President-elect Donald Trump held his first press conference Wednesday since winning the election and answered questions about his relationship with Russia, arrangements for the future of his business, and some of his plans for the first days of his administration. Trump vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare within the “same hour,” though he did not detail a specific plan. He also promised to name a Supreme Court nominee within the first two weeks after he takes office.
The event was marked by tense exchanges as Trump repeated his refusal to release his tax returns and denounced media outlets that published stories based on unverified allegations about his ties to the Kremlin. Trump vehemently denied the accusations and described them as “fake news” spread by “sick people.”
After his election last year, Trump had announced plans to hold a press conference on Dec. 15 to discuss how he would handle potential conflicts of interest with his business, the Trump Organization. But he postponed that event and ended up going a longer period without a press conference than any president-elect in recent history.
Before Trump came out to speak, his aides set up a table to hold large stacks of files in manila folders. The display prompted speculation that Trump might finally be revealing his tax returns. But the documents, which he did not show to reporters, were just for show; he asserted that they were legal papers transferring operational control of his business to his sons.
Trump began his remarks on Tuesday by blaming “inaccurate news” for his decision not to take questions from the press more often.
“It’s very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis. I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences, and it’s good to be with you. We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news,” Trump said.
Trump went on to address a pair of reports published Tuesday night that touched on unverified accusations about his relationship with Russia. The first report, which came from CNN, said intelligence officials had presented information to Trump alleging that the Russian government had an ongoing relationship with members of his campaign — and, more sensationally, possessed compromising information about him that could be used for blackmail. CNN reported that the allegations came from a memo authored by a former British intelligence officer who was doing opposition research on Trump during the presidential race for both his Republican and Democratic rivals. BuzzFeed followed CNN’s story by publishing what it said was the full document, though it acknowledged that the information was “unconfirmed” and “includes some clear errors.” In his remarks, Trump offered praise for outlets that didn’t report details from the document and stressed that it was unverified. He also repeatedly blasted CNN and BuzzFeed while suggesting that people within the intelligence community had likely leaked the documents to the media.
“I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies, who knows, but maybe the intelligence agencies, which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they, in fact, did that … because a things like that should have never been written, it should never have been had, and it should certainly never have been released,” Trump said.
Trump, who frequently warred with the press during his campaign, said his opinion of the media had improved because many outlets questioned the document.
“I want to thank a lot of the news organizations … some of whom have not treated me very well over the years. … They came out so strongly against that fake news and the fact that it was written about by primarily one group and one television station,” said Trump. “So, I just want to compliment many of the people in the room. I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that. But I will tell you, there were some news organizations, with all that was just said, that were so professional, so incredibly professional that I’ve just gone up a notch as to what I think of you.”
When he began taking questions, Trump was asked if he had indeed been presented with a summary of the allegations in the document when he met with members of the intelligence community Friday. While dismissing the accusations as “crap,” Trump noted that the meeting was “confidential” and declined to say whether the document was discussed. He also reiterated his view that the details of the meeting should not have been leaked to the press.
“It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen, and it was gotten by opponents of ours, as you know, because you reported it and so did many of the other people. It was a group of opponents who got together, sick people, and they put that crap together,” Trump said of the document. “So I will tell you that, not within the meeting but outside of the meeting, somebody released it. No. 1, it shouldn’t have even entered paper, but it should never have been released.”
Intelligence officers briefed Trump on their assessment of Russian cyberattacks on Democrats during the campaign. Based on a public version of the briefing that was released after the meeting, the intelligence agencies informed Trump that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the attacks. At his press conference, Trump was asked whether he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin hacked Democratic targets in an effort to boost his candidacy.
“I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” Trump said.
Trump vowed to make forming a “defense” against hacking a priority. He also criticized the Democratic National Committee for doing a “poor job” of securing its data. Officials have said Russia did attempt to hack Republican targets but was only able to get limited access and did not leak the information publicly, as with the Democrats. Trump speculated that Putin would have publicized information about him if the Russians had obtained it.
“I’ll be honest, I think if he did have something, they would have released it. They would have been glad to release it,” said Trump. “I think, frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would have released it.”
Though Trump stressed that he didn’t support the cyberattacks on Democrats, he praised the information that came out of the hacking. Specifically, he cited email communications showing that Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign may have received advance information about a question that came up during a presidential primary debate.
