President-elect Donald Trump conceded Wednesday that he believes Russia was behind the cyberattack of political email accounts during the presidential election campaign, but he forcefully rejected as “fake news” published reports that Russian operatives had compromising information about him.
“I think it was Russia,” he told reporters in his most direct acknowledgment yet that the Kremlin sought to interfere in the election, as U.S. intelligence agencies have found. Trump in the past has doubted the intelligence on Russia’s role.
On Wednesday, he repeated that he believes the Democrats made themselves vulnerable and that he will, as president, beef up cybersecurity.
The president-elect took questions at Trump Tower in Manhattan in his first formal news conference since July, also addressing how he plans to limit conflicts of interest and other topics. He was joined by his three eldest children, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and top aides.
Trump criticized CNN and BuzzFeed for reporting on a dossier, which BuzzFeed published in full, about his alleged salacious behavior — unsubstantiated accounts that the outlets said U.S. agents told Trump could be used by the Russians against him.
“It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff,” he said.
“Does anybody believe that story?” he asked. He commended other news organizations for scrutinizing the information’s veracity.
The Russian government also denied the reports.
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted, “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
The Anti-Defamation League condemned the comparison as inappropriate and said in a statement, “It also coarsens our discourse and diminishes the horror of the Holocaust.”
Trump blamed political opponents for circulating the alleged compromising information, calling them “sick people.”
He reiterated that he doesn’t believe that Russia has anything with which to influence his presidency, which begins Jan. 20 after his inauguration.
“I have no loans with Russia at all. I have no deals. I have no loans. I have no dealings,” he said.
He told ABC News he and his associates weren’t in contact with Russians during his campaign.
Asked what he would say to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised publicly but who U.S. intelligence officials said ordered the hacking, the president-elect said: “He shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it.”
But he also defended his friendlier relationship with the former KGB member.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump — guess what, folks? — that’s an asset, not a liability,” Trump said. “ ... Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I’m leading it.”
Trump and his transition team also announced Wednesday that Dr. David Shulkin is his nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary.
Shulkin, who would be the first nonveteran to lead the department, currently serves as undersecretary for health in President Barack Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump has lamented the wait that some veterans endure for health care and has said he wants to make it easier for them to seek services outside of Veterans Affairs medical centers.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, gave a lukewarm review of the selection of Shulkin.
Zeldin, the Shirley Republican, has not always been satisfied with answers provided by Shulkin since the former New York internist was appointed to his post by Obama in 2015 to fix the VA’s scandal of its staff falsifying patient wait times.
“After several opportunities to interact with Dr. Shulkin these past two years, I’m confident that he is fully aware of the many challenges that currently exist,” Zeldin said. “What I am eager to be assured of though is that he is actually going to do everything that needs to be done about it.”
Asked about a replacement for Obamacare, which Trump and Republican leaders have set out to repeal, the president-elect said a new version would come “on the same day or the same week” or even “the same hour.”
He also gave himself a two-week deadline for naming a Supreme Court nominee to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia.
With Laura Figueroa and Tom Brune