President Donald Trump on Thursday handed the Senate a new Labor secretary nominee who has previously been approved by the chamber three times — but he used the next 75 minutes to rouse his base and goad his critics.
Trump walked into the East Room of the White House and announced that Alexander Acosta, a former assistant attorney general, will be his second pick to run the Labor Department after fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination on Wednesday.
White House officials acknowledged they simply lacked the votes to confirm Puzder, something the president was clearly mindful of in picking the dean of Florida International University. “He has had a tremendous career. He’s a member and has been a member of the National Labor Relations Board,” said Trump, wearing his signature bright red tie and cufflinks along with a crisp white shirt and dark suit.
“And [he] has been through Senate confirmation three times — confirmed,” he said, adding that Acosta “did very, very well.”
Political observers and even some reporters in the ornate room speculated that Trump, less than one month into his administration, was intent on “re-setting” his presidency. In recent days alone, he asked for the resignation of Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, and then GOP senators sank Puzder.
But Trump — once again — let the world know he is unlikely to change his style or back away easily from policy promises that, as he reminded reporters Thursday, helped get him elected.
“A president elected with only 46 percent of the American people should have a strategy of broadening his support or reaching out to those who did not support him in the campaign,” said William Galston, a former White House aide to Bill Clinton, now at the Brookings Institution. “Instead, President Trump is doing the exact opposite: Speaking only to the people who already agree with him — but speaking in a manner that is troubling to even many of them.”
It took about 30 seconds from his Acosta announcements for the president to begin criticizing Senate Democrats — and Trump was just getting started, also lashing out at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and the media.
The president noted the presence of Mick Mulvaney, his newly minted Office of Management and Budget director. The South Carolina Republican was confirmed earlier in the morning, and subsequently resigned from Congress. “I have to say that, weeks, weeks late,” Trump said, blasting Democrats for “delays” and “obstruction” of nominees.
“You’ve seen what they’ve done over the last long number of years,” the president said of Democrats, before declaring that his department and agency heads will make up “one of the great Cabinets ever assembled in American history.”
The amped-up president also defended what has been a rocky start to his presidency. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos” inside his inner circle, he said. “Yet, it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my Cabinet approved.”
Trump hammered Democrats at several points, saying “the only thing they can do is delay because they screwed things up royally, believe me.” He used the criticism as a way to pivot to a list of first-month actions he said he took to reverse Democratic policies and uphold “a promise I made to the American people.” Among the actions: pulling out of Barack Obama’s proposed trade pact with Pacific Rim countries, terminating regulations, and a “crackdown” on so-called sanctuary cities, among others.
He accused the media of reporting “fake news” even when the substance of materials given to news organizations are what he acknowledged are “real” leaks. “The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake,” he said in a head-scratching back-and-forth with CNN’s Jim Acosta.
The president declared his administration has made “incredible progress” since taking office Jan. 20, citing the performance of stock markets and a Rasmussen poll that has his approval rating at 55 percent — he did not mention other polls that have his disapproval ratings approaching that figure. For instance, Gallup’s daily tracking poll has him at 54 percent disapproval and 40 percent approval as of Wednesday, which largely mirrors a new Pew Research Center survey.
“To an extent I have never seen in my 71 years, President Trump appears to believe that his administration is running perfectly and that his only problem is the ‘dishonest media,’” Galston said. “Few outside observers agree with his self-assessment. I know I don’t.”
The longer he spoke during a sweeping and sometimes-raucous first solo press conference at the White House, the more animated Trump became. At several points, he verbally jousted with reporters, and told some to “sit down” as they attempted to ask more questions.
The president seemed excited to be able to flash his combative side, which likely will appear again on Saturday when he will hold what the White House is describing as a campaign rally in Melbourne, Florida.
The president bristled at the notion that former national security adviser Michael Flynn might have violated the law by speaking to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition period.
“I asked for his resignation,” Trump said of Flynn, a day after standing in the same room and blaming media reports for forcing him to dismiss the retired three-star general. Trump said Thursday he decided to ask Flynn to step aside because he misled Vice President Mike Flynn about those conversations with the Russian ambassador.
And while Trump said he has no personal business ties to Moscow, when asked twice to clearly state that his top associates were not in regular communication with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, he declined to do so.
He did definitively state that he has “nothing to do with Russia,” adding that he hasn’t “made a call to Russia in years.”
The president, who has said he will find those individuals who leaked information about Flynn and his associates’ alleged campaign-season talks with Russian intelligence, announced he has asked the Justice Department to look into those leaks.
“It’s a criminal act,” he said.
Meanwhile, a “new and very comprehensive” executive order will be issued next week focused on who can enter the country from seven Muslim-majority countries, he revealed, an order he first promised by Friday.
But the president didn’t stop at that announcement and a vow to do whatever he felt was necessary to keep the country safe. He also, again, attacked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who ruled against his first temporary travel ban last week.
“I think that circuit is … in chaos,” he said.