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Donald Trump ducks press queries on trip, only G-7 leader to do so

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-05-2017 Craig Gordon

Taormina, Sicily: Donald Trump wrapped up his first foreign trip as president—a nine-day excursion from Saudi Arabia to Sicily—without once holding a news conference.

That made the US president the only one of the Group of Seven leaders who declined to face the press. The other six all took questions from reporters while in Sicily for the 43rd summit of major advanced economies.

But Trump, breaking with tradition, avoided getting pinned down by a question-and-answer format in which he would face questions either about investigations at home or the nuances of US foreign policy positions.

While the recent firing of FBI director James Comey and an ongoing inquiry into ties between his campaign and Russia were subjects Trump wanted to avoid discussing, that imperative was only heightened by revelations in the closing days of the trip about the FBI’s growing interest in engagement with Russia by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Not holding a press conference marked a breach of custom at a major global event where the US president traditionally faces the press at the end, and often during the trip as well. Trump capped off his trip on Saturday with a speech to US troops and a handful of in-flight tweets. He returned to Twitter early Sunday to denounce the media.

Shouted queries

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, turned his end-of-summit news conferences into epic affairs, often taking questions from nearly every US reporter who travelled on the trip. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took questions too.

Earlier in the trip, Trump fielded one or two shouted queries from reporters at events where no questions were supposed to be allowed—at least once with unfortunate results for the president.

At a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, a reporter asked the Israeli prime minister if he still trusted US authorities with sensitive intelligence following reports that Trump had shared secret intel from Israel with the Russians during an Oval Office meeting. Trump stepped up to insist he’d never said the word “Israel” in his talks with Russian officials—effectively confirming that nation as the source of the information.

The six other leaders in the Group of Seven—the UK’s Theresa May, Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron—each briefed reporters during the two-day session in the ancient mountain village of Taormina, on Sicily’s east coast in the shadow of Mount Etna.

Breaking news

Minutes after Trump and his entourage left Washington for Saudi Arabia on 19 May, two news stories broke: that the president had described recently fired FBI director James Comey as a “nut job” during his meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the US, and that an unnamed White House official was the target of FBI scrutiny. In the final days of the trip, it was reported that the FBI was looking at senior adviser Kushner over his contacts with the Russians.

Four months into his term, Trump has typically taken two questions from the US press after bilateral meetings at the White House. He declined to do the same during several such talks on the just-concluded trip, where he met with, among others, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Only one White House aide stood before TV cameras for a question-and-answer session during the nine days, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a few questions during a briefing at a hotel in Riyadh a week ago.

Kushner questions

Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn’t hold his regular daily briefings, although he answered pool reporters’ questions during an off-camera gaggle at Nato headquarters in Brussels. Economic adviser Gary Cohn briefed reporters on a few occasions on condition TV cameras were turned off; National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster joined Cohn on Saturday.

That briefing gave a taste of what Trump would have faced, as reporters asked repeatedly about Kushner, to no avail. Cohn eventually said, “We’re not going to comment on Jared. We’re just not going to.”

Trump arrived back at the White House Saturday night. After the president and first lady exited their helicopter, the first question Trump got from reporters waiting on the South Lawn: “Mr. President, we hear you were trying to set up a back channel to the Russians...”

With no scheduled events on Sunday, Trump was back on social media with a string of messages critical of the media.

“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” the president told his almost 31 million Twitter followers.

“Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names, it it is very possible those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!” Bloomberg

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