U.S. President Donald Trump mounted a vigorous defence of his presidency Thursday, pushing back against media reports that his campaign advisers had inappropriate contact with Russian officials and vowing to crack down on the leaking of classified information.
Watch Trump's full news conference at bottom of the article
Nearly a month into his presidency, Trump said during a free-wheeling White House news conference that his new administration had made "significant progress" and took credit for an optimistic business climate and a soaring stock market.
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The president denounced media reports of a chaotic start to his administration marked by a contentious executive order — now tied up in a legal fight — to place a ban on travellers from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
"This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine," Trump declared. The president said he would announce a "new and very comprehensive order to protect our people."
Throughout the news conference in the East Room of the White House, the new president delivered repeated criticism of the news media, accusing journalists of being "out of control" and promising to take his message "straight to the people."
He dismissed recent reports in the New York Times and on CNN that his campaign aides had been in contact with Russian officials before his election. Trump called Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager who has ties to Ukraine and Russia, a "respected man."
Trump called the reports a "ruse" and said he had "nothing to do with Russia." Trump added, "Russia is fake news. This is fake news put out by the media."
Amid reports of widespread leaks within his administration, Trump also warned that he would clamp down on the dissemination of sensitive information, saying he had asked the Justice Department to look into the leaks. "Those are criminal leaks," adding, "The leaks are real. The news is fake."
Trump made the case that the previous Barack Obama administration left an economic and political mess for his administration.
"To be honest, I inherited a mess. It's a mess. At home and abroad, a mess," said Trump.
Trump specifically mentioned ISIS as "another mess I inherited."
"ISIS has spread like a cancer," he said.
Comment to black reporter 'abuse of protocol'
In one exchange, April Ryan, a White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, asked Trump whether he planned to include the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) "in your conversations with your urban agenda, your inner-city agenda."
The president responded by asking Ryan, who is black, whether they are "friends of yours" and remarking, "I tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting?"
I am a journalist not a convener! But thank you for answering my questions. https://t.co/fe9cGXG46w— @AprilDRyan
Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said there is "an element of disrespect" in Trump's comment.
"He's not going to ask any other reporter to do that for any other group, so why did he do that to her? I think that was pretty instructive to me," said Clyburn, a veteran lawmaker and member of the House Democratic leadership.
When asked whether Trump was implying that all black people know each other, Clyburn said, "I don't know what his implications were but that's my interpretation."
Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio said: "We have a rich history, we have some almost 50 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We're not new. What a president should say is, yes, it's already on my agenda to talk to them."
Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota called Trump's remarks another "abuse of protocol."
New cabinet nominee, executive order coming
Trump announced that Alexander Acosta, dean of the Florida International University law school and former U.S. attorney in Florida, would be his nominee for labour secretary. That came a day after fast-food executive Andrew Puzder withdrew after losing support among Republican senators.
If confirmed, Acosta would be the first Hispanic member of Trump's cabinet.
Trump also said a new executive order on immigration is on the way.
His original order temporarily blocked travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. It sparked protests nationwide and was put on hold by a federal court. A federal appeals court based in San Francisco last week upheld the lower court's decision. Trump has called the appellate ruling a "very bad decision," and said the administration has been mulling its options since then.
Trump says the new order is being tailored to satisfy the ruling from the San Francisco appeals court.
He did not reveal any specifics of the new order, but said it will be issued next week.
Trump's Flynn replacement turns down job
Trump said in the news conference his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was "just doing his job," but said he was "not happy" with how information about Flynn's phone call to a Russian diplomat was relayed to Vice-President Mike Pence.
But Trump said what Flynn did "wasn't wrong" and said he had identified a strong replacement for Flynn, which made the decision to let him go easier.
The White House said Trump asked for Flynn's resignation because he had misled Pence over his dealings with Russia and whether he had discussed sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. before Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration. Flynn previously had denied those conversations to Pence and other top officials.
On Thursday, Trump warned in a pair of tweets that "low-life leakers" of classified information will be caught. As journalists were being escorted out of the breakfast meeting, Trump responded to a reporter's question on the subject by saying: "We're going to find the leakers" and "they're going to pay a big price."
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!— @realDonaldTrump
To replace Flynn, Trump was said to favour Vice-Admiral Robert Harward, a former Navy SEAL, according to a White House official. Harward met with top White House officials last week and has the backing of Defence Secretary James Mattis.
But Harward turned down the job offer and told The Associated Press that the Trump administration was "very accommodating to my needs, both professionally and personally."
"It's purely a personal issue," Harward said Thursday evening. "I'm in a unique position finally, after being in the military for 40 years, to enjoy some personal time."