Trump de­fends month in of­fice

He spars with re­porters on Flynn, Clin­ton, me­dia

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ASHLEY PARKER AND JOHN WAG­NER

Pres­i­dent Trump aired his griev­ances against the news me­dia, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and his de­trac­tors in a sprawl­ing stream-of-con­scious­ness news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, cap­ping an ex­tra­or­di­nary four weeks in of­fice marked by tu­mult, dis­ar­ray and in­fight­ing.

The be­lea­guered chief ex­ec­u­tive de­fended his ad­vis­ers against claims of im­proper con­tacts with Rus­sia and claimed — con­trary to wide­spread per­cep­tions both in­side and out­side the White House — that his fledg­ling ad­min­is­tra­tion “is run­ning like a fine-tuned ma­chine.”

“To be hon­est, I in­her­ited a mess,” he said in a news con­fer­ence that lasted an hour and 17 min­utes and was, by turns, ram­bling, com­bat­ive and pure Trump. “It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”

Yet mo­ments later, the pres­i­dent seemed to ac­knowl­edge the wide­spread re­ports of tur­bu­lence and up­heaval em­a­nat­ing out of the West Wing, only to claim that his White House — which so far has been marred by staff feud­ing, a con­tro­ver­sial travel ban, false state­ments and myr­iad leaks — was op­er­at­ing seam­lessly.

“I turn on the TV, open the news­pa­pers and I see sto­ries of chaos — chaos,” he said. “Yet it is the ex­act op­po­site. This ad­mi­nis-

tra­tion is run­ning like a fine-tuned ma­chine, de­spite the fact that I can’t get my Cabi­net ap­proved.”

Trump’s news con­fer­ence — with the pres­i­dent firmly at the cen­ter as both com­plainer and de­fender in chief — capped a month of tur­moil in what so far is the most tu­mul­tuous start to any U.S. pres­i­dency in mod­ern his­tory. His ap­proval rat­ings are un­der­wa­ter in most polls, and he is bat­tling set­backs in­clud­ing the ouster on Mon­day of na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn and the de­ci­sion Wed­nes­day by his nom­i­nee for la­bor sec­re­tary, An­drew Puzder, to with­draw amid mount­ing op­po­si­tion on Capi­tol Hill.

The tur­moil con­tin­ued Thurs­day evening as Trump’s pick to re­place Flynn, re­tired Vice Adm. Robert Har­ward, turned down the job, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the of­fer.

A se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said that “fam­ily con­sid­er­a­tions changed his mind,” and a friend of Har­ward’s added that the hard-charg­ing for­mer Navy SEAL was not fully com­fort­able with the quickly mov­ing process. One fac­tor in Har­ward’s de­ci­sion was that he could not get a guar­an­tee that he could se­lect his own staff, ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to Trump with knowl­edge of the dis­cus­sions.

Trump had said ear­lier at the news con­fer­ence that one of the rea­sons he felt that he could let Flynn go was be­cause he had a good re­place­ment in mind, with­out nam­ing that per­son. “I have some­body that I think will be out­stand­ing for the po­si­tion,” he said. “And that also helps, I think, in the mak­ing of my de­ci­sion.”

Asked about re­cent re­ports in The Wash­ing­ton Post that Flynn had im­prop­erly dis­cussed Rus­sian sanc­tions with the coun­try’s am­bas­sador to the United States be­fore Trump was sworn in, the pres­i­dent de­fended Flynn as a “fine per­son,” say­ing he had done noth­ing wrong in en­gag­ing the Rus­sian en­voy.

But Trump said that Flynn had erred by mis­lead­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, about his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sia, which is why he ul­ti­mately de­manded his res­ig­na­tion.

“He didn’t tell the vice pres­i­dent of the United States the facts,” Trump said. “And then he didn’t re­mem­ber. And that just wasn’t ac­cept­able to me.”

Trump also made clear that he had no prob­lem with Flynn dis- with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador the sanc­tions im­posed on Moscow by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, say­ing it was Flynn’s job to reach out to for­eign of­fi­cials.

“No, I didn’t di­rect him, but I would have di­rected him if he didn’t do it,” Trump said.

Asked sev­eral times about re­ports in the New York Times and on CNN that his cam­paign had re­peated con­tacts with Rus­sia, in­clud­ing se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, Trump grew testy as re­porters pushed him for a yes or no an­swer.

He said that he per­son­ally had not had con­tact and that he was not aware of such con­tacts dur­ing the cam­paign.

“Rus­sia is a ruse,” Trump said. “I have noth­ing to do with Rus­sia. Haven’t made a phone call to Rus­sia in years. Don’t speak to peo­ple from Rus­sia. Not that I wouldn’t. I just have no­body to speak to.”

Trump’s gen­eral de­fense of Rus­sia stood in con­trast to com­ments that De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis made at a NATO meet­ing Thurs­day in Brussels, where he said that there was “very lit­tle doubt” that the Rus­sians have ei­ther in­ter­fered or at­tempted to in­ter­fere with elec­tions in demo­cratic na­tions.

Thurs­day’s news con­fer­ence was os­ten­si­bly billed as a chance for Trump to an­nounce Alexan­der Acosta as his new nom­i­nee for la­bor sec­re­tary. If con­firmed, Acosta would be the first Latino in Trump’s Cabi­net.

