It was “insane,” a “marathon rant” at the media, and “a press conference for the ages.” Before you accuse me of liberal bias, these were the terms that Fox Business Channel’s Charles Gasparino, the home page of the New York Post, and Fox News’s Shepard Smith used, respectively, to describe the performance that Donald Trump put on during a lengthy press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Nominally, the White House had hastily scheduled the press conference so that Trump could announce he was nominating Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University College of Law, for the post of Labor Secretary. But it was clear something strange was afoot when Trump walked in alone—without Acosta. Then, when the President started to talk, his tone was one of thinly suppressed fury.
After briefly lauding Acosta’s credentials, Trump thanked Paul Singer, a conservative Wall Street billionaire who used to oppose him and now supports him, for paying him a visit. (One of the few things Trump seems actually to like about being President is having supplicant rich guys come and pay homage to him.) Then he changed tack and said, “I’m here today to update the American people on the incredible progress that has been made in the last four weeks since my Inauguration . . . I don’t think there’s ever been a President elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.”
What Trump has actually done, of course, is demonstrate his manifest unsuitability for the job he now holds. He has also signed a bunch of papers, most of which have had little immediate effect, and one of which—his anti-Muslim travel ban—plunged America’s airports into chaos before being put on hold by a federal judge. For the past week, his Administration has been consumed by damaging stories about his ties to Russia, and his firing of his national-security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Four weeks into its first term, the Obama Administration had already passed the biggest economic stimulus since the Great Depression and a sweeping fair-pay act. It had also announced a troop surge in Afghanistan. By comparison, Trump has achieved virtually nothing, except scaring the bejesus out of the world.
In his mind, of course, things are very different. For more than hour on Thursday, he stood at a White House lectern, the yellowness of his hair accentuated by the gold drapes hanging behind him, and demonstrated, again, that he long ago escaped the bounds of reality that restrict most mortals. He talked about his various executive orders, his meetings with the leaders of the United Kingdom and Canada, and his fifty-five-per-cent approval rating in the latest Rasmussen poll. (For some reason, he didn’t mention his forty-per-cent approval rating in a Gallup poll, the lowest on record for a President in his first month in office.) “I’m keeping my promises to the American people,” he said.
He returned, yet again, to the subject of the election. After pointing out that he got three hundred and four votes in the Electoral College, he added, “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.” It wasn’t anything of the sort—Obama, for one, received higher vote counts—but Trump didn’t let that bother him. He spoke of the campaign-style rally he is scheduled to attend on Saturday, near Orlando, Florida—many observers suspect his handlers organized the event to cheer him up—and said that he had ” heard that the crowds are massive that want to be there.”
About the only bit of real news came when Trump confirmed, from his own mouth, that he didn’t have a problem with the fact that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian Ambassador to Washington three weeks before the Inauguration. The reason he fired Flynn, he said, was because he subsequently misled Vice-President Mike Pence.
In a more fractious political setting—the British Parliament, say—Trump would have been shouted down by howls of derision. There in the East Room, the members of the White House press corps sat meekly as the President offered them up as chum to conservative talk radio and other redoubts of alternative-reality Trumpery. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,” he said, striking a note of incredulity. “Chaos. 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.”
Evidently, Trump was so pleased with that bit of Newspeak—“fine-tuned machine”—that he used it twice. He also dismissed a Times report that said some of his campaign aides were in regular touch with Russian intelligence officials. “The three people that they talked about all totally deny it,” he said. “And 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. . . . Russia—this is fake news put out by the media.” Speaking more generally, he declared, “The press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.’’
Nobody can argue with that last sentence—but not in reference to the press. When Trump finally wrapped up his soliloquy and took questions, a reporter pointed out that both Obama and George H. W. Bush got more Electoral College votes than he did, and asked why Americans should trust him when he peddles blatant falsities. “I was given that information,” Trump replied blithely. “I’ve seen that information around.” Another reporter asked Trump whether he was concerned that, by labelling stories he didn’t like as “fake news,” he was undermining public faith in the First Amendment. He threw the question back. “The press—the public doesn’t believe you people anymore,” he said. “Now, maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you.”
As far as many of Trump’s core supporters are concerned, that may be true. When he walked out of the room, some of his aides appeared to be delighted. Rush Limbaugh, another Palm Beach resident who has made his career by going loco on the mainstream media, was busy hailing what he had just seen. In parts of Trumpland, then, this was seen as a big win. Practically everywhere else, the reaction was: Wow! He really is a nut.