Since becoming a reality TV star, Donald Trump has displayed more interest in performance art than real estate or, lately, the work of the presidency.
His news conference today made that plain.
After the president expressed his support for victims of Tropical Storm Harvey – assuring them "you're going to be in fantastic shape" once Congress approves relief money – he was asked about his widely criticized decision to pardon a former county sheriff in Arizona, Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of contempt of court over his practice of racially profiling Latinos. The White House announced the decision as Harvey was bearing down on the Texas coast.
But Trump insisted it wasn't another classic Friday "news dump" designed to obscure a controversial move. With so much attention to the storm , the one-time host of "The Apprentice" explained, "I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally" for news coverage.
He has used that term in the context of White House work before. Amid speculation a few months ago about the fate of his embattled then-press secretary Sean Spicer, aides described his reluctance to fire an aide whose briefings drew huge cable news audiences. Eventually, Spicer's stumbles become so problematic that Trump curtailed the number of televised briefings and also replaced him.
Yesterday, as Harvey relief efforts were under way, the White House promoted his response by releasing a photo of the grim-faced president wearing a red "USA" cap. As officials participated in a teleconference on the crisis, Trump sat with hands clasped, not using the notebook and pen on the table a few inches away.
On camera this afternoon, the president did more than invoke ratings concerning Arpaio. He read from a script that responded to bipartisan criticism by recounting controversial pardons granted by presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
It was a characteristically Trumpian turn on the national stage, with the president refusing to give an inch to his detractors. On a day when news reports disclosed an attempt by the Trump Organization to develop a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, he refused a reporter's invitation to label Russia a security threat.
"I consider many countries security threats," he said.
His defiant attitude plays well with the staunch supporters who propelled him to the presidency last year. Unfortunately for him, however, those ratings have shrunk. In today's Gallup poll of Americans about his job performance, just 35 percent approved; 60 percent disapproved.