You would never know from watching President Trump’s impromptu press conference on Monday that he was at historic lows in the polls, is squabbling with key leaders of his own party and is still without a significant legislative accomplishment. What the president described was very much an alternate reality of an administration that deserves an A-plus for hurricane relief, is rescuing Americans in need of health care, is on the path to historic tax relief and has achieved so much despite an obstructionist opposition.
In many ways, the press conference was a 42-minute elaboration of a comment he made in the morning—“I’m not going to blame myself.”
Seventy-two years to the month since President Harry Truman put a “The buck stops here!” sign on his desk in the Oval Office, Trump made clear both in his remarks at a Cabinet meeting and at his press conference in the Rose Garden that others are to blame for any failings in his first nine months in office.
The comment came when he was trying to explain efforts by his former aide Steve Bannon to defeat some Republican senators. After stressing that he has “great relationships” with many senators, Trump said, “But we’re not getting the job done.” Almost immediately, he amended that to absolve himself. “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest. They are not getting the job done.” His emphasis clearly was on “they.”
With that, he brushed aside all criticism, describing a country responding with gratitude to his initiatives. “We are getting tremendous accolades,” he said. When a reporter noted he is getting a lot of criticism for his actions on health care, the president interjected, “And a lot of praise.”
Opposition by Democrats, he said, is “very unfair.” And suggestions of friction with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? The creation of an unfair press. That was why McConnell stood by his side during the lengthy Rose Garden appearance. “Despite what we read, we are probably now … closer than ever,” said the president. He did not address the fact that it was his own tweets and criticisms of McConnell that had fueled the talk of friction. “My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding,” he said.
Much of the press conference was devoted to a defense of his own actions and suggestions he is out-performing his predecessors. He complained that “nobody wants to talk” about his successes, particularly his appointment of conservative judges. “There has never been anything like what we’ve been able to do together with judges,” he said.
He cast himself as the victim of Democrats, complaining “we have to go through hell because we have no Democrat support.” Trump did not miss a beat when a reporter reminded him that he had heavily criticized Obama for blaming Republicans for his problems in Congress. In 2012, Trump tweeted of Obama that “he can never take responsibility.” Trump contended this is different because Democrats in the Senate “are holding up every single nomination. They are obstructing.”
The most surprising moment of the press conference came when he contrasted himself with previous presidents—and specifically with Obama—contending that they had failed to call the families of fallen American soldiers. Trump has been criticized for remaining silent for the last 12 days since four American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger. Prodded to say something, Trump disclosed that he has written letters to the families but acknowledged he has not telephoned them since the deaths on Oct. 4.
He then talked about how tough it was on him to make those calls. “For me, that’s by far the toughest,” he said. And rather than accept any blame or criticism himself, he deflected attention onto his predecessor. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls.” Challenged later on this statement, he amended it. “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told.”
Obama, whose aides flooded Twitter with objections to Trump’s contention, made those calls while also going to Dover to be there when the remains of slain soldiers returned.