The recent news cycle has felt like something out of a John le Carré thriller: CIA surveillance. Russian operatives colluding with presidential campaign aides. Espionage. A spy ship off the coast of Connecticut.
But when Donald Trump took the podium Thursday in his first solo press conference as president, the tone was more “Dr. Strangelove” than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Trump referred to his Cabinet — from which National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was just fired — as a “fine-tuned machine,” called it the greatest Cabinet ever assembled (though it’s not fully assembled), asked an African American reporter if she could arrange a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus, and accused Hillary Clinton of giving uranium to the Russians.
It’s doubtful if even Peter Sellers, who played President Muffley in “Strangelove,” could duplicate the sheer absurdity of the unscheduled, seemingly unending, presser.
Though exactly no one expected the former reality star to suddenly drop the bombastic approach that characterized his campaign for the White House, his behavior during the 75-minute news conference was bizarre, vengeful, angry, and erratic — even by Trump standards.
His despotic commands (“Sit down!”), his continued campaigning for an office he’s already won (there’s a rally in Florida this weekend, and the crowds will be “massive”) and his insistence that most every negative news story about him was “made up” by an “out of control” press was the stuff of great ratings, outlandish reality TV moments and evocative of memorable meltdowns by fictional characters on the big and small screens.
When Trump was asked what he planned to do about the Russian spy ship docked off the coast, his forceful answer recalled a particularly unhinged scene by Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.”
“I'm not going to tell you anything about what response I do,” said Trump to the reporter. “Because I don't talk about military and I don't talk about certain other things. ... So I don't have to tell you. I don't want to be one of these guys that say, ‘Yes, here's what we're going to do.’ I don't have to do that. I don't have to tell you what I'm going to do in North Korea. … And I don't have to tell you what I'm going to do with Iran. You know why? Because they shouldn't know. And eventually you guys are going to get tired of asking that question. So, when you ask me, what am I going to do with the ship, the Russian ship, as an example? I'm not going to tell you. But hopefully I won't have to do anything. But I'm not going to tell you!”
The press conference was anything but what it should have been — a respectful and dignified discussion about some very real and dangerous issues that have nothing to do with how many electoral votes he did or didn’t get, or how hard the job is.
“I inherited a mess. A mess,” he said, seemingly angry with the room itself about all he had to deal with as president. ISIS. Creating jobs. And Iran. Boy, had “Iran had really taken advantage of the administration before” him.
CNN’s Jake Tapper referred to “Seinfeld” when describing the conference as “an airing of grievances. It was Festivus.” “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling tweeted: “Up until an hour ago, the scariest thing I’d ever watched was Psycho. #TrumpPresser.” Jimmy Kimmel said the news conference “reminded me of something you’d see before a pay-per-view boxing event.”
What the media mostly wanted from Trump was more information about the recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents that reveal repeated contact between Flynn, Trump’s campaign advisers and Russian operatives during the presidential campaign when Russia hacked Democratic National Committee email accounts. Were they complicit? Was he complicit? What were they discussing?
Trump didn’t like the questioning, so his response was to refer to the news outlets before him as failing, deceptive, bad, disgraceful, dishonest, distorting and fake — before dispensing with his own untrue information: that he’d won the electorate by a wider margin than any other recent president. Why wouldn’t he expect a roomful of reporters who’ve called him out on this demonstrably false statement before, to not call him on it again? But surprised, he was:
Reporter: Mr. President, very simply, you said today that you had the biggest electoral margin since Ron Reagan. In fact, president Obama had 365,
Trump: I was talking about Republicans—
Reporter: George Bush, 426 when he won. So why should Americans trust—
Trump: I was given that information. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.
Reporter: I guess my question is why should the American people trust you when you accuse the information they receive as being fake when you’re providing information that’s not accurate?
Trump: I was given that information. Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?
Reporter: You’re the president.
Trump’s usually embattled press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood on the sidelines, looking relieved as his boss demeaned the press outlets, interrupted most every question with a snarky or impatient comment, and lamented how hard it was to find a friendly reporter. At least it wasn’t him up there, inspiring another “Spicy” parody by Melissa McCarthy on “SNL.” The show is a repeat this week, which may be best because, really, how can you top such a spectacle other than dispensing with parody and running the actual press conference itself?
Even Fox News’s usual lockstep with the Republican Party was broken, at least momentarily, by Thursday’s Trump show.
Shepard Smith said: “It’s absolutely crazy, He keeps repeating ridiculous, throwaway lines that are not true at all, and avoiding this question of Russia, as if we’re some sort of fools for asking the questions. Really? No sir. We are not fools for asking this question and we demand to know the answer to this question. You owe it to the American people.”
It was a moment, in itself, that seemed right out of an episode of “The Newsroom” or “The West Wing.”