President Trump spent his first four weeks on the job denouncing the nation’s news media with regular blasts from his perch in the Oval Office and on Twitter.
On Thursday, he gathered the press into the East Room for something else, a less combative give-and-take conversation where he could lay out his complaints and try to rewrite the fitful history of his young Administration.
There’s been no policy confusion, Trump said. The legal wrangling surrounding his controversial travel-ban executive order was the result of a “bad court.” Any suggestion of staff drama was “fake news.” Any suggestion that he’s more favorable to Russia than his predecessor or his 2016 opponent? That’s “fake news” too.
“This Administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he boasted, less than a day after being forced to withdraw his nominee to lead the Department of Labor for lack of Republican support.
Every hero needs a villain. Every victim needs an aggressor. One hundred days after he shocked the world in winning the presidency, Donald Trump made clear he believes Presidents need foils too. In this case, the media.
“The public doesn’t believe you anymore,” he said. “Maybe I had something to do with that.”
It’s hardly a surprise for a man who has lived his entire adult life cultivating and attacking coverage in the tabloids to continue that practice in the White House. Sitting in the private dining room next to the Oval Office or in the executive residence, Trump has been an avid consumer of television coverage of his Administration — and he’s been open to aides in recent days about his displeasure.
Offering an encore of his marathon press conferences during the campaign, which proved to be the cable-television fodder that he believes helped him secure the presidency, Trump declared, “I’m here again, to take my message straight to the people.”
There was little doubt that the freewheeling Trump enjoyed the sparring match with the Fourth Estate. He toyed playfully with the network correspondents he recognized, and wielded the power of deciding whom to call on and whom to silence at will. The reality television host was doing it live — and loving it.
“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press,’” he said. “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”
A senior Administration official explained the surprise nature of the press conference, saying Trump walked into the Oval Office on Thursday morning and told aides he wanted to set the record straight.
“It’s been 28 days. He wanted to speak directly to the people without a filter,” the official said.
Holding court for an hour and 16 minutes, his remarks carried live on all of the major networks, Trump turned to the assembled members of the press to berate them for their negative coverage and plead for more favorable treatment.
“I think you would do much better by being different,” he said to a reporter for CNN. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, told TIME on Wednesday that the press’s efforts to report on dysfunction in the White House proved their status as “the opposition party.”
Trump’s press conference opened with the more than 23-minute listing of grievances and accomplishments.
“There has never been a presidency that has done so much in such a short period of time,” he said in no small measure of hyperbole. Just moments earlier he tried to explain the slow pace of progress. “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”
Trump had only signed two relatively minor bills before delivering his remarks Thursday, with little action thus far on GOP priorities like Obamacare and tax reform.
Facing a flurry of questions about his relationship with Russia, Trump declared that “nobody that I know of” on his campaign had contact with any Russian officials during his candidacy. He also explained his decision to fire National Security Adviser Mike Flynn earlier this week.
“He didn’t tell the Vice President of the United States the facts and then he didn’t remember and that just wasn’t acceptable to me,” he said, adding his decision to let him go was “helped” by having a strong replacement ready.
“Russia is fake news,” he continued, dismissing the coverage of federal officials’ belief that Trump aides maintained close ties to Russian officials. “The press should be ashamed of themselves,” he continued of the leaks, which have also revealed his private conversations with world leaders. He added that he’s asked the Department of Justice to “look into” the source of the revelations.
Minutes after falsely claiming the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all beat him), Trump sheepishly walked it back, first saying he only meant Republicans, and then blamed aides. “I don’t know, I was given that information,” he said.
Minutes after Trump left the stage, his campaign emailed supporters. “You’re our last line of defense,” the subject line blared. “We need you to fight back against the media.”