How did President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference go? He nailed it. It was strange, abusive, occasionally misleading. But he nailed it.
And while the media will complain that he tried to silence individual reporters — which he did — the reality is that the conference was about as raw and detailed as you’re likely to get from a president-elect. He gave us a dozen headlines from just one encounter. This is the Trump paradox: Trump and the press hate each other yet they feed off each other.
We actually learned a lot. Trump’s two legislative priorities are building the wall and repealing and replacing Obamacare. What he’ll replace Obamacare with remains a mystery — but at least we know what’s coming. Trump also said that he’ll name his Supreme Court nominee within two weeks of his inauguration.
In addition, he compared the behavior of some within the intelligence community to Nazis and suggested that the very mention of Senator Lindsey Graham makes him laugh. He even pledged to sack his sons should they underperform while running his businesses. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he signaled that no amount of speculation on his relationship with Vladimir Putin will shift his position towards Russia. Russia was probably guilty of hacking, he concluded, but that will cease once Trump is in charge.
This was presumably not the press conference that he wanted to give. The night before, Buzzfeed published some unverified, lurid claims about Trump’s time in Russia that have clearly got under his skin. For some unclear reason he has decided that CNN — which did not publish allegations that it could not independently verify — is also guilty of trying to undermine him, and he shouted down questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta.
It was unfair, bullying behavior. But calling out the press is not entirely unheard of. Obama scolded reporters for doing things he didn’t approve of; Nixon obsessed about the hostile liberal press. What’s different about Trump is how happy he is to personalize his battles, to roll up his sleeves and jump into the fight while on live TV.
Un-presidential? Yes. Unpopular? I suspect not. The media has to accept that popular attitudes towards journalism have shifted according to partisan bias, and there are a lot of conservatives nowadays who disbelieve unfavorable reporting of Trump simply because they don’t trust its source.
In their opinion, conservatives have been losing since George W. Bush because they’ve been too nice — and Trump’s aggressive approach is not only entertaining but necessary. Independent voters, meanwhile, might appreciate the way that Trump cuts through gossip to the heart of the matter. Does anyone really believe what Buzzfeed published about Trump? No. Do they want friendlier relations with Russia with an eye to allying against Islamist terrorists? Yes.
It’s noticeable that whenever Trump hasn’t got an answer for a difficult question, he’ll say that the public doesn’t care about it. And on everything from his business contacts in Russia to his taxes, he’s probably correct enough about this assessment to get away with the deflection. In other words, I can see this style of press conference getting him out of trouble more than it lands him in it.
What a stylistic contrast from Obama. On Tuesday night, Obama rounded off his presidency with a typically professorial speech that told us what we’ve all been getting wrong and what we need to do to make things better. A moral lecture, in other words. Trump, by contrast, just gets down to business. It’s frequently disingenuous and often ugly — but it’s compelling.