If anyone thought that election to the highest office in the land had changed Donald Trump, the president-elect’s news conference Wednesday was a depressing spectacle.
As he did on the campaign trail, Trump berated the media, hurled exaggerated accusations and trafficked in vague promises — “incredible people” are going to do “tremendous things.” He shouted down a CNN reporter. He praised himself in the third person. (“No one’s ever had crowds like Trump has had.”) He acknowledged for the first time that “I think it was Russia” that hacked Democratic email accounts even as he minimized the possibility that Russia might be trying to undermine American interests. And then he seemed to back off his assertion that Russia had done the hacking.
The prevailing tone was one of defensiveness and self-justification. Asked if he was concerned that the American people might resent his refusal to release his income taxes, Trump replied: “No. I don’t think so. I won.”
The format of the event in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York resembled a campaign rally more than a news briefing. And its original purpose — an explanation by Trump about how he would resolve conflicts of interest created by his vast business empire — was largely subcontracted to a lawyer.
It’s understandable that Trump was outraged over the publication by BuzzFeed News of a dossier containing allegations that Russia had been cultivating Trump and had amassed compromising information about him. The assertions in the dossier were incendiary, occasionally salacious and entirely unverified. But at the news conference, Trump also heaped contempt on a reporter for CNN, which had merely reported that a two-page synopsis of the allegations was presented to Trump and President Obama by intelligence officials. “Your organization’s terrible,” Trump told CNN reporter Jim Acosta. (BuzzFeed, by contrast, was deemed a “failing pile of garbage.”)
Trump also turned his wrath on the intelligence community, defending a tweet earlier in the day in which he had written: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Yet it isn’t even clear that the intelligence community was the source of the dossier, which reportedly has been in wide circulation in Washington.
As for admitting error, Trump’s aides probably breathed a sigh of relief when he finally said that Russia indeed was responsible for hacking Democratic emails — although it was a perfunctory admission reminiscent of his concession that Obama was born in the United States. And by the end of the news conference he was already backtracking, saying: “But you know what? It could have been others also.”
We had hoped that as Inauguration Day neared, Trump would recognize that as president he needed to speak and act with greater care. Wednesday’s undisciplined news conference was not encouraging.