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Donald Trump’s Forever Campaign

What we learned from his first press conference as president-elect — and why he hasn’t moved on from November

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

One hundred and sixty-nine days ago, Donald Trump held his last press conference before Wednesday. It was the day before Hillary Clinton accepted her party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Trump invited Russia — “if you’re listening,” he said — to hack into her emails. Those were simpler times.

On Wednesday, Trump gave his first press conference as president-elect, nine days before he is to take office and many weeks after presidents-elect typically address the media. The press conference provided one of the first meaningful looks at how President Trump might behave, so let’s consider what we saw.

The Eternal Campaign

Trump is still campaigning. He is still trotting out surrogates — in this case, his vice president, Mike Pence — to promise that the erstwhile Apprentice host will make America great again. He is still using Hillary Clinton as a foil. He is still cycling through the campaign’s talking points, announcing at one point in the press conference that he “will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”

Trump, who could so little bear his distance from the adulation of the campaign trail that he staged an unprecedented victory tour, seems to be setting out to wage a forever campaign. He’s shown little interest in easing into the gentler, broad-based populism and coalition-building that we’ve come to expect from presidents (and which Barack Obama has urged him to adopt). Instead, he’s continuing to play favorites with the people and entities that supported him, not once but twice singling out the states that voted for him in the election, promising them preferential treatment and protection of jobs in the coming years.

“Fake News” Is Meaningless

RIP, fake news, we hardly knew ye. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan called for a moratorium on the term this week, writing that while the term has a specific meaning — “deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public” — it has mutated into something else: a catch-all for lies and hoaxes as well as partisan news and items the speaker simply doesn’t like. (This comes on the same day that Facebook announced plans to introduce a program to increase the media literacy of its user base and stem the flow of fake news.) A case in point: When the Post published a PDF of a U.S. Army document about Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, last month, Flynn’s son — who has propagated many hoaxes, including Pizzagate — railed against the report on Twitter: “Another article by the failing FAKE news.”

And then there was Trump, shouting at CNN’s Jim Acosta, “You are fake news!” by way of refusing to answer his question. Trump accused the network of joining BuzzFeed on Tuesday in sharing details of an unverified report on the specifics of the compromising information that Russia may have regarding Trump. (CNN did not, in fact, do this.) Trump’s definition here is an outlet that has published a story whose facts he personally finds questionable. By reappropriating the term, he’s able to inoculate himself from the claims and cast entire publications into doubt in perpetuity.

Trust Only Trump

Yes: Trump, following his meeting on Friday with intelligence officials, finally conceded at his press conference that he believes Russia did direct cyberattacks against the Democratic Party, as both CIA and FBI chiefs have alleged. But Trump also made a point of singling out the intelligence community writ large, suggesting that it may have leaked the dossier that BuzzFeed published Tuesday as part of what he has described as a political witch hunt.

And then there was Trump’s uncharacteristic praise of certain media outlets. He opened by complimenting the editorial judgment of the news outlets that did not publish the BuzzFeed report. He not once but twice praised The New York Times in particular, calling the newspaper’s Wednesday story on his plans to replace Obamacare “actually pretty accurately reported.” Trump is drawing a distinction: He’s not anti-media; he’s anti-bad media.

In other words: Intelligence reports aren’t true unless he says they are. Media organizations aren’t trustworthy unless he says they are. Trust no one but Trump.

Carte Blanche

Trump believes that his victory is carte blanche to do whatever he likes. Pressed by a reporter to explain why he has continued to refuse to release his tax returns, he said that the only people who care about the issue are reporters. “You don’t think the American public is concerned about it?” the reporter asked, incredulous. Trump smirked. No, he said. “I won.”

Victory, then, is proof of total endorsement — a half-step, perhaps just an oath away from a similar ideology: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”