“Remember this, we talk about the hacking, and hacking’s bad and it shouldn’t be done, but look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hacking, that Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it. That’s a horrible thing,” said Trump. “That’s a horrible thing. Can you imagine that if Donald Trump got the questions to the debate, it would have been the biggest story in the history of stories.”
Trump was also asked about the intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin hoped the cyberattacks would boost his campaign.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS,” Trump said. He added: “If Putin likes Donald Trump — guess what, folks, that’s called an asset, not a liability. Now, I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do, but there’s a good chance I won’t. And, if I don’t, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that? Give me a break.”
Trump went on to discuss the accusation that the Russians have compromising information about him. The document published by BuzzFeed included a claim that Russian officials obtained evidence of Trump participating in a sexual act when he was in the country for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. Trump denied the allegation and said he is always aware of the potential to be spied on with “cameras that are so small” when traveling abroad. He also suggested that he could not have taken part in the specific lewd activities outlined in the document.
“Does anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much of a germophobe, by the way. Believe me,” Trump said, provoking laughs from the assembled reporters.
Later in the press conference Trump blasted BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage.” He also refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta.
“Not you. Your organization’s terrible,” Trump said to Acosta. “I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
Prior to Trump’s rejection of Acosta, another reporter asked the president-elect if he would be willing to release his tax returns to prove that he has no financial ties to Russia. Trump said he has no “loans,” “dealings” or “pending deals” in Russia. But, he said, the president is exempt from federal law regarding conflicts of interest, and he could do business in Russia if he wished. The reporter pressed Trump about his tax returns, and he repeated his past claim that he could not release them because they are “under audit.” Reminded by a reporter that tax experts agree there is no legal reason that Trump couldn’t release his returns if he wished, Trump retorted that the public doesn’t care about seeing them.
“You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters. They’re the only ones,” Trump said.
Calling attention to the table heaped with files, Trump said the paperwork was “some of the many documents” he signed when he turned over “complete and total control” of his business to his sons to avoid potential conflicts of interest. His lawyer, Sheri Dillon of Morgan Lewis, provided further details of Trump’s plans.
According to Dillon, Trump will be “completely isolating himself from his business interests.” She said all the assets “commonly known as the Trump Organization” would be moved to a trust before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Dillon said Trump has “relinquished leadership and management” of the Trump Organization to his sons and another executive. She also said the company would make “no new foreign deals whatsoever” and would appoint an ethics adviser to supervise a “rigorous vetting process” for new domestic deals.
One question that has arisen in connection with Trump’s businesses involves his ownership of hotels — notably the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. — where foreign diplomats and government officials may stay. Dillon said Trump will “voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotels to the United States Treasury.”
Along with the discussion of his businesses and the accusations surrounding Russia, Trump discussed some policy proposals. He doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” While there have been questions about whether Republicans would really replace President Obama’s signature health plan, Trump insisted that he would present an alternative and said it was his intention that the repeal and replacement happen at the same time.
“It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day, could be the same hour,” Trump said. “So we’re going to do repeal-and-replace, very complicated stuff, and we’re going to get a health bill passed. We’re going to get health care taken care of in this country.”
The president-elect also vowed to name a Supreme Court nominee “within two weeks” of his inauguration. Trump said the justice would be drawn from a list of finalists he had previously announced.
Trump was also questioned about his signature campaign promise — building a wall on the border with Mexico. While there have been recent reports that Trump would ask Congress to fund the wall, Trump insisted he will be able to get Mexico to pay for it, as he vowed during the campaign. He claimed he would go to Congress for initial funding so he could begin building the wall while negotiating with Mexico.
“I don’t feel like waiting a year or a year and a half. I’m going to start building,” Trump said. “Mexico — in some form, and there are many different forms — will reimburse us, and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall. That will happen, whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment.”
At the conclusion of his press conference, Trump returned to the Russian imbroglio. He insisted that Russia and other foreign rivals will “have far greater respect for our country” when he takes office. Trump concluded by pointing to the files piled on the table next to his podium and alluding to his famous catchphrase from “The Apprentice” reality television show.
“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,” Trump said. “I hope, at the end of eight years, I’ll come back and I’ll say, ‘Oh, you did a good job.’ Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired.’”
When the press conference was over, Yahoo News asked a Trump staffer for a look at the files on the table. The staffer described the paperwork as “company documents” and refused to show them.
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