THE MEMO: Pressure mounting, Trump goes on the offensive

President Trump’s surprise press conference Thursday was a clear attempt to turn the page on what has been a tumultuous start to his administration. 

But for all the flamboyant, combative and outright bizarre moments during Trump’s extended East Room confrontation with the press corps, questions about Russia are still crowding in on the president.

The hastily arranged event looked like an effort to change the subject after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned over a phone call with the Russian ambassador and The New York Times published allegations that Trump aides had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” in the year leading up to November’s presidential election. 

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The difficulties for the White House go beyond Flynn, with questions swirling about the administration’s competence and policies, the persistent leaks of damaging information and rumors of staff infighting.

At times, the president sought to frame allegations of Russian meddling within a broader framework of “fake news” and media malfeasance — jabs he threw over and over again in a news conference that lasted well over an hour. 

At one point, he described media focus on Russia as “a ruse.” Earlier he taunted the press that “you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all, you know, a fake news, fabricated deal.”

Intentionally or otherwise, the president also created plenty of water-cooler moments. 

He engaged in a prolonged verbal joust with CNN’s Jim Acosta; asked reporter April Ryan, who is black, if members of the Congressional Black Caucus were friends of hers; and asserted in one of many curious asides that “drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.”

When Trump sought to reconcile his assertion that he was the victim of false stories with his anger at people who have been leaking information, he came up with one of the most memorable soundbites of the news conference. 

“The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake,” he said.

While some reporters engaged Trump in a discussion of journalistic ethics and First Amendment rights, others pressed Trump on what connections, if any, existed between his campaign and Moscow. 

The president adamantly denied anything untoward, saying “nobody that I know of” had been in any such communication. 

On another occasion, Trump insisted: “I had nothing to do with it. I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there. I have no anything.”

But the issue is one that holds real peril for the president. It is unlikely to be put to bed anytime soon, especially with some of Trump’s Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill insisting that the matter needs to be fully investigated.

Trump defended Flynn in some respects and never made clear whether he believes the ousted national security adviser did anything wrong by raising the issue of U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. At the time, President Obama was still in office and had just announced the new measures in response to allegations of Russian interference in the election.

More generally, the fractious tone of the press conference did little to allay the sense that the Trump administration is struggling to right itself as it approaches the end of its first month. 

The president insisted in the early stages of his news conference that “this administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” But his tone at times undercut that message. 

Especially in the opening minutes, Trump seemed angry and resentful about media coverage that he clearly believes is unfair and a press corps whom he sees as unwilling to acknowledge the magnitude of his achievement in winning the White House. 

He returned once again to the scale of his victory in the Electoral College, just as he had during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. One of his most telling complaints came much later when he lamented, “Story after story after story is bad! I won! I won!”

Trump’s poll ratings are the worst recorded for a new president — a Pew poll released earlier on Thursday showed him with only a 39 percent approval rating — but the president instead emphasized a Rasmussen poll that put his approval a full 16 points higher.  

“The Rasmussen poll has me through the roof,” he said.

The ostensible purpose of the news conference was to announce Trump’s new pick for Labor secretary in the wake of Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal. But by the end of the East Room event, the selection of Alexander Acosta, the current dean of the law school at Florida International University, seemed like an afterthought.

Some of Trump’s most fervent fans expressed enthusiasm for his performance at the news conference. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity called it “amazing” and “a total beat down” on Twitter. 

But another anchor at the same network, Shepard Smith, had a very different take.

Trump, Smith said on-air, “keeps repeating ridiculous throwaway lines that are not true at all, and sort of avoiding the issue of Russia as if we’re some kind of fools for asking the question. Really?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEPA removes climate change page from website Trump claims millions in savings on Air Force One Presidents with the worst first 100 days MORE’s presidency.