WASHINGTON - After a combative start to his presidency, Donald Trump delivered a more unifying message Sunday and sought to reassure Americans he was ready to begin governing a divided nation.
Trump began rolling out his plans for diplomatic outreach, speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and announcing plans for early meetings with Netanyahu and other world leaders. He thanked top law enforcement officers for their service and support. And he swore-in a group of aides, telling them he believed they were ready to rise to a daunting task.
“But with the faith in each other and the faith in God, we will get the job done,” Trump said in a ceremony in the White House East Room. “We will prove worthy of this moment in history. And I think it may very well be a great moment in history.”
Trump’s reassurance came after a day marked by global protests over his presidency and his own complaints about media coverage of his inauguration, a combination of events that made for a contentious first full day in office on Saturday.
But even as the White House tried to forge forward, the president’s aides continued to defend the president and his press secretary, both of whom tore into journalists for accurately reporting that his swearing-in ceremony drew a smaller crowd than President Barack Obama did eight years ago. On Sunday, a top adviser said the Trump administration was supplying “alternative facts.”
“There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want,” Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet The Press.” She added: “I think it’s actually symbolic of the way we’re treated by the press.”
Trump on Saturday declared he believed “it looked like a million and a half people.”
But ridership on the Washington’s Metro system didn’t match that of recent inaugurations. As of 11 a.m. Friday, there were 193,000 trips taken, according to the transportation service’s Twitter account. At the same hour eight years ago, there had been 513,000 trips. Four years later, there were 317,000 for Obama’s second inauguration.
Conway also declared that Trump will not release his tax returns now that he’s taken office, breaking a promise he made during the campaign.
As a candidate, he said he would release his returns after an IRS audit was completed. Every president since 1976 has released the information, but Conway said she does not believe Americans care whether Trump follows suit.
“He’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care,” Conway said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Trump’s advisers have set Monday up as the president’s first major day of action on his sweeping campaign promises, but as of Sunday night, it appeared as though his team was still making decisions on what moves to make. Some congressional Republicans had expected Trump to sign orders over the weekend, but those never materialized.
Trump campaigned on a very specific 18-point plan for this first day in office. If he follows it, he could sign executive orders on immigration, trade and national security. Trump has pledged to scuttle trade deals such as a pending Asia-Pacific agreement and overturn Obama’s executive order deferring deportations for 700,000 people who were brought into the country illegally as children.
He’s due to begin formally discussing his agenda Monday at a meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders.
Trump’s early call to Netanyahu was aimed at signaling his support for Israel and a new start in a relationship that became increasingly fraught during the Obama administration. Trump described that conversation as “very nice.” White House officials said Trump “affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security.” The leaders agree to meet at the White House in early February.
Trump announced that he’s set up meetings with the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“We’re going to start some negotiations having to do with NAFTA,” he said of his meeting with Mexico, along with immigration and security at the border. Trump has promised to build a wall along the length of the southern border and insisted that Mexico will pay for it.
The new president showed he was clinging to some of his pre-presidential habits. He responded to Saturday’s protests on Twitter, offering a scattershot response. In one tweet, he sarcastically denigrating the public opposition and then defended demonstrators’ rights a short time later.
“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly,” Trump tweeted early Sunday morning. Ninety-five minutes later, he struck a more conciliatory tone.
“Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views,” the president tweeted, still using his personal account.
The dueling tweets marked his administration’s first response to the more than 1 million people who rallied at women’s marches in Washington and cities across the world. Hundreds of protesters lined the street as Trump’s motorcade drove past on Saturday afternoon, with many screaming and chanting.
The Washington rally appeared to attract more people than attended Trump’s inauguration on Friday, but there were no completely comparable numbers. Regional transportation officials tweeted on Sunday that 1,001,616 trips were taken on the rail system on Saturday. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel had said that on Friday, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, just over 570,000 trips were taken on the rail system.
Trump, whose 12th wedding anniversary was Sunday, also attended a reception for law enforcement officers and first responders who helped with his inauguration. He singled out the work of FBI Director James Comey, whom he offered a handshake and hug.
Trump also made an emotional mention Sunday of a “beautiful letter” that he said Barack Obama had left for him in the White House.
“I just went to the Oval Office and found this beautiful letter from President Obama,” he said at a swearing-in ceremony for several top administration appointees.
“It was really very nice of him to do that and we will cherish that,” he said, holding up a white envelope before tucking it back in his jacket pocket.
“We will keep that. And we won’t even tell the press what’s in that letter.”
It has long been part of American tradition for an outgoing president to leave a letter for his successor on the desk of the Oval Office.
The letter left in 1993 by Republican president George H.W. Bush for Democrat Bill Clinton — the man who deprived him of a second term — was considered particularly elegant.
“Your success now is our country’s success,” it read. “I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.”
Bush warned Clinton that “there will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair.”
But the elder Bush added that even entering the Oval Office on his last day as president, “I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago.”