By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first gripe came three minutes into President Donald Trump’s first solo news conference on Thursday, when he accused reporters of ignoring a poll showing him with a 55 percent approval rating – a figure at odds with most other surveys.
From there, the president’s criticism of the media went from barbed to personal in a cutting assessment of what he viewed as unfair coverage of his first few weeks in office – a period that has seen a succession of crises.
On a day when he ceded a loss over a signature policy in a federal appeals court, had to replace his labor secretary pick and faced questions over the resignation of his national security adviser, Trump chose to make the media a central focus of an unusually long and combative presidential news conference.
When asked by journalists of contacts between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives, he deflected the questions and put the focus instead on what he described as “illegal” government leaks and “dishonest” media coverage.
“The press is out of control,” he said. “The level of dishonesty is out of control,”
After weeks of disclosures in newspapers over turmoil in his administration, he told one reporter to “sit down” for a rambling question.
“Tomorrow, they will say: ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press,'” Trump said. “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time
Trump’s message in the 77-minute session appeared aimed at the same voters who elected him president last November, a large number of whom feel Washington has left them behind and who like his image as an outsider trying to shake up the establishment.
He sought to cast problems buffeting the White House as “the mess” he inherited from former Democratic President Barack Obama, and boasted about the “fine-tuned administration” he is running.
In one unusual exchange near the end of the news conference, Trump called on a questioner, asking if he was “a friendly reporter.”
When the journalist asked about recent threats to 48 Jewish centers across the country and signs of rising anti-Semitism, Trump appeared to take the question personally, replying: “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
He added he was also the “least racist person,” told the reporter to be “quiet,” accused him of lying and then dismissed the question as “insulting.”
‘HOW DOES PRESS GET THIS INFORMATION?’
Most opinion polls show Trump struggling with low approval numbers less than a month into his presidency. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Feb. 10 to 14 gave Trump a 46 percent approval rating.
While many presidencies have started off on rocky ground, Trump’s administration has been particularly marked by controversies, fights with the media and a legal battle over an executive order to ban people temporarily from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“I turn on the TV and open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos, chaos. And yet, it is the exact opposite,” Trump said.
Trump waved away questions about a New York Times report that members of his campaign team had frequent contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials last year.
His main complaint was that the news media had uncovered leaks about intercepted communications between Michael Flynn, ousted this week as national security adviser and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kisylak, and leaks about his own conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
“The first thing I thought of, how does the press get this information?” he asked.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney)