Donald Trump, who will be sworn in as president of the United States next week, to the delight of 37 percent of the nation, held his first news conference since July on Wednesday. The raucous event in New York was supposed to have been devoted to Trump’s explanation of how he intends to dodge the many and varied conflicts of interest he will face as president, without selling off his businesses and putting his assets in a blind trust.
Instead, the main topic of discussion was the fallout from the explosive and entirely unsubstantiated claims in a private intelligence dossier compiled by a former intelligence agent working for Trump’s political opponents, which was published by Buzzfeed on Tuesday night. Buzzfeed published the dossier after CNN reported that both President Obama and President-elect Trump were briefed last week on the allegations contained in it — chiefly that Trump’s campaign collaborated with the Russian government and that, according to anonymous sources, Russia has compromising personal information about Trump.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had the raw, unverified intelligence since the summer, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reported on Wednesday. Sen. John McCain confirmed that he discussed its contents with FBI Director James Comey last month.
Trump’s fury at the reporting of this material, which he said “was released by, maybe, the intelligence agencies,” dominated the news conference, but in addition to his denial that any of the allegations were true, several other matters of real importance were raised that are worth digesting. Here are some of the most significant moments from Trump’s exchanges with the press, which could resonate even more strongly after he takes office.
Trump Pivots From ‘Yeah, Right’ to ‘So What?’ on Russian Hackers
Throughout his campaign and up until this afternoon, Donald Trump has refused to seriously entertain the possibility that the Russian government hacked Democratic Party emails. Even when presented with intelligence briefings and classified evidence by the heads of the U.S. intelligence agencies he will soon command, Trump persisted in deferring to (and retweeting) Julian Assange, perhaps the only relevant party with less credibility at present than himself. The closest Trump ever came to acknowledging the prospect of Kremlin attribution for the online attacks came before the election, when he half-jokingly called on Russia to pilfer messages deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
But in a press conference today at Trump Tower, the president-elect was asked whether he now believes the (almost entirely classified) case against Russia pitched by his spy chiefs. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he replied. Amazingly, however, he proceeded to downplay and almost entirely dismiss the email plot in the same breath as he took it seriously:
I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And, I can say that you know when, when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China. … We had much hacking going on.
At the end of the press conference, Trump came back to this point with a mix of indifference and bravado:
[Putin] shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it. You will see that. Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it. I don’t believe that he will be doing it more now.
We have to work something out, but it’s not just Russia. Take a look at what’s happened. You don’t report it the same way; 22 million accounts were hacked in this country by China. And that’s because we have no defense. That’s because we’re run by people that don’t know what they’re doing.
Trump here effortlessly pivots on Russian hacking from saying Yeah, right to So what?, using the vastness and pervasiveness of cyber-warfare as a reason for treating the Democratic National Committee breach as merely one among many. Trump may be right, mathematically, that the DNC attack was one attack among many occurring around the clock. But to give the idea of Russian involvement in an attack on the American election no greater attention than he would any other attack by any other country is only to repeat what Trump had been doing before he said the words: Change the subject.
Off-Stage, Trump Denies Contact With Russian Officials
The presence of a deeply incriminating, completely unverified bombshell dossier on the president-elect loomed large over his press conference, providing him with ample ammunition to derail his own event at will. But the document also provided the media with opportunities to confront Trump with some of the less outlandish allegations — namely, reports that he and his camp have close, toxic ties with both the Russian government and oligarchy. Among the allegations of ominous closeness with Russia, the dossier says that the “Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents” as well as an “exchange of information established in both directions,” part of what the report describes as an “extensive conspiracy” between Trump’s presidential campaign and Vladimir Putin.
When asked by ABC’s Cecelia Vega whether he could “say that no one connected to you or your campaign had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the presidential campaign,” Trump answered only the second part of her question, which pertained to Russia’s role in the DNC hack. Vega later tweeted that Trump answered the question with a “no” only after the broadcast had concluded.
Before Trump took the stage, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, attacked reporters for taking seriously the allegations in the dossier that a former foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, had met with Russian officials on behalf of Trump’s campaign. “Carter Page,” Spicer said, “is an individual who the president-elect does not know.”
As Andrew Kirell of the Daily Beast noted, Trump named Page as one of his foreign policy advisers in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board last March.
