My ringside view of Donald Trump’s latest attack on the media
When the president roared at CNN’s Jim Acosta on Wednesday the room froze
On Wednesday morning, as most journalists in Washington were waking bleary-eyed from the marathon midterm election count of the night before, the White House announced by email that Donald Trump would hold a news conference at 11.30am.
Like many journalists I decided to make the trip down to Pennsylvania Avenue.
After the usual queues at the northwest gate of the complex – members of the press corps are required to give their details in advance for a background check by the secret service – we entered and waited by the entrance to the press room in the West Wing for the final call. The mood was good-humoured as people chatted, swapping war stories from the night before and dissecting the results.
At 11.15am we walked up the grand steps of the White House and took our seats beneath the shimmering lights of the East Room. Shortly before noon Trump entered along with Mike Pence. As is customary, everyone in the room, including reporters, stood as the president entered. As we sat down I was about 3 metres away from Trump to his right in the second row. Directly in my line of vision were Mike Pence, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other senior officials.
At first the mood in the room was curiously subdued. As he read from a prepared script Trump spoke quietly, evidently disengaged from the text he was reading. Even as he spoke of how his party had made the largest Senate gains since John F Kennedy, and the “incredible” governor wins in Ohio and Florida, his tone was muted. But as the Q&A session began his mood changed.
Unlike most press conferences, where a spokesperson or moderator fields the questions, Trump likes to manage his own. With no coherent pattern he picked out journalists – mostly men – who shouted questions. It was soon becoming clear that this would become the sort of freewheeling stream-of-consciousness press conference for which Trump has become known.
As the questions came thick and fast, he came to CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was sitting directly in front of him in the front row. Acosta began by saying he wanted to challenge the president on something he had said on the campaign trail, and Trump interjected: “Here we go.” From there the situation escalated.
As Trump roared at Acosta to “sit down” the room froze. It was the most aggressive intervention by the president in any press conference to date. It felt like we were onlookers to a brawl that was about to break out in a bar, fuelled by raw anger. At one point Trump stepped back from the podium, as if to calm, or maybe to prepare, himself.
As Trump turned to Peter Alexander from MSNBC he finally calmed down. The president seemed to settle as he answered a question on Democrats and crime. But he wasn’t finished. As the president’s attention continued to rove around the room, April Ryan from National Urban Radio Network tried to ask a question about voter suppression in Georgia. Trump shouted at her, pointing his finger: “Sit down. I didn’t call you.”
Like it has with Acosta, the Trump administration has frequently clashed with Ryan, one of the few African-American reporters in the press corps and also a CNN contributor. Trump then turned his focus to PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, who asked about his claim that he was a nationalist and whether that had emboldened white supremacists. “That’s such a racist question,” he said, his anger visibly building as he paced around the stage.
The press conference continued – for almost 90 minutes – but it was clear that all lines of questioning had been exhausted, all subjects covered. Trump looked a bit disappointed.
At one stage he interjected “Should we keep this going for a little while?” in a kind of meta-theatrical trick. “When you get bored, would you please tell me? Seriously, tell me, I don’t want to overstay,” he said with a smile as he turned for the next question, seemingly revelling in the spectacle.
Finally, he began to wrap things up. “I’m very honoured to be with all of you. It was a great day yesterday. It was a great evening. I think we had a tremendous success. Hopefully the tone can get better,” he said to those in the room, as if seeing them for the first time.
It was left for one journalist to pursue a final line of questioning. “How will you change that?” He paused a minute before replying quietly: “I believe it begins with the media. I do have the right to fight back because I’m treated very unfairly, so I do fight back. And I’m fighting back not for me; I’m fighting back for the people of this country.” He concluded: “Thank you all very much, thank you.”
And with that, the 45th president of the United States turned his back, stepped off the podium and strode out of the room. The press corps sat in disbelief.