Americans have complained for years about presidential campaigns that start too early and last too long.
Now, they are confronted with one that refuses to end — even after reaching the White House.
There may never be a “last word” written or spoken about President Trump’s 77-minute barrage in the East Room Thursday, but the first word from many was: “Wow.”
That was the initial reaction blurted out by Bret Baier at Fox News, as well as by Wolf Blitzer at CNN. For the first time since he took the oath, the president took questions from all kinds of news organizations. And he took them very, very personally.
“I’ll tell you what else I see,” the president said with some heat. “I see tone. You know the word ‘tone’? The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such — I do get good ratings, you have to admit that — the tone is such hatred.”
The impromptu news conference came sprawling onto screens everywhere out of a planned introduction for Alex Acosta, the new nominee to be secretary of labor. But Trump appeared and stepped onto the dais alone. This was to be a one-man show, and White House officials said it was very much the idea of that one man.
In fact, Trump used the words “I” or “me” or “we” in reference to himself (the royal we) more than 500 times.
“I’m here today,” he said, “to update the American people on the incredible progress that has been made in the last four weeks since my inauguration. We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.”
Trump seemed flummoxed by all the stories about the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn and dissension within the president’s inner circle, stories that have been in heavy rotation throughout all forms of media this week. It was time to get the national focus back on the president himself and reverse the spotlight on his antagonists in the media.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about — we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people,” the president said. “Tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it. To find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
Trump especially objected to accounts of his administration being in disarray.
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos,” he said. “Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my Cabinet approved.”
Admirers in the media called it “feisty” and “combative” and “vintage Trump.” The website Conservative HQ called it “an epic beatdown of the media elite.”
When it was over, the White House staff was clearly elated.
But detractors used an array of terms that began with the same two letters: “unprecedented,” “unhinged,” “untethered” and “unbelievable” being just a few — and “unpresidential” appearing often as well.
Not a few watchers were unsettled by Trump’s reference to Russia and “nuclear holocaust” or his mention of the Russian spy ship reported to be off the coast. Trump said he had encouraged his new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to meet with the Russians, but added: “I told him I know politically it is probably not good for me. The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water.”
But once again, the president seemed as concerned with how he won the presidency as he was about his actual presidency. He sounded very much like the man we all saw on the hustings in 2015 and through the long months of campaigning in 2016.
At one point he referred to his 306 votes in the Electoral College as “the largest margin of victory since Ronald Reagan.” When Peter Alexander of NBC News pointed out there had been five larger ones in that time span, the president began to say, “I meant for Republicans,” just as Alexander was adding that George H.W. Bush had won with 426.
“I was given that information,” Trump said. “I have seen that information out there.”
The president often seemed to be responding in the manner of a candidate. He talked about a favorable Rasmussen poll (which does not meet NPR’s polling standards for a good poll) showing him with 55 percent approval. Other polls this week from Pew Research and Gallup (more respected outfits) have him as low as 39 or 40 percent.
He talked about the unfairness of the media and about the “mess” he “inherited” upon his inauguration. And he returned repeatedly to complaints about Hillary Clinton, about the free pass she got from the media, about her dealings with Russia as secretary of state and about a deal involving exports of uranium.
The campaign mode continues this weekend, with the president again rallying like it’s 2016. He teased it at his news conference: “In fact, I’ll be in Melbourne, Fla., 5 o’clock on Saturday, and I heard — just heard that the crowds are massive that want to be there.”
Perhaps the campaign goes on because the president sees it as good politics. It enables him to dominate the cable coverage, much as he did in 2015 and 2016. By doing so, in all likelihood, he will keep his supporters enthusiastic and united. This will pressure congressional Republicans to back his versions of the policies on which they differ.
These would include the replacement for Obamacare, the future of Medicare, the size of the federal deficit, details of new trade and tax arrangements and the commitment to rebuilding U.S. infrastructure.
Or perhaps the campaign continues because it continues. The president does not yet seem comfortable in his new office with all the crosswinds and complications of divided powers and shared responsibilities.
But he remains utterly comfortable onstage — especially in front of an adoring crowd and a national TV audience.