President Trump spent nearly three minutes at a luncheon this week welcoming the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — whose difficult-to-pronounce names he never uttered publicly — and saying he should be given “credit” for pressuring countries like theirs to give more money to NATO.
As he concluded, White House staffers began to shepherd a small group of journalists out of the room — but Trump was far from done sharing his complaints. As reporters shouted questions about the plunging stock market and the brewing trade war with China, Trump quickly engaged.
“I have to say this,” Trump said during the appearance Tuesday afternoon, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis unfurled a white napkin and placed it in his lap. “China. I have great respect for President Xi. Two of the most incredible days of my life were spent in China. . . . He’s a tremendous person. But we have a problem with China.”
Over the next 15 minutes, White House staffers would try at least a half dozen more times to move reporters out of the room, only to have the president stop them with another gripe or plea for credit. Sometimes, the lead television camera would inch backward toward the door, as Trump grew smaller on the screen, just to be pushed back into place as the president leaped at another chance to defend himself and his presidency.
Trump’s venting in recent days has seemed excessive, even for him. His grievances have come in torrents, littered with inaccuracies he continues to state as facts. The pattern continued Wednesday morning, as he tweeted about the trade fight with China and “very weak” border security laws.
It started Saturday morning as he lashed out on Twitter at the “Fake Washington Post,” the “Failing New York Times” and the governor of California while being driven to one of his golf courses in Florida. It continued on Easter, as he complained that Mexico was not doing enough to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States or a caravan of migrants from Honduras. He complained the border is protected by “ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws” and said Republicans needed to pass “tough laws.”
He kept going Monday morning, as he tweeted about the Postal Service rates paid by Amazon.com — which was founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post — and about his own “Department of ‘Justice.’ ” Minutes later, at the White House Easter Egg Roll, Trump stood between his stoic wife and a bespectacled Easter Bunny — whose face was frozen in an open-mouthed stare — and bragged to a crowd of children about increasing military spending to $700 billion, one of the few bright points for him in the recently passed spending bill.
That night on Twitter, Trump called the country’s immigration laws an “Obama joke” and accused Democrats of needlessly delaying his nominations. The next morning, he falsely accused CNN of requiring its employees to proclaim they are “totally anti-Trump” and labeled CNN chief Jeff Zucker as “little” while misspelling his name. He bragged that his approval rating “is higher than Cheatin’ Obama at the same time” in his tenure; the White House has yet to explain what that nickname meant. He again lashed out at Amazon and accused federal postal workers of not having a clue.
Trump repeated many of those same points Tuesday afternoon as his guests waited for him to finish so they could eat lunch.
He mentioned the “caravan” 10 times, called the North American Free Trade Agreement “a cash cow” for Mexico and took swipes at both Obama and “crooked Hillary Clinton.” He announced that he plans to send members of the military to the southern border, an apparent surprise to many Pentagon officials. It took the White House six hours to compose an explanation and announce that the administration plans to mobilize the National Guard.
“We’re going to be doing some things militarily,” Trump said while answering the question about the stock market and the brewing trade war with China. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military. That’s a big step.”
White House staffers tried a second time to lead reporters out of the room, but the president latched onto a question about the caravan. They tried a third time, but the president responded to a question related to his foreign guests. A fourth time, and he responded to a question about Russia’s president: “Do you want Vladimir Putin to come to the White House, sir?”
“Ideally, we want to be able to get along with Russia,” Trump said, without acknowledging the long-standing threat Russia poses to the Baltic countries represented by his guests. “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Now, maybe we will and maybe we won’t. And probably nobody has been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump.”
The president continued to refer to himself in the third person: “The three presidents just told me that NATO is taking in a tremendous amount of money because of Donald Trump. That would have never happened. So NATO is much stronger.”
Trump instructed one of his guests, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, to praise him on camera, just as he said she had done privately in the Oval Office. She obliged, saying changes to NATO would not be possible without the United States and that its “vital voice and vital leadership” are important.
Trump pressed her: “And has Donald Trump made a difference on NATO?”
Those in the room laughed, as she confirmed he has made a difference. As she continued to speak, Trump cut her off.
“And, again, NATO has taken in billions of dollars more because of me, because I said, ‘You’re delinquent, you’re not paying,’ to many of the countries,” Trump said. “Is that right? Many of the countries weren’t paying.”
He later continued: “Because of me . . . many billions of dollars more than they would have had if you had crooked Hillary Clinton as president. Okay? That I can tell you.”
A reporter asked if Trump considers Putin “a friend or a foe,” and Trump responded: “We’ll find out. I’ll let you know. . . . We’ll see what happens.”
For a fifth time, White House staffers tried to end this impromptu news conference, but then the president responded to a question about the Baltic states. They tried a sixth time, but the president could not resist another query: “Is it Amazon or The Washington Post, sir? What’s Amazon done that bugs you, sir?”
On the seventh try, reporters began to inch out of the room — and Trump responded to a final question about Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is accused of bypassing the White House to give his aides massive raises, among other irregularities.
“I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said, even though his aides have said Pruitt’s job is in jeopardy.
“Time to go, guys,” a White House staffer said, finally herding the reporters out of the room. Another coaxed: “Please move along. Please move along. Please move along now.”
“Thank you, everybody,” Trump shouted after them. “Thank you.”