President-elect Donald Trump held his first real press conference in almost six months Wednesday, and it produced some important nuggets of real news.
For the first time Mr. Trump acknowledged that Russia likely hacked Democrats during the presidential election. He outlined a plan to distance himself from his businesses while in office. He offhandedly announced his nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, current VA undersecretary David Shulkin.
But the style of the meeting – and its implications for President Trump’s future media management – may have been just as noteworthy as its substance. Perhaps more so.
Trump ran his press conference like a show, with applause from staffers and multiple speakers. He flattered and barked at the assembled journalists in turn, at one point shouting down a CNN reporter who was trying to ask a question.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a chief executive with a background in reality TV seems likely to bring some of the drama and staging of entertainment to this presidential ritual. A more restrained PEOTUS was not in evidence. He acted as he always has, with colorful asides, snipes at rivals, and lots of bombastic adjectives. Meet the new Trump, same as the old.
“I think that, in terms of communications, we’re going to have to throw all preconceived notions, norms, and protocols out the window when considering Trump,” says Brian Rosenwald, a political historian and media expert at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email response to a reporter’s question. “He has a vastly different vision for how to communicate than his predecessors, and has shown no indication that he seems constrained by standard operating procedures.”
New take on traditional ritual
In the recent past, presidential press conferences have generally been staid affairs. Typically held in elegant White House or Old Executive Office Building venues, they display the press and the president as equal parties. The president may make an opening statement, and then opens with questions to reporters based on seniority and employer. There’s little, if any, spontaneity involved.
Yet presidents have always tried to adapt this ritual to suit their own strengths. Those that feel comfortable with the televised press conference format hold more of them. In his first two years in office, President Obama held 21 solo press conferences, for instance. George W. Bush held 7. Bill Clinton held 29, according to the White House Historical Association.
President George H. W. Bush held 56 – almost as many as Obama, W., and Clinton put together.
Television has made stakes in press conferences higher. Voters get to see the president for themselves – how they react to pressure, how they handle critical queries, how they look after a long day in office. Dwight Eisenhower held the first televised press conference, in 1955. Richard Nixon was the first to hold one in prime time to address a much larger audience.
Enter Trump. If Wednesday’s event is any guide, his press conferences will not be joint affairs. The press will be just one part of his larger show.
Trump staffers and officials were sprinkled around the media assembled in Trump Tower, hemming reporters in. Their applause at key moments was surprising to anyone used to the quieter combativeness of a typical White House press conference.
Confrontation with CNN
Trump had opening acts – first communications director Sean Spicer, then Vice President-elect Mike Pence. At one point Trump ceded the podium to an attorney who provided details of his proposed business trust. A table held props – piles of folders filled with papers of some sort. One reporter who tried to open a folder afterward was told they contained “business documents” and were not for distribution.
Trump and his staff were in a combative mood. Overnight CNN had published a story saying US intelligence officials had briefed Trump that Russian agents had obtained a dossier of allegedly compromising information about him. Buzzfeed published the material, which was unverified, contained obvious errors, and seemed outlandish in parts.
Trump hinted that perhaps US intelligence agencies had leaked this story to the press in retaliation for his previous criticism of their investigations into Russian hacking related to the election.
“A tremendous blot, because a thing like that should have never been written, it should never have been had, and it should certainly never been released,” said Trump.
That set the stage for a later explosion. CNN’s Jim Acosta stood and demanded a question in response to Trump’s charges that his organization was trafficking in “fake news”. (CNN did not publish the dossier.) Trump, in essence, shouted him down. It was a conflict that will likely loop endlessly on cable news and social media in coming days.
Stylistically, a pugilist
It’s also likely a preview of coming attractions. Trump’s not a career politician. His press conferences won’t look like scripted traditional political appearances.
“Stylistically, he’s a pugilist, with a penchant for sarcasm, bold, sometimes bombastic language, and a deep understanding of how to grab the headlines. He’s also not bound by facts in the way that typical politicians would be,” says Mr. Rosenwald.
Of course, later in the event Trump admitted that, yes, it appeared Russia had in fact carried out the hacking of DNC officials. For months he’s cast doubt on that very assertion. He said he hoped Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s evident good opinion of him would be an “asset,” which was probably not the best choice of words (an “asset” can be spy-talk for “source”). He produced a plan to separate himself from his businesses that many ethics experts outside Trump’s circle say will be inadequate.
“Trump press conferences look like they’re going to be wild, if today’s events are any indication,” concluded Rick Klein of ABC News.