There were many who held out hope that taking office might change Trump — perhaps he would feel compelled to keep up some presidential norms. After all, it's one thing to tweet about "FAKE NEWS" and another to dress down reporters in person. But for anybody expecting some continuity in White House decorum, Thursday's performance finally put to bed those daydreams. Trump is Trump, President Trump is still Trump, and his press conference was historic in tone, content, and redefining what is considered "acceptable" presidential behavior.
This observation is not a partisan one. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have been held to a certain standard of conduct. Now that Trump is arguably the most powerful figure in the free world, a level of seriousness and restraint is not only expected — it is imperative. No president in the modern era has publicly behaved the way Trump did on Thursday. And that means the current POTUS is not only lowering the bar for himself — he's also setting a dangerous precedent by which future leaders can judge themselves.
These are just fourteen of the ways Trump's press conference broke with the norm and made history — and not in a good way.
1Calling legitimate reports that are negative towards him "fake news"
Responding to leaks from the intelligence community that Trump himself acknowledged were real, he went on to dismiss the allegations in those same reports — that his aides had been in contact with Russia — as "fake news."
"Russia is fake news. Russia — this is fake news put out by the media."
2Making blatantly false claims about the size of his electoral win
The first question here: why is Trump still talking about the size of his election win? Second question: why is he insisting it was the largest electoral win since Reagan? That's patently false.
3Bringing up a campaign opponent's old and obscure controversy
Responding to a question about the current investigation into Trump's aides' ties to Russia, Trump found a way to bring up a small controversy that occurred during the general election. A CNN contributor apparently gave Clinton one of the questions before their debate.
"Nobody mentions that Hillary received the questions to the debates."
This is not in any way related to the reporter's question, nor is it relevant at all to the problems facing the country.
4Lambasting media outlets by name
Trump called the New York Times "failing," a story in the Wall Street Journal "disgraceful," and seems to especially relish deriding CNN. He name-checked them six times, and needled CNN reporter Jim Acosta.
5Equating being a not bad person with getting "good ratings"
"I do get good ratings, you have to admit that" is going to be either Trump's or America's epitaph— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) February 16, 2017
Trump appears to still think of himself in terms of a television personality. But he's not — and why he seems to not understand this yet remains a troubling mystery.
"I'm really not a bad person, by the way. No, but you know, but the tone is such — I do the get good ratings, you have to admit that."
6Shoutout to a news show that often gives Trump positive coverage
Fox News tends to be more positive towards Republicans in general. Fox & Friends especially leans in a generally pro-Trump direction. They were rewarded for that with Trump saying, "I have to say, Fox and Friends in the morning, they are very honorable people — not because they are good — because they hit me when I do something wrong, but they have the most honest morning show."
7The art of the ramble
To take just one of countless examples: In response to a question on intelligence leaks claiming some of Trump's aides were in contact with Russian officials during the election, Trump gave a 440 word response that ended (somehow) with this paragraph:
"And sometimes, and I know President Obama lost three or four, and you lose them on the way, and that's okay. That's fine. I think it would be much better served, John, if they just went through the process quickly. This is pure delay tactics. And they say it. And everybody understands it. Yeah, go ahead, Jim."
8Citing unnamed shows and articles as valid evidence for the legality and ethical rightness of his actions
Trump going with the 'many people are saying' line to defend vote fraud claims. If you're not embarrassed by this... pic.twitter.com/JXl9KK2tcK— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) February 5, 2017
In defending his former national security adviser Gen. Flynn, Trump reprised his infamous "many people are saying" line from the campaign, citing unnamed programs and articles as proof Flynn did nothing wrong.
"In fact, I've watched various programs, and I've read various articles where he was just doing his job. That was very normal."
8Using ratings as a supposed reason to move on to a different reporter
Trump seems to enjoy taunting certain members of the press. Jim Acosta from CNN is his target here.
"You have other people and your ratings are not as good as some of the others."
