Every past US president, when they traveled abroad, has served as a sort of brand ambassador for America — touting the country’s greatness and working to advance its priorities on the world stage.
Donald Trump, during a news conference Thursday in Poland, proved for the umpteenth time why he is unlike all of those people.
He insisted over the weekend, via Twitter, of course, that his conduct in office was “modern day presidential.” And if ever there was a definition of what “modern day presidential” means to Trump, this news conference was it.
He attacked the media as “fake news.” He refused to say definitively that Russia was behind the meddling into the 2016 election. He attacked former President Barack Obama for “choking” when confronted with intelligence regarding Russian hacking. (And yes, this is the same intelligence that Trump questioned and undermined when he refused to say that Russia was, without question, behind the hacking of the presidential election.)
In a speech following the news conference, Trump struck a far more statesman-like tone — highlighting the long and proud history of the Polish people and the shared commitment to democracy from Poland and the United States. The difference? Trump largely stuck to the script of his speech. In the news conference, he free-wheeled far more.
And if you closed your eyes and just listened to Trump at the presser, you could easily imagine him speaking at one of his campaign rallies rather than in a foreign country. Bashing Obama. Bashing the media. And, most importantly, continuing to reject the conclusions of the FBI and the CIA that Russia was the prime mover in attempting to meddle in the 2016 election.
“I think it could very well could be Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries,” Trump said during the news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. “I think a lot of people interfere.”
The problem here is that the intelligence community has spoken with a united voice that this was a Russian operation — and, by all accounts, a very successful one.
In his testimony in front of the Senate intelligence committee last month, fired FBI Director James Comey was asked by Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, whether he had any doubt that “the Russian government was behind the intrusions” into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “No, no doubt,” Comey responded.
In January, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said this: “It’s pretty clear about what took place, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and have an impact on American democracy. It is something that America needs to take seriously.”
Despite that conclusive evidence, Trump has been extremely circumspect about blaming Russia — despite urgings from many in his party to do so. He ramped up that commitment to inconclusiveness on Thursday by voicing it not only in an international setting but doing so just one day before he is set to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany.
Then there is Trump’s willingness to continue his ongoing war with the media while abroad — and not just abroad but in a country where freedom of the press has been considerably curtailed in recent years.
The first question Trump took in Thursday’s press conference was from David Martosko, the US politics editor for DailyMail.com and a man who was once mentioned as a possible press secretary in this White House. And it was focused on CNN’s alleged “fake news” coverage of the president.
Past presidents traveling abroad might have deflected the question, acknowledging that the press didn’t always get it right but pivoting to a broader defense of the absolute necessity of a free and independent media.
“I think what CNN did was unfortunate for them,” he said. “As you know, they now have some pretty serious problems. They have been fake news for a long time. They have been covering me in a very dishonest way.”
After asking the Polish prime minister whether they had that same problem with the media — Nota bene: Recent crackdowns on the Polish media have led to the country dropping from 18th in 2015 to 54th in 2017 in the World Press Freedom Index — Trump offered up another broadside on the American media:
“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 is 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.”
That’s Trump aggressively undermining the free press while in a country that has worked to stifle media dissent in recent years. That’s truly remarkable.
Trump, time and again during the first six months (or so) of his presidency, has shown that he is already a president like none other that has come before him. Today’s press conference in Poland may well be the single best example of just how different Trump really is and just how committed he is to accentuating rather than downplaying those differences.
Thursdays press conference was pure Trump. And pure “modern day presidential.”
Analysis by Chris Cillizza