US President gives heated defence of first month in office

Reporters raising their hands to ask Mr Trump questions during his first solo press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
The first gripe came three minutes into US President Donald Trump's first solo news conference on Thursday, venting frustrations and insisting that he is "not a bad person" in what observers described as a remarkable one hour, 16 minute ask-me-anything appearance. Here's a sampling of what took place.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST
Reporters raising their hands to ask Mr Trump questions during his first solo press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Reporters raising their hands to ask Mr Trump questions during his first solo press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

The first gripe came three minutes into US President Donald Trump's first solo news conference on Thursday, venting frustrations and insisting that he is "not a bad person" in what observers described as a remarkable one hour, 16 minute ask-me-anything appearance. Here's a sampling of what took place.

ON THE RESIGNATION OF NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER MICHAEL FLYNN

US President Donald Trump offered the first account of his decision to fire Mr Michael Flynn, for misleading Vice-President Mike Pence and others in the White House about the contents of a conversation that the former national security adviser had with Russia's ambassador in December last year.

He said he was not bothered that Mr Flynn spoke with the ambassador about US sanctions on Russia, even before arriving at the White House. "I didn't direct him", Mr Trump said, "but I would have directed him because that's his job."

The problem, he added, was that Mr Flynn told Mr Pence that sanctions did not come up during the conversation - an assertion belied by a transcript of the call, which had been monitored by United States intelligence agencies.

"The thing is he didn't tell our Vice-President properly, and then he said he didn't remember," said Mr Trump. "So either way, it wasn't very satisfactory to me."

ON CONTACTS BETWEEN HIM OR HIS OFFICIALS AND RUSSIA

The New York Times reported earlier this week that phone records and intercepted calls showed repeated contacts between some of Mr Trump's associates and Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.

Mr Trump said the reports that his campaign aides and other associates had contacts with Russia were "a joke" and "fake news put out by the media".

"Russia is a ruse," he said. "I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does," he added.

Mr Trump also said all the pressure on Russia might ruin any future negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Putin probably assumes that he can't make a deal with me any more, because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal."

ON IMMIGRATION CURBS

"We had a very smooth roll-out of the travel ban. But we had a bad court, we had a bad decision," Mr Trump said, referring to a decision by a federal court in Washington state to suspend the travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

When a BBC reporter asked if he would accept the roll-out as a good example of his administration's "smooth running of government", and whether there were any mistakes, Mr Trump interrupted the reporter, saying "wait, wait, wait".

He went on to say that it was a "very smooth roll-out", and instead blamed the courts and Delta Air Lines for having "massive computer problems" when the ban was rolled out. He insisted that the roll-out was "perfect."

ON HIS FLEDGLING PRESIDENCY

For a president who has already lost a court battle, fired both an acting Attorney-General and a national security adviser, and lost a Cabinet nomination fight, Mr Trump was eager to demonstrate that he is still in command.

He attacked the media and Democrats for obstructing his nominations, and denied being anti-Semitic, even when no one accused him of it.

With the latest Pew Research Centre poll showing that only 39 per cent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, Mr Trump at one point plaintively pleaded for understanding.

"The tone is such hatred," he said, referring to a commentary about him on cable television. "I'm really not a bad person."

He insisted that his new administration was not a chaotic operation but a "fine-tuned machine". He also said he had inherited a mess.

"It's a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country," said Mr Trump. "The press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control," he added. "I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos - chaos," he said. "Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can't get my Cabinet approved."

ON HIS ELECTION VICTORY

In a heated moment during the news conference, Mr Trump's command of facts was openly challenged by a reporter who asked: "Why should Americans trust you?"

The issue was the margin of victory in the US Electoral College, which Mr Trump had asserted earlier in the news conference was the "biggest" since fellow Republican Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1980 and 1984.

Mr Trump had 304 electoral college votes compared with defeated candidate Hillary Clinton's 227 votes. Seven electors voted for someone else.

"We got 306 because people came out and voted like they've never seen before, so that's the way it goes," said Mr Trump.

A quick check by a reporter at the news conference showed that former president Barack Obama, a Democrat, amassed more electoral votes in 2008 (365) and 2012 (332). In 1988, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, drew 426 electoral votes.

Mr Peter Alexander of NBC News stood and corrected Mr Trump. "Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they've received of being fake when you're providing information that's not accurate?" asked the TV correspondent.

Mr Trump seemed to blame his staff. "I was given that information," he replied. "Actually, I've seen that information around."

He then called on another reporter to ask another question.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'US President gives heated defence of first month in office'. Print Edition | Subscribe