When Donald Trump gathered the press at Trump Tower 20 months ago to announce his unlikely candidacy for president, he reportedly paid actors to fill the marble lobby and cheer.
Not much — and everything — has changed since.
On Wednesday morning, when the president-elect once again faced hundreds of reporters from around the globe gathered in his lobby — this time for his first press conference in seven months — Trump filled the room with paid staffers who clapped and cheered as he blasted members of the media as purveyors of “fake news.”
It was Trump’s method of battling back an extraordinary report that U.S. intelligence officials have presented both Trump and President Barack Obama with unverified allegations that Russia has compromising information about the incoming 45th president, including about a reported salacious encounter in a Moscow hotel room.
With three of his grown-up children, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and members of his senior staff looking on from the sides, Trump framed the anticipated barrage of questions about his connections to the Russians as a referendum, instead, on the untrustworthy media, seated in seven rows of plastic folding chairs in front of him.
The Greek chorus of loyal, paid staffers in the back of the room boosting Trump with their hoots and cheers also served as a reminder, of sorts, of the movement of Trump backers happy to take him at his word and jeer the media as the out-of-touch liars.
“It’s very familiar territory, news conferences,” said Trump, who has been more visible on Twitter than in person since Election Day, as he took the podium. His long absence was the media’s fault, he said, not his. “We stopped giving them because we’re getting quite a bit of inaccurate news,” he said, before calling Buzzfeed, the website that published the full 35-page unverified dossier of allegations against Trump, a “failing pile of garbage.”
“Fake news” became the running theme of the hour-long press conference, which peaked with Trump refusing to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta and yelling at him, “I’m not going to give you a question. You’re fake news.” CNN broke the story on Tuesday about the intelligence briefings, which implied Russia could potentially be in a position to blackmail Trump.
Twitter gasped, but his Greek chorus cheered.
“Do you honestly believe that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Putin than me?” Trump asked at another point. Some staffers in the room responded to the rhetorical question, yelling out, “No!”
And they cheered again when Trump jeered sarcastically at a reporter who asked if he planned to release his tax returns. “Oh gee,” the president-elect said, employing a verbal eye roll, “I’ve never heard that before. The only ones who care about my tax returns are the reporters. I became president.”
The press conference, his first as president-elect, was a dry run of sorts for how Trump can be expected to interact with the press corps in the White House briefing room.
And while it foreshadowed major clashes with news outlets that publish critical stories about Trump — Trump continuing to be Trump — it was also a more formal, less gawdy affair than the press-savvy incoming president has put on in the past.
There was no walk-on music, for instance, as there was during Trump’s presidential announcement. That day, he entered the lower lobby of his Tower via the now-famous escalator with wife Melania at his side and played standards from the musical “Cats” over the sound system.
This time, Trump, without Melania in tow, was delivered to the press via elevator, a little after the scheduled 11 a.m. start time. He called on reporters himself and wrapped up the news conference after 58 minutes when he decided he had had enough — instead of relying on an aide to shut things down, as many politicians do.
Even though he entered the press conference under fire on Wednesday, Trump still appeared more comfortable when he was running the room than when he was standing to the side as a bystander. Trump ceded the podium in the middle of taking questions, so his attorney Sheri Dillon could outline at length the steps Trump is planning to remove himself from the day-to-day operation of his real estate business. But without the spotlight on him, Trump appeared to grow distracted, whispering to his stone-faced daughter, Ivanka, and sipping water from a plastic bottle.
If the cheering staffers created a sense of support for Trump as he denied any collusion with the Russians during the campaign and promised to get Mexico to pay for his wall, the scene outside was a reminder of the other side of the coin. Protesters holding up signs likening the Trump-Pence team to a “fascist regime” lined up across Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower in protest.
With nine days to go until Inauguration Day, the spectacle may be one of the last one that unfolds on Trump’s home turf in midtown Manhattan, between the Gucci and Bulgari stores. Next up, he will be occupying the people’s home, and confront the press in less familiar, more intimidating surroundings. Despite the fireworks, Trump promised things would settle down before Inauguration Day, which he previewed as “an elegant day.”
“We have a movement,” he said. “It’s a movement like the world has never seen before.”