Half a year has elapsed since President-elect Donald Trump last held a press conference, but when he finally took extensive questions from reporters on Wednesday, most of the focus was on the events of the last 24 hours.
In the wake of Tuesday’s reports on classified documents presented to Trump which included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising information about him, tension was high at Trump Tower.
The crowd of journalists gathered there wondered how Trump would respond to BuzzFeed’s decision to publish in full unverified memos that were the basis for those allegations.
Trump did his part to build drama. At around 11 a.m. ET, just as many TV networks went live, six aides emerged from a bank of elevators carrying large stacks of papers in manila envelopes. They placed the stacks right next to Trump’s podium.
Trump later said that the papers detailed how his companies have been put into a trust. Aides prevented reporters from looking at them at the end of the press conference, saying they were “legal documents.” (At a previous press conference, the Trump team laid out what were claimed to be “Trump Steaks,” a brand that no longer exists. Reporters there noticed that the meat appeared to have actually been purchased from a local butcher.)
After the stacks of paper were delivered, a radio reporter seated at a table near the back of the room likened it to a move straight out of professional wrestling. “This is a circus-like atmosphere,” the host shouted into his microphone.
Ten minutes later, the elevator door swung open again. This time it was carrying a number of people who will be top Trump aides in the White House, including senior counselor Steve Bannon, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was also in the group.
Trump, his three eldest children, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer arrived three minutes later.
The attacks on the press began immediately.
Spicer approached the podium first. He denounced BuzzFeed, incorrectly, as a “left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign” and said the publication of the report was “shameful.”
Spicer also attacked CNN for publishing a substantiated report that a two-page synopsis of the memos’ contents had been included as an annex in classified materials presented to Trump and President Obama.
“The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubtantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks,” Spicer said.
(In a statement released after the press conference, CNN noted that its report was “vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos.”)
Next up was Pence, who used his time on the mic to bemoan what he called a “concerted effort” by some in the mainstream media to undermine the Trump presidency.
“You know, I have long been a supporter of a free and independent press, and I always will be,” Pence said. “But with freedom comes responsibility.”
Then it was Trump’s turn.
He started by calling press conferences “familiar territory,” noting that they were a regular feature of his campaign during the Republican primaries. Trump even suggested that he “won the nomination because of news conferences.”
But he had not held one since July 27. While most presidents-elect over the last 40 years held press conferences within days of their victory, Trump broke with the tradition.
He attributed the drought to dishonesty in the media.
“We stopped giving them because we’re getting quite a bit of inaccurate news,” Trump said.
Some journalists have expressed misgivings about BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the memos, and Trump highlighted that divide throughout the press conference. He alluded to remarks by New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who said the newspaper did not publish the memos because it could not corroborate the allegations in them.
“I thank the New York Times for saying that,” Trump said.
Trump was largely calm throughout the presser, even as he waded through several questions about Russia and his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
He responded mockingly when he was asked by NBC News correspondent Hallie Jackson whether he would release his tax returns to prove he has no deals with Russia.
“You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters,” Trump said.
“You don’t think the American public is concerned about that?” Jackson asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Trump said breezily. “I won.”
Trump called on four reporters before summoning a lawyer, Sherri Dillon of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, on stage to explain — a month after he was originally scheduled to — some of the steps he would be taking regarding conflicts of interest between his business and his presidency.
While Dillon spoke, Trump stood next to Pence and his children on the right side of the stage. On the opposite side, Bannon and Conway stood next to each other. Conway’s face was glued to her cell phone, while Bannon, the former president of Breitbart News, gazed out at the sea of journalists gathered.
Among those gathered was a former colleague of Bannon’s: Breitbart News reporter Matthew Boyle.
Boyle, who was reportedly spotted wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat at Trump’s election night party, was one of the reporters Trump later called upon. With his question, Boyle took up the press-bashing theme the Trump team had begun, asking Trump what “reforms” he would recommend for the news media.
“Well, I don’t recommend reforms,” Trump replied. “I recommend people that have some moral compass.”
Other Trump-friendly outlets were represented on Wednesday, positioned alongside reporters from more mainstream organizations. Early in the press conference, Trump called on a reporter from conservative cable network One America News. Right Side Broadcasting Network, an upstart outlet based in Auburn, Alabama that claims to follow Trump “wherever he goes,” also had a reporter on the scene on Wednesday.
The press conference produced its most contentious back-and-forth when Trump resumed taking questions after Dillon’s 10-minute statement.
As CNN’s Jim Acosta pleaded to ask a question, Trump repeatedly shouted him down.
“Your organization is terrible,” Trump told Acosta. “You are fake news.”
Acosta said on-air later that Spicer had threatened to toss him from the news conference if he tried to press Trump again. But Trump did later call on another CNN reporter, Jeremy Diamond.
CNBC’s John Harwood and The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, two other reporters who have drawn Trump’s scorn, were also present on Wednesday. Harwood waved his hand repeatedly to get Trump’s attention, but despite his best efforts, he was never called on.