Trump Mocked Reporter for Asking to See His Tax Returns
Asked by Hallie Jackson of NBC News if he would release his tax returns to prove that he had no financial ties to the Russian government, Trump scoffed at the idea. “Gee, I’ve never heard that,” he said sarcastically. After offering his usual, nonsensical excuse — “I’m not releasing the tax returns because as you know, they’re under audit” — Trump insisted that “the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters.
When Jackson followed up, asking, “You don’t think the American public is concerned about it?” Trump replied: “No I don’t think so: I won, I mean, I became president.”
When he then added, “No, I don’t think they care at all,” his comment was cheered by the group of aides and supporters who were in the room for the event. That claque, according to Mike Grynbaum of the New York Times, included Omarosa Manigault, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” who was hired last week to focus on “public engagement” for the Trump White House.
Leaving aside that Trump was elected president by a minority of the voters — taking just 46.1 percent of the popular vote, millions less than his rival, Hillary Clinton — his claim that no one cares about him concealing his taxes has been consistently contradicted by polling. In surveys conducted after the election, a clear majority of the public has expressed the view that Trump should make his tax returns public, as noted by Emily Guskin of the Washington Post and Richard Auxier of the Tax Policy Center.
Most Americans want Trump to release his tax returns. 60% in a Pew poll, 60% in a CBS poll, both post election.— Emily Guskin (@EmGusk) January 11, 2017
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, conducted a less scientific poll on Twitter, urging the public to demonstrate to Trump that voters do, indeed, want to see what, if anything, he may be hiding in his tax returns.
“You’re Fake News,” Trump Told CNN Reporter
Enraged by CNN’s initial report that he and President Obama had been briefed on the contents of the unverified intelligence dossier — which prompted Buzzfeed to publish the whole document — Trump refused to take a question from the network’s senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. When Acosta persisted, telling the president-elect he should let him ask a question, “since you are attacking our news organization,” Trump said, “I’m not going to give you a question, you are fake news.”
While freezing out CNN for a perfectly reasonable and clearly sourced report (which included none of the salacious details of the dossier), Trump did find time to take questions from conservative outlets that openly supported his candidacy, including One American News Network and Breitbart News. (“Only one seat was saved by a Republican National Committee aide,” Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press reported, “a front-row spot for a reporter from Breitbart, the conservative news outlet until recently run by Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon.”)
Matt Boyle, the Breitbart reporter Trump called on, helpfully asked the president-elect to expand his attack on the broadcaster he’d just slammed. “With CNN’s decision to publish fake news,” Boyle said, “and all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media over the course of the election, what reforms do you recommend for this industry here?”
Trump Dodged Question on Russia Sanctions by Mocking Lindsey Graham
Asked by a reporter for his response to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill imposing tougher sanctions on Russia for the hacking that helped get him elected, Trump appeared to be genuinely baffled.
“I hadn’t heard Lindsey Graham was going to do that,” Trump said.
Rather than reply to the question, Trump then returned to campaign-trail mode, mocking the South Carolina senator’s poor showing in last year’s Republican primaries. “Lindsey Graham,” Trump said to laughter from his supporters at the side of the stage, “I’ve been competing with him for a long time. He is going to crack that 1 percent barrier one day. I didn’t realize Lindsey Graham’s still at it.”
As the Atlantic’s national correspondent, James Fallows, observed, taunting Graham seemed impolitic for the incoming president, considering the relatively narrow margin his party enjoys in the Senate.
Given that Graham, McCain and Marco Rubio — another former rival Trump has mocked mercilessly — have recently called for a tougher U.S. response to suspected Russian meddling, it seems likely that a majority of the Senate is already gearing up to defy him on the issue.
Trump Made a Mockery of His Own Ethics Plan In Closing Joke
In the final moments of the press conference, as Trump labored to close with a joke, he seemed to undermine the idea that turning the operation of his business over to his sons,
Uday and Qusay Don Jr. and Eric, would take care of any conflict of interest questions.
Pointing to a huge pile of papers laid out to his right, Trump told the press, “these papers — because I’m not sure that was explained properly — but these papers are all just a piece of the many, many companies that are being put into trust to be run by my two sons.”
“I hope at the end of eight years,” Trump added, “I’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, you did a good job.’ Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired.'”
If the point of the pile of papers was to convince voters that Trump would have no interest in the success of his company during his hiatus as chief maker of American greatness, the gag revealed that he reserves the right to punish his children later if they do not make a bundle during his presidency.