Critic's Notebook: Trump's Press Conference Echoes Death Throes of Watergate

Trump Press Conference FEB 16 - Getty - H 2017
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It was a rambling, bellicose affair that will be studied by psychology students for decades to come.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump's press conference to announce Alexander Acosta as his new nominee for labor secretary turned into an extended psychodrama, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Richard Nixon during the death throes of Watergate.

It’s frowned upon for members of the psychiatric profession to deliver armchair analysis of public figures, but Trump is making that temptation difficult to avoid. During his rantings and ravings, you expected white-uniformed figures to burst in with a straitjacket and a rubber net.

After spending the briefest amount of time extolling the virtues of his new nominee — we learned that Acosta was a “great student” — Trump quickly pivoted to — what else? — himself.

He proceeded to deliver a lengthy infomercial about his administration’s accomplishments, citing the “incredible progress” in the last four weeks and — having apparently become a believer in the accuracy of polling — referencing a Rasmussen poll citing that gave him a 55 percent approval rating. He failed to mention Pew’s 39 percent rating and Gallup’s 41 percent, but then again, those are probably fake polls.

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine!” he boasted, indicating that he really needs to find a better mechanic. “To be honest, I inherited a mess. A mess!” he claimed, although his definition of the word clearly differs from, let’s say, reality. “We have begun the monumental task of turning the government over to the people,” he declared, which is true if you only mean people worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Naturally, his main topic of discussion was the “fake media.” “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it we’re doing a tremendous disservice to the American people,” Trump said to the very media he was denouncing. “The level of dishonesty is out of control,” he told the reporters, who were no doubt wondering if they’d entered the Twilight Zone.

His arguments might have carried a bit more weight if they hadn’t been accompanied by a slew of lies, such as when Trump boasted about his Electoral College win. “We got 306!” he crowed. “It was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan”… except, as several reporters pointed out minutes later, it wasn’t.

In response, Trump resorted to his usual excuse: “I was given that information. I’ve seen that information around,” he said, inevitably passing the buck. “It was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?” he asked the reporter, who could only acknowledge, “You’re the president.”

Among the accomplishments he touted was his “game-changing rule” that says for every new regulation, two old regulations have to be eliminated. But while that sounds like a good strategy for cleaning out your closet, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when it comes to the federal government.

“We’ve become a drug-infested nation!” Trump warned. “Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.” (Whoever his dealer is, he must be very popular.)

“There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time,” he went on. “And we haven’t even done the big work yet. That starts next week.” So it’s not as if he hasn’t given us fair warning to shut off the news alerts on our phones if we intend to get any sleep.

And then things got really strange. He began to take questions. Even the reporters seemed surprised. The first one was naturally about the recent resignation of Michael Flynn, which, according to Trump, was only the result of a hatchet job by the press.

“What he did wasn’t wrong,” Trump claimed. “What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves, were given that information. Fake news. It’s all fake news. It’s an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves.”

“He was just doing his job,” Trump said about Flynn, even though at the time Flynn was in contact with Russia, he hadn’t started his job yet.

The problem, apparently, is not that Flynn was engaged in illegal contacts with Russia. The problem is that we know about it. Trump railed about the “Illegal” leaks that have made his administration the political equivalent of The Poseidon Adventure, and vowed that heads, including those of the press, will roll.

Displaying a knowledge of cable news shows’ ratings that would put the reporters of trade publications to shame, Trump carried on, in the immortal words of Bill Maher, like a “whiny little bitch.”

“I watch CNN … it’s so much anger and hatred. I don’t watch it anymore,” he complained. “The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way. I don’t mind bad stories, I can handle bad stories better than anybody,” he boasted. Because, you know, he has the best temperament.

Trump did have nice words to say words to say about at least one media outlet. “Fox & Friends in the morning, they’re very honorable people,” he told the room. “They have the most honest morning show.” So now we know how the leader of the free world spends his mornings.

When asked whether he thought that his constant criticism of the press was undermining the First Amendment, Trump seemed unconcerned. “I know when I should get good [press], and when I should get bad [press]. I’d be a pretty good reporter,” he blithely announced. He seemed surprised that the reporters in attendance didn’t simply agree at that point and pack up and go home.

“The public doesn’t believe you anymore,” he told the roomful of journalists. “Maybe I had something to do with that, I don’t know.” (Donald, I think we can all agree that you definitely had something to do with that.) “Story after story after story is bad. I won!” he exclaimed, as if good coverage was one of the perks of the job.

Taunting questioners with dignified observations such as “Here’s another beauty” (addressed to a journalist from that disreputable organization known as the BBC), President Trump was belligerent and bellicose, oozing contempt for the members of the Fourth Estate whenever they posed a question he didn’t like. He also bizarrely mentioned Hillary Clinton so often that it sounded like he thinks he’s still running against her.

When a reporter asked what the administration plans to do about the alarming rise in incidents of anti-Semitism, Trump took the opportunity yet again to make it all about himself.

“I am the least anti-Semitic person you have seen in your entire life,” he announced. Trump then went on to make the astounding claim that the offensive signs and drawings that have been so prominently on display throughout the country were created by liberals to discredit him. “Some of the signs are written by the other side,” he said. “It won’t be my people. It will be people from the other side.” (Think about that for a second, folks. Seriously, think about that for a second.)

When an African-American reporter asked if he planned on meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, Trump, displaying his well-honed racial sensitivity, asked her, “Do you want to set up a meeting? Are they friends of yours?”

“I didn’t come along and divide this country,” Trump finally told the reporters, who were beginning to resemble traumatized POWs. “This country was divided long before I got here. We live in a divided nation. I will do everything in my power to fix that.” And as we’ve all seen over the last four weeks, he’s off to a great start.