At his first proper press conference as President-elect, Trump and team provided answers for a number of long-burning questions, sort of. Trump held his last full press conference on July 27 and months later canceled plans for a December 15 press event at which he was expected to assuage concerns about his myriad conflicts of interest.
In an unconventional opening at Wednesday’s press event, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attacked the press, dismissing the unverified 35-page memo BuzzFeed chose to make available to the public as “frankly outrageous” (hard to argue) and “highly irresponsible” (not his call to make).
Spicer conflated CNN and BuzzFeed’s reporting around Russian blackmail on Trump, although CNN’s story was notable for its byline by venerable Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein and BuzzFeed was the first to publish the source documents, with a disclaimer that while they are indeed unverified, they hold enough potential credibility for Arizona Senator John McCain to have delivered a copy to FBI James Comey in December. Spicer claimed that “the report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple,” although his administration itself has given little credence to reports from the intelligence community and the document did indeed circulate among intelligence officials, making it difficult to dismiss outright.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence then took his turn castigating the captive press, gathered there for the rare opportunity to pose questions to the president-elect, who has shown a unique fear of or disdain for such press events and their off-the-cuff question and answer format. In a bizarre turn, Trump claimed that his campaign was famed for its frequent press conferences: “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.” In fact, the campaign held press events extremely infrequently, a trend that shows signs of continuing.
Much of the press event, not unlike most press events, was 100 percent spin, though a few interesting developments — and one deeply consequential one — did emerge.
Trump unsurprisingly took the opportunity to cast himself as a victim of the BuzzFeed memo’s unverified allegations, one of his favorite tactics to employ against perceived political enemies. In yet another adversarial moment with the U.S. intelligence community, Trump cast the report and memo as a “tremendous blot” on the record of intelligence agencies. He went on to praise news organizations that withheld the report as “so professional — so incredibly professional” that he had “just gone up a notch as to what I think of you” — a clear message of potential reward for any outlets interested in playing softball with the Trump administration moving forward.
Back to jobs
Trump then shifted into his favored back-patting posture, citing both isolated and abstract points about job creation in the automotive, pharmaceutical and defense industries. He also paused to give a shout-out to the tech executives who’d recently made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tesla’s Elon Musk (he did not mention Musk by name). Ma joins SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son in throwing some buzzy unearned job creation PR Trump’s way in exchange for a business edge in Trump’s economy.
“And I will say, if the election didn’t turn out the way it turned out, they would not be here. They would not be in my office. They would not be in anybody else’s office,” Trump claimed in an obvious reach. “They’d be building and doing things in other countries. So, there’s a great spirit going on right now. A spirit that many people have told me they’ve never seen before, ever.”
Trump blames Russian hacking, kind of
As the event moved from posturing into the Q&A, Trump deflected Tuesday’s reports of Russian kompromat as “fake news” by “sick people” who “shouldn’t have even entered paper.” Which paper was not specified, but we’ll assume he means something more akin to “been published.” He jumped from there to one of the biggest moments of the press conference, in which Trump appears to join the intelligence community at last:
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And I — 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.”
If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability. Donald Trump
Trump appears to have shifted quickly from the DNC and Podesta hacks to 2015’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach, pointing a finger at a more personally comfortable enemy. He then lobbed attacks at the DNC for doing a “poor job” protecting its digital assets compared to the RNC, although evidence suggests that the RNC indeed had some older servers penetrated, although the material was not leaked. In a third-person flourish moments later, Trump asserted that “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”
As reporters pressed further about the kompromat reports, Trump claimed to be well versed in the art of avoiding foreign surveillance:
“And I always tell them — anywhere, but I always tell them if I’m leaving this country, ‘Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.’ I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category.”
And number one, “I hope you’re gonna be good anyway. But in those rooms, you have cameras in the strangest places. Cameras that are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful, or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television.”
Trump will not divest
The real meat of the press conference dealt with Trump’s business conflicts of interest — a topic that the Trump team first said they’d address in mid-December. Trump batted away a few questions about his tax returns with the usual line about auditing before reassuring the press that his combined business dealings are “much bigger, much more powerful than they ever thought,” spread across “many, many countries,” which seems to only exacerbate ethics concerns around the Trump organization.
Trump then called in lawyer Sheri Dillon to explain how his family would — and would not — disentangle his finances from the highest office in the nation. According to Dillon, Trump is taking “extraordinary steps” with his finances, none of which will involve financial divestment or a blind trust, two of the most transparent, robust options. Dillon confirmed that Trump will hand over his business to his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. As many have noted, in a jarring break with tradition, Eric and Donald Jr. both attend meetings with their father, and were seated at the head of the table when the President-elect beckoned tech executives to Trump Tower last month.
He will only know of a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV. Sheri Dillon
In a comment that sets up a strange future in which Trump can blame the press itself for covering the Trump Organization’s conflicts of interest, Dillon stated that, “The president-elect will have no role in deciding whether the Trump Organization engages in any new deal and he will only know of a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV.” This does not seem possible, of course, unless he opts to stop speaking to the children running his business altogether.
The Trump organization will make “no new foreign deals” during his presidency, though, as Trump reminded us earlier during the same event, he has deals in many, many foreign countries already and those will remain. Domestic deals, on the other hand, are fair game for some reason, and Trump’s sons can contract with whom they please, subject to unspecified ethics reviews.
Beyond not divesting his assets and creating a not-at-all blind trust, Dillon announced that the Trump organization would not remove itself from the sticky issue of foreign leaders paying to stay at Trump hotels, opting instead to funnel foreign payments to those hotels directly to the United States Treasury.
“So, President-elect Trump has decided, and we are announcing today, that he is going to voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotel to the United States Treasury. This way, it is the American people who will profit.”
Trump’s legal team seems confident that the American people will be appeased by this sleight of hand and that it will satisfy the much-discussed emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution which states:
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
How Trump’s strange treasury proposal fits into those legal guidelines remains — as does so much else about the Trump administration — to be seen.