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In an erratic performance, President Trump shows his supporters who’s boss

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2 days ago Philip Rucker

“I’m not ranting and raving,” President Trump insisted Thursday, 47 minutes into a 77-minute tempest of a news conference in which he did just that.

With his young presidency besieged by disorder and discord, the commander in chief was at once angry and jovial.

Trump chided perceived enemies. He indicted leakers. He absolved himself of blame. And he excoriated the media — once the “fake news,” now the “very fake news.”

But the president also put on a show. He bantered and cajoled. He was playful, even. He waved away tough questions (“The whole Russian thing, that’s a ruse”) and cried out for “friendly” ones, congratulating a reporter who solicited his thoughts on the “great work” of first lady Melania Trump.

Journalists trying to probe for facts, hold the president to account and correct his grandiose exaggerations in real time became set pieces in the image Trump wanted to project to America during an afternoon of must-see television: The president is in charge.

Trump gave the legions of Americans who put him in office just what they wanted to see — and what his spokespeople and advisers could not do for him — which is demonstrate that he is the boss.

“I love this,” Trump said. “I’m having a good time doing it.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) © The Associated Press President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The question is how much control Trump has beyond his performance the gold-draped East Room of the White House. The president’s erratic showing seemed to leave much of official Washington alarmed and aghast and may not have convinced doubters that he can govern smoothly.

With Thursday’s news conference, Trump was trying to regain authorship of the story line of his presidency and distract from the burgeoning scandal surrounding reported communications to Russian officials by his now-ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and members of his political team.

It was a classic Trump stroke — try to move past a difficult news cycle by creating a new one. During his campaign, Trump time and again staged news conferences or gave provocative interviews or unspooled fresh attacks at his rallies to divert the media’s gaze to an ever-shinier object.

Trump is expected to continue his offensive Saturday when he stages the first mega-rally of his presidency, in Melbourne, Fla. The event is being put on by his campaign organization, not the White House — an unusual move for a president nearly four years out from a reelection bid.

The president began his Thursday news conference with opening remarks — 24 minutes of them that he appeared to read from papers at his lectern.

He was the complainer in chief. Resentful and melancholy, he sought to assign blame for just about everything that he believes ails America.

Not enough people feeling optimistic about his presidency? It’s the media’s fault.

“The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The level of dishonesty is out of control.”

Companies moving jobs overseas? Wages too low? Crime in Chicago? Conflict in the Middle East? Terrorism spreading? Aggression in North Korea? It’s former president Barack Obama’s fault.

“To be honest, I inherited a mess,” he said. “It’s a mess. At home and abroad — a mess.”

The failure of his executive order to institute “extreme vetting” on all refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations? It’s the federal judiciary’s fault.

“That circuit is in chaos and that circuit is, frankly, in turmoil,” he said of the 9th Circuit, where the Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that halted enforcement of Trump’s travel ban.

In a sign that Trump intends to govern as a permanent campaign, he dismissed citizens who have been demonstrating at congressional town hall meetings to preserve the Affordable Care Act.

“They are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing,” he said.

It has become a trademark of the 45th president to boast about his electoral-college victory — and, in signature Trumpian fashion, he exaggerated Thursday about his place in history.

“I guess it was the biggest electoral-college win since Ronald Reagan,” Trump said.

NBC’s Peter Alexander confronted Trump with his misstatement, pointing out that Obama received 365 electoral votes in 2008 and 332 electoral votes in 2012, and that George H.W. Bush received 426 electoral votes in 1988.

“Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they receive of being fake when you’re providing information that’s [incorrect]?” Alexander asked Trump.

“Well, I don’t know,” Trump said. “I was given that information.”

Trump showed that, more than being an executive or a military commander, he is a media critic. He attacked reports of White House missteps and melodramas as sensationalist and unfair, and their sources as criminals.

“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos,” Trump said. “Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

Trump decried leaks to The Washington Post and the New York Times — in his words, “the failing New York Times.” He called a story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal “disgraceful.”

Then he got talking about his favorite medium, cable television.

“The tone is such hatred,” Trump said. “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.”

He went on: “I watched this morning a couple of the networks. And I have to say, ‘Fox & Friends’ in the morning, they’re very honorable people. . . . They have the most honest morning show.”

His comments came in a lengthy exchange with CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, who at Trump’s last news conference, in early January, tangled with the then-president-elect over “fake news.”

Trump said when he watches CNN — and he even suggested he was responsible for Jeff Zucker becoming the network’s president — he sees “so much anger and hatred.” He singled out the 10 p.m. hour, anchored by Don Lemon.

“The good news is he doesn’t have good ratings,” Trump said. “But the panel is almost exclusive anti-Trump. And the hatred and venom coming from his mouth . . .”

Acosta persisted in trying to ask Trump to account for having so thoroughly undermined people’s faith in the First Amendment freedom of the press with his “fake news” battle cry. But Trump couldn’t resist the chance to tease Acosta, who shares a surname with his newly announced labor-secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta.

Trump asked him, “You’re not related to our new—”

“I am not related, sir,” Acosta said. “I do like the sound of Secretary Acosta, I must say.”

“I looked,” Trump said. “You know, I looked at that name. I said: ‘Wait a minute. Is there any relation there? Alex Acosta?’ ”

“They said, ‘No, sir,’ ” the president continued. “I said: ‘Do me a favor. Go back and check the family tree.’ ”

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