Presidents complain that the news media ignore the big stories. Newspapers and TV outlets demand greater access to the chief executive.
But the contentious, insult-laced news conference that Donald Trump engaged in Tuesday may take presidential-press relations to an entirely new level.
Speaking to reporters from Trump Tower in New York, ostensibly to detail the veterans’ groups he raised money for in January, a testy Trump turned a 40-minute appearance into a litany of complaints against the political press, at one point dismissing an ABC News reporter as “a sleaze.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee castigated reporters for asking him to account for the $6 million he’d said he had raised in January after skipping a Fox News debate to host a telethon-like event.
News organizations reported in recent weeks that Trump’s efforts had fallen short of the $6 million he’d touted in January and some organizations had yet to get checks.
Trump said Tuesday that $5.6 million and counting had been raised, including a $1 million personal contribution, and he blamed the media for asking about the money.
“Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump,’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone’s saying, ‘Who got it, who got it, who got it?’ ” Trump said. “You make me look very bad. I have never received such bad publicity for doing such a good job.”
He read off a list of veterans’ groups that he said had gotten contributions, stopping occasionally to accuse reporters of persecuting veterans groups by calling them to see whether they’d gotten the money.
“There were a couple of people who were really disgusting,” Trump said of reporters.
At one point, he turned over the microphone to a supporter, New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Marine Corps veteran who defended Trump and said he’d taken the time to see that the money did not end up with scam artists.
“I think the liberal media – and I’ve been dealing with you a long time – need to get your head out of your butt and focus on the real issues,” Baldasaro said.
Told by one reporter that he had “set a new bar” for combativeness, Trump, who often castigates the news media at campaign events, acknowledged that if elected he’d treat the White House press corps in a similar fashion.
“Yes, it is going to be like this,” said Trump, who has suggested that if elected president he also would try to loosen libel laws. “If the press writes false stories . . . I’m going to continue to attack the press. I find the press to be extremely dishonest. I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest.”
More than once, it was personal: “I’ve watched you on television. You’re a real beauty,” he told CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked Trump whether the questions about the contributions weren’t part of the scrutiny of running for president.
It’s largely unprecedented for candidates to assail the press but it’s part of Trump’s approach, said Stephen Hess, an aide in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and an adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
“The press is no different. It’s how he treats anyone who gets in his way,” said Hess, who studies the presidency at the Brookings Institution, a research center.
Indeed, Trump, who has acknowledged that his wife and daughter have pleaded with him to act “more presidential,” suggested that he’s unlikely to stop leveling insults at fellow Republicans, even though last week he sewed up the 1,237 delegates needed to seal the GOP presidential nomination.
“I have a Republican that’s not on my side, why should I be particularly nice to the person?” he asked.
That includes New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has declined to endorse Trump and whom he criticized last week.
“She was not nice,” he said. “You think I’m going to change? I’m not going to change.”
Trump’s media critiques help inoculate him with his supporters against news reports “that point out his factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “He says to followers, ‘You can’t trust the press because reporters are dishonest.’ ”
Jamieson, too, sees no comparison in history, even with President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who despised the press.
But Jamieson said the fact that Trump held news conferences, even if he aggressively parried with reporters, was important and allowed voters to make judgment calls.
Likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, by comparison, has talked with reporters and granted interviews but has not held a full, open news conference in months.
“The press has the capacity to hold government accountable, and press conferences give it the chance to perform that function,” Jamieson said. “To some extent he’s maintaining a structure of accountability even as he berates those who would hold him accountable. I’d worry more about candidates who don’t hold press conferences at all.”