After a combative defense of his month-old presidency, Donald Trump moved Friday to reset a US administration buffeted by crises, visiting a Boeing factory to hammer home his message on the theme that won him election — jobs.
A day earlier the president presided over a rowdy and acrimonious press conference in the White House, where he unleashed a tirade against his critics, blasting the various leaks emanating from US intelligence agencies and attacking the media as “out of control.”
Trump strenuously denied that he or his associates had improper contacts with Russian officials during last year’s campaign, and defended the actions of his ousted national security advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned under a cloud this week.
But the perception of a White House in disarray was further fuelled as Trump’s pick to replace Flynn, retired US Navy admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job, leaving a glaring hole in the National Security Council.
Harward told CNN he bowed out because of family and financial commitments. But several media outlets reported that he was concerned about whether he would be able to shape his own NSC team.
Members of the council currently include Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial far-right former campaign manager.
One unidentified Harward friend told CNN that he declined the job because of chaos at the White House, and called the offer a “shit sandwich.”
Trump said Friday he was considering four new candidates, including acting advisor Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general.
But the president seemed to relish the opportunity to escape the Washington maelstrom and take his show on the road, returning to what was a winning campaign-trail formula: connecting with everyday Americans.
– Job talk –
“Going to Charleston, South Carolina, in order to spend time with Boeing and talk jobs!” Trump said on Twitter.
The White House said Trump will help unveil Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, the 787-10, which the company bills as the world’s most fuel-efficient aircraft.
The US manufacturer employs some 7,500 people in South Carolina, where it has invested more than $2 billion since beginning operations in the southeastern state in 2009.
Boeing also manufactures Air Force One, and Trump has publicly locked horns with the company over the costs for building the next generation of presidential aircraft.
At campaign trail stops in South Carolina, Trump had warned audiences that they could lose the state’s Boeing jobs because the jets “will be cheaper to build in China.”
The former reality television star resonated with voters in large part because he directly addressed the concerns of middle-class and working-class Americans who felt left behind in the US economy.
The president, who thrills to supportive crowds, will overnight at his Mar-a-Lago estate and return to full campaign mode on Saturday, when he delivers a speech at what will likely be a packed rally in Melbourne, Florida.
– ‘I inherited a mess’ –
For the long weekend — Monday is a US holiday, President’s Day — Trump will leave behind a political city consumed with dissecting the raucous press conference he delivered from the East Room, and the escalating tensions between him and the intelligence community.
Trump began the 76-minute event by introducing his new nominee for secretary of labor, Alexander Acosta, a day after his initial pick withdrew, which in itself marked a fresh setback for Trump.
From there it turned into a severe, often angry defense of his actions as he sought to reclaim the narrative of his young presidency.
“I inherited a mess” from predecessor Barack Obama, he insisted.
“I see stories of chaos. 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 in recent weeks has lost a court battle over his executive order that bans arrivals from seven Muslim majority nations, struggled to get his cabinet in place, fired an acting attorney general and national security advisor, and faces congressional investigations into his team’s ties to Russia.
Nevertheless he declared that “there has never been a presidency that has done so much in such a short period of time.”
In a new, frontal clash with the media, Trump dismissed as “fake news” an explosive report that members of his campaign team had contacts with Russian officials in the run-up to the election.
Instead, he accused intelligence agents of breaking the law by leaking potentially classified information — some of which led to Flynn’s ouster.
Asked whether he or anyone on his staff had engaged in contacts with Russia prior to the election, Trump proclaimed: “No, nobody that I know of.”
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “The whole Russia thing is a ruse.”