WASHINGTON -- Confronting a cascade of controversies, President Donald Trump on Thursday angrily denounced the “criminal” leaks that took down his top national security adviser after less than a month and revived questions about his own ties to Russia. But he offered only a lawyerly denial that his campaign aides had been in touch with Russian officials before last fall’s election.
“Nobody that I know” he said in the first full-length press conference of his presidency.
Rather than a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, the 77-minute event amounted to an extended airing of grievances, the new president attempting to find his footing after the rockiest launch in recent memory. Trump slammed a “bad court” of appeals judges for blocking his refugee and immigration executive order and denied that his White House was paralyzed by chaos and infighting among top advisers.
“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he boasted.
With his signature hyperbole betrayed by reality, Trump said there has never been a president “who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.” He blamed any problems on the outgoing Obama administration - “I inherited a mess at home and abroad” - and the news media.
Standing in the stately, chandeliered East Room, Trump lambasted the “out of control” media - long his favorite foe. He appeared to delight in jousting with reporters, repeatedly interrupting their questions and singling out stories he disagreed with, well aware his attacks were sure to be cheered by loyal supporters who share his views.
Despite Trump’s declarations, his first month in office has been chaotic by any measure - a flurry of self-inflicted wounds and poorly executed policy. On Monday, Trump asked for the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn following revelations that the Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia. The next day, The New York Times reported that multiple Trump advisers were in touch with Russian intelligence advisers during the election campaign.
Trump panned the report as “fake news” and said he had “nothing to do with Russia.”
“To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does,” he added.
That answer, couched with a caveat similar to one routinely used by witnesses on a trial stand, appeared to give him wiggle room.
The president more clearly defended Flynn’s calls with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the transition period after his November victory. He said that while he did not tell his adviser to discuss sanctions with the envoy, “I would have directed him if he didn’t do it.”
The president said that while Flynn was “just doing his job,” he was “not happy” that the adviser had misled the vice president. Trump knew that Flynn had given Pence an inaccurate accounting of his discussions with Russia, but the president did not tell his No. 2 for about two weeks, according to a timeline supplied by the White House.
The president is expected to soon announce Flynn’s replacement, with Vice Admiral Robert Harward topping his list. Harward was to meet with Trump aides at the White House Thursday afternoon.
Trump repeatedly tried to steer questions away from his and his advisers’ potential ties with Russia, saying attention should rather be focused on why a steady stream of classified information is making its way into news reports. He said the leaks are real but the news is fake, never explaining that.
The president took questions from 17 reporters, far more than at most presidential news conferences. His answers were often unwieldy, almost stream of consciousness, and some of his responses were startlingly strange.
He said the “greatest thing” he could do was “shoot” a Russian spy ship lingering off the East Coast of the United States. He asked an African-American reporter whether she could help set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. He wrongly stated that his Electoral College victory had been the largest of any president since Ronald Reagan, then dismissed the inaccuracy, saying he’d been “given that information.”
But, though he’s now president, the former reality TV star often appeared to be in his element. He jousted with reporters, particularly those he knows by name from his constant consumption of television news. He jokingly told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he had checked whether he was related to Alexander Acosta, the dean of the Florida International University law school who is his new pick to lead the Labor Department.
Acosta’s nomination was ostensibly the purpose of the news conference, though Trump dispensed of the announcement in a few brief sentences. The president’s original choice to head the agency, Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination on Wednesday, another blow to the new administration.
Trump vowed to move forward next week on his stalled plans to enact “extreme vetting” measures for people coming to the United States. He said he would sign a “new and very comprehensive order” next week aimed at addressing legal issues in the initial directive, which temporarily halted the entire U.S. refugee program and all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations while the government worked on new vetting procedures.
A federal appeals court rejected the measure earlier in the month, and Trump said during the news conference that his administration would be “appealing” that decision. Shortly after, the Justice Department announced that it did not want a larger appellate panel to review the ruling and would instead replace the ban.