’t. He called reporting on his campaign’s contact with Russia “fake news” and a “ruse.” But asked about whether any member of his campaign had communication with Russia, he wouldn’t definitively say no. The matter is currently under federal investigation.
“I have nothing to do with it,” Trump said, when asked whether any associates had communications with Russia. He seemed peeved at the continuing questions.
He torched the intelligence community for leaking damaging information about his administration and said the reporting was “fake” from the news media. “The leaks are absolutely real,” he said, complaining about them. Seconds later, he said: “The news is fake.” It was difficult to understand how both could be true.
Advice to the press – don’t try to make sense of it. The base gets it. It feels right. That’s good enough, and then there was this:
He dissected morning shows and particular panelists on CNN. He called The New York Times “failing” and trashed The Wall Street Journal. He repeatedly and frequently went after CNN, even referring to its president Jeff Zucker, as “Jeff” and partially blaming him for the coverage.
“The press has become so dishonest, the press honestly, is out of control,” he said. He said the news media didn’t matter and that he no longer watched CNN.
That may not be so:
People close to Trump say the idea he doesn’t watch CNN anymore is laughable. He called the BBC a “beauty” and compared it to CNN. And in one of the final questions, he responded to a question from African-American journalist April Ryan about meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus by asking if she could broker the confab.
“Do you want to set up the meeting?” Trump said, in his trademark style. “Are they friends of yours?”
You black people stick together, don’t you? You all know each other, don’t you? What the hell – arrange a meeting if that will make you folks happy. She protested that she was just a reporter. That was an uncomfortable moment.
Amanda Katz noted this:
Forget what you’ve heard: Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic or racist. This was made clear in an astonishing press conference on Thursday, which delivered irrefutable evidence obliterating all ideas to the contrary. What was the irrefutable evidence? Donald Trump said so.
The president made his point plainly: “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” he said. “Number two, racism, the least racist person.”
No matter that he made this statement while cutting off a question from Jake Turx, an Orthodox reporter for the Brooklyn-based Jewish magazine Ami, and no matter that the question Turx was asking had nothing to do with Trump’s own beliefs.
That too was odd:
Called on by Trump toward the end of the press conference – “Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is,” Trump warned the press corps – Turx emphasized that no one in his community had accused Trump of anti-Semitism. Instead, he said that they wanted his response on something else:
“What we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or planning to…”
That was as far as he got. Apparently convinced he was being accused of the grave sin of anti-Semitism, Trump pushed back. Turx continued to try to get a word in, but Trump talked over him: “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said. He cited his support from Benjamin Netanyahu as supporting evidence, and called the question “very insulting.” He also refused to actually answer it.
The poor guy never got to tell Trump that the question actually wasn’t about Donald Trump at all – but then everything is, and Ed Kilgore says that what was happening was that Trump ended the presidential press conference as we know it:
What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.”
Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.
And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again – and why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded.
Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”
That presents a problem:
Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism – the more the better – the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it – and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine – makes it all the harder to treat him normally.
This also makes it hard for Republicans:
Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.
How much embarrassment must they endure for what they see as the greater good? That question may keep them up at night, but Edward Morrissey sees something else:
For the last few decades, voters and activists have openly argued that the biggest problem with government is that it’s run by politicians. Frustration with government inaction – or in some cases too much action – have fueled efforts to impose term limits on legislatures in order to turn out the lifers. The founding fathers never meant for political office to be a career, the argument went, but for citizens to serve their country for a short period of time and then return to the private sector.
That includes the presidency. Constant stories of waste, fraud, and abuse anger voters, prompting an almost constant refrain: If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of business. What this country needs, they argue, is an outsider who knows how to run a private-sector organization – someone without the political ties and big-donor relationships that inevitably bring back to the same old failures and frustrations. That would lead America back to greatness – or at least reverse decades of stagnation and bureaucratic bungling.
Despite these long-argued beliefs, only in 2016 did America roll the dice in a presidential election. Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate without public sector or military command experience, and then US voters gave him the job. Donald Trump embodied the anti-establishment fervor that has percolated for decades.
