Trump Dodges Questions Over Ties to Russia
The president-elect conceded Moscow hacked the U.S. election, but accused intelligence agencies of ‘Nazi’ tactics.
In a chaotic and raucous press conference on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump furiously denied allegations that Russia had compromising material about him, but avoided answering questions about his campaign’s possible contacts with officials in Moscow before the November election.
Trump said allegations published Tuesday that Russia may have compiled salacious and damaging material about him amounted to “fake news” and “crap” promoted by “sick people.” He attacked U.S. intelligence agencies over the leak and some news media outlets for reporting it.
“I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out there,” said Trump, whose national political prominence came from peddling falsehoods about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. “I think it’s a disgrace . . . That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done.”
Taking questions from reporters for the first time since the summer — when he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack the emails of his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — Trump finally acknowledged Russia had likely meddled in the U.S. election. He had previously refused to blame Moscow for the hacks, disputing the conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies.
But he played down the significance of Russia’s interference, blamed the Democratic National Committee for failing to set up strong safeguards to prevent hacking, and repeatedly cited China as the main cyber threat to the United States.
Trump’s comments days before his inauguration raise the prospect of open warfare between his administration and the intelligence community, and will fuel speculation about the nature of Russia’s communications with his campaign.
Trump failed to answer a question at the televised news conference about whether his campaign had dealings with Russia. But afterward, he reportedly came back to the journalist who asked the question and denied his team had contacts with Moscow.
However, two days after the U.S. presidential vote in November, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his government had conversations with Trump’s team during the campaign. And the Wall Street Journal has reported that the president-elect’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., attended a private conference in October in Paris on the Syrian civil war that was hosted by a French institute supporting cooperation with Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The former reality television host and real estate mogul has consistently praised Putin, despite bipartisan skepticism about Moscow’s intentions, and alarm over Russia’s armed intervention in neighboring Ukraine and its nuclear saber-rattling. Allegations that Russia may have had damning personal and financial material on Trump will likely reinforce concerns among lawmakers that the president-elect is prepared to make damaging concessions to Russia.
Senators grilled former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, on Wednesday, pressing him especially to take a harder line toward Russia and its destabilizing behavior.
In a disjointed news conference, punctuated by cheers and applause from his aides in the hall, Trump again refused to release his tax returns as a way to put to rest allegations of financial connections to Russia. “You know the only ones who care about my tax returns are reporters,” he said, though polls show a majority of Americans believe Trump should release them.
Instead, Trump approvingly cited Putin’s own denial that Moscow had assembled an incriminating dossier on the New York businessman.
“I respected the fact that he said that,” he said.
And he defended his friendly approach to the Russian president: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
Apart from lashing out at the intelligence agencies, Trump also went after media organizations that he said had promulgated “phony” allegations about him, refusing to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta.
As Acosta repeatedly asked for a chance to ask a question, Trump cut him off in an angry exchange.
“I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
Trump also blasted Buzzfeed News, which published the unsubstantiated allegations Tuesday, warning: “I think they are going to suffer the consequences.”
The dossier, allegedly written by a former British intelligence official, was considered credible enough to serve as the basis for a memo included in last week’s briefing about Russian hacking for President Barack Obama, Trump, and top lawmakers. But it hinges on a single source, and U.S. spy agencies and news media outlets have not been able to verify the allegations.
The dossier alleges a regular exchange of intelligence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, a quid pro quo on matters of U.S. foreign policy, and a sordid sexual episode featuring Trump, prostitutes, and a Moscow Ritz Carlton suite.
The press conference in the lobby of his New York offices was meant to address potential conflicts of interest between Trump’s role as president and his sprawling business empire. But he did little to assuage those concerns, repeating that he feels no legal obligation to separate himself from his business interests, and announcing that the Trump empire will be run by his sons.
“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time . . .I don’t like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to,” Trump said.
Ethics lawyers from previous administrations and lawmakers have urged Trump to shift his business holdings into a blind trust to avoid an unprecedented array of possible conflicts of interest.
Trump said he had turned down a lucrative business deal in the past few days — even though he argued he could have accepted it under the law.
“Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East,” Trump said, adding that he declined the offer.
“I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is – I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have.”
Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Image