ANALYSIS | “I think I am an open book,” President Donald Trump said Wednesday. He made good on that pledge during a roller coaster press conference when he made clear he is spoiling for a “war” with House Democrats and the media.
Trump fired a shot across the bow, warning Democrats if they launch investigations into him, he will immediately go into a “war-like posture” that will ensure “nothing is done” in Washington. He sparred with reporters, barking at several to sit down while calling a CNN journalist a disgrace. He talked over reporters trying to ask questions and called an African-American PBS reporter’s question “racist.”
Presidents have stood in the same East Room or Rose Garden or White House briefing room over the years after losing seats in Congress or control of one chamber, as Trump did with the House on Tuesday. Most admitted mistakes, said they respected voters’ decisions and called for unity.
Not the “open book” president.
An ever-defiant Trump claimed victory and even ticked off a list of GOP candidates who lost because they refused “the embrace.” Read: His embrace. Trump simply was not going to pass up a chance to point out their resistance to what he described as his Midas touch on the campaign trail; he noted of the 10 GOP candidates for which he campaigned in the final days, “nine won.”
‘They will be blamed’
In a remarkable press conference that lasted 87 minutes, Trump sent message after message to House Democrats to tread carefully with their newfound investigative and subpoena powers.
“It’s all about deal-making. I believe we have a chance to get along very well with the Democrats,” he said, adding both sides “have a chance to get a tremendous amount of legislation.”
But should he be pushed and pushed into his promised “war-like posture,” Trump did not try to hide his possible communications strategy.
“If they investigate … nothing is done,” he warned. “And them being in the majority, I’m just going to blame them,” he said, remarkably just moments after extolling his contribution to expanding the GOP majority in the Senate.
“They will be blamed,” he said flatly.
Watch: Trump Declares Success in the Midterms, Spars With CNN Reporter
This came from a commander in chief who refuses to talk about military actions he might take, saying former presidents unwisely telegraphed their plans to U.S. enemies. Yet, he laid out his 2020 political battleplan on international television.
As the reality television star-turned-chief executive made threat after threat toward House Democrats and jousted with reporters from CNN, NBC, PBS and American Urban Radio Networks, his 2020 election messaging plan started coming into focus.
The president did not formally kick off his re-election bid Wednesday, but he continued efforts to put key pieces in place. For instance, he endorsed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to become speaker in the new Congress. In fact, he offered to press House Republicans to put her over the top in January if she lacks the Democratic votes to take back the gavel.
Pelosi is among the least popular Democratic figures with his conservative base. Just like other House Democrats. Just like the mainstream media.
Trump knows he will need that base to turn out in big numbers in enough states in two years to continue being president, a job he said Wednesday he enjoys. He said in the states he visited down the stretch, “my message was very well received.” For instance, Trump claimed to have helped Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is leading his race to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson — albeit by a razor-thin margin with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
Voters handing the House to Democrats changed nothing about Trump’s approach: It’s still all about his base. Results show college-educated white voters and women who have supported Republicans switched sides Tuesday. But Trump made no effort to reach out to them in his first public appearance since the midterms.
“Right now, public opinion is bolting in a liberal direction on … old-time New Deal issues — health care, more government programs, etc.,” said Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor. “This often happens.
“Public opinion usually moves in the direction opposite the new incumbent administration. But it is moving much faster right now,” he said. “It is those meat and potatoes issues that Democrats must focus on. If they do, they have a better chance to win.”
Experts expect Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls and congressional candidates will try to do just that. But the president, as he showed Wednesday, will do his best to ensure his second bid for the White House — like the midterms and like his 2016 race — are all about him.
“Trump is an extraordinary campaigner,” said Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and FDR were all presidents who were masters of the media of their day. But Trump is the master with his Twitter and the bullying style and just precipitating crises du jour it seems like every day. … He sets the narrative, the agenda every single day.”
Trump said Wednesday he would be open to taking a softer tone toward his political foes and the media.
“I think there’s going to be much less gridlock because of how this is going,” the president said. “I would like to have an easy tone. … I’d be very good at a low tone.”
But, he made clear, he just can’t do it.
“Hopefully the tone can get a lot better. I really believe it begins with the media,” he said, lecturing the packed room full of journalists. “I do have a right to fight back because I’m treated unfairly.”
He’s made his base feel they are, too — and that he’s fighting their fight against “the elite.”
Democrats doubt the brash New Yorker is going to change his style one bit. As a former spokesman to Nevada Democrat Harry Reid said: “Trump has proven he’s going to try new and creative ways to divide the country.”