Wednesday morning at Trump Tower, President-elect Donald Trump held his first extended media gathering in over five-and-a-half months – in Trump’s words, a “general news conference”.
What did we learn from the experience?
Here are five takeaways.
1. There's No Reverse Gear for Trump. Anyone looking for caution, humility or political timidity came away from this affair disappointed.
Trump began by taking the Russia dossier report head-on, trashing it as “disgraceful” and “fake news”.
Building a wall on the southern border? Full steam ahead, even if the financing is an open question.
Repealing and replacing ObamaCare? A plan will be offered as soon as his choice for health and human Services Secretary, Rep. Tom Price, M.D. is confirmed.
Much was left on the table. There’s a question of competing priorities and what takes utmost priority (Congress can make only so much sausage at one time). Can the aforementioned items – plus tax reform, infrastructure, a military build-up and judicial appointments – all proceed at warp-speed without clogging the pipeline?
The biggest news nugget in this regard: Trump said he’ll make his Supreme Court pick ”within two weeks” of taking office, after “some pretty good signings” (presumably to roll back past executive orders).
2. Getting Back To December’s Business. This news conference was originally slated for December 15, to explain how the president-elected planned to avoid financial conflicts of interest.
That still happened, though it won’t grab the same headlines it might have nearly a month ago. However, it did have one advantageous effect for Trump: the financial briefing brought the media to dead silence – a lull between two storms.
What we learned today: Trump will resign all offices and positions in his business empire, with his two sons taking control of the operation (daughter Ivanka also has ceded management authority). Profits from foreign government stays at Trump properties will be donated to the federal Treasury.
Trump’s handling of the matter, I thought, was politically deft – he left it to an aide to calmly detail the creation of a firewall and explain the nuances of the family operation; donating the profits to charity was a nice touch.
3. He’s Not Barack Obama. Trump took 17 questions over the course of almost an hour, including the 15-minute legal presentation on the financial holdings.
As such, it was the opposite of the typical Obama White House press conference, where the principal usually fielded about a half-dozen-or-so questions during the allotted time.
The Obama approach: offer rambling, obfuscating responses that not only strayed from the question at hand (purposely so), but ran out the clock on the news conference.
Trump, on the other hand, was direct in his responses – at times seeming to draw energy off the contentious nature of some of the questions.
It’s one of many differences between 44 and 45. Obama’s speeches were refined; his press conferences workmanlike. Trump may prove to be the opposite – little in the way of soaring rhetoric, no lack of fireworks with his media inquisitors.
4. Not A Release Valve. Why do presidents hold press conferences? If not to break news or control a bad story/trend, then to release some pressure from a media entourage clamoring for interaction.
A funny thing about this particular conference: it didn’t do much in the way of détente.
Trump opened his remarks by crediting most news outlets for not running the latest Russia dossier allegations. But his dislike for the institution of the press (not to mention his lack of dependency, thanks to his Twitter feed) is palpable. Then again, that contempt is two-way traffic.
Yes, the media got their access. But they’ll want more. And they likely won’t get it – not in a presidency that promises a departure in press care and feeding.
Which takes us to the final point . . .
5. Don’t Get Used To This. The last time Trump held a lengthy back-and-forth with reporters? July 27 of last year – the third day of the Democratic National Convention.
Once in office, there’s little chance of Trump going dark for six months. Some presidents have – but not until the closing chapter of their White House years (George W. Bush held two solo news conferences in the last 13 months of his presidency).
Incoming presidents typically hold their first news conference less than a month into the job. After that, all bets are off.
Barack Obama held 10 solo news conferences during his first year in office. He averaged one presser for roughly every six weeks of his presidency.
Bush 43 fed the beast less frequently, averaging about four solo pressers a year.
Bill Clinton? Twelve solo news conferences during his first year; only 10 during his last three years, with reporters wanting time to delve into impeachment.
The Bush 41 presidency was arguably the most camera-ready in modern times – 73 solo news conferences in four years, which gives you an idea of how presidents were forced to communicate before social media, cable television and the 24/7 news cycle changed America’s information diet.
Trump’s choices moving forward?
Sean Spicer, the next White House press secretary, offered a clue last week during an interview with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt: replacing daily press conferences with more in the way of social media (Facebook town hall meetings, interacting with Twitter users).
As for more traditional news conferences? Make the Bush 43 statistic – four solo press conferences a year – the over-under.
Perhaps as a sign of good will, Trump will leave some of his books in the White House briefing room. After mornings like the one on Wednesday, it’s hard to imagine a reality-star-turned-president making this regular scheduled programming.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.