Like most political observers, I watched Donald Trump’s Thursday press conference–if that’s what you want to call it–with a mixture of fascination and horror. On reflection, I wrote these observations for New York:
Donald Trump’s impromptu 80-minute press conference today was by all accounts an unprecedented event. To journalists accustomed to the traditional presidential press conference, it was an interminable violation of all the rules — not just of presidential-media relations, but of grammar, logic, decorum, and even political common sense. Trump brought up, unbidden, his own past mistakes in order to fulminate about how they were covered months ago. He changed subjects constantly and unpredictably, beginning with the fact that the whole thing began as an announcement of his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, but soon went far, far afield and never returned. He insulted members of the working press before, during, and after their questions; he suggested one African-American reporter set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus because he assumed they were probably “your friends.” And just when one outrage concluded, another began, world without end.
Here was Politico’s take:
“It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump will hit the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds would be ‘massive.'”
What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.” Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.
And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again. And why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded. Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”
“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it….”
Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism —the more the better — the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it — and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine — makes it all the harder to treat him normally.
Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.