President Trump spoke for about seven minutes during a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Thursday before an interpreter opened the session to questions from journalists. Without hesitation, Trump called on the Daily Mail's David Martosko, who was a candidate to become White House press secretary before withdrawing from consideration two weeks ago.
“I have to ask about this,” Martosko said, after starting on the subject of North Korean nuclear deterrence. “Since you started the whole wrestling thing, what are your thoughts about what has happened since then? I mean CNN went after you and has threatened to expose the identity of a person they said was responsible for it. I'd like your thoughts on that.”
“Yeah, I think what CNN did was unfortunate for them,” Trump replied. “As you know, now they have some pretty serious problems. They have been fake news for a long time. They've been covering me in a very, uh, very dishonest way.”
“Do you have that also, by the way, Mr. President?” Trump said, turning to Duda.
He continued: “But CNN and others — and others; I mean NBC is equally as bad, despite the fact that I made them a fortune with 'The Apprentice,' but they forgot that. But I will say that CNN has really taken it too seriously, and I think they've hurt themselves very badly, very, very badly. And what we want to see in the United States is honest, beautiful, free — but honest — press. We want to see fair press. I think it's a very important thing. We don't want fake news.
“And by the way, not everybody is fake news. But we don't want fake news. Bad thing. Very bad for our country.”
What a scene: The president of the United States, on foreign soil, awarding a reporter he considered hiring the first of only two questions available to American journalists at a joint news conference — then using the occasion to bash other media outlets.
CNN's Jim Acosta accused Trump of turning the event into a “fake news conference.”
Ari Fleisher, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, responded by noting that he fielded questions from journalists who years later went on to work in the Obama White House. Jay Carney, for example, covered the Bush White House for Time magazine before becoming Obama's press secretary.
On one hand, Fleischer's rejoinder underscored the reality that partisans in the press corps are a fact of life. On the other hand, it highlighted an unflattering contrast for Trump.
Fleischer said he took questions from critical reporters. Great. Trump, however, consistently calls on journalists from conservative outlets during joint news conferences with foreign leaders, and his spokesmen seldom grant questions to CNN these days.
Trump said he wants “fair press” but made clear that his definition of “fair” is favorable when he suggested that NBC's news division should treat him better because he made money for its entertainment business as a reality TV star. CNN President Jeff Zucker led NBC during Trump's run on “The Apprentice,” which, as I wrote Monday, helps explain the president's frustration with CNN.
Trump's message to the world on Thursday was that the U.S. president's idea of a free press is one based on favors: Cozy up to the White House and the president will let you ask questions. Fail to deliver positive coverage as a reward for previous business relationships, and you will be labeled “fake news.”
This post has been updated.