Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE leaned on his signature freewheeling and unscripted style Friday during his announcement of a national emergency at the border.

The nearly hour-long Rose Garden event was billed by the White House as remarks by Trump on “the national security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border.”

But Trump kept his audience, which included his newly-confirmed Attorney General Bill Barr, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Activists to demonstrate at ICE headquarters after Cameroonian immigrant dies in custody Ex-Citizenship and Immigration Services chief returns to DHS in different role MORE and several Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaders, waiting for the announcement of an emergency declaration, first offering riffs on trade with China and the United Kingdom, among other issues.


And after the dramatic announcement of the emergency declaration, which is set to open a whole new political battle with Congress, Trump battled with reporters, put down the television networks he dislikes and expressed his frustration with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the border declaration is likely headed.

It was classic Trump, as the president avoided using a teleprompter and appeared to improvise and riff for the most part.

He spent the first six minutes of his address on topics unrelated to the border before slowly working his way around to the announcement, saying that “a lot of positive things are going on,” an apparent admission that the border deal crafted by Congress was something less than that.

He also offered digressions on the positive things he said his administration was accomplishing, including the economy.

“Our economy is thriving like never before. … The market is close to the new highs that we’ve created. We have all the records. We have every record,” Trump said. “But we’re getting close to creating new records.”

In one segment he jumped from reminiscing about his campaign stop earlier this week in El Paso, Texas, saying he had a “tremendous crowd” and that “everyone knows the wall works,” before shifting to his talks with Israel.

“Take a look at Israel, they’re building another wall. Their wall is 99.9 percent effective they told me, 99.9 percent. That's what it would be with us, too,” he said. “The only weakness is they go to a wall and then they go around the wall. They go around the wall and in. OK?”

Ten minutes into his speech, Trump made the announcement that he would sign the emergency declaration to construct the U.S.-Mexico border wall. But he then took an off-ramp from that topic to discuss his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump even offered an impersonation of Xi, and appeared to tout China’s use of the death penalty.

“Their criminal list a drug dealer gets a thing called the death penalty. Our criminal list a drug dealer gets a thing called how about a fine,” Trump said.  

The bizarre claim came about two months after Trump signed a criminal-justice overhaul that curbs mandatory minimum prison sentences for many non-violent drug offenders.

The event was bespeckled with claims that quickly proved controversial, including that President Obama told him he was “so close” to a “big war” with North Korea and that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

And he appeared to make a significant misstep when, in response to a question about his ability to get a deal with Congress, Trump said he didn’t “need to” declare a national emergency but did it because he wanted to construct the U.S.-Mexico border wall faster.

Trump’s spirits appeared to lift when he had a chance to spar with reporters, offering paeans to Fox News' Sean Hannity and, especially, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and venting his frustration about former House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE (R-Wis.).

He told CNN contributor Brian Karem to "sit down" when he repeatedly challenged the president's claims about illegal crossing and, when there was confusion over who he was calling on, said he preferred ABC over NBC, though “not much.”

He also accused his longtime foil, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, of asking a “fake question,” adding that “you're CNN. You're fake news.”

Barr, Customs and Border Patrol officers and so-called Angel Moms, parents or relatives of those killed by undocumented immigrants, were in the front row for the event.

Trump pointed to the family members during the exchange with Acosta, who told Trump his critics say he is “concocting” the national emergency. Susan Stevens, who was holding a large photo of her daughter who died of a drug overdose, stood up and said, “This is real. This is real.”

The scene was reminiscent of his 90-minute press conference Trump staged in the East Room the day after Republicans, with the president appearing to use his exchanges with the news media as tonic after a similarly stinging defeat.

A few minutes later, and roughly 50 minutes after he started speaking, Trump began to wrap up but not before giving a final shout out to Barr, sparking laughter from some in the crowd.

“I want to wish our new attorney general great luck and speed,” Trump said. “Enjoy your life.”