President Trump takes credit for popularizing the term “fake news.”
But the consequences? Not his concern.
In lengthy and at times contradictory remarks on Thursday about the news media — which he deemed “important” and “beautiful,” but also “so bad” and “unfair” — Mr. Trump called himself “a victim” of unfair coverage and declined to accept responsibility for a rise in threats against journalists since he took office.
“I do notice that people are declaring more and more fake news, where they go, ‘Fake news!’” the president said during an Oval Office interview with The New York Times. “I even see it in other countries. I don’t necessarily attribute that to me. I think I can attribute the term to me. I think I was the one that started using it, I would say.”
In an unusual arrangement, the publisher of The Times, A. G. Sulzberger, joined two of the paper’s White House correspondents in conducting Thursday’s interview, and he took the lead in questioning the president about his attacks on the press.
When Mr. Sulzberger said that foreign leaders were increasingly using the term “fake news” to justify suppressing independent scrutiny, Mr. Trump replied: “I don’t like that. I mean I don’t like that.”
But, in a common pattern whenever the president speaks about the press, Mr. Trump quickly refocused on his personal grievances. “I do think it’s very bad for a country when the news is not accurately portrayed,” he said. “I really do. And I do believe I’m a victim of that, honestly.”
Mr. Trump’s attacks on American news organizations have been cited by press advocates for emboldening foreign autocrats who censor, threaten, jail and assault journalists in their countries.
Mr. Sulzberger, who sat opposite the Resolute Desk, along with the Times journalists Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, repeatedly asked Mr. Trump whether he understood the global effects of his words.
“We’re seeing leaders of journalistic organizations saying very directly that governments feel like there is a climate of impunity that’s been created,” the publisher said. “You know the United States and the occupants of your office historically have been the greatest defenders of the free press.”
“And I think I am, too,” Mr. Trump interjected. “I want to be. I want to be.” He quickly added: “I guess the one thing I do feel, because you look at network coverage, it’s so bad.”
The interview arose from a dinner invitation extended by the president to Mr. Sulzberger, who assumed leadership of The Times a little more than a year ago, when he replaced his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., in a generational changing of the guard. Instead of a dinner, the publisher requested an on-the-record session, with Times reporters included, and Mr. Trump agreed.
It was not the first time that the two men had debated Mr. Trump’s rhetoric concerning the press.
In July, the publisher met with the president in the Oval Office for an off-the-record chat. Nine days later, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he and Mr. Sulzberger had discussed “the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”
That same day, the publisher released a statement saying that the president had misrepresented their exchange. He called Mr. Trump’s attacks on journalism “dangerous and harmful to our country.”
On Thursday, the publisher urged Mr. Trump to reconsider his denigration of the press.
“The effects are not just being felt with the outlets who you feel are treating you unfairly,” he said. “They’re being felt all over the world, including folks who are literally putting their lives on the line to report the truth.”
“I understand that,” Mr. Trump replied before pivoting, once again, to complaints about how he has been covered.
“I don’t mind a bad story if it’s true, I really don’t,” the president said. “You know, we’re all, like, big people. We understand what’s happening. I’ve had bad stories, very bad stories where I thought it was true and I would never complain. But when you get really bad stories, where it’s not true, then you sort of say, ‘That’s unfair.’”
Mr. Trump has spent decades cajoling and needling the journalists who cover him. In the interview, he sidestepped the notion that his ascent to the world’s most powerful pulpit had made his criticisms far more consequential than they were when he was a real estate developer and reality-television star.
At one point, Ms. Haberman asked Mr. Trump: “What do you see the role of a free press as? What do you think a free press does?”
Mr. Trump replied that it “describes and should describe accurately what’s going on anywhere it’s covering, whether it’s a nation or a state or a game or whatever.”
“And if it describes it accurately and fairly,” he added, “it’s a very, very important and beautiful thing.”
What Mr. Trump considers fair, however, is almost always in line with what he considers flattering.
When Mr. Sulzberger noted that all presidents had complained about how they were depicted by the news media — “tough coverage is part of occupying the most powerful seat on Earth,” the publisher said — Mr. Trump replied, “But I think I get it really bad. I mean, let’s face it, this is at a level that nobody’s ever had before.”
The president said Fox News “treats me very well” and praised local television as “so great to me,” but called NBC “terrible” and asserted that The Times “treats me so unbelievably terribly.”
Mr. Sulzberger told Mr. Trump that his paper’s responsibility was “to cover people and institutions of power, toughly, aggressively.”
“It’s never fun to be on the other side of that,” Mr. Sulzberger added. “You have my commitment that as we do that toughly and aggressively, we will also do it fairly.”
“I appreciate that,” the president replied, before reminiscing about the highlights of his unlikely political rise.
“I ran, I won, and I’m really doing a good job,” Mr. Trump said, lamenting that his surprise victory did not receive the praise he thought it deserved — particularly from The Times, a publication that has loomed throughout his life as representing the establishment whose respect he has long sought.
“I came from Jamaica, Queens, Jamaica Estates, and I became president of the United States,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m sort of entitled to a great story — just one — from my newspaper.”