Sometime after he doubted the character of George Washington (“Didn’t he have a couple things in his past?”), urged a wire-service reporter to ask a tough question (“Give it to me, Reuters!”) and referred to a Kurdish correspondent as “Mr. Kurd,” President Donald Trump paused to directly address the dozens of journalists who had gathered for a rare solo news conference.
“Can you imagine,” he said, “if you didn’t have me?”
Trump denounces news organizations as “the enemy of the people.” His supporters turned “fake news” into a political rallying cry. And the daily White House press briefing is all but a thing of the past.
But in 80 minutes today, Trump made clear he is never more comfortable, never more engaged, than when he is sparring with the news media he loves to say he hates.
Back on his native turf — a hotel ballroom in midtown Manhattan, five blocks from Trump Tower — the president strolled onto the stage like a prizefighter eager for the opening bell. An hour later, his enjoyment of the occasion had only increased.
“I could be doing this all day long,” Trump said happily, after an hour of challenging, cajoling, teasing and shouting down the reporters in the room. “Should we do some more?”
He worked the crowd. Instead of merely calling on Steve Holland of Reuters, Trump called him “a high-quality person,” adding, “Now he’ll probably hit me with a bad one.”
He showed off his media knowledge. When a Sky News correspondent asked a question, Trump congratulated her on the company’s recent acquisition by Comcast. “I hope you benefited,” he told her.
And in true “Apprentice” style, he urged audience participation. When Hallie Jackson of NBC News pressed him on a follow-up, Trump mockingly tried to leave her at the mercy of the crowd.
“Should I let her ask another question?” he asked her assembled colleagues, who shouted their approval. “OK, go ahead.”
The exchanges were a reminder that Trump, who rose to fame in the Manhattan tabloids and as a star on reality TV, often views his interactions with journalists as a role-playing exercise: the put-upon commander in chief facing down an army of nit-pickers, with an eye toward the viewers at home.
Even inside the ballroom, Trump’s Catskills one-liners and discursive riffs prompted a mix of gasps, shaking heads and stifled laughter. The George Washington material earned a few genuine guffaws.
When Mark Landler of The New York Times raised his hand, Trump agreed to call on him, “in honor of a paper I once loved.” That earned some groans.
“We’re kind of thriving, not failing, these days,” Landler said.
“Oh, you’re doing very well,” the president said. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Trump.’” (“I think I’ll stop short of that,” Landler replied.)
Toward the end, Trump drove home the metaphor of news conference as performance. Musing on when he should wrap up, the president invoked a favorite artist of his, Elton John: “He said, ‘When you hit that last tune and it’s good, don’t go back.’”
But if Trump’s sarcastic tone was meant to leaven the proceedings, he could not escape the gravity of current events.
The journalists who asked questions zeroed in on the serious topics of the day: global trade; U.S. relations with China, North Korea and the Middle East; as well as a Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, imperiled by mounting allegations of sexual misconduct.
And reporters withstood the president’s attempts to interrupt. Weijia Jiang of CBS News, told repeatedly by Trump to “sit down,” remained standing until he acquiesced and answered her question, about how his views of Kavanaugh were affected by the misconduct allegations that he himself has faced.
Of the moments that lit up social media, however, “Mr. Kurd” was tough to top.
Calling on a reporter he had never seen before, Trump asked the journalist about his background. “I’m a Kurd,” came the reply.
“Great people,” Trump said. “They’re great fighters. I like them a lot.” The exchange prompted a presidential soliloquy on the Kurdish people, with Trump calling on another reporter from the region: “Yes, please. Mr. Kurd. Go ahead.”
That reporter’s real name is Rahim Rashidi. He is a correspondent for Kurdistan TV, and, in an interview afterward, he pronounced himself thrilled at all the attention.
“I love it!” he said of the new nickname. “He made me happy by this sentence.”