WASHINGTON — President Trump, revealing an unusually high degree of sensitivity to news coverage for a White House occupant, repeatedly excoriated the media in a hastily called, rambling press conference Thursday and pledged to hunt down and prosecute government leakers.
The president struck back strongly against negative characterizations of his administration’s early struggles, while disclosing that he has asked the Justice Department to investigate sources of embarrassing, blockbuster leaks about his aides’ contacts with Russia.
Although Trump provided few details while responding to questions about Russia, he did say that ‘‘nobody that I know of’’ on his campaign staff had contacted Russian officials.
In the freewheeling, hour-and-15-minute session, he also said he has a plan to get his promised repeal of Barack Obama’s health care law, which is stalled in Congress, back on track. And he said he plans to reveal next week a ban on refugee immigration to replace his first, ill-fated order that is tied up in federal courts.
He portrayed himself as battling mightily to clean up the previous administration’s problems.
“To be honest, I inherited a mess,’’ Trump said.
Trump sparred with reporters, branding a frequent foe, CNN, as “very fake news” and saying the “level of dishonesty” from the press was “out of control.” At times, he seemed to revel in the spotlight, using a flippant tone on somber topics, at one point off-handedly mentioning and then dismissing the possibility of firing missiles at a Russian ship that is near the American coast.
Trump has long seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the media, a complicated approach that he has now brought with him to the pressure-cooker of one of the most powerful offices in the world.
But he has experienced multiple setbacks in his first weeks in office, from a rocky rollout of his travel ban for immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries; to the forced resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn; to the withdrawal of his Department of Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder in the face of Republican opposition. His stream of sometimes inflammatory tweets — which began on Thursday morning, for instance, at 4:58 a.m. — also generate daily news coverage and shock in the nation’s capital.
While the damage has mostly been self-inflicted by a new president and a White House team that has little government experience, Trump made clear Thursday that he sees negative coverage of his administration as a central barrier to his presidency’s success.
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos. 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,’’ Trump said.
“The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way,’’ he added during one of many diatribes in the press conference.
Throughout, Trump made clear he watches news shows and reads articles, often citing specific stories and their authors.
Trump sought to debunk reports on his campaign’s contacts with Russia inthe “failing New York Times’’ and another in The Wall Street Journal about intelligence officials limiting the content of presidential briefings. He added that he was trying to speak directly to the American people and to bypass the media filter.
“The public doesn’t believe you people anymore,’’ he told the assembled reporters in the East Room.
A reporter called out President Trump on his faulty electoral college math
Trump attempted to explain why he demanded Flynn’s resignation after it was revealed that Flynn discussed Obama administration sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States on Dec. 29, while the former president was still in office. Many details still remain unknown about the episode, including why Vice President Mike Pence did not learn the truth behind Flynn’s call until The Washington Post reported it last week. Pence had appeared on national TV more than three weeks before the Post report and, based on Flynn’s personal assurances, told the public that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with Russia.
“He didn’t tell the vice president of the United States the facts. And then he didn’t remember. And that just wasn’t acceptable to me,’’ Trump said.
But Trump said that he saw nothing wrong with Flynn talking to the Russian representative about sanctions in the first place, although a federal law called the Logan Act could prohibit such communications, depending on what was said.
He also branded media coverage of Russia — apparently referring to Russia’s hacking and influence on the election in his favor, to his campaign’s reported contacts with Russian intelligence officials — as “fake” and “a ruse.”
“Russia is fake news. Russia — this is fake news put out by the media,’’ he said.
Trump also responded angrily to a question about whether he or his administration has inspired a wave of anti-Semitism, citing his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person,’’ he said. “I hate the charge, I find it repulsive.’’
But again and again, Trump’s preoccupation with media coverage seeped into his responses. He dropped more than 35 media-related insults, according to informal tallies.
Even when someone asked a softball question about Melania Trump reopening the White House visitors’ center, he denounced the press.
“She’s been apologized to, as you know, by various media because they said things that were lies,’’ he said.
The announced subject of the news conference was to name his new pick to head the Labor Department — Alexander Acosta, who would be the first Latino in Trump’s Cabinet.
Immediately after the press conference, Trump’s campaign committee sent an e-mail — evidently prepared in advance — that doubled down on his line of attack.
“You know that I don’t trust the media to report on anything we achieve,” said the e-mail, written in Trump’s name and including a survey full of loaded questions about media coverage of Republicans and conservative issues. “Instead, you — the American people — are our last line of defense against the media’s hit jobs.”
Trump raises spectre of ‘nuclear holocaust’ amid questioning over Russia
On the subject of leaks to the media, Trump said he was upset about disclosure of his calls to Mexico and Australia, as well as intelligence leaks about his associates’ contacts with Russia. He suggested the leaks were coming from holdovers from the prior administration, and said he has asked the Department of Justice to investigate.
“What happens when I’m dealing with the problems in the Middle East? Are you folks going to be reporting all of that very, very confidential information?”
“Those are criminal leaks,’’ he said. “I think you’ll see it stopping because now we have our people in.’’
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, at one point seeming to encourage Russians to hack his Democratic rivals.
Trump has some backing for leak investigations in Congress, but it is not uniform support. Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Bob Goodlatte, who leads the House Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice inspector general calling for an investigation into leaks of classified information.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has also called for an investigation into leaks.
Breaking from members of his party and the White House, Republican Senator John McCain said that, while the scale of the leaks from this White House are unprecedented, he was more concerned with the information they provided.
“The way this town operates is on leaks, we all know that,” McCain said. The White House “needs to start going through a regular process of decision-making, and that’s what they’re not doing. Who is making the decisions?”
The Arizona senator, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and a decorated veteran, dismissed concerns that the leaks could endanger national security. The news stories prove, from a national security perspective, that the White House is currently “dysfunctional,” McCain said.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” McCain said. “We’ve never had a national security adviser tell false information to the vice president of the United States.”
Trump has plenty of precedent to look to in seeking to stop information leaks. His Democratic predecessor pursued action against about 10 leakers, more than past presidents combined, said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“From a president’s perspective, a leak is often an act of defiance and an obstacle to effective leadership,” Aftergood said. “So the outrage [from Trump] is normal and unsurprising.”