President Donald Trump sought to refocus on governing on Sunday by interviewing a shortlist of candidates to be his national security adviser having continued to blame media bias for portrayals of chaos in his administration.
Following last week’s firing of Michael Flynn amid controversy over his Russia ties, Mr Trump was due to speak to four candidates to replace him in the post — the most crucial among a raft of unfilled administration positions.
The candidates include John Bolton, a former UN ambassador, and two serving generals — HR McMaster and Robert Caslen — as well as retired general Keith Kellogg, who has been acting national security adviser since Mr Flynn’s departure, the White House said.
Turmoil around the job has sparked concern about the White House’s ability to handle an international crisis, with Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and defence secretary in Democratic administrations, branding the current system “dysfunctional”.
Mr Flynn was sacked after misleading the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.
They just don’t want to report the truth. They have become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system
Mr Trump, who spent the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, told reporters on Saturday: “I have many, many that want the [national security adviser] job, they want to really be a part of it. I’ll make a decision over the next couple of days.”
Two other high-profile candidates for the job — former generals Robert Harward and David Petraeus — have withdrawn their names from consideration.
At a campaign-style rally on Saturday, Mr Trump reiterated his promise to submit a new order restricting travel to the US and a delayed plan to replace Obamacare. But his tirades against the media drew the most attention.
Speaking to 9,000 supporters gathered in an aircraft hangar in Melbourne, Florida, Mr Trump accused a “dishonest” press corps of trying to sabotage his efforts to bring “bold” change to the US by reviving its economy and securing its borders.
“They just don’t want to report the truth,” he said. “They have become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system.”
Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, told NBC television that Mr Trump “believes in the free press”, despite his attacks on the media. The president described the press as “the enemy of the American People” in a Friday tweet that drew rebukes even from fellow Republicans.
John McCain, a Republican senator and frequent Trump critic, condemned the remarks, saying dictators “get started by suppressing free press”.
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time,” Mr McCain told NBC.
Mr Trump also sparked bafflement at Saturday’s rally with a vague reference to a non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden as he listed European countries that have taken in refugees and been hit by terrorism.
“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” he said.
Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, tweeted in response: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.”
Later on Sunday, Mr Trump tweeted: “My statement as to what’s happening in Sweden was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews [on Friday] concerning immigrants & Sweden.”
Mr Panetta said the system meant to provide national security information to the president was not working in the absence of a chief adviser on the subject, noting that the National Security Council had not yet met formally.
“So the issue that you have to be concerned about is what happens if there’s a major crisis that faces this country?” he said. “If Russia engages in a provocation, if Iran does something stupid, if North Korea does something stupid, and we have to respond. Where is the structure to be able to evaluate that threat, consider it, and provide options to the president?”
Follow Barney Jopson on Twitter: @barneyjopson
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