Donald Trump’s first presidential press conference Thursday was ... something else. He ranted, he raved; he denied he was ranting and raving, which is even more bizarre than actually ranting and raving. He bragged again about his (unimpressive, flukish) 306 electoral votes. He repeatedly brought up, unsolicited, his election opponent and repeated his campaign points against her, something essentially unheard of among post-election, let alone sworn-into-office, presidents (they might, as Trump did, dwell on problems they inherited, but personal campaign attacks are normally immediately forgotten the second the networks call the election). He got major and minor factual things totally wrong.
Then there was the bit about how a “nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” And the bit in which he awkwardly (to say the least) asked a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus for him.
He gave incredibly convoluted answers about press leaks, news stories, and his firing of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — apparently we are to believe that the leaks were accurate, the news stories about them were not (something about the tone of reporters), and Flynn had to go because he didn’t give an accurate answer to Vice President Michael Pence about something that didn’t matter because Flynn didn’t do anything wrong anyway. No, none of that makes sense.
So what’s going on here (and by the way, Trump does deserve credit for holding a proper and wide-ranging press conference; it’s slightly late compared with other presidents, but add the bilateral opportunities and he’s at or ahead of the pace recent presidents have set)?
For one thing, we’re seeing something that isn’t new, but that we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan: A president who has his own version of facts, a version which his staff can’t or won’t get him to give up, and so they have to clean up after him. That actually happened earlier Thursday when UN Ambassador Nikki Haley corrected what the president said in his last press appearance, reassuring everyone that the United States still supported a two-state solution in the the Middle East.
The difference between Trump and Reagan is that Reagan had clear overall policy preferences, which everyone in his administration was well aware of, so when he got things wrong in public it didn’t really lead to all that much internal confusion (and Reagan during most of his presidency had a solid White House staff structure available to translate for him). What does Trump really believe, if anything, on Russia and Israel and China? No one, including the State Department and other foreign policy and national security portions of the executive branch, has any idea. He keeps talking about “a deal” as if foreign policy was a one-time negotiation over a TV contract or bankruptcy procedure. Foreign policy isn’t like that.
As far as Trump himself? It’s a dangerous game to read into the president’s moods and motivations and body language, but he’s practically begging everyone to try. The striking thing about Thursday’s appearance was that Trump began with an uninspired reading of a prepared statement, but then really picked up steam during a (very long) back and forth with the press corps. It’s hard not to imagine that this is how Trump always imagined the presidency. Indeed, it’s hard not to imagine that Trump believes that the portions of the presidency that are for show, the meetings with CEOs and the Oval Office photos with foreign leaders and the press conferences, are the essential core of the job. Not, for example, carefully reading briefing papers in order to figure out what tough questions to ask those who are briefing him, or dealing with the details of policy choices.
Granted, that’s all speculative and could easily be wrong. What is clear, however, is Trump is nowhere closer to demonstrating even vaguely adequate levels of knowledge of public policy and how the government works than he was during the campaign, which makes him a very dangerous man in the presidency.
Speaking of speculation: A lot of people are going to tell you either that Thursday’s wild press conference was a horror show that will destroy him with voters, or that no matter what the press thinks this was the Trump that people like and the reason he won the election. Try to ignore all of that. Single presidential appearances (in midday, when normal people are at work or otherwise occupied) don’t change anything. In fact, even multiple presidential appearances don’t do much; for the most part, those who don’t like Trump won’t like what they learn of Thursday’s press conference, and those who do like him will like it.
Given that he’s unpopular (at record lows for a new president, but only modestly unpopular overall), more people likely will dislike than like what they see. Long-term change will happen based on events. It won’t matter what kinds of nonsense Trump gives about the jobs situation he inherited or about what he’s doing about it; what will matter is whether the job market stays strong, gets stronger, or reverses. The same with every other area of policy. And it won’t matter whether or not Trump calls his White House a “ fine tuned machine”; what will matter is whether it remains factionalized and each faction runs to the press with stories about their rivals and the president, or not. It will matter whether he sheds staff every few weeks.
And it will matter whether the scandals fizzle out or grow larger.
This part of the presidency? He can do some damage when he gets his own policies wrong, and he can probably remind some on-the-fence voters what they like about him, but it’s the substance of the presidency which matters. For the former reality star, this was just more show business.
Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.