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Trump targets intel ‘low-life leakers’ as facts belie claim White House running smoothly, he inherited ‘mess’

U.S. President Donald Trump takes a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a news conference at the White House in Washington Thursday. | REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump mounted an aggressive defense of his young presidency Thursday, lambasting reports that his campaign advisers had inappropriate contact with Russian officials and vowing to crack down on the leaking of classified information.

Nearly a month into his presidency, Trump insisted in 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 rising stock market.

The president denounced media reports of a chaotic start to his administration marked by his contentious executive order — rejected by a federal appeals court — to place a ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Trump said he would announce a “new and very comprehensive order to protect our people” next week.

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” Trump declared in a lengthy news conference that saw the new commander in chief repeatedly interrupting reporters’ questions and airing his grievances.

Throughout the encounter the new president delivered recurring criticism of the news media, accusing it 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 Trump 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.”

Pressed repeatedly, Trump said that “nobody that I know of” on his campaign staff had contacted Russian officials. He called such 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 investigate. “Those are criminal leaks,” adding, “The leaks are real. The news is fake.”

He blamed any problems on the outgoing Obama administration. “I inherited a mess at home and abroad — a mess,” Trump said.

Democrats said Trump’s refusal to say for sure that his campaign staff wasn’t in contact in the Kremlin underscored the need for an independent investigation through a special congressional select committee, a commission styled after the review of the 9/11 attacks or an independent counsel from the Justice Department. “His silence speaks volumes,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

The president announced that Alexander Acosta, the dean of the Florida International University law school, would be his nominee for Labor secretary. That came a day after fast-food executive Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination for Labor after losing support among Republican senators.

Trump, a reality television star and real estate mogul who was elected as an outsider intent on change, said his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was “just doing his job” in talking with Russian officials before the inauguration. But he said he was “not happy” with how Flynn described his phone call with a Russian diplomat to Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump knew for weeks that Flynn had misled Pence but did not inform the vice president, according to a timeline of events supplied by the White House.

Trump said he had identified a strong replacement for Flynn, which made the decision to let him go easier.

Trump is said to favor Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a former Navy SEAL, as his next national security adviser, according to a White House official. Harward met with top White House officials last week and has the backing of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He was meeting with officials later Thursday.

Addressing immigration, one of the biggest issues of the past campaign, Trump said it was difficult dealing with the policy known as DACA, which allows young adults to get work permits and Social Security numbers and protects them from deportation. Referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals rule, he said he would “deal with DACA with heart.”

While Trump has promised to halt illegal immigration as a cornerstone of his administration, he has also promised to focus on people who have committed crimes. He said he had the “best lawyers” working on the policy now and the “new executive order is being tailored to the decision we got from the court.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had a breakfast meeting with some of his staunchest House supporters.

The White House has said Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation because he had misled Vice President Mike 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, he 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.”

President Trump on Thursday meanwhile made a messy case that he “inherited a mess” from former President Obama. Economic stats and territorial losses of Islamic State insurgents don’t support his assertions about the problems handed to him on those fronts.

A look at some of his claims in a news conference Thursday and how they compare with the facts:

TRUMP: “To be honest I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”

THE FACTS: A mess is in the eye of the beholder. But by almost every economic measure, Barack Obama inherited a far worse situation when he became president in 2009 than he left for Trump. He had to deal with the worst downturn since the Depression.

Unemployment was spiking, the stock market crashing, the auto industry failing and millions of Americans risked losing their homes to foreclosure when Obama took the oath of office. None of those statistics is as dire for Trump.

Unemployment is 4.8 percent, compared with a peak of 10 percent during Obama’s first year as president. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was cratering until March 2009, only to rebound roughly 200 percent over the rest of Obama’s term— gains that have continued under Trump on the promise of tax and regulatory cuts.

When Trump assumed office last month, a greater percentage of the country had health insurance, incomes were rising and the country was adding jobs.

The Trump administration has noted that a smaller proportion of the population is working or looking for jobs. But even this measure began to turn around toward the end of the Obama era.

TRUMP: “ISIS has spread like cancer, another mess I inherited.”

THE FACTS: The Islamic State group began to lose ground before Trump took office, not just in Iraq and Syria but also in Libya. The gradual military progress achieved in Iraq during Obama’s final two years has pushed IS to the point of collapse in Mosul, its main Iraqi stronghold.

It remains a potent danger beyond its shrunken territory, encouraging adherents to stage acts of terrorism. The analogy with cancer is an echo of Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, who repeatedly cast Obama’s counter-IS campaign as an effort to reverse the extremists’ “metastasis” beyond the “parent tumor” in Iraq and Syria.

The abrupt withdrawal of the nomination of Trump’s pick for labor secretary brought swift blame from press secretary Sean Spicer, who said Democrats had “a double standard” for his party’s president and former President Obama.

But it was only the Republicans who had the power to kill the nomination of fast-food executive Andrew Puzder. A look at the reality:

SPICER: “Where is the role of Senate Democrats in this?” he asked reporters at the White House. “There is no focus on these guys having a double standard for which they had with Obama nominees. It’s just ridiculous. He was not given a hearing.”

THE FACTS: Senate Democrats indeed disapproved of Puzder, as they have most of Trump’s other nominees. But it was the majority Republicans who did him in.

At least half a dozen GOP members had made it clear to the White House that they couldn’t vote for him, largely because he had employed and long neglected to pay taxes for a housekeeper who was working in the country illegally — a big failing in the eyes of their tough-on-immigration party.

The GOP leadership had scheduled a hearing Thursday for Puzder, but the party pulled the plug on it to head off what would have been a distasteful vote for many of its members.

Trump also said Thursday he has asked the Justice Department to investigate intelligence leaks that led to the ouster of his national security adviser.

Calling them “criminal leaks,” Trump said they were put out by “people in the agencies.”

“We’re looking at them very serious. I’ve gone to all of the folks in charge of the various agencies, and we’re — I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks.”