Speaking at times in a gangster’s vengeful whisper, a visibly whipped yet red-hot President Donald Trump met the press for almost 90 minutes Wednesday to proclaim victory in the midterm elections in which Republicans lost the House but increased their hold on the Senate. Why was Trump so agitated? The loss was expected, as was the victory.
What the press and viewers didn’t know was that Trump—despite doing it weekly on The Apprentice—had just done something he hates to do: He had fired—or set into motion the firing of—Attorney General Jeff Sessions, information that wouldn’t be made public for about an hour after the presser’s klieg lights cooled. Like the gambler coming home after losing his shirt at the racetrack, Trump was hungry to spend his fury on someone or something. Knowing how much better he would feel after shouting “Excuse me! Excuse me!” at chattering reporters and ordering them to sit down, he made certain to call on his nemesis Jim Acosta from CNN in the early going.
Acosta loves taking the role of the pest whenever called on to play a live scene with the president. Usually, the president is happy to oblige him and Wednesday was no exception. Trump interrupted Acosta’s opening question (a technique he uses to destabilize his questioners)—“Here we go,” said a pleasingly peeved Trump. Quickly the two were verbally wrapped around one another like mating snakes, correcting and disputing each other’s statement about the migrant caravan. “The caravan is an invasion,” Trump said. “It is not an invasion,” countered Acosta. “Thank you for that information,” Trump sarcastically interrupted after Acosta defined the caravan as a “group of migrants moving up from Central America to the U.S.”
Despite decades of wrestling with the media, Trump continues to treat them as if they were his employees. It would not be out of character for Trump to pause during a news conference to ask Jonathan Karl of ABC or Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post to run over to the briefing room’s vending machine and get him a Diet Coke. For Trump, Acosta is the most insubordinate of all his employees—somebody he fires daily in his mind. Acosta, who interprets all the attention he wins by rattling Trump’s cage as evidence of his journalistic persistence, proceeds as if he’s the shop steward who could never be canned. At the Wednesday presser, Acosta was prepared to conduct a sit-down strike if that was what was required to pin down Trump.
“I think that I should run the country and you run CNN,” Trump growled, and cut him off. “That’s enough.”
The problem with Acosta’s journalistic method is that when asking questions he rarely accomplishes enough to demonstrate whether he’s a crusading, never-take-no-for-an-answer reporter or just a grandstander. As Trump repeatedly told Acosta “that’s enough” over his new attempted questions and the tension in the room escalated, a White House press aide approached Acosta to relieve him of the microphone. Thereafter followed a brief and awkward tug-of-war over the mic—which Acosta won—and segued into another question, this time about the Russia investigation.
“Put down the mic,” Trump said. Continuing the sort of reprimand that precedes a sacking, Trump said, “I will tell you that CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. And you are a rude and terrible person, and you should not be working for CNN.” This chastisement did not quiet Acosta. Nor did Trump taking a question from another reporter who began by defending Acosta. “Well, I am not a big fan of you, either,” said the president. Acosta, still standing, attempted to verbally defend himself as Trump called him and his network a purveyor of fake news and an enemy of the people.
And so it continued, with Trump cutting off reporters and telling them to sit down or telling one reporter that her question about whether his statement about nationalism actually emboldened white nationalism was “racist.” Continued Trump when asked about allegations that he’s used racist language, “I don’t use racist remarks. If I did, you people—you would have known about it.”
The clowning and buoyant Trump that we’ve come to know so well from the MAGA rallies was absent from the press except for two moments. In one, Trump spoke to his off-screen economic adviser Larry Kudlow as though Kudlow was Ed McMahon to his Johnny Carson—“Where is Larry? You are a young man, right, Larry … ” Later, he turned a reporter’s question about whether Mike Pence would repeat as his running mate in 2020 into a sort of reality-TV marriage proposal. He instructed Pence to stand and asked him if he would stay on the ticket. The answer was yes. All that was missing from the scene was the kiss cam.
Picking up a recent theme of his invention, Trump accused the press of creating divisions in the country by asking questions like the one about white nationalism. When asked if he was going to follow-through on his promise to soften his tone, Trump again blamed the press. “I really believe it begins with the media,” he said, boxing himself into a sullen corner of nonresponsibility for his actions.
In Trump’s mind, nothing is ever his fault, nothing is ever his responsibility, and no buck ever stops at his desk. What he wants and he needs and he gets from reporters like Acosta are the lines of dialogue that allow him to play the abused when he’s usually the abuser. “I do have the right to fight back because I’m treated very unfairly,” an exasperated Trump explained at the end of the presser. “I do fight back, and I’m fighting back not for me. I’m fighting back for the people of this country.”
Trump was trying to sound heroic, patriotic and put-upon in his closing remarks. But when you’re the star in a Punch and Judy show with reporters, it’s hard to come off as anything but comic.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine