MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now it’s time for our trip to the Barbershop. That’s where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what’s in the news and what’s on our minds. Joining us for a shape-up today are Mary Kate Cary. She’s a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She’s also a columnist at U.S. News and World Report as well as a senior fellow for Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Corey Ealons is with us. He’s worked in communications both on Capitol Hill and in the Obama White House. Now he’s a partner at VOX Global, a public relations firm here in Washington, D.C. And also with us NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Welcome, everybody, so glad to have you all here.
MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having us.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.
COREY EALONS: Good to be here as always.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I don’t know about you. I’m still trying to digest everything that happened this week – President Trump’s national security adviser forced to resign over the way he characterized his contacts with Russia, Trump’s labor secretary pick Andy Posner, the CEO of a fast food chain, forced to withdraw when it became clear he didn’t have enough support in the Senate. President Trump apparently had another candidate ready to announce for that job – Alexander Acosta, who will happen to be the first Latino in this Cabinet.
And then all of this came together at a press conference on Thursday where Mr. Acosta was supposed to have been announced. He was announced. We didn’t see him. But the real agenda seemed to be this campaign-style press conference that went on for some 77 minutes where he attacked the media repeatedly, even softball questions. He demanded friendly questions, nice questions, he said. And he continued to make false claims about things like the size of his Electoral College victory. Now, I want to start with Mara because you were there. You were in the room where it happened.
LIASSON: Yes, I was.
MARTIN: And you asked the first question. And the reason I’m asking is sometimes the way these things come across depends on where you were watching it. Like if you are watching it if you’re in the room or you’re following it on Twitter or you’re watching it on TV, sometimes people have wildly different reactions.
Now, I note that, you know, commentators, even a center-right commentator like David Brooks called this mildly deranged and unmoored. So I wanted to ask you, Mara. What did it feel like sitting there? Did it feel…
LIASSON: Well, I think…
MARTIN: …Like something extraordinary was happening?
LIASSON: Yes. It did feel extraordinary, and I feel like, you know, we turned to each other and said this is one for the ages. I mean, it was clearly something that goes in the time capsule. And I thought it was an amazing display of a human being. Trump was very raw. You know, he was putting himself on the couch. He was frustrated and aggrieved and wheedling and combative, and sometimes he was pleading. He said at one point I’m really not such a bad person.
And, you know, embattled is a word that I think is thrown around a little too loosely for any politician in difficulties. But Trump is actually battling the intelligence community, civil servants all over the government, the press who he lambasted repeatedly. And by the end of the week, he was even tweeting, quote, “the press is the enemy of the American people.”
MARTIN: You know, Mary Kate Cary, let me just play this exchange briefly for people who, perhaps, had not – the three people who hadn’t seen at least some of this press conference. OK. And this is where he goes out of his way to say he wants a friendly question.
An Orthodox Jewish reporter – he calls upon him – the reason I’m mentioning that is that this reporter went out of his way to say I’m not calling you an anti-Semite, but he also said that there had been an increase in attacks on synagogues which is true and asks what the – Mr. Trump’s plans are to address it. And this was the exchange.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism – the least racist person. In fact, we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Unintelligible).
TRUMP: Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. See, he lied about – he was going to get up and ask a very straight, simple question. So, you know, welcome to the world of the media.
MARTIN: Mary Kate, I want to ask you what do you think is going on here?
CARY: I think it depends on whether you think he’s crazy or crazy like a fox. And lately, I’m leaning towards crazy like a fox because I think he’s a disrupter. He was elected that way, and he disrupted the narrative this week. He got his hands back on the wheel I think in his mind, and he tried to get the story off of Russia and all the things that were going poorly. And this press conference is all anybody’s talking about. And I think he knows if he lays the bait out there, people will take it.
MARTIN: Change the subject.
MARTIN: Basically change the subject.
CARY: Yeah. It worked.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Corey, what do you think’s going on here?
EALONS: You know what? It’s hard to say with this president, but anybody who was surprised by what we saw on Thursday or what we’ve seen for the first four weeks of this administration weren’t paying attention to the campaign for the first two – for the past two years. I mean, he is giving us – and his administration is giving us exactly what we thought we would get. And that is chaos. That’s been the word that’s been – that has described him most.
