Trump’s First Public Performance: Atmospherics and Substance

Trump’s First Public Performance: Atmospherics and Substance

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There was something truly surreal watching the Trump press conference. It was truly like a pep rally or a seemed like he was still on the campaign trail.  The problem with this performance was that it followed within hours of his attack on the on the intelligence agencies for treating him like the Nazis treated opponents; a disgraceful comparison of his treatment to the way the Nazis treated Jews. The use of Nazi imagery was now followed by a press conference which was scary. While he did address substantive issues, the event, like his campaign rallies, was reminiscent of Nazi Party rallies of the Twenties and Thirties.

As the press corps sat and watched first the introductions and then his opening they were treated to a group of Trumpites cheering him on which totally demeaned the presumed seriousness of a give and take with the press. Those who cover White House usually maintain a respectful hen the jockey to be recognized. The press corps recognizes the President and the institution of the Presidency for whom and for which they stand at the opening—depending on the pleasure of the President. There is never a response to comments whatsoever, except when there is a bit of intentional humor interjected. In fact, some Presidents have requested that reporters not wave to be recognized or sometimes have recognized members according to a prepared list for a particular press conference prepared by the dean of the White House press corps.  The networks always were given time and sat in the front and the head or senior member of White House press corps asked the first question.

The fans in the audience yesterday gave the event a very eerie feeling. One wondered if and when there will be future press conference whether President Trump expects to pack the room with cheering staff as “friends and fans” do not usually roam the White House. Perhaps Trump’s answer will be to only hold press conferences at Trump Towers or Mara-Lago or at the Bedminster Country Club, where he can pack the room with friends.

Trump also intentionally began the exchange with barbs and attacks. Some were specifically, intentionally, intimidating and personal. He continued his obvious resentment of the openness of the press; regardless of whether in this instance some of the press have gotten some of the story wrong and/or overstepped. Trump praises only those who agree and attacks anyone who challenges him.

Trump then took a fifteen minute break as he had his prominent Washington lawyer, Sherri Dillon from Morgan Lewis, explain the details to the press of how they had advised him to structure his business and avoid conflicts of interest. While there are ethical and legal questions about this structure, this type of important detailed briefing presentation usually follows the actual press conference. In this instance it broke up the mood and intensity for a bit of what was an hour session. It permitted Trump to recharge his batteries and return to his attacking, nasty, bravado style as he dealt with the issues of the intelligence community, healthcare, Supreme Court appointments, VA Administrator nomination (whose name he needed to recall from a paper in his pocket), relations with Russia, Putin, and his own finances.

For Trump it went well but it was a far cry from the model of more recent press conferences. It was substantive and produced news but there was genuine tension that Trump created. Like Richard Nixon, he also appears to believe that the press is out to get him and he believes he bears no responsibility for creating this atmosphere. There was also something very off-putting about this event. It was another rally with the American flags arrayed behind him (reminiscent of all the swastikas at the Nazi rallies) the cheering, with his family and fans on stage. It will be interesting to see what, when, and where next meets the press.

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