Buffeted Trump Takes to the Campaign Trail
Besieged by a swirl of controversies of his administration's own making, Donald Trump is returning to the comforts of the campaign trail.
Just a month into his presidency – and following a week spent mired in fallout from his national security adviser's departure and reports of collusion between his campaign aides and Russian officials -- the president will leave Washington for friendlier and more forgiving turf this weekend at a rally of supporters in Florida.
"I heard that the crowds are massive that want to be there," Trump told reporters on Thursday.
He offered something of a preview in the East Room of the White House during a theatrical grievance-filled press conference reminiscent of those he hosted throughout his quest for the job he now holds. The president still views the media as his foil, blaming the "dishonest" press corps for the chaos in his administration. “I won with news conferences and probably speeches,” Trump said from the podium Thursday.
Despite winning election more than three months ago, Trump has yet to put the campaign in his rear-view. He continues to talk of his Electoral College win, finding ways to bring up his vote share in conversations with lawmakers and world leaders, and as a response to any hint of criticism leveled at him—the way he did when asked about the rise of anti-Semitism during a press conference Wednesday with Benjamin Netanyahu.
And Hillary Clinton remains his political opponent. "Does anybody really think that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Russia than Donald Trump? Does anybody in this room really believe that?" he told reporters. During the press conference Thursday, when asked to compare his proclaimed love for WikiLeaks to his criticism of classified leaks in his administration, Trump recalled the contents of one of those hacked emails to argue that Clinton cheated in the primary debates.
Berating reporters, criticizing cable news ratings, and dismissing alleged connections between his campaign and Russian officials as "fake news" and a "ruse," Trump appeared in his element. “I love this," he said. "I’m having a good time doing this.”
The press conference was originally billed as an unveiling of his new choice for labor secretary after his original pick withdrew Wednesday in the face of mounting controversy. The announcement of Alexander Acosta, a well-respected attorney who would be the first Latino to serve in the Trump Cabinet, could have helped turn the page on a week of bad headlines. But the president didn't see it that way. Instead, he read from a script criticizing the media and listing accomplishments—including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and rolling back federal regulations—he believes have been undercovered or overshadowed.
Taken together, the press conference and the rally on Saturday seem designed to show his supporters he is not only defiant but victorious—and for the president to feel back on top of his game. Without the favorable polls, the daily cheering crowds, and the competitiveness of the campaign to measure success, Trump appears to be creating his own narrative. "I’m here again, to take my message straight to the people," he said.
Trump's first weeks in the White House amount to his entire experience in governing. In some ways, campaign tactics are the only kind of politics he knows.
"A new Rasmussen poll just came out just a very short while ago, and it has our approval rating at 55 percent and going up," he said during Thursday’s meeting with the press -- though the RealClearPolitics Average shows the reverse. Trump also repeated a claim that he won more electoral votes -- 304 -- than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan, though George H.W. Bush earned 426 in 1988.
Despite his adamant characterizations (there is "zero chaos ... this is a fine-tuned machine," he insisted), the ride has been bumpy for the Trump administration. Michael Flynn was forced to resign for misleading the vice president about his conversations with Russia's ambassador during the transition. Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for an investigation of Flynn and his relationships. The controversy is making it difficult to find a replacement; retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward turned down an offer to serve as national security adviser.
Amid this turmoil, Trump is already eyeing re-election. He filed paperwork for the 2020 campaign shortly after his inauguration. His campaign remains active, sending fundraising emails to supporters and updates on the presidency, and building additional contacts.
Though presidents typically take to the road to promote a specific policy item, or as part of a larger communications strategy, Trump's visit to a hanger at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport isn't one of those trips. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the rally on Saturday is a campaign event, a designation likely intended to avoid billing taxpayers for the bulk of it.
"I hear the tickets, you can't get 'em," Trump remarked to the press corps on Thursday about invites to his rally. "That's OK. That's better than if you have too many, right? So it's gonna be great. I look forward to that."
On Friday, the president will travel to South Carolina to visit a Boeing plant as part of an official White House trip. Trump is also expected to stay at his resort in Mar-a-Lago this weekend, the third weekend away from the White House. The venue provides him time with his family, as his wife and son haven't moved to Washington, but also allows him to be among friends and fans.
"Just leaving Florida. Big crowds of enthusiastic supporters lining the road that the FAKE NEWS media refuses to mention. Very dishonest!" Trump tweeted last weekend.
The rally Saturday is "his way staying connected to his core supporters, putting aside the news media and all the protests," New York Rep. Chris Collins told RealClearPolitics. "It's energizing for him to be back with his supporters and followers and it will be an enthusiastic crowd, good for his psyche, because he has always thrived in that environment."
Collins was the first House member to endorse Trump, and he has been a loyal supporter ever since. The congressman said he spoke with the president last week, and Trump suggested they convene the group of lawmakers who have also been supportive since the beginning. On Thursday morning, the president hosted 11 members of Congress at the White House, inviting them into the Oval Office. According to Collins, Trump asked his guests how they think he is doing so far as president and what their constituents are saying about him. The responses were extraordinarily positive, said Collins, whose district supported Trump.
Collins dismissed the notion that Trump is returning to the campaign trail because he is frustrated with his progress or feeling under siege. At this point, the president is "more concerned about what his supporters think than his detractors," Collins said.
"He's just doing something he enjoys," he said of the campaign trail. "It's more his way of recharging his batteries."