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Trump victory lap clashes with signs of orthodoxy

Two years after Donald Trump was booed at an influential conservative event, the US president returned to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday for a victory lap.

But his rambling address, at an event that was more campaign rally than detailed presentation of policy, struck a jarring note at the end of a week that saw a semblance of orthodoxy from the new administration.

While his cabinet officers went abroad to fix relations with Mexico and ease concerns in Europe, Mr Trump gave a quintessential speech that included lines such as “I like Campbell Soup” and “Paris is no longer Paris”, while continuing his assault on the media, which his top aide Steve Bannon has called “the opposition party”.

“We have to fight it. They’re very smart, they’re very cunning and they’re very dishonest,” Mr Trump said.

Speaking at the same conference on Thursday, Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, said he hoped the media would realise that Mr Trump was successfully pushing his agenda. But sitting on the same stage, Mr Bannon said relations would keep deteriorating because of the elite forces trying to fight back against Mr Trump.

We have to fight [the media]. They’re very smart, they’re very cunning and they’re very dishonest

“It’s not only not going to get better, it’s going to get worse every day,” Mr Bannon, who rarely speaks in public, said. “They are corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed . . . to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”

Several hours after the speech on Friday, CNN and the New York Times accused the White House of excluding reporters from a press “gaggle” — a less formal event than a formal White House press briefing. Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, protested the move, which he said had never happened in previous administrations.

The White House denied that it had blocked reporters from attending the gaggle, which was held in place of the regular daily press briefing which is televised.

“To be clear CNN was not blocked,” said Sarah Sanders, deputy White House spokesperson. “We invited the [press] pool so everyone was represented. We decided to add a couple of additional people beyond the pool. Nothing more than that.

Mr Trump was the first Republican president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to attend Cpac in his first year in office. He repeated many of his signature themes — from building the wall on the US-Mexico border to strengthening the US military and dealing with radical Islamist terrorism — while telling the audience that “now is the time for action” and that he was fighting for Americans and not other countries.

“Getting along with other countries is good,” Mr Trump said. “But there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag. This is the United States of America that I’m representing. I’m not representing the globe.”

The speech came after a week where there were signs of a more traditional tack that was welcomed by Republican and other critics who have been concerned about the chaotic nature of his first month. One of the reasons that Mr Bannon and Mr Priebus appeared on stage together was to dispel the widely held view that the two men are engaged in warfare inside the White House.

On Sunday, Mr Trump named Lieutenant General HR McMaster as his new national security adviser, after firing Michael Flynn. The move was welcomed by experts who view the military officer as an addition to what Trump critics — and some supporters — in Washington privately refer to as “the adults”.

It came after some of the other “adults” — including Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, and James Mattis, defence secretary — reassured US allies in Europe that Mr Trump was committed to their alliances.

But even this week, Mr Trump and his cabinet have also continued to send mixed signals that have made it hard for foreign governments to work out how he intends to proceed on foreign policy. Several hours after Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, appeared to suggest that the president was retreating from a pledge to label China as a “currency manipulator” early in his term, Mr Trump called Beijing the “grand champions of manipulation”.

Mr Trump also sparked criticism over comments on the US nuclear arsenal that suggested that he might not support New Start, the nuclear arms reduction treaty agreed by Washington and Moscow in 2010. In an interview with Reuters, he called the deal “one sided”, and vowed that he would ensure the US remained at the “top of the pack” when it came to nuclear powers.

Mr Bannon on Thursday argued the criticism of Mr Trump had missed the point that he was “maniacally focused” on pushing ahead with his campaign promises. He said the agenda fell into three categories: security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and “deconstruction of the administrative state” in a reference to regulations in Washington that Republicans argue are bad for business and stifle job creation.

Mr Bannon said business leaders stressed that deregulation was as important as tax reform. “If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction,” he said. Shortly after his Cpac speech, Mr Trump signed an order that creates a task force to determine which federal regulations should be scrapped or reformed. Last month, he issued an order which instructed the government to eliminate two regulations for each new regulation that was proposed.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

Via FT