It was the most extraordinary news conference ever held by a president of the United States.
It was also the harshest indictment of the media ever delivered from the White House.
And it was riveting. You could not turn away. Trump unplugged.
And it was, like all things Trump, a Rorschach test. Those who support this president thought it was a brilliant takedown of a corrupt media. Those who oppose this president thought he seemed somewhat crazed—unhinged, as CNN anchor Jake Tapper put it.
Trump scored some points, as he always does, by denouncing fake news. And he was over the top at times. He even said, jokingly, that today’s headlines would be about him “ranting and raving”—but that actually, the administration, rather than being chaotic, is running like a “fine-tuned machine.” Okay, maybe a bit of hyperbole there.
The president is justified in complaining about an unprecedented flood of illegal leaks that are clearly aimed at damaging him. But that doesn’t mean the information is wrong. The Washington Post was accurate, based on unnamed sources, in reporting that Michael Flynn not leveling with the vice president about his past contacts with the Russian ambassador. That’s why, despite his argument that the press treated Flynn unfairly, Trump fired him.
The president is also right that the tone of his coverage has been unrelentingly negative.
But when the president criticized yesterday’s Wall Street Journal report that some spies are withholding sensitive intelligence from him, he said the paper never called him, as if you can just ring him up in the Oval Office. The story’s fourth paragraph quoted a White House official as denying the allegations. Trump also said a New York Times piece on earlier contacts with Russia by aides and associates was “discredited.” The jury is out on that, and there is, as the Times said, an FBI investigation.
Trump really went off on CNN’s Don Lemon, although not by name, saying his nightly show is stacked with anti-Trump panels. Whether that’s true or not, it feels like a small argument for the president to make.
What was most revealing, in regard to CNN and the media more generally, was Trump saying some journalists have “hatred” for him. He told me that in campaign interviews, but now he’s the commander-in-chief. So he has deep-seated grievances about the way he’s been covered since 2015.
Of course, Trump can get even – and get better press – by accomplishing some of the big-ticket items on his agenda. And that would be real news, not fake.