Perhaps that was a mistake:
As it turns out, running government requires a different skill set than running businesses, even though the two overlap to a large degree. Trump’s inexperience in governance has created some of his problems, while some problems have carried over from the campaign. The story of Russian intelligence contacts with key campaign officials, revisited this week by The New York Times, offers the best example of this gap.
Trump had run his primary campaign relatively light on consultants and pollsters, insisting that he could bankroll himself and save voters and taxpayers money. That made for a very popular argument on the campaign trail, and Trump clearly didn’t suffer from a lack of support because of it. However, the campaign didn’t effectively vet the smaller coterie of strategists and consultants who did make it into the campaign, leaving no one to question whether their economic ties to Russian businesses might leave them vulnerable to intelligence access.
The Times’ report on an FBI investigation of those ties states that campaign officials had numerous connections to suspected intelligence operatives, but that no evidence of cooperation with those operatives has emerged. It has still resulted in an embarrassing turnover at the White House, with national security adviser Michael Flynn resigning on Monday night. Perhaps this might have happened anyway, but a president with previous experience in vetting employees with political considerations in mind might have seen this kind of difficulty on the horizon sooner rather than later. It may not be a coincidence that Vice President Mike Pence, a seasoned political hand, has taken over the process of selecting Flynn’s replacement.
But there’s more:
In private business, loyalty and action typically run up and down within the organization, and even the factions that develop are largely contained within the whole and not from outside the business.
That is not true in government, and especially not within Washington DC in any Republican administration. A CEO President might expect that his orders will get carried out by people afraid to lose their jobs, but bureaucrats have civil-service protections and loyalties to parties and ideologies. It takes time, considerable patience, and skills on gathering consensus to make lasting change in Washington.
Business tycoons do not necessarily believe in consensus as much as they believe in coming out on the winning end of deals. Rushing action without that consensus and buy-in from key stakeholders resulted in the other major stumble in Trump’s first month: his executive order on a temporary block on entry to the US by nationals from seven countries with higher risks for terrorist infiltration.
There, a bold CEO was useless:
Rather than wait to consult with the agencies involved or even to get a legal team together first to defend it, the White House rushed it into enforcement and provided the media with a cornucopia of video hits to emphasize the impact of the policy. A judge stopped enforcement of the order with a temporary restraining order, and the administration then lost a chance to win an appeal because of the disorganized approach to the defense of the executive order. That policy remains on hold, whereas someone more acquainted with the pitfalls of governance would have seen those attacks coming and been prepared to meet them.
That seems fairly obvious, but it still isn’t obvious enough:
Voters are likely to keep giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. They want to believe in the businessman model of governance. If Trump delivers on his promises while learning his lessons on the best way to achieve them, he’ll sail to another term in office. If not, it may be a long time before we hear anyone seriously suggesting that government should be run like a business by someone outside of the system.
That may be diving too deep. Trump just wanted to vent and his base wanted him to vent. He did just that, but Josh Marshall sees the danger in that:
This man is not emotionally or characterologically equipped to serve as President. He lacks the focus, the ability to commit to even a passable amount of work without immediate emotional gratification – thus his decision to hold a campaign rally in Florida on Saturday. (It’s literally a campaign event, put on by his 2020 reelection campaign). Trump lacks the emotional resilience or toughness to deal with what is the inevitable criticism and difficulties of being President, which – let’s be clear – are great.
These different deficits all feed upon each other. He lacks the steadiness for the job.
And that’s new:
There are credible reports of Richard Nixon being in this sort of state in the final weeks of his presidency. But Nixon, to give him his due, was at the center of the greatest political scandal in American history, bearing down on him for months and pushing him toward the greatest political disgrace and humiliation in his nation’s political history. He was overseeing the Vietnam War, witnessing various domestic civil disturbances, grappling with foreign policy blowups which neared superpower confrontations. There was a lot going on. Trump has been President for less than four weeks. Aside from domestic, media driven and other crises of his own making, virtually nothing has happened.
But the man who just appeared before the press for a free-ranging airing of grievances looked tired, sullen and half broken. His bracing insistence that everything is going perfectly in his White House sounded desperate and bizarre.
Perhaps he was desperate and bizarre, but the press did get their one big wish – an actual press conference. They got to ask their questions. They got their answers, but be careful what you ask for. You may get it. You may be sorry, and there will be forty-seven more months of this.