But for 77 min­utes, the pres­i­dent of­fered the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of the brash and im­petu­ous ear­ly­morn­ing tweets that have be­come the alarm clock for much of Wash­ing­ton. He took aim at top­ics in­clud­ing the re­cent con­tro­ver­sies over Rus­sia, which he dis­missed, and the “crim­i­nal leaks” within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Al­though he in­her­ited a grow­ing econ­omy, low in­fla­tion and low un­em­ploy­ment, he re­peat­edly por­trayed a coun­try in sham­bles un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

Trump also said he would use his re­marks to by­pass the “dis­hon­est me­dia” and speak di­rectly to the Amer­i­can peo­ple about the “in­cred­i­ble progress” his ad­min­is­tra­tion has made.

The pres­i­dent be­gan on a sub­dued, al­most melan­choly note, look­ing down re­peat­edly to read from pre­pared re­marks on his lectern. But he be­came more fiery and an­i­mated — joy­ful, even — when he be­gan to ban­ter and joust with the as­sem­bled re­porters.

He reprised some of his fa­vorite themes from the cam­paign trail, com­plain­ing about Hil­lary Clin­ton, whom he ref­er­enced 12 times; crit­i­ciz­ing Obama’s poli­cies, from his Af­ford­able Care Act to his failed re­set with Rus­sia; and re­lit­i­gat­ing wounds old and new, in a Fes­tivus­cussing cal­iber air­ing of griev­ances.

And he boasted of his ac­com­plish­ments so far. “I don’t think there’s ever been a pres­i­dent elected who in this short pe­riod of time has done what we’ve done,” Trump said.

He said he has asked the Jus­tice Depart­ment to look into the leaks com­ing out of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. He promised a new ex­ec­u­tive or­der by the mid­dle of next week that would re­place the nowfrozen di­rec­tive that tem­po­rar­ily barred refugees and cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries from en­ter­ing the United States. Trump also said he would put for­ward a plan to re­peal Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act by mid-March, with a tax re­form pack­age soon af­ter.

“Tax re­form is go­ing to hap­pen fairly quickly,” he said. “We’re do­ing Oba­macare. We’re in the fi­nal stages.”

Trump re­peat­edly lam­basted the “fake news” me­dia — which at one point he up­graded (or down­graded) to the “very fake news” me­dia — while pro­mot­ing some du­bi­ous claims and fake news of his own.

Trump was pressed on his in­cor­rect as­ser­tion that he had the largest mar­gin of vic­tory in the elec­toral col­lege since Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, when Obama, Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge H.W. Bush had bested him in all of their vic­to­ries. The new pres­i­dent blamed faulty facts.

“I was given that in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “Well, I don’t know, I was given that in­for­ma­tion.”

Dur­ing the news con­fer­ence, Trump al­ter­nated be­tween show­er­ing the me­dia with scorn and adopt­ing a more play­ful, al­most jaunty, tone. At one point, he in­sisted that he was en­joy­ing him­self.

“I’m not rant­ing and rav­ing — I love this,” he said. “I’m hav­ing a good time do­ing this.”

In an ex­change with April Ryan of Amer­i­can Ur­ban Ra­dio Net­works — the only black re­porter called on by Trump — the pres­i­dent asked her to ar­range a meet­ing with the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus.

“Do you want to set up the meet­ing? Are they friends of yours?” he asked.

Trump also claimed that he had tried to meet with Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings (D-Md.), a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the group, but that Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), whom he called a “light­weight,” had urged Cum­mings not to at­tend.

In a state­ment, Cum­mings re­but­ted Trump’s ver­sion of the facts. “I have no idea why Pres­i­dent Trump would make up a story about me like he did to­day,” he said. “Of course, Sen­a­tor Schumer never told me to skip a meet­ing with the Pres­i­dent.”

In an­other no­table ex­change with a Jewish re­porter, who asked what Trump was go­ing to do to tamp down on the uptick in an­tiSemitism in the coun­try since he took of­fice, the pres­i­dent re­jected the idea that he or his rhetoric might be par­tially to blame.

“Num­ber one, I am the least anti-Semitic per­son that you’ve ever seen in your en­tire life,” Trump said. “Num­ber two, racism, the least racist per­son.”

Trump’s Thurs­day per­for­mance seemed an ac­knowl­edg­ment, by the pres­i­dent, that he may be his own best press sec­re­tary and se­nior ad­viser, and al­lowed him to ap­pear both con­fi­dent, com­fort­able and in con­trol.

While many of his com­ments, as well as the some­times dis­jointed na­ture of his de­liv­ery, are cer­tain to alarm of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton, they are also the sorts of red-meat talk­ing points that de­lighted his base dur­ing the cam­paign and helped pro­pel him to vic­tory.

“I won with news con­fer­ences and prob­a­bly speeches,” he told the as­sem­bled re­porters. “I cer­tainly didn’t win by peo­ple lis­ten­ing to you peo­ple.”

Robert Costa, Adam En­tous and Jenna John­son con­trib­uted to this re­port.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump spars with re­porters at his news con­fer­ence in the East Room. The event, which wasn’t sched­uled un­til Thurs­day morn­ing. lasted an hour and 17 min­utes.

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