On Wednesday, Donald Trump came to do battle.
The night before, his predecessor had stridden out onto the stage of a Chicago convention centre to the thrumming beat of U2's City of Blinding Lights: a rousing 21st-century anthem by a globe-straddling pop band from Ireland, heralding the conclusion of Barack Obama's globally inclined, inclusive presidency.
So it was curious to note that, as dozens of journalists waited Wednesday morning at Trump Tower for the president-elect to hold his first news conference in six months, they were treated to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, an iconic fife-and-drum number penned in November of 1861 to rouse the Union troops during the early months of the U.S. Civil War, the lyrics of which begin: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
The president-elect has struggled since his victory last November to appear presidential, beset by both outside troubles and those – such as his Twitter attacks of various celebrities that apparently have even some of his own supporters shaking their heads – of his own making. According to polls, the American public disapproves of the job he has done explaining his policies and plans for the future. Twitter may work to get his message out, but many Americans still look to traditional outlets and symbols of power for reassurance.
Though Mr. Trump has given interviews since his election with a number of press outlets, including CBS's 60 Minutes and The New York Times, Wednesday's event was a chance for him to bid for greater legitimacy through a traditional channel (if an increasingly creaky one in the era of social media): taking questions from an array of reporters. It was, simultaneously, an opportunity for the press to reassert itself and demonstrate its resolve after months of appearing to twist in the wind following his election victory last November.
But if Mr. Trump's stagecraft – the vintage soundtrack evoking a premodern America, the 10 U.S. flags crowded into the TV frame behind him, a seal on the podium with a picture of the White House trumpeting "The Office of the President Elect, New York, New York" – sought to frame him as a man with the gravity of the office he is about to assume, new circumstances and his own instincts quickly dashed that image.
He was preceded to the podium by Sean Spicer, his new White House Secretary, who blasted the press for reporting Tuesday night on unverified allegations suggesting that the Russian government holds incriminating personal and financial information that could make Mr. Trump a target of blackmail. Mr. Spicer spoke angrily of "fake news" and "flimsy reporting" and said the entire episode was "frankly shameful and disgraceful." Vice-president-elect Mike Pence followed, charging that the reporting "can only be attributed to media bias."
In contrast, Mr. Trump began in a relatively pleasant tone, opening with a rambling off-the-cuff statement that evinced a wincing good cheer. Greeting the press like a former opponent he had slayed, he said that he was in "very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis," but that "we stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news." After months of battering the press on Twitter, he praised the profession, saying, "I have great respect for the news, great respect for freedom of the press and all of that."
But, deploying the same sort of divide-and-conquer strategy he used during the campaign (and which he is said to use in the Trump Organization), Mr. Trump noted that his praise was predicated on the decision of certain outlets, such as The New York Times, to refrain from publishing the full dossier of allegations that broke Tuesday night. On the other hand, BuzzFeed, which did publish the dossier, was, he said, "a failing pile of garbage."
When reporter Jim Acosta from CNN, which broke the story that intelligence chiefs had briefed him and President Barack Obama on the allegations, tried to ask a question, Mr. Trump snapped, "Quiet. Quiet. I'm not going to give you a question. …You're fake news!" A BBC reporter tried to follow up, and Mr. Trump muttered, "BBC, that's another beauty."
Even when Mr. Trump took questions, he rarely offered anything substantive, repeatedly falling back on phrases from the stump that had played better amid friendly crowds in large arenas and town halls. Asked for specifics about his replacement for Obamacare, he demurred. Asked about the myriad potential conflicts-of-interest facing his cabinet appointees, he demurred, instead praising his picks as "brilliant." Asked whether he might finally be releasing his tax returns to prove that he does not, as he asserted during the press conference, have any impending deals in Russia, he snapped, "You know, the only one who cares about the tax returns are the reporters."
"You don't think the American public is concerned about that?" the reporter replied.
"No, I don't think so," Mr. Trump replied. "I won!"