Donald Trump’s Jarring Press Conference

The president-elect’s sharp, unhappy tone stood in stark contrast to that of his predecessors.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower on Wednesday.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 11, 2017, 2:47 p.m.

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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