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Trump's Thursday News Conference, Explained


It was Donald Trump's first solo press conference as president yesterday, and it was pretty extraordinary. He took questions for more than an hour. But this is really the message he was trying to get across.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

MARTIN: Just hours after that press conference, the man President Trump had picked to replace Mike Flynn as national security adviser turned the job down. So is the White House a fine-tuned machine right now, or is it in need of a major overhaul?


That's one of the questions we'll pursue in this part of the program. Also, senators pulled another all-nighter - Democrats trying a seemingly hopeless effort to hold up the confirmation of Scott Pruitt, the choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

MARTIN: And later today, the president leaves all the Sturm und Drang of Washington for some campaign-style events. Steve, it has been a rough week for the president.

INSKEEP: Sturm und Drang.


INSKEEP: Sturm und Drang - I'm impressed. I can't believe it's only been one week. National security adviser Mike Flynn stepped down at the beginning of the week. The president's labor secretary, Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination, didn't have the votes. That was hopeless. And then there was yesterday's epic press conference that you mentioned. He was supposed to be announcing Alex Acosta, the new labor secretary choice. Instead, he went on for 77 minutes, attacked the media - the president did. He praised his own election win. He denied he was racist in answering a reporter who explicitly said he didn't think he was racist. There's so much in there.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Indeed. To help us work through all this, we are joined in the studio by Susan Davis, NPR's congressional correspondent. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: And also Mary Louise Kelly, who covers national security for us. Good morning, Mary Louise.


MARTIN: All right. So let's start with the latest development on the national security front. Retired Admiral Robert Harward - he was the guy who Trump tapped to replace Mike Flynn. So this is a very important job. Harward said no. What do we know about why?

KELLY: Well, he put out a very short statement with the official reasons. And he pointed to financial reasons. I mean, he's in the private sector now. He'd have to take a big pay cut to come back into government. He pointed to family, that he's been in the Navy for 40 years. He's been deployed in combat for most of those 40 years and said, it's time for me to be at home.

MARTIN: Yeah. But I've got to say...

KELLY: And a job like being national security adviser - that's not a part-time gig.

INSKEEP: Usually, people quit their jobs and cite their families.


INSKEEP: They don't stop doing the job at all at the beginning because of family.

KELLY: Do - stop from coming in in the first place. Well - so that leads us to what may be going on behind the scenes. Our colleague Tom Bowman was working the phones all last night on this and heard from several sources that there were other issues, that Harward wanted a guarantee that he could bring in his own staff and get rid of the people that Mike Flynn had brought in. He couldn't get that guarantee that he would be able to run the National Security Council out of the White House the way he felt he needed to do.

MARTIN: Which is a big deal for a guy who respects a chain of command.

KELLY: Exactly.

MARTIN: You know, some concerns that that wouldn't be clear-cut in this White House.

KELLY: Exactly.

MARTIN: So what now? How big of a setback is it for the White House that they don't have a national security adviser at this moment?

KELLY: Well, it's - needless to say, it's really unusual to turn down that job. That would usually be the plum job of any career. And you have somebody who just said no to it. So it leaves the president again without a permanent national security adviser, without anybody doing that incredibly important job of pulling together everything that's happening at the State Department, at Treasury, at the Pentagon, at the CIA and bringing it to the president so that the president can make a decision and make policy.

MARTIN: President Trump spent a lot of time yesterday trying to make this about the leaks. Of course, Mike Flynn was dismissed for his conversations with that Russian ambassador. President yesterday in the press conference was like, it's not about the content of the leaks. It's about the fact that someone leaked this information in the first place. And that's what he finds troublesome.

KELLY: Well, he has a point. It is illegal to leak classified information. It's a crime. Government officials sign a pledge saying, we won't do this. And it has been happening not just this week. Every day, every hour this week, it has been an extraordinary pace of leaks. So he has a point. And he is changing the conversation in Washington. He's the president. He puts it on the table. He's calling for a criminal investigation of these leaks.

MARTIN: Sue, he wants the Department of Justice to investigate this. Is that likely to happen?

DAVIS: Well, it's also unusual that the president would just say the Justice Department should investigate this. Normally, these investigations come from referrals from the intelligence community that identifies a problem. So to come from the president is already another way that Trump is sort of ruffling feathers in this world. It's possible that they may look into it. As Mary Louise said, it is a crime to do this.

There are also investigations underway on Capitol Hill led by both the House and Senate intelligence committees that have been looking into Russia's attempts to influence the election. And I spoke to lawmakers this week who said it is likely that those investigations will also wrap into the leaks and who knew what - and where was the leaks coming from?

House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes is incredibly angry about them and specifically said that, yes, he would look into the leaks. And I've asked lawmakers, particularly on the House side, do you expect Congress is going to put out a public report? Are we going to know the result of these investigations? And he said, depends on what we find.

MARTIN: Mary Louise, it's also worth noting that there's a big security conference in Munich. It happens every year. The conference in and of itself isn't necessarily interesting. But the fact that the Trump national security team is going over there - Mike Pence will be there, too - minus Mike Flynn - not exactly the kind of international debut they wanted to make.

