RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump is heading to South Carolina today for an event with Boeing, hoping to change the conversation after what has been a pretty tough week for his administration. To recap, Trump was forced to fire his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his pick to lead the Labor Department, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, dropped out in the face of a lot of congressional opposition. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So the president didn't get his first choice for the Labor Department. He has been forced to pick a number two. Who is he?
HORSLEY: His name is Alexander Acosta. He is the dean of the law school at Florida International University. He would be the first Latino on Donald Trump's Cabinet. That would fill out what had been a rather noticeable hole. He's also more of an establishment figure than Andy Puzder was. Puzder was kind of a wild card, not unlike Trump himself. Acosta is certainly conservative. He clerked for Samuel Alito when Alito was on the appeals court.
But he does have government experience. He's served on the National Labor Relations Board. He was an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department. He's been the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida. And all three of those jobs required Senate confirmation. So he has been through the ringer and come out clean.
MARTIN: Much more of an insider than an outsider.
HORSLEY: That's right.
MARTIN: So the president held this press conference yesterday that ended up going in a whole lot of directions. But it was supposed to be about announcing this new Cabinet pick, right?
HORSLEY: Kind of.
MARTIN: Kind of.
HORSLEY: The president spent about a minute on the Acosta announcement out of the hour-plus he spent addressing questions. Really what this news conference was about was pushing back against a media storyline that painted a picture of a White House beset by problems. You know, there was the ouster of the president's national security adviser, the travel ban that was blocked by the federal courts, stories of infighting, chaos. Trump insists it is not a chaotic scene at the White House, that in fact his White House is operating like a fine-tuned machine. Even as he was offering that defense, though, he tried to guess how his news conference would be covered in today's papers.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Tomorrow, they will say Donald Trump rants and raves at the press. I'm not ranting and raving. I'm just telling you. You know, you're dishonest people. But - but - I'm not ranting and raving. I love this. I'm having a good time doing it.
HORSLEY: And in fact, a senior administration official said the president was in good spirits after the news conference. He'll be in even better spirits tomorrow, probably, when he's hosting a campaign-style rally in Florida surrounded by his supporters rather than White House headaches.
MARTIN: Yeah. So one of those headaches is the fact that he needs a new national security adviser. He wanted Robert Harwood to do this job after Flynn was ousted. But Harwood took himself out of the running. What happened there?
HORSLEY: You know, Harwood is a retired Navy vice admiral. He's a former Navy SEAL. And when now Defense Secretary James Mattis was the commander at Central Command, Harwood was his number two. So he did seem like he had an inside track for the national security adviser job. Last night, though, we learned he had turned it down. Harwood cited a mix of family and financial concerns but also staffing issues, which suggests that maybe he wasn't comfortable working with some of the people who are now running the Trump administration's foreign policy and security apparatus.
MARTIN: So Trump ended up having to take a lot of questions about Michael Flynn during that press conference. And there are still questions about whether Flynn was acting alone or if he was working on orders from someone else at the White House when he had these conversations with the Russian ambassador and then misled Vice President Pence about them. So what did Trump have to say about that yesterday?
HORSLEY: The president said there was nothing wrong with the conversation Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador, which, as we now know, concerned U.S. sanctions that had been imposed on Russia. In fact, the president said if Flynn hadn't been having that conversation, he would have told him to do it. He - the problem, the president stressed, was Flynn's mischaracterization of the conversation in briefing the vice president and others in the administration.
Naturally, though, there have been questions about whether the president or any of his associates were privy to the bigger story here, which of course was Russian cyber meddling in the U.S. election. And Trump was asked repeatedly yesterday about contacts his campaign might have had with Russia in the months leading up to the election. He finally said nobody he knew of had any such contacts.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.