MELBOURNE, Fla. — Nearly a month into a presidency full of missteps, Donald Trump returned Saturday to firmer ground outside of Washington, staging a raucous campaign-style rally here with a throng of adoring supporters who helped sweep him into the White House.
For 45 minutes, there was no talk of the president’s falling approval ratings or turmoil in his administration. Instead, Trump rattled off familiar campaign promises, scolded the media, mocked protesters gathered outside, declared that it is “a new day in America” and basked in applause from a crowd of 9,000 that waited hours in the sun to see him.
“This will be change for the ages, change like never before,” Trump thundered toward the end of his remarks, which included several exaggerations and misrepresentations about his fledgling presidency.
The airport hangar event was the clearest indication of a Trump administration trying to regroup after a tumultuous first four weeks that have been propelled more by the controversy of the day than a coherent agenda for governing.
Starting with a let-Trump-be-Trump news conference on Thursday — in which the president said he wanted to speak directly to the American people without the media filter — Trump sought to regain control of his presidency, insisting that his administration is “running like a fine-tuned machine” and blaming any perceived problems on “fake news” and Democrats.
Meanwhile, his administration took steps that seemed aimed at creating a fresh start. Trump hired a communications director to ease the burden on his embattled press secretary, and he is interviewing candidates for national security adviser following the hasty departure of Michael Flynn. He promised a new version this week of his now-frozen executive order on immigration, which has come to symbolize his struggle to translate aggressive campaign goals into policy.
During a speech at an aerospace factory in South Carolina on Friday afternoon, the president returned to the issues that made him popular in the first place: job creation, restricting trade and putting America first. He did not mention the media, although he bragged about winning the state’s primary.
“Except for the fact that he doesn’t have a big plastic button, this certainly looks like a reset,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, referring to a prop that then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton gave to the Russian foreign minister in 2009. He called Trump’s rally on Saturday “an attempt to inject some adrenaline into his administration and shake a perception of loserdom.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who advises Trump, said that “all new presidents go through a series of resets because the initial transition from campaign to governing is too enormous and complex. . . . Trump’s challenge is compounded because he is a genuine outsider trying to build a new system.”
In an interview Saturday, however, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus disputed the notion that a reset was in the works.
“I wouldn’t call it a reset because we’re quite proud of a lot of the achievements over the past four weeks,” he said, citing efforts to cut regulations on businesses and three foreign-leader visits, among other developments. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot. I think the media has been fixated on a couple of issues that are totally bogus.”
But Priebus and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that the White House is moving to put Trump out front more — a decision Sanders attributed to frustration with media coverage. Saturday’s rally could be the first in a series of such events, she said.
“There’s definitely frustration that the media makes up stories and reports things that aren’t true,” Sanders said, adding that the Thursday news conference and Saturday rally were attempts “for the president to speak directly to the American people and not have his message filtered through a biased media.”
Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, said “it gives him oxygen and it reminds him why he’s here, why he’s doing it.”
Though Trump claimed at Thursday’s news conference that there is “zero chaos” in his White House, he acknowledged that Priebus is spending time “putting out fires” that he would rather spend working on administration priorities, such as replacing the Affordable Care Act and restructuring the tax code.
Priebus said Saturday that he has spent too much time trying to address media reports but added: “I can do more than one thing at a time, so no one needs to worry about that.”
If the White House was trying to instill a greater sense of discipline and project an aura of competence at the end of the week, those notions were undermined by a fresh pair of controversies Friday.
The president’s scripted speech in South Carolina was overshadowed by an Associated Press report on a memo drafted by the Department of Homeland Security that proposed using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants — a plan the White House said is no longer on the table. Later in the day, Trump tweeted that the news media is “the enemy of the American People!”
Many of the news reports that the president has labeled false are factual but contain information he does not like, from reports of the crowd size at his inauguration to the intelligence community’s finding that Russia meddled in the U.S. election.
Trump also hit a new low Friday in a daily tracking poll by Gallup: Just 38 percent of Americans said they approve of the job he is doing, while 56 percent disapprove. The survey is among many that show him to be the least popular new president in modern times.
Trump has dismissed unfavorable polling numbers as “fake news” and during his news conference on Thursday pointed to a Rasmussen poll that is an outlier among recent surveys, saying it “has me through the roof.” That poll showed him with a 55 percent job approval rating.
Republican allies acknowledge that there are dangers for Trump if his numbers drop in the districts of GOP lawmakers, whose support he needs to pass an ambitious agenda that includes infrastructure spending and other measures that they view with skepticism.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that he is “not a great fan of daily tweets” but said he remains eager to work with Trump on common aims.
