On Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump’s staff corralled the White House press corps into the East Room of the White House so that he could sing the praises of his new Labor Secretary pick, Alexander Acosta.
This was the case only for first few minutes during which the president, visibly bored, read from a sheet of notes, sounding like he had just woke up from a power nap.
For the remainder of the marathon press conference, which lasted one hour and 17 minutes, Trump perked up and did what he has the most fun doing: beating up on the press.
He shouted about Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Russian intelligence. He vented about how unfair and nasty “the media” was to him, but took time to specifically praise friendly outlets such as Fox News. He tried to settle old scores in public. He touted the single national poll that showed a favorable approval rating. He continued to protest too much about charges of racism, and even anti-Semitism in his ranks. And President Trump revived Candidate Trump’s favorite campaign-rally applause line about how he has “never seen more dishonest media than, frankly, the political media.”
It was like he had never left the campaign trail or all the old talking points, pugnacity, and vitriol that came with it. The only thing that was missing was a jab at “Crooked Hillary.”
And as the official White House press conference disintegrated further into unhinged criticism and belligerent sniping, reporters seated in the East Room could hardly contain themselves. There was an awkward mix of laughing with Trump, and chuckling at him as the president kept venting and sneering. The reporters present couldn’t stop quietly gossipping about Trump.
“What is going on?” one journalist whispered to another. “This is insane” and “What the hell?” were other popular refrains in the room.
It was, again, time for Trump’s very public airing of the grievances and insecurities—all of them too familiar.
The most jarring parts of the president’s therapeutic-sounding, televised meltdown were when his extended monologues took aim at his media enemies-list, or when the conversation shifted to Russia and Michael Flynn, Trump’s recently resigned national security adviser.
This was when Trump deployed a fast clip of back-to-back contradictory statements and bizarre conspiratorial claims—the kind of almost improvisational routine Trump has perfected in his rise to power, and also his era of reality-TV stardom.
“I don’t think he did anything wrong. If anything, he did something right,” Trump said, defending the just-sacked Flynn as “a fine person.”
“You know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all, you know, fake news, [a] fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it,” Trump alleged. “It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news. The nice thing is, I see it starting to turn, where people are now looking at the illegal… giving out [of] classified information.”
The president wouldn’t stop blaming “fake news,” or the ghosts of the Obama administration for leaking information on Flynn speaking in secret with the Russian ambassador just as the United States was imposing new sanctions on the Kremlin.
“Russia is fake news,” he insisted, again. “Russia—this is fake news put out by the media. The real news is the fact that people, probably from the Obama administration [are leaking] because they’re there, because we have our new people going in place, right now.”
Trump was later asked by a reporter if he can “definitively” say that nobody on his campaign had “any contacts with the Russians during the campaign,” and if it’s all “fake news” as Trump says, then how “are these real leaks?”
“Well, the leaks are real…I mean the leaks are real,” he shot back. “The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake…The reporting is fake.”
Continuing on his routine tirade against “fake” reporting, the president couldn’t resist taking a couple shots at CNN, one of his biggest media adversaries during the election. (The channel’s reporter Jim Acosta—no relation to Trump’s Labor pick—was present to take the roasting.)
Trump, the most powerful man in the world, is still petty enough to mock the network’s ratings, all the while sneaking in a plug for his favorite cable-news allies.
“Fox and Friends in the morning, they’re very honorable people,” Trump, the media critic, said. “They have the most honest morning show. That’s all I can say. It’s the most honest.” (Not long before he became leader of the free world, Trump had a regular guest-slot on Fox and Friends.)
Still, President Trump wanted to remind the room and the American people that he wasn’t mad. He says he’s just having the time of his life at the expense of the media elite.
“I’m actually having a very good time, OK?” he said. “Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you, you know, you’re dishonest people…I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it. But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves.’ I’m not ranting and raving.”
“Go ahead,” he dared the writers and editors.
When the press conference finally concluded, Trump quickly exited the East Room. His top aides (including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway) who were seated in front of him the whole time, leapt up to applaud, cheer, and smile as their boss left the reception room.
To Trump and his many fans and Republican enablers, he had just killed it and stuck it to the relentless haters and the sore losers. To his many critics, he had thrown yet another one of his famous, high-publicity temper tantrums.
“To be honest, I inherited a mess—it’s a mess, at home and abroad, a mess,” Trump emphasized toward the start of the presser, complaining about all the work he has to do, from job creation to the Middle East.
“I just want to let you know, I inherited a mess,” the president reiterated, cementing his excuses.