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Witcover: Trump unbound meets the press

After being criticized for failing to call the families of soldiers killed in action, President Trump said he would call the parents and families “at some point.”

Amid his continuing war against the press, President Trump met the alleged enemy at length Monday in the Rose Garden. In a remarkably wide-ranging sparring exchange with reporters, he cast as much light on his contradictions as on his convictions.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at his side throughout, Trump sought to assure reporters that the two Republican kingpins were in lockstep in personal terms and in support of his legislative agenda, from health care reform to tax reduction.

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At the same time, the president continued to insist that the Republican majority in Congress, and particularly in the Senate under Mr. McConnell, was at fault for the party's failure to enact any major bills during the first nine months of his presidency.

"I'm not going to blame myself,"Mr. Trump said. "I'll be honest. They're not getting it done."

He did not mention that as the Senate had failed twice to keep repeal and replace alive, he did little himself to keep it going. Now, however, he has launched yet another attempt that critics have blasted as an effort to eviscerate Obamacare, by denying or undercutting federal subsidies to low-income recipients. Again he has blamed Democratic obstructionism of a key social safety net that Republicans as a party have always opposed. Yet he now said of Mr. McConnell: "This man is going to get it done, and I think is going to get it done long before anybody else, and I think it going to be a great health care."

After a long and apparently cordial and conciliatory White House lunch between the two of them, Mr. Trump gushed over Mr. McConnell as "a friend of mine for a long time, before my world in politics. ... We're now I think as far as I'm concerned, despite what we read ... closer than ever before."

He wound up his verbal lovefest by saying his "relationship with this gentleman is outstanding," and would continue in their mutual quest for tax reform and tax cuts.

Mr. McConnell with his customary cool demeanor conveyed his reciprocal affection for his old friend Donald, who then pivoted to another old friend, former chief strategist Steven Bannon, who is now attacking establishment Republicans such as Mr. McConnell at his Breitbart Newswebsite.

The press conference later delved into Mr. Trump's presidential responsibilities. Asked why he had not called the families of four American soldiers killed in Niger, the president said he had written to them but hadn't gotten around to calling them, adding incorrectly that predecessor Barack Obama and other presidents hadn't called the families of fallen troops.

He then launched into a brief soliloquy on how hard it was for him to fulfill that task: "The toughest calls I have to make are where this happens, soldiers killed. It's a very difficult thing. Now it gets to a point, you know, where you make four five in a day. It's a very, very tough day. For me, that's by far the toughest."

The press conference reflected in sum a menu of issues large and small on a president's daily diet. Squeezed in was a brief query about the ongoing investigation into alleged collusion of the Trump political operation with the Russians, which he denied. When asked point-blank whether he was considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he shot back, "No, not at all."

Perhaps the most ridiculous question of all, indicating the peril of such open quizzing of the president, was whether on an approaching trip to the Far East including South Korea, he might fear provoking North Korea by going to the demilitarized zone on the border.

Mr. Trump surprisingly replied: "We'll take a look at that. I didn't hear it in terms of provoking, but we will certainly look into that."

Could there be anything more unnerving or stupid at this point in this unpredictable presidency than Trump visiting the DMZ, or even contemplating it? The answer should have been: "Do you think I'm out of my mind?"

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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