KELLY: It's safe to say the specter of Mike Flynn will be traveling with that delegation because this is going to be the question on the minds of European NATO leaders who were there, who were looking to this administration, which has sent a lot of mixed messages about what it thinks about Europe, Russia, NATO.


KELLY: Are we going to hear a clear message from this administration on that?

INSKEEP: And the bottom line for now is, this weekend, we're one month into this administration. And you don't have leadership of the national security team that is the central team in responding to crises. And not to panic, not to be worried too much, but there could be a crisis at any time.

MARTIN: Let's move to another drama unfolding on Capitol Hill. Democrats pulled an all-nighter on the Senate floor last night. Steve, what happened?

INSKEEP: Well, the Senate voted to end debate over the president's nominee for secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency. Remember, Democrats can't really stop nominees without some Republican help. But they can demand the maximum amount of debate. So they talked all night. But it appears to be a hopeless effort. There is one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, who's going to vote against Scott Pruitt. Other Republicans are solidly behind him even though critics are worried about his repeated suing of the agency...


INSKEEP: ...That he wants to run and his questioning of climate change.

MARTIN: So, Sue, is this - what is this about? I mean, is this just political theater because the Democrats need to be seen doing something?

DAVIS: Of course. I mean, there's always a little bit of political theater when it comes to Congress, right (laughter)? He is on track to be confirmed. That vote is expected later today. He is also likely to enjoy the support of at least one Democrat. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is expected to support Mr. Pruitt. You know, this position and this job - I mean, the EPA has always been a bit political. But it has become increasingly so because, on the issue of climate change, it is one more issue where the two parties have grown increasingly, increasingly polarized. So it is seen through that lens.

And Democrats doing this overnight - no, they can't stop it. But on this issue and at this agency, there is tremendous pressure from the Democratic base and from senators themselves who say they have to at least look like they're giving it everything they've got to fight him because this is setting the groundwork for what is likely to be a four-year battle between Democrats and the EPA.

MARTIN: And...

INSKEEP: And let's remember Democrats failed to stop all but one up to now of the cabinet choices. But they nevertheless have captured an awful lot of attention in this first month of the administration.

MARTIN: So I want to move to another topic because this has, as we mentioned, been a difficult week for President Trump. He is looking for more friendlier territory, shall we say.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So he's going to get on a plane.

KELLY: He's fleeing Washington.

MARTIN: He's going to get on a plane.

INSKEEP: The energy of the campaign - going for that.

MARTIN: Yeah. He's going to get down to Charleston. And he's going to go tour a Boeing plant, right, Steve?

INSKEEP: Yeah. He's going to make some remarks there. And then he's got a campaign-style rally in Florida tomorrow - certainly very different events than the press conference where he was facing the media, which he's made an enemy of or tried to make an enemy of.

MARTIN: So the big question is these are his hardcore supporters, right? These are the people who stand in the lines to go to the Trump rallies. Is it going to be a warm welcome? What do we know about how his his loyalists feel about all the recent goings on?

DAVIS: Well, there is a little bit of interesting politics to the Boeing visit, as well, because the workers at the plant this week - just two days ago - voted not to unionize. So it's interesting that he may bring that up there. You know, and the Boeing is relationship with the business community and executives and bringing jobs. I mean, that's all on brand for Trump, right?


DAVIS: And the Florida visit - I mean, if there's one thing we know about the president, he likes to feel like he's winning. And it's been a tough week for him.

MARTIN: He's going to have a rally, essentially, on Saturday in Florida.

DAVIS: Yeah. It's essentially a campaign rally. It's the same motivation. And he's had a bad week. And it's been a rough, you know, rollout of his administration. And I think he needs to feel a little bit of love.

MARTIN: We should say the White House has said that they're going to release their new executive order on immigration sometime next week. Any idea, Mary Louise, if we're going to get a preview of that this weekend?

KELLY: I'm sure that we will get a preview - at the rate that things are being leaked. We will get some sort of preview before it's officially rolled out. And we wait to see exactly how far they rein that executive order in. It was really sweeping, as we know, caused a huge...


KELLY: ...Amount of issues that we're still sorting through. So we're going to wait and see.

MARTIN: They're going to try to retool it.

KELLY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's remember we've been interviewing Trump supporters since the inauguration. They're still with him. They're going to be with him. The people that the president will speak with at this rally on Saturday will surely be with the president. But there was a Pew survey which came out yesterday, finding that only 39 percent of the country at large supports the president's performance. Fifty-six percent is opposed.

MARTIN: And yet the president's still insisting his administration, despite the staffing turmoil, running like a well-oiled machine. So we will keep following it.

INSKEEP: That's how I like to think of MORNING EDITION, actually, a well-oiled machine.

MARTIN: A well-oiled machine. Most days.

INSKEEP: Most days.

MARTIN: Most days. Sue Davis...

INSKEEP: You need a little bit of oil? No, you're OK. Very smooth.

MARTIN: I'm good. Sue Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR. Mary Louise Kelly covers national security for us. Thanks so much for coming in, you two.

KELLY: You're welcome.

DAVIS: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDNET'S "RUINED SLEEP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.