At Trump Tower in New York, Donald Trump held his first press conference since becoming the president-elect. Here are some initial thoughts on what we witnessed today:
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A Wall, but No Wall
Yes, Trump remains committed to a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But when it comes to a wall between Trump and his business interests, the arrangement he announced Wednesday doesn’t come close to what ethics experts have recommended. Putting his sons in charge of his empire won’t provide meaningful financial separation between the president and the businesses he helped build, said Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush. Trump even bragged during the press conference about turning down a $2 billion deal in Dubai that he said he could have accepted, saying, “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” He isn’t quite doing that, but there’s nothing in this arrangement that could stop the perception or the reality of that happening, other than the honor system.
Notably, Trump said he now accepts that Russia was most likely behind the cyberattacks during the campaign that intelligence officials say were intended to help his candidacy. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to say bad things about Russian President Vladimir Putin or to even question his motives. “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability,” Trump said. He continued to blame the Democratic National Committee for not having adequate cyberdefenses. Asked directly what his message to Putin is regarding hacking, Trump responded, “He shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it.” Trump’s hope is that projecting U.S. strength will change the relationship with Russia. But he’s still handling the bear with kid gloves.
Perhaps the harshest words Trump had for any group in his press conference were for the intelligence community. “A tremendous blot on their record,” he said in accusing intelligence officials of leaking details of what he’s been briefed on in classified sessions. “I think it’s a disgrace ... That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” He will, of course, be the main consumer of intelligence information in nine days. He’s entering the presidency in the midst of an unprecedented war of words with intelligence professionals — with real consequences soon enough.
In talking about some legislative priorities, it’s clear that Trump has little patience for the traditions and niceties of Congress, at least for now. He mocked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — “He is going to crack that 1 percent barrier one day” — even though Graham will be a needed ally on Capitol Hill. More significant, Trump pointed to a preferred path for repealing and replacing “Obamacare” that isn’t under serious consideration in the House or the Senate. Without offering details of how to do it, he said repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act would “most likely be on the same day or the same week but probably the same day. Could be the same hour.” And he offered this unusually frank piece of advice on the issue to his own party: “We don’t want to own it. We don’t want to own it politically.”
‘Fake News’ Belongs to Trump Too
The term that’s been used to describe malicious attempts to spread falsehoods and misinformation? The incoming president plans to use it as well. “Fake news” is what Trump labeled the unsubstantiated information about him that circulated widely this week after being included in an intelligence briefing. It’s also the term he used to describe news outlets that reported on that information on Tuesday. The label has been most commonly associated with efforts to influence politics through deliberate falsehoods circulated online. But Trump and his team are twisting that meaning. “I think it’s just something we’re going to have to live with,” he said of fake news. “I guess the advantage I have is that I can speak back.”
That Was Weird
Trump press conferences look as if they will be quite different from his predecessors’, if today’s was any indication. His long-delayed first press conference as president-elect featured props, sparring with reporters, a meandering opening statement and a long section in which a lawyer read a statement about Trump’s business plans. Along the way, he dropped news tidbits about his Cabinet, Supreme Court timeline, his legislative priorities and why he would never do anything untoward in a hotel in Moscow. His exchanges with the press appear unlikely to be dull affairs. They might also be extraordinarily combative, as with his repeated refusal to allow a CNN reporter to ask a question. This ride is going to be wild.