The Cable

Trump Takes on All Comers in Press Conference

U.S. President Trump calls the ongoing Russia scandal rocking the White House “fake news.”

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U.S. President Donald Trump, former reality TV star, put on a show like no other on Thursday.

Trump boasted his administration was a “fine-tuned machine” and insisted he had “inherited a mess,” in a freewheeling press conference marked by his signature bravado and fixation on the media.

He denounced the media for its biased and “hateful” coverage of his presidency, taking direct aim at the cable news network CNN. He also criticized Congress for slow-walking the confirmation of his cabinet picks. And yes, he bragged yet again about his election victory, saying falsely he won the biggest electoral college margin since Ronald Reagan.

Trump appeared to relish the back-and-forth with reporters, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes. He predicted the press would describe his performance as “ranting and raving” but insisted he was “having a good time.”

The remarks come after a rocky debut for the administration. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, stepped down Monday night after reports he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating contact between the Trump team and Russian officials during the campaign.

Echoing earlier remarks from his press secretary Sean Spicer, Trump insisted Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong, but had to resign because he had misinformed U.S. Vice President Michael Pence.

Trump denied directing Mike Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador, but said Flynn was “doing his job” when he did. “I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job,” he said. “I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence,” he said.

Notably, Trump said as far as he’d been informed, members of his team did not have contact with Russian officials during the campaign.

Trump dismissed the focus on the Russian link as a distraction from leaks of classified information. “The leaks are real but the news is fake,” Trump said, although he later seemed to take aim at the tone rather than the facts in reports about the leaks. He singled out CNN, which he called “so hateful.”

He claimed the press has become “so dishonest” it has become a “tremendous disservice” to the American public. “We have to find out what’s going on because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control,” he said.

He asserted the press sabotaged his attempts to make a deal with Russia from the outset. “The false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia,” Trump said.

But Trump defended his efforts to re-reset the relationship with Russia, citing concerns over nuclear war. “Nuclear holocaust would be like no other,” he said. “They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Trump declined to say whether he would respond to provocations from Russia on Tuesday, when Russia deployed cruise missiles that violated arms control treaties, sent a spy ship close to the U.S. east coast, and buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea. “Not good,” Trump said to all three incidents.

But he made clear he wouldn’t telegraph any moves against foreign adversaries in the media. “I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea. And I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do with Iran. You know why? Because they shouldn’t know,” he said.

He predicted the press would eventually tire of asking him such questions. “When you ask me, what am I going to do with the ship, the Russian ship, as an example? I’m not going to tell you. Hopefully I won’t have to do anything but I’m not going to tell you. Okay.”

Okay?

Correction, Feb. 16 2017, 4:33 pm ET: This piece originally stated that Trump called his administration a “well-oiled machine.” In actuality, he called it a “fine-tuned machine.”

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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