I mean, Mary Kate knows this. I know this. We’ve worked in the White House. There is an extraordinary sense of humility that comes with the job of working on behalf of the American people, and that’s the thing that seems to be missing from this president and this White House right now. And that humility is replaced with anger, insecurity and a sense of entitlement. And that’s – all we can do is hope that that will change sometime soon. But for right now, that’s what we got.
MARTIN: One of the stranger moments in this press conference came when President Trump was asked by reporter April Ryan. She actually at this point – she’s one of the veteran White House correspondents. I mean, she’s been there for quite some time, you know, at this point – is African-American, works for the Urban Radio Network. And she asked him about his plans to address inner-city concerns, and let’s listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
APRIL RYAN: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus…
TRUMP: Well, I would. I tell you what – you want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?
RYAN: No, no, no.
TRUMP: Are they friends of yours?
RYAN: I’m just a reporter.
TRUMP: No, get – set up the meeting.
RYAN: I know some of them, but I’m sure they’re watching right now.
TRUMP: Let’s go set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the Black Caucus.
MARTIN: Corey, I’m going to ask you about this because you worked on both the Hill and the White House. For people who don’t know, is that in fact how meetings get set up?
EALONS: No, no. Reporters are not in the business of setting up meetings or serving as intermediaries between the White House and members of Congress. So I think there were two things that were happening here. First of all, you have to appreciate the context of what was happening in the press conference. As it’s been said before, the president came to this event intentional.
His purpose was to let the media have it, and quite frankly to show members of his staff this is how you need to engage these folks. You need to shout them down. You need to put them in their place. But the second thing is you have to appreciate the context of some of the things that the president has said recently about Frederick Douglass speaking about him as if he were in the present – John Lewis calling him, you know, useless. This is one of most vaunted civil rights leaders in our history, a member of Congress.
MARTIN: And this means what to you?
EALONS: That calls into question and the fact that he’s shouted down a African-American member of the press corps and assumed that because she mentioned a Congressional Black Caucus that there was something there. So it reads into it, again, his lack of sensitivity understanding and appreciation for issues of concern to the African-American community, but also over-assumptions about about how Washington works. He still hasn’t figured that out yet.
MARTIN: Mara, can you jump in on this because Corey says that he thinks in part this press conference was about to show his staff how he thinks they should be dealing with the media. You obviously – you talk to the staff as well, as well as you – as we said, you did give the first question here. Do you think that’s true?
LIASSON: I think that’s partly true. I think that he was frustrated that all the people on his staff who’ve been out defending him as surrogates aren’t doing a good enough job, and he wanted to do it himself. And I think this was cathartic for him. I think the purpose of it was to make himself feel better and to try to regain the narrative to a certain extent. And I think, you know, what Corey said is true that here we are two days later talking about it. This – we’re not talking about the fact that taxpayers are paying $10 million in one month to protect his family. They paid $100 million over eight years to protect Obama. We’re not talking about Russians so much. We’re talking about his incredible press conference.
But, you know, I like to say this is reality television without the television, which is a weird thing to say about Donald Trump who is television. But reality is reality, and, yes, you can distract or redirect the media narrative, but the fact is right now Gallup has him at 38 percent approval. That’s down from the 46 percent he won with. Maybe he’s already at his floor, and it’s only been a month.
MARTIN: That – you know – and this leads me to where I wanted to go next (unintelligible). I want to ask you, well, what do you think this means? Because, as you said, Mara, you know, we actually debated whether we should talk about this two days later. And we decided we would just because there are so many different reactions to this. I’ve seen in the conservative press some people say, you know, what media? Stop whining, put your big boy pants on. So what? He says mean words to you. So what?
We’ve also seen people on the progressive kind of liberal, the avowedly, you know, progressive activist kind of liberal wing saying, essentially, the same thing that this is all about distraction. This is the tool of – some people have gone so far as to say this is the tool of a demagogue which is always looking for an enemy. Don’t be fooled by this. So I want to ask you to the degree you feel comfortable given your professional responsibilities, what do you think it means? And what should – first of all, do you think – is there a way in which this could be a positive? And what does this mean going forward?
CARY: I’d have to say – I come somewhere in the middle in that I don’t think things are as great as the Trump supporters say they are. I don’t think it’s a finely tuned machine right now. But I also don’t think it’s quite as terrifying as many on the left would lead us to believe. I do think if you’re an advocate for press freedom and transparency, Obama – President Obama regularly averaged I think eight questions per press conference. This was 40 plus questions on 17 different subjects.
