The session with reporters was traditional only in that recent presidents have also held one on the day after a midterm vote, typically using it as a way to frame the changed legislative dynamics, to spin events a little, or a lot, and express humility about a loss before explaining how they plan to learn from the setback.
George W. Bush said Democrats gave him a “thumpin’” in 2006. Barack Obama called his first midterm referendum, in 2010, a “shellacking.”
Bill Clinton said “we are ready to work together to serve all the American people in a nonpartisan manner” when he began his news conference before the same East Room tableau after Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Trump took a different approach, describing election results viewed by most as a mixed bag, at best, for Republicans as a total victory.
“It was a big day yesterday. Incredible day,” he said at the beginning of his remarks. “And last night the Republican Party defied history to expand our Senate majority while significantly beating expectations in the House.”
For the president, Wednesday was a blaring siren that he’ll continue business as usual, Trump-style, even as he said he would “love to see unity and peace and love and any other word you want to use.”
The most contentious moments centered on race and questions concerning whether Trump had divided the nation in the final days of the campaign by using language, including about African American gubernatorial candidates and a group of Central American migrants, that many called offensive.
When reporter Yamiche Alcindor of “PBS NewsHour” asked the president whether by identifying as a “nationalist” he also was embracing the label “white nationalist,” he shot back “that’s such a racist question.”
“To say that, what you just said, is so insulting to me,” Trump responded to Alcindor, who is black. “It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”
Alcindor remained standing and continued asking her question. She later noted on Twitter that her question was “fair & timely” considering that the executive director of Identity Evropa, a white-nationalist group, posted photos of himself on Twitter visiting the White House grounds.
Trump later denied recent accusations from his former lawyer Michael Cohen that he made racist comments in private. “I would never do that, and I don’t use racist remarks,” he said before saying of the reporter asking the question that “it’s people like this that cause division.”
When April Ryan, an African American reporter for American Urban Radio, shouted out a question about alleged voter suppression, Trump said: “Sit down. I didn’t call you.”
He then threw the question of voter suppression back at reporters.
“I’ll give you voter suppression. Take a look at the CNN polls, how inaccurate they were. That’s called voter suppression,” he said.
Trump also engaged in an extended verbal tussle with CNN reporter Jim Acosta over Trump’s characterization of a caravan of Central American migrants heading to the United States as a danger and an invasion.
The war of words morphed into a physical tug of war over a handheld microphone when a White House employee sought to pull the device away from Acosta. It was an attempt to shut down a back-and-forth that began with the reporter asking Trump whether he had “demonized immigrants in this election.”
The exchange ended with Trump saying CNN should be “ashamed” to employ Acosta.
“You are a rude, terrible person,” Trump said.
When the next questioner, NBC’s Peter Alexander, defended Acosta, Trump informed him: “I’m not a big fan of yours, either.”
Later in the evening, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that Acosta was disrespectful to a White House intern “by placing his hands” on her during the news conference and to fellow reporters, and that his press pass was being suspended until further notice.
The president spent a good portion of his opening remarks discussing his desire to work with House Democrats and their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), saying “it really could be a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation.”
Trump was then asked whether he could “compartmentalize” his anger over likely Democratic-led investigations into his administration and still “continue to work with them for the benefit of the rest of the country.”
“No,” Trump replied. “If they do that, then it’s just — all it is, is a warlike posture.”
The president also decided to rub salt in the wounds of members of his party who were defeated Tuesday night, arguing the reason they lost wasn’t because of his unpopularity in their districts but because they tried to distance themselves from him and “didn’t want the embrace.”
“You had some that decided to: ‘Let’s stay away. Let’s stay away.’ They did very poorly. I’m not sure that I should be happy or sad, but I feel just fine about it,” Trump said.
He listed the reprobates by name — “too bad, Mike,” he said of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who was unseated by a Democratic challenger in the kind of moderate suburban district where Trump is unpopular.
“Mia Love gave me no love,” he said of Utah Rep. Mia Love, who is trailing in a race that has yet to be called. “And she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”
He then touted how popular he is with Republican voters.
“What we stand for meant a lot to most people, and we’ve had tremendous support, and tremendous support in the Republican Party, among the biggest support in the history of the party,” he continued. “I’ve actually heard at 93 percent, it’s a record, but I won’t say that, because who knows? But we’ve had tremendous support.”
Bush holds that record — 99 percent.
Trump’s pique and criticism were too much for Rep. Ryan Costello (Pa.), one of the House Republicans who chose to retire this year rather than defend an endangered seat. Trump had let fly on those lawmakers, too.
Costello tweeted from his personal account as the news conference was going on, defending colleagues who lost their seats and saying he was “disgusted” by Trump’s performance.
“To disagree & separate from POTUS on principle & civility in ur campaign; to lose bc of POTUS & have him piss on u,” Costello wrote, “Angers me to my core.”
But Trump refused to take personal responsibility for any role his inflammatory rhetoric has played in the nation’s corrosive public discourse or the losses Republicans suffered in the House.
He assigned blame elsewhere.
“Hopefully the tone can get a lot better,” he said, “and I really believe it begins with the media.”
Elise Viebeck and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.