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Analysis

President-elect Trump in news conference: At war with all sides

Donald Trump on Wednesday displayed his essential political character: He is a man apart, rebelling against both the political party he defeated and the one he ostensibly leads.

That positioning, and its appeal to disgruntled voters, helped to secure him the presidency. The question now is whether playing by his own rules will work as well in the White House.

In his first full news conference in almost six months, Trump put his independence and refusal to follow Washington convention on vivid display.

He deepened his public war with the intelligence agencies that in nine days will be among his most important national security guides.

He gratuitously insulted a Republican senator who could prove to be a daunting enemy when it comes to Trump’s own goals.

He laid down demands on replacing Obamacare that his party’s House and Senate leaders have indicated they can’t attain and refused to take steps even many Republicans have said are necessary to limit conflicts between the interests of his business and the United States.

All that comes as Trump wraps up a transition that has achieved some goals but has conspicuously not expanded the political support that was only barely enough to allow him to defeat a highly unpopular Democratic nominee.

He stands to begin his presidency with the lowest poll ratings ever for a newly elected president. Far from using the pre-inauguration honeymoon period to consolidate support, Trump has diminished his standing by some measures.

But if his news conference demonstrated anything, it is that Trump at this point sees no need to change his course.

Most striking was his treatment of the intelligence community, which has aroused Trump’s ire with its unanimous declaration that Russia sought to interfere in the November election in order to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton and assist him.

Any other president-to-be would tread carefully before criticizing the nation’s spy agencies en masse. Impugning the intelligence community and weakening its standing can pose dire problems in the event of crisis, and openly warring with those who hold the nation’s secrets is rarely beneficial. (That might have been obvious on Wednesday, the day after publication of articles detailing how the nation’s intelligence leaders had briefed Trump and others on alleged Russian efforts to gather damaging information about the president-elect.)

Yet Trump started the day by blaming the agencies for allowing “this fake news to leak into the public” and equating the alleged actions with those of a heinous regime.

“One last shot at me,” he tweeted. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

In his news conference he repeated that the leak was “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”

Although he initially acknowledged that Russia might have been behind the theft of Democratic emails that damaged Clinton — something he had previously not conceded — he later suggested that other countries could be to blame.

Far from calibrating his views on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, he heaped praise on him and the relationship he hoped they would create, another backhanded confirmation of his distrust of the intelligence community’s judgment.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia,” he said.

Trump’s acceptance of Putin has enraged many in his party, who condemn Russia for its election activities and Putin as a despot.

But Trump’s lack of ideological predictability has been part of his political appeal; adopting positions at odds with his party greatly aided his reach into normally Democratic voter groups, including the white working-class voters who helped him reverse years of GOP failures in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Still, a more typical incoming president would have at least softened that approach once elected, out of self-interest. Republicans, after all, will provide the bulk of the support for anything he hopes to accomplish.

But rather than establishing a sense of common purpose, Trump continued Wednesday to strong-arm his party colleagues. He went out of his way to denigrate one Republican leader, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“Lindsey Graham. I've been competing with him for a long time. He is going to crack that 1% barrier one day,” Trump said, bringing up Graham’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Trump similarly set himself apart from his party’s leaders as he vowed to produce a plan to immediately repeal and replace President Obama’s healthcare law. Republicans on Capitol Hill don’t currently have a plan that they agree on, and they have talked about delaying any replacement for Obamacare for at least two years lest they be blamed in the 2018 election for the resulting tumult.

Trump, who will not be on the ballot until 2020, said Wednesday he wanted immediate action, including approval of a replacement.

“It will be, essentially, simultaneously,” he said. “Will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day, could be the same hour.”

Trump also set up a separate conflict with his accusations that the nation’s drug industry had been “getting away with murder.”

“Pharma has a lot of lobbies and a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power and there's very little bidding on drugs,” he said, repeating a campaign argument in favor of giving the government power to negotiate prices for drugs used in federal programs such as Medicare. Republicans have been the ones blocking that idea. 

Alienating himself from Republican Washington does not mean Trump has gone soft on Democrats. On Wednesday he recounted in some detail his electoral success and mocked Clinton as too soft on Russia, the opposite of the argument he had made during the campaign.

“Do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that?” he asked. “Give me a break.” 

Yet Trump’s days of being able to use Clinton as a foil are receding, and his transition has not expanded his appeal. Less than 4 in 10 Americans in separate polls this week by Quinnipiac University and the nonpartisan Pew Research Center approved of the way he was handling his transition. A majority of Americans retain an unfavorable view of him.

In the Quinnipiac poll, Trump lost ground between November and January in assessments of his leadership skills, his feel for everyday Americans, his demeanor and his intelligence.

Trump on Wednesday was reveling in a different reality.

“There’s a great spirit going on right now, a spirit that many people have told me they’ve never seen before, ever,” he said.

He said he would be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created” and that he had assembled “one of the great Cabinets ever put together.” He reminded listeners that “nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had.”

All of that may be true. But if it isn’t, an uncertain future beckons.

For more on politics »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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