With news conferences, Trump seeks presidential optics

Posted at 6:45 AM, Mar 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-09 06:58:58-05

Out with the victory rally, in with the news conference.

For the third time in the last eight days, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has given up the customary election night speech in order to take questions from reporters.

That decision does not signal any newfound love for the press. Instead, it is part of Trump’s strategic effort to pivot toward the general election and appear presidential, political strategists say.

“It is a smart move,” Matthew Dowd, the former chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign, told CNN. “One, it sets him apart from all the others who give canned speeches. Two, it makes him look like the dominant force taking questions. Like a president at a press conference.”

The news conferences are also a chance for Trump to show his knack for stagecraft. The first was held in the ballroom of Trump’s opulent Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, and featured former rival Chris Christie in an almost vice-presidential role.

This time around, the conference was held at the Trump International Golf Club, in Jupiter, Florida, and featured actual stage props: Trump Wines, Trump Spring Waters, copies of Trump Magazine, one of which he threw into the crowd. There were also steaks, which Trump referred to as “Trump Steaks,” even though some of those steaks were branded by Bush Brothers, a West Palm Beach meat purveyor. Nevertheless, the candidate used these to defend his success as an entrepreneur, which has been disputed by critics.

The news conferences also take place in front of a crowd of supporters, who stand between Trump (on stage) and the reporters (seated in the back rows of the room). The result creates a strange dynamic, and when the questions end, there is inevitably a smattering of applause from the supporters standing between them.

But whether these news conferences actually succeed in lending Trump the presidential air he so clearly covets is a matter of debate. Trump’s penchant for theater, including his desire to tout his own success and make derogatory remarks about the competition, can make the events feel more circus-like than presidential, some strategists say.

“He looks like a guy trying to play president, but his language and behavior still suggest the audacious circus with which we’ve become familiar,” said David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and a CNN contributor. “It has the feel more of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ cold open.”

“If he didn’t have all his flaws, and could grow as a candidate, and had run a real campaign, he would be walking away with this,” said Dowd.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But during Tuesday night’s news conference, Trump made the case that he was indeed presidential — even as he continued to slam his rivals and eschew political correctness.

He again branded Sen. Ted Cruz as “lyin’ Ted” and Sen. Marco Rubio as “little Marco.” He criticized NBC News and The Wall Street Journal for “phony” and “dishonest” polls. And he railed against current trade policies and talked tough on China and Mexico.

But when asked about criticisms of his language and his tone, Trump claimed that he was actually a presidential and unifying figure.

“I can be more presidential than anybody,” Trump said. “If I want to, I can be more presidential than anybody.”

“I’m actually a unifier,” he said moments later. “I think it’s time to unify.”