A well-respected man
The song was the same, but President-elect Donald Trump revised a few of his lyrics about Russia and Vladimir Putin during his news conference Wednesday.
Yes, Russia hacked the Democrats (but “it could have been others also”). No, Russia shouldn’t do it and won’t do it anymore (but hey, look at what they dug up on Hillary Clinton). There’s a “good chance” he won’t get along with Putin. (But “if Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset.”)
What matters, said Trump, is that “Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I’m leading it,” Newsday’s Emily Ngo reports.
Surprisingly, Trump said he didn’t think President Barack Obama “went too far” in imposing sanctions against Russia over the hacking, but he didn’t answer on whether he would lift them. He has tweeted how Putin was “very smart” not to retaliate.
Bottom line: While Trump won’t dispute the Russian hacking anymore, he still doesn’t seem at all bothered by it, and he has yet to say a bad word about Putin. He had plenty of those, however, for U.S. intelligence agencies, CNN and BuzzFeed.
Shower of insults
Trump saw the hand of intel officials in news media reports late Tuesday about unsubstantiated allegations that Russia had collected blackmail-worthy dirt on him.
“That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do,” Trump said — a comparison that drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League as “a trivialization of the Holocaust.”
Despite all the theater, National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in a rare public statement that he told Trump he does not believe any leaks from Friday's meeting between intelligence officials and Trump came from those agencies.
Because CNN first aired the story about the allegations being passed on to Trump in the classified briefing last week, he angrily refused to take a question from network reporter Jim Acosta. “You are fake news,” he said. (NBC News reported Wednesday that Trump wasn’t given the material at the briefing.)
And Trump trashed BuzzFeed as “a failing pile of garbage.” The website’s posting of unverified findings that were collected by a former British intelligence agent drew criticism from other media organizations as irresponsible.
A denial too far
Addressing one of the agent’s stories — involving a supposed escapade in a Moscow hotel room — Trump said he is constantly aware when traveling abroad that there could be hidden cameras in hotel rooms.
He added dryly, by way of debunking one particular detail, “I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.”
But Trump also said he had no business with Russia. In reality, Trump has pursued business in Russia, and Russians have been big investors in his interests. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008.
Trump also tweeted a denial of the story from the Russian government. His credulousness on their credibility is notable given that a government spokesman also stated — eye roll, please — that the Kremlin “does not engage in compromising material.” Yes, they do. ABC News has some examples.
The take-away: Variety show
The news conference provided more evidence that what Trump says is not cast in stone. Picture ever-shifting, windblown sands.
From the early days of his campaign through the first two months of transition and until now, his positions have swiveled and switched on Russian culpability in hacking, a ban on Muslim immigrants, prosecuting Hillary Clinton and the release of his tax returns, to name more than a few, but far from all. See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.
Fact-checkers also have plenty to say about what Trump said. Here’s the scorekeeping from The Washington Post, PolitiFact and The New York Times. For a full video of the news conference, click here. For a transcript, click here.
Arm’s length? Or stubby finger?
To avoid conflicts of interest, Trump lawyer Sheri Dillon told the news conference that he will turn over control of his businesses to sons Donald Jr. and Eric, and the companies will not pursue new deals abroad.
But Trump is keeping his assets, which will go into a trust, and domestic deals could still be pursued.
Not good enough, said U.S. Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub. He said Trump should agree to “divestiture,” a process under which he would sell his corporate assets and place the profit in a blind trust administered by a neutral trustee approved by the OGE.
Oil man raked over coals
Rex Tillerson faced sharp inquiries at his confirmation hearing from senators still skeptical about how the longtime Exxon Mobil executive would deal with Russia as secretary of state.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) found it discouraging that Tillerson wouldn’t agree that Putin is a “war criminal” for Russia’s role in laying waste to Aleppo, Syria. Tillerson also claimed that Exxon Mobil had not lobbied against sanctioning Russia for its Ukraine intervention, although public records seem to show otherwise, Politico says.
What else is happening
- Trump still says Mexico will pay for his border wall — eventually — but “I don’t want to wait” for the money to start building it. “It will be reimbursed. OK?” Trump said.
- Top spies had a delicate choice to make in revealing the unsubstantiated dossier / memo to Trump, the Washington Post reports.
- Vowing to bring down prices the government pays for drugs, Trump said pharmaceutical companies are “getting away with murder.” Industry stocks slid after the comments.
- Led by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, black lawmakers and civil rights advocates urged a Senate committee to reject the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general, casting him as a foe of civil rights, Newsday’s Tom Brune reports.
- Trump, who hammered the Obama administration’s management of the Department of Veterans Affairs, decided David Shulkin — the current, Obama-picked undersecretary — is the best choice to fix it.
- While Russia preferred Trump, Ukrainian officials tried to help Clinton during the campaign last year by leaking documents linking Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, to pro-Russian interests. Now Ukraine is trying to smooth relations with the next president, Politico reports.
- U.S. Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin, who is worth more than $600 million, plans to divest his interests in 43 companies and investments to avoid conflicts, Bloomberg News says.