The rally on Saturday — like a “thank you tour” that followed Trump’s election victory — is designed in part to remind members of Congress of the president’s popularity in many areas beyond the Beltway.
“He was reluctant to do a lot of travel in his first month in office,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Trump during the general-election campaign. “But I think this is a wise move. It reinforces to any doubting Republicans that there are millions and millions of people across America who want the same things he wants.”
The president’s rally on Saturday evening was nearly identical to those he held during the campaign. His warm-up acts riled the crowd up with talk of immigration and gun rights, along with attacks on the media, with one speaker gleefully saying the president was “spanking” the media.
Although the White House said Thursday that Air Force One would not be used as a “prop” at the rally, the iconic airliner pulled up to the hangar as the theme song from the 1997 movie “Air Force One” played — the same theatrics that were a hallmark of Trump’s campaign rallies.
“Life is a campaign,” Trump told reporters just before the rally. “Making our country great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign.”
And just as he did during the campaign, the president repeatedly exaggerated or distorted the truth — claiming that he lowered the price of a new Air Force One without working more than an hour, blaming former president Barack Obama for leaving him a “mess,” claiming that “the White House is running so smoothly” despite numerous indications it is not and accusing the media of not featuring his supporters.
Such public appearances outside of Washington reflect a belief within the White House that Trump has been underutilized in making his case in recent weeks.
“After several weeks of turmoil, it’s getting back to what worked for him as a candidate,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “Trump has always been his most effective advocate.”
Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who has been one of Trump’s fiercest critics, said that Trump’s news conference on Thursday showed the country is no longer divided between those on the left or the right but between those who saw the 77-minute spectacle as a “success” and those who are now “terrified” about the future of the nation.
“The thing could have been evidence in a mental competency hearing,” he said. “It was really pretty disturbing and terrifying to watch this guy and think: ‘What happens when the stakes are higher?’ ”
Some both inside and outside the White House blame Trump’s recent problems on staff, not the president, and the young ages of many aides often come up in complaints from those close to Trump. Priebus has also faced increasing pressure from Republicans to better control the president and rid the White House of ongoing turmoil and chaos — which probably would mean telling the president “no” on some things.
But John Weaver, a GOP strategist who worked on the presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), said responsibility ultimately lies with the president.
“He’s not able to govern right now,” said Weaver, a longtime critic of Trump. “He can shuffle around staff but until he understands he has to have discipline, and not just discipline in message, nothing is going to change.”
White House aides are hopeful that the installation of communications director Mike Dubke will bring more stability to the administration’s messaging. For the past month, Sean Spicer has held both the press secretary and communications director jobs — a period that has coincided with lampooning of his contentious daily press briefings on “Saturday Night Live.”
“There needs to be someone who gets up in the morning and doesn’t fight today’s battles but can think about the next week and the next month,” Bennett said.
Dubke is a veteran Republican media strategist and founder of Crossroads Media based in Alexandria, Va. Some Trump loyalists chafed at the idea of recruiting an establishment Republican operative with ties to strategist Karl Rove and other forces they see as having been hostile to Trump’s candidacy.
“How does this help serve the president’s interests?” asked one Trump insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and claimed to be channeling the views of several others in Trump’s orbit. “It serves the interests of Reince and Sean, but I don’t see how it serves the president’s interests.”
Trump also appears determined to move quickly to appoint a new national security adviser and move beyond the controversy that surrounded Flynn, who was asked to resign amid questions about his contacts with Russia and misleading Vice President Pence about the nature of a call with the country’s ambassador after the election.
On Thursday, news broke that Trump’s top pick for a replacement, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, had turned down the job offer. By Friday morning, Trump had taken to Twitter to share a shortlist, including retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who is currently in the job as acting national security adviser.
Spicer told reporters Saturday that Trump plans to talk to at least four candidates on Sunday, including John Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador; Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster; Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; and Kellogg.
The coming week also presents a chance for Trump to redo an executive order issued early in his tenure that temporarily barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees from entering the United States, ostensibly so officials could review and tighten screening procedures.
The program’s chaotic rollout was widely panned and court rulings have now put the order on hold.
Trump said administration lawyers are working on a new version that will be “tailored” to the concerns raised by the courts.
“We don’t give up. We never give up,” Trump told the crowd at his rally here. “We will do something next week. I think you’ll be impressed.”
Wagner reported from Washington. Philip Rucker and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.