Back in that paleozoic era of American politics, then-Sen. Barack Obama waited just three days after his election victory to hold his first news conference.
He spoke soberly about “disturbing news” — the 2008 financial crisis, which was still unfolding. He explained how he planned to confront it. He thanked President George W. Bush for his cooperation and graciousness.
“I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead,” he said. “America is a strong and resilient country, and I know that we will succeed.”
He joked with reporters — calling on a “hometown” Chicago reporter to give him “a little bit of time;” he inquired after a reporter’s injured arm. He got some absurdly easy questions, such as what books he was reading and what kind of dog would he buy. His relationship with the media would get testier later, as he hounded down government leakers.
But his professionalism never changed, and his on-again off-again exhortations to “set politics aside for a while” continued.
President-elect Donald Trump’s first news conference since his electoral win went a little differently yesterday.
A very different new conference
Are you surprised to hear that Trump’s blustering, rambling style is continuing, even as he prepares to assume the presidency in just over a week? Trump’s hour-long performance at Trump Tower was another reminder that things are going to be starkly different come Jan. 20. And we got some alarming answers to questions ignored during the transition.
Trump’s opening statement was a muddle of news (a Cabinet nominee for Veterans Affairs and a forthcoming Supreme Court announcement), exaggeration, and off-the-cuff comments on industries like “pharma” that plummeted in stock value in response to his comments.
After that, things really went off the rails. He ridiculed former opponent Sen. Lindsey Graham for not having cracked “that one percent barrier.” He slammed CNN as a “fake news” purveyor and called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”
Of course, CNN and BuzzFeed got under his skin after reporting on unverified claims that Russia had attained compromising information about the president-elect. Those claims reportedly had been circulating in Washington and the intelligence community for months, and BuzzFeed took the additional step of publishing some of the unsubstantiated material, saying it wanted to let readers make up their own minds.
Since Russia was the subject, did Trump double down on how unconnected he was to Russia and what a sturdy advocate he would be for America? Not entirely. Jumping into the third person, he noted “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset not a liability.”
And as to the subject that might have been the focus of the news conference, given that it was the scheduled topic of a canceled news conference last month? That would be the plans, such as they exist, for Trump to separate himself from the Trump Organization to avoid conflicts of interest. Rather than divesting, he announced that he would turn over the business to his sons in an arrangement that many ethicists, including the head of the federal Office of Government Ethics, say is inadequate and not a true separation.
Did Trump alleviate those worries? No. He mentioned that over the weekend a “great developer” friend from Dubai had approached him with a $2 billion deal. But he didn’t take it, supposedly an example of self-restraint as opposed to barely acceptable behavior. Anyway, he figured he “could actually run my business and run government at the same time.”
This is only the beginning
The news conference was full of such disturbing moments — bizarre ones, too. Trump plugged his old Miss Universe contest, “which did very well.”
He came close to specifically combatting some of the intelligence dossier claims by saying that he was a germaphobe. He explained that when he went to other countries, he was extremely cautious about hidden cameras: “Cameras that are so small, with modern technology, you can’t see them, and you won’t know.”
The standing-room-only crowd at Trump Tower was filled not just with reporters but other attendees who provided an applause track for the proceedings — not unlike a big-city mayoral campaign event, where union members are herded up on stage to stamp and whistle about some new infrastructure announcement, before reporting for duty at their actual jobs.
The event had all the combativeness and color of an NYC tabloid battle — which makes sense, given Trump’s deep tabloid background.
That’s fine and good when you’re a real estate developer trying to drum up some attention with info about your personal life; less fine when you’re president-elect.
Trump isn’t facing the same dire national challenge that Obama had to handle in the heart of the financial crisis. But he must take his own personal (and now national) challenges, from Russian relationship to business entanglements, with the same seriousness as he prepares to take the reins.