EXCLUSIVE: Donald Trump views himself as battling an intensifying wave of “media hostility” and is “disappointed” in the growing chorus of criticism from Republican leaders.
In an interview, Trump shrugged off his slippage in the polls, boasted of his big crowds and predicted he would win “big league,” even though he says the critical media attention is hurting him.
Trump wouldn’t admit to any mistakes, even in tone, after the Orlando massacre. And he is particularly puzzled by the way Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is chiding him.
In short, even as pundits and many in his own party are clamoring for a course correction and a softer rhetorical style, the presumptive nominee made clear he doesn’t plan any major changes.
Trump sees a drastic shift in the media since he clinched the nomination: “When I was running against 16 Republicans, it was somewhat unfair, but at least you could see it. Now it’s beyond belief. They are protecting Hillary Clinton like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t think it helps, but I think I’m going to end up winning.”
He added that the media are “very negative toward a Republican, toward a conservative Republican, and certainly very negative toward me,” saying they report only a quarter of each statement he issues. That is true for most candidate releases.
Ignoring several polls that show him trailing Clinton by six to 12 points, Trump cited a One America survey that has him at only a 2-point deficit.
The only hint that things have hit a rough pitch came when Trump told me that “maybe certain things we’re not 100 percent happy with” in his “very young campaign,” but he declined to elaborate. He conceded the challenge he faces on the electoral map, saying, “The Democratic road is very much easier than the Republican road to the White House.”
The billionaire has given his detractors ample ammunition in the last three weeks, a period that stretches from his remarks about the Mexican heritage of the judge in the Trump University case to his tweets about having predicted a terrorist attack such as the one in Orlando but not wanting any congratulations.
Trump has been hammered for saying on “Fox & Friends” that when it comes to fighting terrorism, President Obama is either “not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can't believe it.”
Speaking by phone from Texas on Friday, Trump dismissed the resulting firestorm.
“I don’t think Orlando was a mistake at all,” he said of his comments. “I’m saying what everyone else is saying and thinking. The problem is everyone wants to be politically correct, and you can’t be politically correct because these people are after our country, they’re after our lives.”
With rising unease among Hill Republicans, McConnell told Bloomberg News that Trump should pick an experienced running mate “because it's pretty obvious he doesn't know a lot about the issues…I object to a whole series of things that he's said -- vehemently object to them,” including “these attacks on various ethnic groups in the country."
“I’m so surprised at Mitch,” Trump told me. “You’d think he’d be very positive. I always thought I had a good relationship with Mitch, but perhaps I don’t.”
The candidate said the press overlooks the fact that some members of the GOP are backing him, and proclaimed a “great relationship” with party chairman Reince Priebus.
“I’m disappointed that some of the Republicans aren’t more positive, but I think in the end they will be…You wonder why they’re doing that.”
He also brought up his former rivals: “Some of them wouldn’t endorse me because I beat them very badly. And I even understand it. It was a rough, rough primary.”
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich are among those who remain sharply critical of Trump, despite having pledged to support the nominee.
During the primaries, “they wanted me to sign the pledge,” Trump recalled. “The pressure was unbelievable.”
We talked about his decision to yank the Washington Post’s credentials, based on its headline about the “Fox & Friends” comments: “Donald Trump Suggests President Obama Was Involved with Orlando Shooting.” The paper, on its own, later softened this to “Donald Trump Seems to Connect President Obama to Orlando Shooting.”
How does Trump benefit by adding the Post to a group of media outlets whose credentials have been revoked?
“At some point I would love to give it back if I’m covered fairly, but that was only an indication of the kind of press they give me,” he replied. “They actually said that I essentially said Obama was in cahoots with this guy that did the killing. It was a horrible headline, an unfair headline.”
What about the New York Times, which Trump has repeatedly criticized? He deflected a question about its credentials, but said “the New York Times has certainly been marginal, hasn’t been much better than the Washington Post.” Trump added that its chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger, has been fair.
Without prompting, Trump brought up Politico, whose credentials were revoked months ago. He took issue with the website’s reporting on rivalries within his campaign and tensions between the candidate and the RNC.
Trump said he has read such accounts “in very dishonest places like Politico. I don’t even talk to them. They make things up, they’re fiction. Politico is fiction.” A spokesman for Politico declined to comment.
Perhaps his strongest words were reserved for MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. The former Republican congressman, who regularly interviewed Trump and talked up his chances during the primaries, has turned harshly critical in recent weeks. The candidate says he’s stopped watching “Morning Joe.”
“As soon as I won the nomination,” Trump said, “he went essentially to the Democrats’ side. He went totally rogue. He was embarrassed to be so high on a Republican…It’s very dishonest what he’s saying.”
Scarborough told me that he and co-host Mika Brzezinski have been friendly with Trump for years. “It’s sad for Mika and me to see him fall off a cliff, chasing conspiracy theories, suggesting the president is connected with ISIS…Suggesting a judge from Indiana is incapable of fairly ruling on certain cases because his parents, like Donald Trump’s, weren’t born in America. And his continued vilification of 1.5 billion Muslims is un-American.”
Scarborough said Trump had no complaint when his analysis was upbeat: “You can’t love John Madden when he says your team is going to win the Super Bowl, then hate John Madden when you start throwing the ball backwards 20 times a game.”
Trump, for his part, sees a different motivation in Scarborough’s shift. “I’m sure MSNBC puts tremendous pressure on him and he wants to keep his job,” Trump told me.
But Scarborough said he was forecasting Trump’s nomination last year: “If the liberal network MSNBC had any influence on us, they certainly would have asserted it and suggested we not be so far out in our predictions on Donald Trump.”
For weeks now, Trump’s tight-knit campaign has been battered by critics on the right as well as the left, amid growing pessimism about his general election chances. Before wrapping up the conversation, Trump offered this observation:
“I was written off five times in the primaries. I ended up coming back stronger than I ever was.”
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.