U.S. President Donald Trump mounted an aggressive defence of his month-old administration Thursday, castigating the media for uncovering possible ties between his associates and the Russian government and for portraying his White House as a place in turmoil.
In a combative news conference that went on for 78 minutes, Mr. Trump insisted "this administration is running like a fine-tuned machine" and derided reporters for publishing "fake news" that says otherwise.
"I'm not ranting and raving. I'm just telling you. You know, you're dishonest people," Mr. Trump said. "I love this. I'm having a good time doing it. But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be: Donald Trump rants and raves. I'm not ranting and raving."
The session was a return to the sort of off-the-cuff speeches that were a hallmark of Mr. Trump's campaign rallies . While such performances read as bizarre to Mr. Trump's opponents, they excited supporters who saw him as a straight shooter who would rock the political establishment.
Since taking office last month, Mr. Trump had dialled back his communications style. At his joint press conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week, for instance, he delivered a measured and brief statement about the U.S.-Canada relationship and limited reporters to four questions.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump went back to his unscripted style. Careening from subject to subject, the President appeared to be trying to take back control of the narrative after a chaotic few weeks by telling his supporters not to believe anything the media is reporting about him.
Instead, he insisted the real problem is the high-level leaks in government – revealing everything from the Russian connections to Mr. Trump's berating of world leaders on private phone calls – which he said were "criminal" and vowed to track down those responsible.
Mr. Trump will take his message back to his supporters Saturday with a rally in Melbourne, Fla., where he will look to shore up support with the kind of mass event that served him so well during the campaign.
The President's fledgling government has been rocked by a steady stream of troubles, from revelations that intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Mr. Trump's associates and the Russian government before the election to reports of infighting among his staff to the messy rollout of an immigration ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries that has been suspended by the courts.
Even as Mr. Trump was speaking Thursday, federal government lawyers halted attempts to get the ban reinstated, telling a court in Seattle that Mr. Trump will instead issue a new executive order next week.
But the President insisted everything was going just fine.
"I haven't made a phone call to Russia in years. I don't speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn't – I just have nobody to speak to," Mr. Trump said.
Pressed on whether anyone on his campaign team had been in contact with the Russian government, Mr. Trump was less definitive.
"I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does," he said.
Mr. Trump also defended Mike Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned earlier this week after it was revealed he had spoken with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions on Russia last year. The discussion took place before Mr. Flynn took office, when the Obama administration was still in power and in the middle of laying additional sanctions, which means Mr. Flynn may have broken the law by engaging in unauthorized negotiations and undermining the U.S. government.
The President said Mr. Flynn was "a fine person" and "what he did wasn't wrong" when he spoke with Mr. Kislyak; Mr. Trump said he only demanded Mr. Flynn's resignation because Mr. Flynn misled Vice-President Mike Pence about the discussions.
In explaining why he wanted a better relationship with Russia, Mr. Trump warned that being too hard on Moscow would lead to a "nuclear holocaust."
He also falsely accused Hillary Clinton of "giving Russia 20 per cent of the uranium in our country" when she was secretary of state, said illegal drugs "are becoming cheaper than candy bars" and claimed to have received the largest number of electoral college votes since Ronald Reagan, even though three other subsequent presidents received more votes than Mr. Trump.
When a reporter pointed out that former president Barack Obama received 332 electoral votes in 2012, Mr. Trump said he had meant only that he had racked up the largest total for a Republican since Mr. Reagan. When the reporter pointed to George H.W. Bush's 426 votes in 1988, Mr. Trump replied: "I don't know, I was given that information … I've seen that information around" and asked the reporter to agree that at least Mr. Trump's victory was "substantial."
In two particularly uncomfortable moments toward the end of the conference, Mr. Trump first told a Jewish reporter to "sit down" mid-question before insisting, "I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life," then asked an African-American reporter if the Congressional Black Caucus were "friends of yours" and if she could set up a meeting with them for him.
At one point, Mr. Trump appeared to acknowledge that, despite his public antagonism with the media, they have been a vital method of getting his message out – a reference that may have explained what he was attempting to do with the news conference.
"The tone is such hatred. I'm really not a bad person, by the way," he said. "I do get good ratings, you have to admit that."
With a report from Joanna Slater