Executive Branch

“It Wasn’t Me; It Was John Kelly”: Some Themes from Trump’s Press Conference

Jane Chong
Saturday, February 18, 2017, 2:37 PM

From Fox News to MSNBC, the press has panned President Trump’s Thursday solo press conference.

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From Fox News to MSNBC, the press has panned President Trump’s Thursday solo press conference. Predictably, most of the attention has centered on (1) his statements about the Michael Flynn investigation and the Russia “ruse,” (2) his continuing attacks on the media, including a personal one on the reporter who asked him about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks since the election, and (3) his inability to square the circle on whether the substance of the leaks he has been excoriating are “real leaks” or “fake news.”

But there’s other interesting stuff here.

From a national security perspective, it was notable that Trump is still unable or unwilling to distinguish general policy commitments from tactical-level military decisions necessarily kept out of public view. When asked how the White House plans to respond to recent Russian provocations—specifically, the secret ballistic missile test revealed this week and the Russian jet fly-by near a US destroyer in the Black Sea last week—Trump refused to respond, seemingly on the logic that doing so would tip off foreign powers or in some other way disadvantage U.S. interests.

His blanket insistence that "I don’t talk about military response" and sudden references to Mosul hearkened back to his remarks on the campaign trail in October, when he criticized the American-backed Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State for publicizing the attack instead of “mak[ing] it a sneak attack.” At the time, military experts and national security historians criticized him for failing to "demonstrate[] any understanding of warfare”—such as the distinction between strategy and tactics when it comes to the general need for the element of surprise. Either Trump is persisting in this lack of understanding, or he is using it as a general-purpose cover for avoiding the development of public stances on tough subjects like Russia. (Or maybe he was just blowing smoke.)

A few other less-discussed themes worthy of note:

Deals. Trump mentioned making, not making, having, not having, or doing a “deal” 16 times in his remarks. He invoked deals as promises he intends to make good on (bilateral, not multilateral, trade deals), as false media ploys ("I don't have any deals in Russia"), as a positive U.S. opportunity being actively undermined by the media ("the false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia"), and as a point of political comparison that underscores his negotiating prowess ("Putin assumes that he’s not going to be able to make a deal with me because it’s politically not popular for me to make a deal. So Hillary Clinton tries a reset. It failed. They all tried. But I’m different than those people.")

Bad cop/good cop, with moral overlay. The bad news is Trump threw DHS Secretary John Kelly under the bus as to the mess caused by his immigration executive order. The good news is that Trump may have been moved to do so by his recognition of some of the drastic dimensions of the botched rollout (and notwithstanding his insistence the rollout was "perfect" and “smooth”). Here’s Trump:

Now, what I wanted to do was do the exact same executive order, but said one thing. I said this to my people. Give them a one-month period of time. But Gen. Kelly, now Sec. Kelly, said if you do that, all these people will come in and (inaudible) the bad ones.

Trump’s alleged desire to “[g]ive them . . . time" suggests he has been made at least vaguely aware that there is decency in allowing travelers some forewarning of dramatic changes to U.S. immigration policy. Or I could be grasping for straws here.

As for the historical rewrite, that's something we probably should have seen coming—at least since Kelly stepped up to the public plate last week to take blame for the order’s failings, even going so far as to contradict the New York Times’ persuasive story that he was never in any position to halt the order, much less serve as the driver behind it:

Gen. John F. Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, had dialed in from a Coast Guard plane as he headed back to Washington from Miami. Along with other top officials, he needed guidance from the White House, which had not asked his department for a legal review of the order.

Halfway into the briefing, someone on the call looked up at a television in his office. “The president is signing the executive order that we’re discussing,” the official said, stunned.

At one other point in the press conference, Trump more explicitly sought to strike a human tone: when discussing the fate of Dreamers under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Without explaining his planned course of action, he emphasized his intended spirit, saying, “We’re gonna show great heart, DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids.”

Bad actors. Trump accused a full cast of characters with undermining or interfering with his "fine-tuned” White House machine, using language that makes for a helpful sketch of Trump’s major stress vectors and excuse vectors: these include the Obama administration, which allegedly left Trump with a “mess” to "inherit[]"; the obstructionist Senate Democrats, who have delayed confirmation of his cabinet nominees (and more specifically, Chuck Schumer, "and the mess that he’s got over there"); the DNC, which failed to protect itself against hacks for which Trump and the Russians are still getting flack; the fake news media, which "makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia”; Iran, "who's totally taken advantage of our previous administration” and is moreover “the world's top sponsor of terrorism”; Hillary Clinton, who got those debate questions in advance and gifted Russia 20 percent of our uranium; and the leakers, who could get us in real trouble when it comes to "really, really important subjects like North Korea."

Wheedling. As many others have noted, Trump took the opportunity of the press conference to repeatedly blast the “fake news” media for its “hatred” and its biased coverage. But that’s not all he did: he also appealed to the press to go easier on him, encouraging reporters with carrots like personal approbation. At one point he called on a reporter and said, encouragingly, “Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.” At another point, he praised a reporter’s silly softball question about Melania's work with the White House Visitors Office: "Now, that’s what I call a nice question. That is very—who are you with?... I’m gonna start watching, all right? Thank you very much." And in yet another exchange, in response to a neutral question about Trump’s urban agenda, Trump said: “That was very professional and very good.” (Reporter’s response: “I’m very professional.”).

Watching the dynamic play out was a disquieting reminder that the President’s significant power to bully individuals has a flip side to it: the power to wheedle, flatter, and cajole with overt promises of approval and potential access.

Jane Chong is former deputy managing editor of Lawfare. She served as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and is a graduate of Yale Law School and Duke University.

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