Donald Trump held his first press conference since winning the election on Nov. 8, and while he demonstrated no mastery of any particular subject matter, he nonetheless proved again that he is masterful when it comes to handling the press. In baseball, when a team forfeits a game, the score is recorded as 9-0 and that is the score I would assign to yesterday's performance.
The most striking thing about Trump's interactions is his stream of consciousness way of speaking. He never has prepared remarks. The phrases are canned but do not sound rehearsed. Trump skips around from topic to topic, first talking about companies that are not moving operations overseas because of his interventions, then onto military spending, back to companies that he warns not to move jobs abroad, then on to the "massive crowds" at his rallies, none of it connected in any rational way, all of it pouring forth from his mouth as if the man had a chronic case of oracular dysentery. But it works.
The American people are tired of overly scripted politicians, people who have had too much "media training," during which they are taught not to answer the question asked, but to stay relentlessly "on message," always speaking cautiously so as to never make a mistake and to prevaricate as necessary. The American people are right to be tired of the average contemporary politician.
Trump never worries about making a mistake when he speaks. If he says something outrageous at this point, it will just blend in or he will deny he ever said it. When he gets a question he doesn't want to answer, he doesn't dodge or weave; he rants about the "lying media" and "media bias." And it works.
The media play into his hands in two ways. At yesterday's press conference, the first set of questions were all about the Buzzfeed publication of a report that Russian agents had collected damaging information, both personal and financial, about Mr. Trump. The report, which has been making the round of D.C. newsrooms for weeks, has never been corroborated independently. The report was also paid for by Trump's political opponents. People are inclined to view it skeptically. In a way, the story actually kept the focus away from the more substantial questions about why Trump feels such a kinship with Vladimir Putin, what past dealings his nominee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had with Russia that might also cloud his judgment, and whether incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's benign appreciation for the Kremlin will become public policy. Or the press could have asked the kind of tough policy questions that would expose Trump's ignorance of important national issues.
But the press kept asking about the salacious report, as if one of their number would find the magic words to get Trump to stumble. They thought they were questioning Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump. He is not afraid of stumbling. He called the report garbage and "fake news." He complained about it being leaked. He dissed CNN for even running with the story and then artfully praised those networks and journalists who didn't, adopting a divide-and-conquer approach. He said that "we get hacked by other people too" which is undoubtedly true. In one of the most brazen displays of justifying the means by the ends I have ever seen in modern politics, Trump said, "Hacking's bad, and it shouldn't be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking." It was brilliant. No one in the press corps laid a glove on him.
The White House press corps needs to up their game and fast. For starters, they should have agreed in advance that in the eminently foreseeable likelihood that Trump refused to call on Jim Acosta from CNN, every other reporter in the room, when called on, should have replied, "Jim Acosta from CNN would like to ask. …" And where is Jon Stewart when we need him to point out the richness of the man who brought us birtherism charging CNN with publishing fake news?
Trump's handling of the complicated issue of his disentangling himself from his business empire was similarly deft. He turned the podium over to a lawyer, Sheri Dillon, who heaped praise upon her boss because not only is he putting his business in a trust, to be run by his sons, but they are appointing both an ethics advisor and a compliance officer. Of course, both of those jobs will be paid by the Trump organization and be answerable to the Trump boys, so I am guessing they won't be pushing too hard. Dillon said that selling his assets would invite more, not less, potential problems. The company promises not to undertake any new foreign deals and anytime a foreigner pays for a hotel room at a Trump hotel, the money will go to the U.S. Treasury. Dillon did not disclose when Trump's cause for canonization will be introduced.
This was all nonsense. A trust that isn't blind, that is run by his sons, is hardly immune from conflicts of interest. The trust is hardly a "blind" one, although Trump seems to expect blind trust from the American people. Trump said that a president can't have a conflict of interest, which is not the case: A president is not subject to the kind of conflict of interest laws other members of his administration are, but there are plenty of opportunities for conflicts to emerge. They do not need to be illegal to be significant or troubling. But I suspect that as long as Trump gets the economy humming, people won't care if Trump Inc. is first at the trough.
Trump called Obamacare "a complete and total disaster" and vowed to repeal and replace it quickly. He said he would go forward on building a wall along our Southern border and that he would recoup the money from Mexico later. He said his Supreme Court nominee would come within two weeks of his inauguration and that potential justices were being vetted by the Federalist Society and former Sen. Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation, which is not a comforting thought.
Most of all, Trump talked about jobs. He praised those companies planning on building plants in the U.S. and warned companies thinking of outsourcing jobs they would face tariffs. He said, correctly, "If I hadn't won the election, these companies wouldn't be in my office, or in anybody else's office." Why did Democrats never try the simple art of shaming large corporations? Yet, Trump clearly has no economic policies beyond public shaming to stem the tide of globalization. And then he went back to predicting his inauguration would be "beautiful" and have "massive crowds" because "we have a movement."
Fox News' repeated attacks on the mainstream media over the years have helped create the meme of distrust about the media. It has not been helped by certain personnel changes: When you go from Walter Cronkite to Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, there has been a decline. But, no democracy can function without a vibrant, smart and independent press. The first incumbent president to lose his bid for reelection, John Adams, was in large part because of his efforts to restrain the press by government fiat. In the Trump years, we need the press more than ever to hold this man accountable. But, they need to be smarter, better prepared, and work together if they wish to improve on their performance yesterday. It was a master class in manipulation by Trump and no one in the press corps had an answer.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]