As press conferences go, President-elect Trump’s first meeting with the news media was wonderful theater.
The ensemble production opened with press spokesman Sean Spicer’s angry distortion of recent news reporting. Spicer falsely claimed that CNN aired “unsubstantiated” information possibly obtained by Russians on the President-elect. In fact, while CNN has reported the existence of a dossier of this kind, the network has carefully avoided describing its contents.
Next on the show was Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who handled the role of humble public servant as he and not Trump spoke of being “profoundly honored” to be elected. The production also included a lawyer who buried concerns about conflict of interest in a lengthy legalistic monologue.
Her main prop was a huge pile of papers that supposedly detailed how Trump will separate from his businesses. Finally there was the star himself, who performed as an artful dodger, spinning away from the most difficult questions posed and scoring points with attacks on the pharmaceutical industry and companies that ship jobs overseas.
As with everything Trump does, his encounter with the press should be judged on matters of style, as well as content. The style was, for the most part, Trump-lite, which means he resisted the impulse to use name-calling and chants to denigrate individuals. No one was given a nasty nickname and he didn’t suggest that anyone in the crowd be sent to jail.
However, he did veer into weirdness when he sought credit for turning down a $2 billion “deal” to build in Dubai. Like a boy who wants praise for keeping his hand out of the cookie jar, Trump wanted a pat on the back for not violating the public trust even before he takes the oath of office. Rather than reassure, Trump’s remarks make one wonder what he was doing, weeks after the election, speaking with someone who would even consider offering him a “deal.”
Except for the occasional clinkers, it was a masterful display by a man who has been manipulating the press longer than many of the reporters in the room have been alive.
As one journalist after another stood to ask multipart questions, Trump was able to pick the one part he preferred to address, usually in the vaguest terms, while ignoring the others. Here, he was truly presidential, as all presidents have done the same thing. But he went a step further, often adding notes about his own success and brilliance in a way that a normal politician would consider unseemly.
True to his past as a salesman/promoter, Trump didn’t miss a chance to brag. As he discussed his connections to Russia he managed to sneak in the claim that his Miss Universe pageant did “very, very well” when it was held in Moscow. Asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has sounded an alarm about Russia’s election-hacking scheme, Trump couldn’t resist offering a dig about Graham’s failed presidential campaign, saying, “He is going to crack that 1% barrier one day.” Then he suddenly changed direction, saying, “It’s all right. I think Lindsey Graham is a nice guy.”
As Trump retreated from his insult of Graham he seemed to respond to the reaction from his audience, which was not an adoring crowd at a rally, but rather a press corps ready to perform its duty as democracy’s watchdog. No one laughed at his mocking remarks and, perhaps recognizing that Americans watching on TV detected he had struck an off-key note, he scrambled to cover it up.
In a similar way, Trump worked at tolerating the whole process of being held accountable by the press, something he has pushed back on many times. Offered a strange question about how he might promote “reforms” for the press, he wouldn’t take the bait, saying, “Well, I don’t recommend reforms.” Instead he said, “All I can ask for is honest reporters.”
As he resisted a chance to dictate how the press should do its work, Trump may have disappointed his most ardent supporters, who agreed when he described journalists as “scum” and “slime” and invited crowds to jeer at them at his campaign events. However, this was clearly an event where Trump sought to appear at least a little presidential. And he seems to recognize the press is one institution he cannot control. It possesses its own power and if there’s one thing Trump respects, it is power.
The power of the press explains why, in the one moment when he lost control, Trump was addressing CNN with the false suggestion that the network disseminated contents of the secret document. As the network’s Jim Acosta tried to ask a question, Trump called him rude and added, “I’m not going to give you a question,” and added “You are fake news.”
With his attack on CNN, Trump sought to plant the idea that he has enemies in the press, even if he did offer kinder words for journalists in general. Here, the key role of the hero’s adversary, essential to any Trump drama, was forced upon Acosta and the network. As a powerful man who has long picked fights to get attention, Trump has used this technique over and over again. From New York’s one-time Mayor Ed Koch to entertainer Rosie O’Donnell to Crooked Hillary, he has always needed a changing cast of enemies to keep things interesting.
At this week’s performance he made Acosta into the bad guy. Soon it will be someone else, because the show must go on. Anyone who doubts this should consider that Trump used an old line from his reality TV days to close out the event. He noted that if his sons do a bad job running the Trump organization he’ll return eight years from now and “I’ll say, `You’re fired.'” After the punchline was delivered he said, “Goodbye everybody, goodbye.” It was a perfect exit.