When President Donald Trump arrived in the Oval Office on Thursday, there was something he wanted to do.
Trump was in the midst of one of the most tumultuous weeks in presidential history. Not even one full month into his presidency, his fourth week in office was defined by high-stakes legal battles, open-air internal strife, and the resignation of the national security adviser while questions swirl about the president’s ties to Russia.
The press conference was scheduled for noon at the White House. Its subject was to be the announcement of Trump’s new choice to head the Labor Department after his original selection, Andrew Puzder, withdrew himself from consideration following intense criticism over past controversies and statements.
And, for its first 56 seconds, the press conference focused on exactly that: Trump’s nomination of Alexander Acosta to fill his newest void.
But it was the next 76 minutes that will go down — as have many moments during Trump’s time as a candidate, frontrunner, presumptive nominee, nominee, president-elect, and, now, president — as among the most surreal and unprecedented the US has witnessed in 228 years of having a president.
Trump battled with the press, attempted to downplay the growing Russia controversy, tried to defend his accomplishments from his first month in office, and said enough newsworthy statements to fill hours of cable-news programming. He said, despite the reporting that paints the opposite picture, that his administration was “a fine-tuned machine.”
Reactions hit all ends of the spectrum. CNN anchor Jake Tapper described the press conference as “wild” and “unhinged.” An “airing of grievances,” he said. “It was Festivus.” Fox News anchor Shepard Smith slammed the president for attempting to delegitimize questions about Russia.
Kurt Bardella, formerly a senior adviser and spokesman for the Republican-led House Oversight Committee, told Business Insider that the press conference made clear Trump “lives in an alternate reality.”
“Anyone who wasn’t questioning his mental capacity to do this job is now doing so after that unhinged press conference,” he said in an email. “Forget about ‘alternative facts,’ President Trump lives in an alternate reality. No matter how much he insists that he doesn’t listen to the media or care about what the press writes about him, clearly he does.”
But Trump’s supporters seemed reinvigorated by the president’s Thursday actions.
Conservative radio host Joe Walsh tweeted that an 80-year-old Navy veteran called into his program and said he had “been waiting 40 years for a president to do what Trump did to the media today.” Conservative author Ann Coulter, a major Trump backer, tweeted: “Trump is already head of state. After that press conference, in my eyes, he’s now head of church.” Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said it was like nothing he’d ever seen.
And Matt Mackowiak, the Republican strategist who is president of the Potomac Strategy Group, called the ordeal “masterful” performance art.
“You know, there’s obviously some substance there that will obviously invite more questions and possibly more controversy, but to me … he’s actually feeling pretty confident right now,” he told Business Insider. “And I think that really conflicts with what people are thinking he should be feeling right now, particularly Democrats and people in the media who think he should be rethinking everything.
“He really kind of demonstrated just a basic sense of confidence that I think will buck up Republicans and will buck up his supporters after what’s really been sort of a rocky 10 days,” he continued.
“To me, you can sit back and take it,” he said of the negative news hanging over Trump’s early presidency. “Or you can go on offense.”
Without any shadow of a doubt, Trump went ahead on offense.
“Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system,” Trump said early in an especially long opening statement. “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Trump vented. He said he “inherited a mess” when he took office, both “at home and abroad,” adding that some of his decisions “probably aren’t popular, but they’re necessary for security and other reasons.”
The last part was a rare acknowledgment from a president who has prided himself on having the ear of the American people. But it served as something of an acknowledgment that some of his policies had been unpopular. His executive order banning travel to the US by refugees and by people from seven majority-Muslim nations, for instance, has sparked widespread demonstrations nationwide. And the promised repeal and replacement of Obamacare has led opponents of the idea to take to lawmakers’ town halls to voice displeasure.
Trump touched on that, saying those individuals “are not the Republican people our that representatives are representing.”
The president filled the event with the kind of outlandish statements that, during the campaign, helped give Trump a groundswell of support that catapulted him into the office.
On drug-related issues facing the country, Trump said that “we’re becoming a drug-infested nation” and that “drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars,” adding, “We are not going to let it happen any longer.” He touted previous announcements about job creating in the US, adding the future would see a “big league” return of jobs from overseas that would dwarf what he believed to be his early successes.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
And he batted away question after question on the growing concern surrounding his administration’s connections to the Russian government that has cast a cloud over his presidency.
Earlier this week, his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned following reports that he had discussed recently imposed sanctions with a Russian ambassador to the US before Trump took office and then was not honest about it with Vice President Mike Pence when discussing what was said in his communications. Reports this week have indicated that intelligence officials said several members of Trump’s campaign had been in frequent communication with Russian officials during the campaign.
Over and over, Trump tried to crush the story.
“Russia is fake news,” he said. “Russia — this is fake news put out by the media.”
The president said Flynn, “a fine person,” was asked to resign for not being truthful with Pence but not for his actions involving the Russian ambassador.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Trump said of Flynn’s statements to Pence, “because what he did wasn’t wrong.”
“What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally,” he continued. “That’s the real problem. And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it.”
The press, he added, should be “ashamed” for publishing information that was the product of government officials illegally leaking the information.
Digging in, he said the leaks were real, and the reports about them were fake.
“You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them,” he said. “I mean, the leaks are real. You know what they said, you saw it and the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
“I didn’t do anything for Russia,” he later added. “I’ve done nothing for Russia.”
He pointed to the Obama administration’s “Russian reset,” which prominently featured then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was she, he said, who gave up a lot to Russia. After all of the recent news reports about his administration’s connections to Russia, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin probably no longer thought there was any possibility of making a good deal with Trump.
Putin’s “sitting behind his desk and he’s saying, ‘You know, I see what’s going on in the United States, I follow it closely,” Trump said. “It’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.’ OK?”Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Later, in an unrelated pair of separately jaw-dropping moments that happened minutes apart, Trump shut down a question from Jewish reporter asking about a rise in anti-Semitism before asking a prominent black reporter to help him set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, asking if she was friends with its members.
Trump saved his biggest complaints about his coverage for CNN, saying the network covered him with “hatred” and anchor Don Lemon — not among the attendees at the press conference — spewed “venom” when discussing the president. In an exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump said he no longer called the network “fake news” — instead calling it “very fake news.”
Many, including Acosta, laughed.
And amid his lengthy response to the controversies at hand, Trump said he was having a blast.
“I’m actually having a very good time, OK?” he said. “But they’ll take this news conference — don’t forget, that’s the way I won. Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day. OK? … No, that’s how I won. I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure. But I’m having a good time.”
It was one incredible rant.
“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press,'” he said. “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it. But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves.’ I’m not ranting and raving.”