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Deny, deflect: Trump comes out swinging in first news conference as president-elect

Donald Trump was combative and in control at his first news conference in months on Wednesday, sticking to his campaign formula – boasting of his successes, cracking jokes and slamming media he considers hostile.

Journalists sat elbow to elbow, knee to knee in the crowded marble lobby of Trump Tower, clamoring with question after question nine days before the Republican is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Branding as “fake” an explosive and unsubstantiated report that claims Moscow holds deeply compromising information about him, Trump picked more than a dozen journalists to ask questions on topics dominated by Russia, but extending to healthcare, tax cuts and conflict of interest.

It was vintage Trump: the former reality star and billionaire tycoon who loves nothing more than setting straight the record – as he sees it – praising some media outlets and laying siege to others.

Through it all he pitched himself directly to his voters, raising his right hand or jabbing his right index finger to hammer home a point and glossing over details at one point as “very complicated stuff.”

It was standing room only, the lobby back decorated with a blue curtain and 10 US flags, and considerably larger than the briefing room at the White House where Trump will face the media post-inauguration.

There were props and visuals: a table groaning with stacks of files over which he waved his arm as evidence of the steps he was taking to isolate himself – but not divest – from his company.

His smartly dressed adult children stood to his right. Key aides such as son-in-law Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon watched from the left.

A smattering of supporters on the sidelines whooped and applauded when Trump landed particularly funny or biting blows.

His performance is a tried and tested formula: deny and deflect.

No sooner had he admitted – in a first – the Russian hacking of US targets ahead of the election, than he deflected back to attacking his former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.

He began with politeness and praise for The New York Times and other outlets he previously criticised, for pushing back against the unsubstantiated political research report claiming that Russia holds compromising information about him.

There was also defiance, as he called the intelligence services “disgraceful” for allowing “fake” information to be released to the public, saying it was “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”

He assailed a CNN reporter, refusing to take his question, pointing his finger straight at the network’s White House correspondent.

“Quiet,” he snapped at the reporter. “I’m not going to give you a question,” he said. “You’re fake news.”

He trashed BuzzFeed, which published a copy of the unverified report, as “a failing pile of garbage.” “Another beauty,” he said of the BBC when one of its reporters asked a question.

And on the dossier itself, he came out swinging, presenting himself as a wise guy well versed against potential spying on foreign hotel rooms, be they in Russia or anywhere else.

“Does anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much of a germophobe by the way. Believe me,” he said to more laughter – his hygiene obsession stuff of legend – apparently referring to a detail in the report about supposed sex videos involving prostitutes.

‘You’re fired’
Then there was condescending Trump. “Oh gee, I never heard that before,” he sniped when a reporter pressed him on his tax returns – which he continues to resist releasing.

Added to the mix was the hyperbole. “I will be the greatest job producer that God ever created,” he said.

Then were the snippets of Trump vanity such as comparing his wealth to that of Nelson Rockefeller, vice president in the 1970s, and demonstrations of his apparent altruism for the American people.

For example, he claimed to have turned down a $2-billion deal last week in Dubai while his lawyer revealed that he would funnel payments from foreign governments to his hotels into the US treasury.

Then there was the “financial loss of millions of dollars” that he and his children had forgone by terminating pending deals at the Trump Organisation after winning the election.

Rather than personally present his plans to isolate himself from his Trump Organisation, he brought out Sheri Dillon, partner in Washington law firm to do so, as he stood to the side.

After a whirling hour of back-and-forth with the press, the end was sudden and abrupt: a joke at the expense of his sons, Donald Jr and Eric, who will run his company during his presidency.

“I hope at the end of eight years I’ll come back and say ‘oh, you did a good job.’ Otherwise I’ll say you’re fired!” – AFP

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Jennie Matthew
Matthews is an AFP New York correspondent. Previously in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Sudan and Middle East

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