What a farce.
Donald Trump’s first press conference in almost six months showed that the narcissistic bully is still the media’s master. Like a lounge act, the press conference opened with warm-up talent: Press secretary Sean Spicer attacked the media, particularly CNN and BuzzFeed, for their Monday night stories reporting that the intelligence community warned Trump and President Obama that the Russian government has damaging information on the president-elect. Vice President-elect Mike Pence whipped up the crowd’s excitement, reminding viewers that there are only nine days before Trump can “make America great again.”
Yes, there was a crowd. In addition to more than dozens of reporters, there was an audience consisting of Trump staffers, who cheered for their boss at bizarre times—like when he went after the media, who were the ostensible reason for the odd Wednesday morning pep rally.
Trump appeared rattled by the late-night disclosure of alleged Russian “kompromat” known to intelligence agencies, and again seemed to compare the intelligence community to players in “Nazi Germany.” (My colleague D.D. Guttenplan has a sober take on the revelations here.) Like Guttenplan, I think the allegations of specific contacts between Trump, and his campaign, and Russian government sources are the most important charges; the sexual details are irrelevant. But it must be said that there’s never been a presidential moment as bizarre as Trump insisting he couldn’t have taken part in the sexual activities described in the dossier because “I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.”
While Trump seemed to finally accept claims that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic Party figures, he also appeared to praise the leaks for getting out the truth. “Hacking’s bad and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking. That Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing. That’s a horrible thing. Can you imagine that if Donald Trump got the questions to the debate — it would’ve been the biggest story in the history of stories. And they would’ve said immediately, ‘You have to get out of the race.’ Nobody even talked about it. It’s a very terrible thing.” That “nobody even talked about it” is a trademark Trump lie; the supposed revelation dominated the news for days.
The ostensible purpose of the press conference was to finally unveil Trump’s plans for his businesses—how he would avoid conflicts of interest and even possible constitutional violations. After reminding viewers, at length, that as president he couldn’t be found to have a conflict of interest, Trump told the press that he would turn over management of his businesses to his sons. “What I’m going to be doing is my two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company,” he told the crowd. “They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this.” Then he turned the podium over to attorney Sheri Dillon, who made a long, confusing presentation, heavy on legalese, about how Trump would avoid conflicts—at least partly by arguing he couldn’t have a conflict because he’s the president. He would not be selling his business, Dillon said, because “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”
Shortly after Dillon wrapped, Common Cause released a statement saying Trump’s proposal “falls far short of what’s necessary to avoid conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations.” Obama ethics watchdog Norm Eisen told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent: “The Trump plan falls short in every respect. Trump did not make a clean break with his business ownership interests as his predecessors for four decades have done. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption.”
Then Trump returned to the podium, and answered a few more questions from journalists. Drama flared when Trump refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, denouncing his network as “fake news” and calling the correspondent “rude.” For a while Acosta’s competitors seemed to pause to let him continue to press Trump, and then the waters closed over him, as reporters ignored the insult to a colleague and just jumped back in the scrum. For the record, Acosta said later that an ABC reporter actually asked the question he was trying to, about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russian officials during the campaign; Trump didn’t answer her, either, but later answered “no” when getting on an elevator. So there you have it. Trump then turned to Matthew Boyle, a reporter at what amounts his own private news agency, Breitbart, and took a question about how he planned to reform media.
Making things worse was the fact that while networks covered Trump, as they of course had to, senators were grilling secretary-of-state nominee Rex Tillerson, the Vladimir Putin friend who heads Exxon-Mobil, while witnesses testified for and against the dangerous-to-civil-rights attorney-general nominee Jeff Sessions. Many of us covered a press conference in which we learned little, rather than hearings at which we could have learned a lot. (Ari Berman will be reporting from the Sessions hearing later.)
I thought reporters in the room ought to have shown more solidarity with CNN’s Acosta. Any of them could be next. But I was then dismayed to watch CNN attack BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the entire intelligence dossier—a controversial decision in journalism circles, to be sure, but a defensible one. “CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos,” the statement read in part. “The Trump team knows this. They are using BuzzFeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations.”
It seemed as though CNN was bending over backward to make clear that it wasn’t really the news agency Trump had a beef with, it was those low-lifes over there. (For his part, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith declined to respond.) When Trump gets journalists fighting among themselves, he’s won the news cycle. Once again, a frightening political performance by an unprepared president-elect will avoid the full-force media outrage it deserves.