WASHINGTON — He joked with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos after filleting him in public, brought up a recent “60 Minutes” episode with CBS’s Scott Pelley and shook hands with Jake Tapper of CNN, the cable network that the commander in chief loves to hate.
All presidents lunch with major news anchors. But this week’s White House gathering was different. The president kept his guests 30 minutes beyond the allotted hour, was gracious and spoke so much that he left his peekytoe crab salad untouched — a recognition, those close to him say, that he must sell himself to the Washington news media because he believes the people who work for him cannot.
Mr. Trump, after all, had conceded only the day before on national television that “in terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C-plus.” In the same interview, on “Fox & Friends,” the president described his press secretary, Sean Spicer, as “a fine human being.” The language struck close Trump associates as a dismissive turn from a man who relishes hyperbole.
Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Mr. Trump who visited him in the Oval Office on Wednesday, said that the president was experiencing “a lot of angst” about his negative coverage. But Mr. Trump, he said, was feeling energized after his speech to Congress on Tuesday. “He said to me, ‘People tell me that it was the best speech I ever gave,’” Mr. Ruddy said. “He seemed really pleased.”
A master media manipulator and storyteller, Mr. Trump went without a traditional press secretary during the presidential campaign, preferring to field queries on his own. Now he is increasingly taking command of his administration’s message making, and privately expressing frustration with a White House press office under siege amid leaks and infighting.
John Catsimatidis, the Manhattan businessman and a Trump friend of three decades, said he would counsel Mr. Trump to give better directions to the press office. He should “sit down with them and tell them, ‘You have to explain things to people in a way where it’s completely understandable to everybody.’”
Mr. Catsimatidis, who praised Mr. Trump’s delivery in his Tuesday speech to Congress, said the president remained his own best messenger. “Everybody hates his tweets, but at least people know what he’s really thinking,” Mr. Catsimatidis said.
That view is shared by a cadre of Trump allies and advisers, who watched him engage repeatedly with reporters throughout the campaign and found the coverage of their boss to be the better for it. For the first few weeks of his new administration, Mr. Trump was mostly cloistered in the West Wing, away from journalists, save for the occasional phone interview.
The president reached his limit as a media shut-in after a particularly tough week of headlines last month, when he decided he wanted to fight back himself, despite the objections of some advisers, at a hastily arranged news conference. The result was a 77-minute Trump tour de force that — while filled with presidential grievances and meandering complaints about media coverage — was at least viewed as a cathartic exercise for a frustrated commander in chief.
The news conference was, in many ways, a natural outgrowth of Mr. Trump’s adjustment to the sprawling bureaucracy of the White House after decades of overseeing a close-knit business. Mr. Trump, who speaks to hundreds of people but trusts very few of them, is surrounded by a group of staff members who are still new to him.
Of those he knows well, Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor and a frequent on-air face of the administration, came under fire after she described a terrorist “massacre” that never took place. She has often described Mr. Trump as his own best spokesman.
In the meantime a distrustful atmosphere pervades the White House press office, which is a mixture of Trump loyalists and Republican National Committee alumni divided by a “line in the sand,” as one former campaign adviser put it.
To be sure, anyone serving as press secretary for Mr. Trump has a thankless task, and Mr. Spicer’s turn at the controls of the Trump train has been bumpy enough to deter several Republican strategists from seeking a job in the White House.
Mr. Trump hired Mr. Spicer at the urging of his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, despite his own lingering questions about the strategist’s loyalty, according to four former campaign officials, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions with Mr. Trump.
The president offers Mr. Spicer frequent critiques of his performance in the briefing room, and while the press secretary has improved in the president’s estimation, Mr. Trump was displeased by a series of recent unforced errors.
Mr. Spicer has become convinced that he is facing leaks from his own staff. In a highly unusual move, described by two people with direct knowledge of the situation, Mr. Spicer, in the middle of the week before Mr. Trump’s speech, summoned his aides to a conference room and demanded that they turn over personal and work smartphones, an attempt to smoke out leaks.
Mr. Trump was unaware of — and, according to two senior administration officials, displeased by — Mr. Spicer’s leak hunt. Mr. Spicer’s move was itself leaked to Politico.
Asked on “Fox & Friends” about the incident, Mr. Trump drew some distance between himself and his press secretary. “I would have done it differently,” Mr. Trump told the Fox anchors Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade. “I would have handled it differently than Sean.” He added, “But Sean handles it his way and I’m O.K. with it.”
The press office has also become distracted by small grievances, with some staff members displaying Mr. Trump’s signature bravado in the service of settling smaller scores.
Mr. Spicer’s long-running feud with a Politico reporter, Alex Isenstadt, which predates the campaign, led to a planted item in The Washington Examiner, a conservative-leaning newspaper, asserting that Mr. Isenstadt, who helped break the phone hunt story, had laughed about the death of a United States soldier while speaking to Mr. Spicer. Politico officials denied the allegation.
The press secretary has some high-profile defenders. Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager who remains close to the administration, said in an interview that Mr. Spicer was “a consummate professional who understands the media.”
“He is continuing to represent the president in a way that is authentic and direct to the American people,” Mr. Lewandowski said.
Over the last few days, Mr. Trump has appeared to acknowledge that he needs to work at getting better press. At the lunch with the network anchors, Mr. Trump again used a low grade to describe the White House messaging. But this time, according to two people present, he added, “That’s on me.”