WASHINGTON — To hear President Trump tell it, he "inherited a mess" and has replaced it with "a fine-tuned machine."
That's not what it looked or sounded like inside the East Room of the White House on Thursday during a rambling, defensive and at times angry performance by the leader of the free world.
In one of the wildest presidential press conferences on record, Trump lashed out at the media, Hillary Clinton, the intelligence community, judges and Democrats — among many others.
It was a spectacle for the ages — one that his most loyal supporters probably loved, but which political insiders have seldom, if ever, witnessed. Taking questions from a hostile press corps, Trump interrupted and belittled them repeatedly, then responded in blunt terms avoided by his predecessors.
His purpose: to compare what he inherited four weeks ago with what he has delivered, mostly in a series of adjectives. What he inherited was "terrible," "broken," "catastrophic," "horrendous" and "a disaster," with jobs "pouring" out of the country, illegal drugs that are "cheaper than candy bars," a "depleted" military and "mass instability" overseas. He used the word "mess" six times.
What he said he has delivered: "really good work," "incredible progress," "decisive action," plants and factories moving back to the U.S. "big league," a "tremendous surge of optimism" in the business world, "enormously productive talks" with foreign leaders, and U.S. citizens who are "very happy" as a result.
“There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump said. His Cabinet, he said, is "one of the great Cabinets ever assembled in American history."
No topic was too sacrosanct for Trump to address: Not nuclear holocaust. Not being stood up by a black congressman. Not the prospect of shooting a Russian ship out of the water. Not sections of Chicago he likened to “living in hell.” Not attacking Mosul.
And few topics were free from embellishment. His electoral college victory in November was the biggest since Ronald Reagan — except that it wasn’t. The federal appeals court that blocked his temporary travel ban on majority-Muslim countries is overturned 80% of the time — except that it isn't.
In many ways, the performance summed up Trump’s first four weeks in office — a 180-degree reversal from the “no drama” days of the Obama administration, led by a cautious, diplomatic president who tried to steer clear of controversy.
And it was a far cry from the last Republican administration of George W. Bush, whose staccato responses to complex questions reflected an effort to reveal as little as possible.
Trump, by contrast, was free-wheeling and expansive on subjects near to his heart, such as the presidential campaign now 100 days in the rear-view mirror and his daily spats with the media.
Even the genesis of the press conference was unusual. It was not on Trump’s daily schedule, then was hastily arranged, ostensibly to introduce his second nominee for Labor secretary. But that was just a blip on the radar screen.
Instead, the 45th president commanded the room like few of his 44 predecessors ever did. He appeared to relish the verbal combat with reporters he knows by first name but accuses of spreading “fake news.” CNN’s Jim Acosta came under attack as usual; when a BBC reporter rose to speak, Trump grumbled, “Here's another beauty.”
As has been the case since he assumed the presidency, Trump can’t seem to leave campaign mode. He referred often to Clinton’s failures and his successes. He called Democrats who disagree on policy matters “our opponents” and “the other side.” The leader of the opposition, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, was likened to “some other lightweight.”
When reporters raised questions about his administration’s relationships with religious and racial minorities, such as Jews and African Americans, Trump heaped praise on himself. “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” he told a Jewish reporter, as well as "the least racist person."
On the major topics of the day, the president was dismissive of ongoing story lines that have dominated the airwaves. The controversy over his administration’s dealings with Russia during the campaign and the transition, for instance, is just “a ruse,” he said. And the controversy over his hastily implemented travel ban, which caused chaos at airports across the country, was the result of “a very bad court.” (The way the executive order was rolled out, by contrast, “was perfect.”)
Near the end of the spectacle, Trump was asked about the nation’s political divisions, and once again he addressed it in personal terms. “We had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that,” he said.
"I didn’t come along and divide this country.”
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