Donald Trump entered the East Room on Thursday reeling from a week filled with resignations, withdrawals and continued questions surrounding his campaign's contacts with Russia.
What followed was an hour-long, full-throated attack on Trump's favorite foil: the media.
“Many of our nation's reporters will not tell you the truth,” Trump said.
“The press honestly is out of control,” Trump said.
“The level of dishonesty is out of control,” Trump said.
And that was before he even took a single question!
It was a return for Trump to what worked for him during the course of the 2016 campaign: A circuslike atmosphere in which he uses the media — and his supporters' distrust of the media — as a sort of tackling dummy to re-center the narrative on ground more favorable to him. Trump didn't just run down the media — although he did a lot of that — but he also mocked various outlets, reviewed shows on cable TV that he likes (and doesn't), told reporters to sit down and be quiet, and critiqued the quality of the questions he was being asked.
There was a rawness to his attacks, a personal invective that seemed well beyond the typically antagonistic relationship that exists between the media and the president they cover.
Why do it? Because Trump understands something very important: For his supporters, the media represent everything they dislike about American society. The media is composed, to their mind, of Ivy-League-educated coastal elites who look down their noses at the average person, dismissing them and their views as stupid and ill-informed. For people who feel like their voices weren't and aren't heard in politics — or culture more broadly — the media is the perfect scapegoat.
The media were the ones who told you Obamacare was great. The media were the ones who didn't report that Hillary Clinton got all the debate questions in advance. The media were the ones who said I couldn't win. The media is lying to you now because they don't want you to know all the good things I am doing.
And the truth is that Trump's broadside against the terrible dishonesty of the media will leave lots of heads nodding around the country. This tweet, from conservative commentator Matt Lewis nails that:
From a buddy of mine out west. pic.twitter.com/Ru53cFkloh
— Matt K. Lewis (@mattklewis) February 16, 2017
And remember that trust in the media is at or near its lowest ebb.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) February 16, 2017
Trump's appeal to voters is, and always has been, how he is able to speak to them on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. He got people angry and worried in the 2016 campaign — and they voted on it. They went to the polls feeling as though the stakes were literally catastrophic; elect anyone other than Trump and watch the world burn.
One example of that appeal in Trump's press conference today. Early on, NBC's Peter Alexander called Trump out on his inaccurate claim that he had won the biggest electoral college victory of any president since Ronald Reagan. "Well, I don't know, I was given that information," Trump responded. "I was given — I actually, I've seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?"
For many politicians, that would be a bad — very bad — moment, caught misstating facts. But Trump knows that his appeal isn't based on whether he got the exact facts on his electoral college margin right. It's on the fact that he won — big league. And who cares if he was wrong? It's the media nitpicking him to death, after all.
It's not surprising, then, that at the nadir of his early days as president, Trump is returning to a raw and uncut attack on the media. Trump is like a comedian, forever refining his beats. He knows that if he picks on a certain guy in the audience, the rest of the crowd is going to go bananas cause they don't like the guy, either. The more personal he gets, the more they love it.
I won't try to tackle whether that is a good or bad thing for democracy — or our culture — in this space today. But what I will say is that Trump's decision, amid turmoil inside and outside his White House, to turn his fire on the media was a deeply predictable move.
It's also one that will almost certainly succeed in changing the subject from Russia and Mike Flynn.
Trump knows all that. It's why he did it.