Saturday 21 September 2019

Half-truths, self-praise, cruelty - the showman basks in spotlight

You’re hired: Donald Trump in his element at a White House press conference
You’re hired: Donald Trump in his element at a White House press conference

Ben-Riley Smith

The essence of Donald Trump's free-wheeling, mesmerising press conferences can be captured in the moment before he selects a question.

Eyes narrowing behind the podium, the US president more often than not raises the index finger of his right hand but then pauses, surveying the room.

Journalists push their hands into the air as high as possible. Shouts of "Mr President, Mr President" follow. Sometimes reporters jump to their feet in the hope of selection.

And Mr Trump watches. Only for a second or two, but longer than other world leaders do. Sometimes he twirls his finger in indecision. And then the arm comes down, selecting the winner with a 'you're hired' flourish.

This is where Mr Trump, the first reality TV star turned president, appears most comfortable - with a rapt audience of the nation's press before him and a microphone close by. He is in his element.

Looking back, 2018 was the year of the Trump press conference. He turned the sessions into something of an art form, words tumbling in a monologue that veered between boasts, recriminations, half-truths and denials. Or perhaps a new endurance sport - they often lasted 90 minutes.

As a correspondent based in Washington DC, I have been lucky enough to attend some of the most memorable. There was Singapore, when he unexpectedly bussed reporters to Sentosa Island moments after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had left with his bodyguards, for a triumphant question and answer.

There was Helsinki, where he caused uproar alongside Vladimir Putin by saying he saw no reason why Russia would have meddled in the 2016 US election. (Days later Mr Trump clarified, saying when he said "would" he meant "wouldn't".)

And there was Chequers, Theresa May's countryside retreat, where the president was all charm as he rebuilt bridges after a bombshell interview with 'The Sun', declaring the UK-US relationship was "the highest level of special".

Each engagement has its own quirks, but there is a common thread - Mr Trump the showman, utterly at ease in the spotlight and willing to give his view on anything. His most eye-catching press conferences - the ones that last an hour-plus, like the day after November's midterm elections - tend to come when he feels he has something to sell.

On that occasion all the elements of Mr Trump's routine were on display: the glowing self-praise, the blanket rejection of criticism, the fierce attacks of the media, plus some vicious spats with reporters.

Mr Trump's jokes are often self-aggrandising or have a demeaning edge. At Chequers, Mr Trump interrupted a balding hack with the line "you've got a good head of hair", urging him to take his hat off and show the crowd. It was cruel, but people sniggered.

The president also has a much-repeated skit in which he muses from the podium about whether he is the best ever president, or just the best in recent history. Normally he accepts that 'Honest Abe' Lincoln is top, but puts himself a close runner-up.

Another thing that stands out is the candour. This is evident on television but even more so in person. With Mr Trump, there is almost no filter. His answers to questions may be warped, bullish or just plain inaccurate, but more often than not they reflect what he is thinking.

For a reporter, it can work wonders - pick the right question and the president could walk straight into a story. The examples are too many to list, but one from early November springs to mind.

Mr Trump was asked if he was going to sack cabinet members after the midterms during a brief press huddle as he left the White House. Normally, a world leader would parry, reluctant to create negative headlines before a crucial election. But not the current US president. "Administrations make changes usually after midterms and probably we'll be right in that category," he responded, pouring fuel on the fire of speculation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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