Where Other Presidents Would See Admonition, Trump Sees Only Vindication

In a bizarre press conference, the president underscores his starkly personal approach to governing.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Nov. 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

Never has a president been so openly pleased at his party losing a chamber of Congress, or so downright giddy to see many members of his party go down to defeat, or so delighted to begin a new era of divided government. That, though, is what the country saw when President Trump defiantly marched into the East Room Wednesday and proclaimed both personal vindication and political triumph in the midterm elections.

Where most presidents would be glum over the loss of the House, Trump was almost ebullient. Where most presidents would lament the defeat of so many of his fellow Republicans, Trump was almost exultant. And where most party leaders would talk of heeding the message of voters and taking steps to shore up his party, Trump saw the electorate in perfect sync with his message. He betrayed no concern about the Republican Party he last joined only six years ago after almost four decades of bouncing between Democrat, Independent, and nonaffiliated.

What the president staked out in no uncertain terms is a highly personalized approach to governance and party loyalty. At no point did he state that the Republican Party had won; multiple times, he stated that he had won. He reveled in helping to push candidates to victory over Democrats who had been backed by President Obama or Oprah Winfrey. He boasted of the crowd sizes at his rallies. And there was no pretense of regret or sadness at any GOP defeats.

“I’m extraordinarily happy,” he said more than once. He bragged that he is “an open book,” adding that "if I wasn’t, I’d let you know.” In case there was any doubt, he said he “did unbelievably well” and “incredibly” and saw the outcome as “a great victory for us.”

Fielding questions from 37 reporters for more than 90 minutes in what is believed to be the longest presidential press conference ever on television, he seemed at his happiest in dissecting the defeats of some Republicans who had tried to distance themselves from him during the campaign, usually because they represented suburban districts where the president is unpopular.

He dismissed them brusquely for their treatment of him, singling out for scorn eight House members, one retiring senator, and one Senate candidate: Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Mike Coffman of Colorado, Mia Love of Utah, Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Peter Roskam of Illinois, Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, and John Faso of New York; Senate candidate Bob Hugin of New Jersey; and retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

He took credit for forcing Flake into retirement, sarcastically calling him “another beauty.” Defiantly, he said, “It's me, pure and simple. I retired him. I'm very proud of it. I did the country a great service.”

In a mocking voice, he said the House members cried, “Let’s stay away, let’s stay away.” The result: “They did very poorly. I’m not sure that I should be happy or sad, but I feel just fine about it.” He recalled that Love had sought his help on a matter only to turn on him. “Mia Love gave me no love,” he said. “And she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.” He insisted Comstock could have won her race in suburban Virginia, "but she didn’t want to have any embrace.” Picking up on that theme, he rattled off the other losers: Roskam “didn’t want the embrace.” Paulsen “didn’t want the embrace.” He concluded, “These are some of the people that, you know, have decided for their own reason not to embrace.”

The message to the Republicans who remain, now in the minority in the House, was clear: Bend a knee to the White House and accept the embrace.

He also cited two other reasons for his glee at the House's flip. First, he suggested that he will be more at home as a negotiator making deals with the Democrats, confessing admiration for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s toughness. Second, he now has someone to blame if the economy slows or the electorate grows grumpy over what it sees in Washington.

If there is a government shutdown? “I would blame them.” He elaborated, stating, “What's bad for them is being in the majority, I'm just going to blame them. You understand, I'm going to blame them. They're the majority.” He added, “Honestly, it makes it much simpler for me. They will be blamed.”

After a few nasty clashes with reporters and complaints about what he saw as nasty or “racist” questions, he concluded the marathon question-and-answer session as he had begun—exhilarated at the political terrain he surveys. His view once again is counter to conventional wisdom. But he sees many of his in-party critics purged, expects the remaining Republicans to be cowed by his political skills, and views his path to reelection in 2020 as much easier—all because he suffered what any other president would have taken as a setback.

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