9Saying critiques of Trump or his policies are just "such hatred"
Sales of George Orwell's classic 1984 have skyrocketed since Trump rose to prominence. And it's easy to see why. When Trump claims critics are not exercising their right to judge based on actions on logic, but can instead be written off as hate-filled attackers, that's Propaganda 101.
"And I'll tell you what else I see. Tone. I see tone. You know the word tone. The tone is such hatred... the tone is such hatred... but the tone, Jim, if you look, the hatred."
10Citing a poll as proof that Trump is right
Trump approval depends on pop surveyed. Likely voters (Rasmussen), 50. General population (Gallup, Pew,) 40. https://t.co/VVU3dWqca4— Doug Henwood (@DougHenwood) February 17, 2017
If a majority of the population "believes" something, does it make it so? Does their "belief" change reality? Trump seems to think so, and appears to partially base his response to the growing scandal over members of his campaign being involved with Russia on public opinion. That is very worrisome.
"I think they don't believe it—I don't think the public — that's why the Rasmussen poll has me through the roof. I don't think they believe it. I guess one of the reasons I'm here today is to tell you the whole Russian thing, that's a ruse. That's a ruse."
11Blaming media for possible future inability to negotiate internationally
In his continuing refusal to criticize Russia, Trump decided to blame the media for increasing tensions between the two countries. If future negotiations fail, Trump claims "false, horrible, fake reporting" will be culpable.
"But it's possible I won't be able to get along with Putin. Maybe it is. I just want to tell you, the false reporting by the media, by you people, the false, horrible fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia."
12Mocking the former administration
Presidents do criticize their predecessors. But if Trump wants to talk about improving tone, he could do worse than to start with this biting derision of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's attempt to smooth out relations with Russia.
"Hillary Clinton did a reset, remember, with the stupid plastic button made us look like a bunch of jerks. Here take a look. He looked at her, like, what the hell is she doing, with that cheap plastic button?"
13A refusal to deal with the increase in anti-Semitic threats.
Reporter's question: "...What we are concerned about and what we haven't really heard you address is an uptick in anti-semitism and how in this climate you're going to take care of it. There have been reports out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers..."
Trump's answer: "Let me just tell you something, that I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question."
That is not an answer. Nor is citing Jewish family members sufficient proof that Trump takes the rising threat of anti-Semitic action seriously.
14Assuming a black reporter must be on close terms with the Congressional Black Caucus
Reporter: Will you meet with the Congressional Black Caucus?— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) February 16, 2017
Trump: "I would. You want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?" pic.twitter.com/8Pp18KBUJd
How does one display a staggering lack of racial awareness? By doing what Trump does here in assuming that a black reporter must be good friends with the Congressional Black Caucus.
"Well, I would. I tell you what, you want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?"
In looking back at this list outlining a few of the extraordinary aspects of Trump's first press conference as president, it seems useful to compare his performance to his two immediate predecessors. So here is President George W. Bush's final press conference. There is a clear difference in tone and decorum, even when Bush disagrees with the press he's addressing.
And here is President Obama's final press conference. An immediately striking difference is that reporters are allowed to finish their questions, they're allowed to ask long and involved questions. And keep in mind that in both Bush's and Obama's case, their party had just lost a national election. Despite both of them probably feeling in some way responsible for that loss, there is not some "blame the media" diatribe on display.
Trump's press conference looks nothing like Obama's or Bush's. Trump's emotions get the better of him, he strays off topic, he insults reporters, he makes gross assumptions about the people who are there to get answers.
Trump apparently still views the media as the "opposition party," as his chief strategist Steve Bannon so memorably put it. But it is the media's job to relay truth to Americans — to the people Trump is charged with responsibly leading.
And in setting up this precedent of Trump against the media, the president has proven he is unserious about the enormous weight of the presidency's responsibility. It is not a ratings contest or an opinion poll; it is not a cage fight to win against pesky journalists. That he doesn't appear to grasp the gravitas of his position should concern everyone.