President Donald Trump gave an unexpected press conference today with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by his side. What is really remarkable, though, almost 10 months into his term in office, is how few press conferences Trump has so far given. In fact, the true measure of the “adult day care center” situation at the White House is how effective the people surrounding Trump have been at blocking Trump from giving freewheeling press conferences. Before he became president, he used to love doing these out on the campaign trail, but not so much since he was sworn in.
By a strict accounting, Donald Trump has only held one formal solo press conference. One. He surprised everyone by appearing in front of a podium and he answered questions for the better part of an hour. That was in mid-February, not even a full month in to his term. Since that point, he has not given a single formal solo press conference at all. But perhaps that’s being too rigorous in definition, because Trump did have a second long-format press conference in Trump Tower.
His Trump Tower press conference was initially supposed to be a joint statement on infrastructure with key members of his administration. But once Trump got going, the others were pushed aside, and Trump dominated the question-and-answer segment. This happened in August, immediately after Trump’s initial disastrous response to the Charlottesville tragedy. So even though the event was supposed to be on infrastructure, Trump singlehandedly turned it into his second freewheeling press conference.
Trump has answered some questions from the press outside of solo press conferences on occasion. He has not done away with the tradition of joint press conferences after he meets with world leaders, but these are usually quite abbreviated events where the press gets to ask only a handful of questions.
Today, Trump rather unexpectedly gave what was initially supposed to be a quick joint appearance with Mitch McConnell after the two had lunch but once again became dominated by Trump and the press in a wide-ranging back-and-forth. McConnell was really no more than an afterthought and didn’t say anything notable at all.
Trump, on the other hand, ranged all over the political map. There were a few shots at Hillary Clinton, but to be fair one of these was set up by the question that was asked. There was one highly offensive ― and false ― shot at Barack Obama that he had failed to call the families of soldiers who had died for the country. Trump took this inaccurate shot in a futile attempt at masking his own inaction over the past 10 days ― Trump was reportedly playing golf with Lindsey Graham when the flag-draped coffin of one of the soldiers killed in Niger arrived back on American soil, and Trump not only hasn’t even mentioned the incident once since it occurred but also apparently failed to write or call the families of the dead soldiers.
Just imagine for one tiny little moment what Republicans would now be saying if this charge were true about a Democratic president. Yet none of them saw fit to even mention Trump’s lack of concern over the past week and a half, and one of the two GOP senators who normally would have been brave enough to challenge Trump on it (the other being John McCain) was actually the one playing golf with Trump when the body arrived back home. Now that the media brought it up, Trump swears that letters will be going out “tonight, maybe tomorrow,” and that he’ll call the families. That’s a pretty lackadaisical attitude from the commander in chief toward the troops but nary a peep from all the jingoistic Republicans in Congress, it seems.
Stepping back from the details of what was said, however (we’ll have plenty of time later in the week to examine the full transcript in detail), what’s really remarkable was that the press conference happened at all. In almost 10 full months, Trump has taken questions like this on only three occasions.
Candidate Donald Trump had just as much scorn for the press as does President Trump. His attitude hasn’t changed one iota since then. But back then, he used to have a real love-hate relationship with the media. He hated what they said about him, but he loved being on television so much that he didn’t care. He’d hold a full-on press conference at the drop of a hat on the campaign trail. He always saw himself as the big winner of these interactions, because he’d say outrageous stuff that riled up the media but also got him a lot of praise from his supporters. The tradeoff was worth it, to candidate Trump.
Since becoming president, however, things have been different. None of his three press conferences was scheduled long in advance, meaning Trump probably made them happen by announcing he was going to do them that day. His aides had to make it happen, but on most days they’ve been able to keep Trump away from press conference settings. His previous two performances were largely seen as disastrous ― except of course among Trump’s core supporters, who doubtlessly loved them. That dynamic hasn’t really changed since Trump took office.
This means that, for the most part, the sane people managing Donny’s Adult Day Care have been successful at keeping Trump away from pressers. Since his first one, they’ve been able to avoid Trump giving a formal White House press conference altogether. Trump has had to “go rogue” and hijack other press events which then morph into a long-format press Q and A. He did so in Trump Tower back in February, and he did so again today, in what was supposed to just be a quick “look how well Mitch McConnell and Trump are getting along” staged photo-op.
To be fair, all presidents at some point or another go through long periods without speaking formally to the press. They either get tired of doing them, or they are avoiding one particular subject until it goes away, or they just get too busy. For whatever reason, it does happen to just about all occupants of the Oval Office. But with Trump, there was a clear expectation that he’d be a lot more open with the press. Which is why it’s so disappointing that there have been so few real interactions.
Trump actually loves verbally jousting with reporters. As stated, he always (always) sees himself the victor of any such exchange, and as a bonus he gets to be his true New York City counterpunching self. What’s not to enjoy? Of course they’re going to write negative stories about the press conference, but they were going to write negative stories anyway, right? Tweeting is fun and all, but getting right back in some reporter’s face is a whole lot more enjoyable to Donald Trump.
I will go further and heartily encourage the president: Break free from the chains all your handlers have put you in! Why let these puppet masters pull your strings ― especially the one that yanks you back from a real donnybrook with the press? You know you love these episodes, so give the American people the spectacle they deserve. Why not hold a regular press conference on a monthly basis ― say, when the new unemployment numbers come out, so you have something to brag about? You’d feel better, the press would feel better, and the American people could get your opinions straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Prove to the world that the White House is not “adult day care,” once and for all!
Chris Weigant blogs at: www.chrisweigant.com
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