The usual blue curtain and multiple American flags were arranged as the backdrop, and the Secret Service was in place at key points to provide security. But that’s where the familiar ended and the uniquely Trumpian took over Wednesday at President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference since his election.
While he made news with his acknowledgment of Russia’s attempt to interfere in the American campaign, his critique of the intelligence community, his approach to Obamacare and the Supreme Court, and his actions toward his business empire, the most enduring impression of the 56-minute show could have been the tone he set for his presidency.
The contrast with all of his recent predecessors in their first postelection press conferences was sharp. From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, all previous winners used the sessions to reach out to the vanquished and heal the wounds of campaigns. Obama, in 2008, assured the nation that “the United States has only one government and one president at a time” and promised to “put aside partisanship and politics and work together as one nation.”
Trump, however, could not resist belittling Hillary Clinton’s Russia policy and her management of her campaign. After weeks of suggesting the leaks of her campaign’s emails did not affect the election, he went back to mocking the contents of those leaks.
The nation waited a long time to get this extended look at how he is handling his stunning victory. Sixty-four days, to be precise. Sixty-four days since he scored a historic upset and was seen at his victory rally. Since then—with the exception of an interview with 60 Minutes—he has been there only in snippets, meeting President Obama at the White House, making brief comments in the lobby of Trump Tower. That the nation had to wait so long for his first press conference is in itself unprecedented in recent decades. The winners of the previous 10 elections all met with reporters within three days of their victory, except for Bill Clinton, who waited nine days in 1996, and Barack Obama, who went eight days in 2012.
The long delay again raised questions about how this most unorthodox of presidential candidates would adapt to the new reality of winning the world’s most powerful office. As his continuing stream of early morning tweets already suggested, this press conference confirmed that there has been no “pivot,” no move to caution or introspection. What was on display at Trump Tower Wednesday was the same pugnacious, combative, self-confident man the nation first witnessed on the day he announced his candidacy in the same building in 2015.
Two months as president-elect have not toughened his skin to criticism from either the press or the intelligence community. He characterized news organizations as “irresponsible,” “inaccurate,” “fake,” “phony,” and “very, very dishonest,” with one memorably singled out as “a failing pile of garbage.” The intelligence community was attacked for spreading “nonsense,” irresponsibly leaking reports and taking actions that were “a tremendous blot on their record.” Using a term rarely spoken publicly by a president, he dismissed the latest attack as “that crap.”
A master of hyperbole during the campaign, he signaled that he is packing the superlatives and gushing adjectives to bring with him to the White House. He won’t just protect American jobs, he “will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.” His Inauguration? It will be a “beautiful event” featuring “great talent, tremendous talent” and “incredible” bands. It will, he promised, be “a very, very elegant day” and be “very, very special, very beautiful,” with “massive crowds” befitting a campaign “like the world has never seen before.”
The press conference also reminded the nation that Trump is not a run-of-the-mill, business-friendly Republican. He left no doubt that he is ready to attack any corporation that does not toe the line set by the White House. Those who move jobs overseas will be punished and taxed. Remarkably for a Republican, he specifically targeted a GOP-friendly industry and lobby, PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. “PhRMA,” said Trump, “has a lot of lobbies and a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power, and there’s very little bidding on drugs.” It was as close to a declaration of war on a specific business lobby group as has been heard from any Republican president-elect.
Trump went further, elaborating slightly on some postelection tweets. Again, he singled out the costs of the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter being built by Lockheed Martin, lumping it in with the F/A-18 Super Hornet built by Boeing. He complained that the F-35 is “way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget.”
Perhaps most striking in the tone set by the president-elect was the lack of any sign of happiness. This was a man on top of the world, having pulled off an electoral victory almost no one thought possible. But 64 days later, he remains trapped in the fights of the campaign, stung by questions about his legitimacy and unable to move past criticism and attacks. Oddly, his only moment of glee in the press conference came when he seemed to revel in the fact that presidents are not covered by the conflicts-of-interest law affecting the rest of the executive branch.
“I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president,” he said, adding, “It’s a nice thing to have,” then ruminating on how he could do almost anything he wanted with his business and he’d be untouchable. In nine days, when the questions grow more intense and the scrutiny becomes more real, even this loophole may not be enough to keep the new president smiling.
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