WASHINGTON — Standing in the Rose Garden on Friday morning, President Trump heaped praise on Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio show host, who earlier in the week gave his blessing to a bipartisan spending bill that did not include the money Mr. Trump had demanded for a wall.
“This guy is unbelievable,” Mr. Trump said. “Try speaking for three hours without taking calls.”
During Mr. Trump’s 50 minutes of discursive remarks, which were ostensibly to announce a national emergency to build a wall along the southern border, the president appeared to be taking that challenge himself.
Forced to confront arguably the biggest surrender of his presidency, Mr. Trump did what he often does after a loss: respond with distraction, digression and entertainment, through a fog of words.
There was no teleprompter. He hardly looked at his notes. There was just Mr. Trump, dressed in a dark overcoat and bright blue tie, free-associating in tweetable sound bites, and setting off the furious clicks of cameras every time he gesticulated with his arms.
The president’s public schedule said nothing about a loss, and indeed a White House handout was titled “President Donald J. Trump’s Border Security Victory.” His Rose Garden event was billed as “remarks on the national security and humanitarian crisis on our southern border,” and he was about 40 minutes late.
When he finally emerged from the Oval Office, Mr. Trump spent another 10 minutes riffing about his administration’s successes before getting to the point of the gathering, which included his new attorney general, William P. Barr, and the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, sitting shoulder to shoulder with a group of “angel moms” hugging photographs of their slain relatives.
First, Mr. Trump praised his trade negotiations with China. “It’s going extremely well,” he said. But then he added, “Who knows what that means, because it only matters if we get it done.” He moved on to North Korea, expressing his excitement about a second summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, scheduled for this month in Vietnam. “We think that North Korea and Chairman Kim have a tremendous potential as an economic force and economic power,” Mr. Trump said.
After his burying-the-news preamble, Mr. Trump finally got to the point.
“So, I’m going to be signing a national emergency,” Mr. Trump said, almost as an afterthought. Anticipating blowback to a measure that he was strongly warned against by Republican lawmakers and members of his own administration, Mr. Trump immediately explained that his predecessors had made national emergency declarations for “far less important things in some cases.”
Employing a singsong voice that seemed meant to play down the significance of the separation of powers he will be testing, Mr. Trump walked through what he anticipated would be the legal ramifications of his order.
“They will sue us in the Ninth Circuit even though it shouldn’t be there,” he said. “And we will possibly get a bad ruling. And then we will get another bad ruling. And then we will end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we will get a fair shake and win in the Supreme Court just like the ban.”
The Rose Garden has become Mr. Trump’s chosen backdrop for pitching defeats as victories. After the House voted to repeal most of the Affordable Care Act in May 2017, Mr. Trump celebrated in the Rose Garden, with about 100 Republican lawmakers, taking a victory lap. Two months later, the measure failed in the Senate.
Then in January, Mr. Trump stepped into the Rose Garden after meeting with Republican and Democratic leadership, declaring that he was willing to let a partial government shutdown last months, or even years, if that was what it took to obtain his requested $ 5.7 billion for a wall. And a few weeks later, he was back in the same spot, announcing that he was reopening the government for three weeks after caving to the Democrats on his previously nonnegotiable demand for wall money.
Friday’s Rose Garden performance followed a similar script: defense by distraction.
The bill Mr. Trump signed gave him just $ 1.375 billion for fencing and border security, but he claimed victory over Democrats because of other funds in the measure. “They didn’t even fight us on most of the stuff,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with all the money they are giving us. It’s crazy.” But Mr. Trump did acknowledge that “on the wall, they skimped.”
He took not-at-all-veiled shots at Paul D. Ryan, the former House speaker, for failing to pass a bill when Republicans still controlled the House. “People that should have stepped up did not step up,” he said. When asked by a reporter if he was specifically referring to Mr. Ryan, the president responded: “Let’s not talk about it. What difference does it make?”
Mr. Trump waffled on whether he knew Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, who has been harshly critical of what she regards as his lack of commitment to building the wall, or whether he liked her.
“I hardly know her,” he said, when asked if a cadre of right-wing personalities was influencing him on policy. “She is probably really nice. I just don’t have the time to speak to her.”
Mr. Trump did say he had spoken to her, just not this year. He then added that Ms. Coulter, whom he unfollowed on Twitter in December, after months of criticism, “is off the reservation.”
“Anybody that knows her understands that,” he continued. “I haven’t spoken to her. I don’t follow her.”
Mr. Trump’s own advisers have admitted that the White House lost the public relations war surrounding the 35-day partial government shutdown, but he insisted that he had, in fact, won the messaging battle. He cited a 52 percent approval rating in a recent Rasmussen poll as an example that “people get what we are doing,” even though it was an outlier from other polls, in which he averages 40.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics website.
“They really get it and I’m honored by it,” he added.
Mr. Trump said President Barack Obama “told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.” And he said that Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, had nominated him for a Nobel Prize, although he admitted, “I’ll probably never get it but that’s O.K.”
He called on his favorite “fake news” nemesis, Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, who pressed the president on his claim that there is a security crisis at the southern border, despite the fact that illegal border crossings have fallen in recent years, and asked him to respond to critics who said he had “concocted” an emergency.
In response, Mr. Trump pointed to the angel moms, as conservatives call the mothers of children who were killed by undocumented immigrants, seated in the front row.
“I ask the angel moms, what do you think? Do you think I’m creating something? Ask these incredible women who lost their daughters and their sons,” Mr. Trump said, before accusing Mr. Acosta of being “fake news” and driven by an agenda.
Earlier in the program, Mr. Trump had asked one of the grieving mothers to stand up and show off a picture of her child. Ms. Nielsen sat next to her and rubbed her back when she sat down.
Throughout, Mr. Trump focused on grisly, specific stories while ignoring questions about why there needed to be a national emergency now, as opposed to two years ago. “That young wiseguy drove over and killed eight people,” he said of a terrorist attack in Manhattan in October 2017. “He had many people brought in because he was in the United States. It’s called chain migration.”
All in all, it was a typical Trumpian performance that had too many tangents to focus on any one thing he said.
“No notes and no net — it’s pure President Trump,” said one senior administration official describing the spectacle.
Mr. Trump ended the news conference with a personal send-off to Mr. Barr, who was sworn in on Thursday. “I want to wish our new attorney general great luck and speed,” Mr. Trump said. “Enjoy your life.”