Defending Rocky Start, Trump Regains His Mojo

Defending Rocky Start, Trump Regains His Mojo
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If there was one takeaway from President Trump’s first news conference Thursday, it was this: the president will hold more of them.

He loved it, and Americans who voted for Donald Trump may have enjoyed it, too. And that was the point.

The news conference, with Vice President Pence and more than a dozen senior aides in attendance, was a political and communications strategy to reassure Trump supporters who may worry the early weeks of the Trump presidency proved wobbly.

 “I'm here again to take my message straight to the people,” the president said, reading from prepared remarks. “As you know, our administration inherited many problems across government and across the economy. To be honest, I inherited a mess.”

Starring in a White House version of a one-man play, Trump turned an hour and 17 minutes in the East Room into improvisational theater with a theme (“I’m keeping my promises”), a rejoinder (“this administration is running like a fine-tuned machine”), and a dramatically cast nemesis (“the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control”).

Soon after the event concluded, the president emailed his campaign supporters to raise money for his re-election committee and the Republican National Committee. “The American people are our last line of defense against the media’s hit jobs,” he wrote. “I can’t do it alone.” 

On Saturday, Trump will host a campaign-style rally in central Florida to reconnect with some of the voters who sent him to Washington. He did much the same after his election, and the Melbourne event comes as more than 50 percent of the country disapproves of the job he’s doing, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

The president understands the mood of the country, but is creating a competing narrative to buy time with the population he values most: Trump voters.

“The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake,” Trump said while railing against the Fourth Estate. He corroborated news reports of his terse telephone conversations with the Mexican president and Australian prime minister, disclosed via leaked transcripts, saying he was surprised his confidential conversations became public.

News accounts describing his aides’ communications ties to Russian officials are “a ruse,” he said. He said his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned under pressure Monday night, acknowledged making phone calls to a Russian diplomat during the transition, but not during the campaign. Flynn initially denied that he’d discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia, but changed his account after The Washington Post, citing intelligence intercepts and multiple unnamed sources, contradicted Flynn’s explanation.

The president described as “not good” Russia’s recent deployment of a cruise missile in violation of an international treaty, plus a Russian spy vessel sailing conspicuously up the U.S. coast, and Russian aircraft buzzing a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea. But Trump said he didn’t want to upbraid Russian President Vladimir Putin about the provocations because he hoped for an improved relationship.

“Probably Putin assumes that he's not going to be able to make a deal with me because it's politically not popular for me to make a deal,” he added. “Maybe I'm not going to be able to do a deal with Russia, but at least I will have tried.”

And there was other news:

-- Trump said he plans next week to unveil a replacement executive order to more stringently vet certain immigrants and refugees who seek to travel into the United States. The new order will navigate around the legal objections raised this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, he said.

-- The deportation waiver program established by President Obama to benefit almost 800,000 people who arrived in the United States as the children of undocumented immigrants will remain in effect or in limbo, Trump indicated. In interviews before and after the election, he said he remained averse to deporting the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “We’re going to deal with DACA with heart,” he said Thursday, acknowledging GOP opposition. “It's a very difficult thing for me because you know, I love these kids … and I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do … The law is rough.”

-- The president denied knowledge of campaign aides who were reported to have been in contact with Russian intelligence and government officials before the election, as described by major news organizations, citing unnamed sources. “No, nobody I know of,” Trump said. “I had nothing to do with it. I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there. I have no anything.”

-- Trump said he secured Flynn’s resignation after 24 days as national security adviser because Flynn misled Pence, and because Trump believed the White House had a respected replacement in the wings. Although the president reportedly offered the position to Robert Harward, a retired Navy special forces officer, the Financial Times reported Thursday that Harward declined the offer because of the “obvious dysfunctionality” inside the White House. Flynn, the president told reporters, “didn't tell our vice president properly, and then he said he didn't remember. So either way, it wasn't very satisfactory to me. And I have somebody that I think will be outstanding for the position, and that also helps, I think, in the making of my decision.”

-- The administration will pursue government leaks of classified information through the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the president said. Trump did not indicate how far he is prepared to go to root out unauthorized releases of classified and sensitive information, but said having his appointees in place in agencies and departments could “straighten it out very easily.” Trump confirmed he considered creating a new position for a leak hunter, as reported by The New York Times, but said he now thought the challenge could be handled within the intelligence community.

-- At the outset of the East Room event, Trump said he’s nominating R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University Law School, to be Labor Department secretary, replacing former nominee Andrew Puzder, who withdrew Wednesday under fire in the Senate. Acosta is the first Latino tapped by Trump for a Cabinet post, and the Senate has confirmed him three times for previous federal positions.

-- Trump said the administration plans to send Congress detailed proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in early- to mid-March. A tax reform proposal, promised during his campaign and under discussion among Republicans in the House and Senate, will wait until after Congress tackles health care legislation, Trump said. Republicans have said they will use budget reconciliation, which requires just 51 votes in the Senate, to pass both policy priorities in the Senate this year.

-- While answering a reporter’s question about the administration’s urban agenda and whether he would involve members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the president asked the reporter, who is black, if she would set up the meeting. “No, no, I’m just a reporter,” April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks replied. “Let's go set up a meeting,” Trump said. “I would love to meet with the Black Caucus. I think it's great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it's great.”

-- The president denied that his supporters promote racism in their rhetoric, signs and commentary. Trump said racist and offensive signs were the creations of his detractors, not his supporters, designed to denigrate Trump voters and gin up media coverage. “They'll do signs and they'll do drawings that are inappropriate,” he said. “It won't be my people. It will be the people on the other side to anger people like you …This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation … I will do everything within my power to fix that.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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