He’s got these Skype seats now. The big picture for the press is actually pretty good in terms of accessibility and asking of questions. It’s the Twitter war, the shiny, bright things, the bait that he rolls out, and the press takes it every time.
MARTIN: Well, but here’s – I think the deeper question here – the deeper question that some are asking is is this more than a distraction, but rather a way to de-legitimize other democratic institutions that could pose as a counterbalance to him? That is I think the question that some are asking. Mara, do you want to jump in on this?
LIASSON: Yeah. I want to jump in because I don’t know whether that’s its intent, but I can tell you I don’t think it’s happening. I thought – I give him credit. Up until now, he was getting criticism for taking in the two and two press conferences with foreign leaders, always going to the friendly news outlets. He didn’t do that on Thursday. He answered everybody’s questions. He stood there for an hour and whatever it was – 11 minutes. That was incredible. And I thought that this is actually the way it’s supposed to work. People called him out when he said something false about his Electoral College victory, and he had to say, oh, oops, well, I was given that information. So you saw a president being held accountable.
That’s what the press as an institution and democratic society is supposed to do. So in that sense, I think that’s good and positive. But I think – and I do think there is a lot of whining from the press, but he hasn’t put us out of business yet – or he hasn’t tried to. He hasn’t passed new libel laws. And I do think in the end – and I agree so much with Mary Kate about the shiny objects – let’s keep our eyes on the bottom line. He’s going to be judged by traditional metrics, even though he’s a disrupter. It’s going to be how many jobs did he create? Did he reopen those factories in the Rust Belt? Did he keep us secure from ISIS? All those things – that’s what he’s going to be judged by in the end.
MARTIN: Corey, what do you think about that?
EALONS: Well, I think you have to appreciate who this president is. I mean, this is a guy to his credit who rates himself based on numbers whether it’s TV ratings, whether it’s polls, whether it’s the number of people who show up at a particular rally or the inauguration. So he uses metrics to measure himself. The problem is the metrics to this point of this administration have not been in his favor.
And because – I’m no psychologist by any means – but because of the – what appeared to be the inherent insecurities associated with this guy again, he has the lowest margin of victory in the electoral votes of – in recent history. He lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. He continues to say that he lost the popular vote because of five to 6 million illegal votes. So he continues to try to distract and also cast blame for things that are happening that aren’t his fault. It’s always someone else’s fault. The question we have to ask ourselves…
MARTIN: In fairness, I do recall hearing quite a lot about the George W. Bush administration’s economic failures well into the Obama administration to be fair.
EALONS: Absolutely right. And that is fair. But at the end of the day, how – we weren’t even talking about Obama. We’re just talking about other things.
MARTIN: OK. OK.
EALONS: Not even the president, not even the president. It’s the media’s fault. It’s someone else’s fault. The question we have to ask ourselves is right now he has placed an emphasis on the bully in bully pulpit, and that’s a problem for the American people because it speaks to the tone. And right now we’d have to see if he’s going to have a communication department or a ministry of information which is the Russian model.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mara, I’m going to give you the last word on this. And so are there substantive questions that remain even after the 77-minute press conference about particularly – the issues that are of particular interest the contacts between his administration or his campaign with Russia etc…
LIASSON: Oh, there are…
MARTIN: …Are there substantive questions that remain?
MARTIN: And what are they?
LIASSON: Yes. There are tremendous substantive questions. He says that he didn’t direct Mike Flynn, but he would of if he could’ve. I asked him the question in my follow-up, well, why did you keep Vice President Pence in the dark? That’s still an unanswered question. He knew about the Flynn contact on January – he knew that Flynn had misled the vice president on January 26. But Mike Pence found out about it two weeks later from reading a newspaper article.
There’s lots of questions about his policies. There’s questions about China. You know, why did he flip on the one-China policy? He said he’d only do it if he got something from China. What did he get?
MARTIN: All right. We got to leave it there for now. That’s Mara Liasson, NPR political correspondent. Mary Kate Cary was with us, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, columnist at U.S. News and World Report. Corey Ealons – former communications aide in the Obama White House, a partner now at VOX Global, a public relations firm. Thank you all so much for joining us. More to come.
CARY: Thank you.
LIASSON: Thanks for having us.
EALONS: Thank you.
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