Donald Trump’s first news conference as president-elect was bound to be highly anticipated, unusual and chaotic. It was all three. But it also showed how many questions linger a little more than a week before he assumes office.
In Wednesday’s hour-long session, Trump offered some news, such as disclosing his Cabinet nominee for Veterans Affairs and a possible timeline for announcing a Supreme Court pick. But mostly he reverted to form: praising his former Miss Universe pageant, “which did very well,” and assailing certain media outlets as “fake news.”
Trump was not a conventional candidate, and he gives no indication that traditional behavior will be forthcoming. Some of his breaks with tradition may be cheered by supporters, but there is never a substitute for displaying the dignity befitting the office.
Disturbing: No firm stance on Russian interference
On various issues in his freewheeling show, he crossed into dangerous territory — including U.S.-Russia relations, a subject of intense interest given explosive but unverified reports. The reports deal with potentially compromising information, or possibly misinformation, about Trump by a country that does not have America’s best interests at heart.
Trump vehemently denied the accounts — both the two-page report compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies making him aware of information being circulated, and the inflammatory 35-page dossier by a former British intelligence agent on behalf of Trump’s campaign opponents. He also denied any compromising personal behavior during a trip to Russia and attacked the intelligence community over the leaked information. But inexcusably, he did not answer a question about whether any of his representatives had contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
We assume the heads of the intelligence agencies brought their reports to the White House, congressional leaders and the president-elect in the nation’s interest. Publicly discrediting, again, the intelligence community only weakens our country’s first line of defense. Take the disputes private.
Equally disturbing is Trump’s continued disinclination to take a firm stance against Russian interference in the 2016 election. He vowed that Russia would respect him, and he tepidly approved of U.S. sanctions. But his secretary of state nominee was hesitant on the issue Wednesday at a Senate confirmation hearing. And Trump didn’t help clear the air about a too-close relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin. Speaking about himself in the third person, he said, “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.” Rather than stand against the hacks, which he finally admitted were done by Russia, he pivoted to the general problem of state-sponsored cyberattacks. His proposal of a 90-day review on hacking is a worthy one, but does not excuse a shift of focus from Russia.
Needed: Independent oversight of his business
The Russia connection overshadowed another subject scheduled to be the whole focus of a canceled news conference last month: Trump’s announcement of how he would separate himself from The Trump Organization. The details announced Wednesday are troubling and inadequate.
Trump boasted at one point that as recently as last week he turned down $2 billion to make a deal with Dubai developer Damac Properties, emphasizing that he wasn’t required to do so.
“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time,” Trump declared.
That would be an enormous mistake. Leader of the free world is a full-time job. A president entering office with such low approval ratings must gain the public’s trust from the start. There must not even be the appearance of Trump or his family financially benefitting from government service. While ethics statutes don’t apply to the president, steps must be taken to separate Trump from his business interests.
Trump’s proposal is insufficient, from turning the company over to his sons to his pledge to add an ethics adviser to the company payroll. None of this achieves the goal. Having family members run the business is less like a wall, and more like a see-through curtain. An ethics adviser hired by the company will do what’s right for the company — not for the country. The Office of Government Ethics called the plan “meaningless.”
Trump’s divestment of all of his corporate interests may not be possible. But it is necessary to create better safeguards, and independent oversight. More transparency is critical. That includes a release of Trump’s tax returns, and a detailed list of all the foreign governments with which his company works. Trump said his company will do no more foreign deals while he is president. That ban should expand to his domestic ventures as well.
No matter what Trump thinks he can do, he has to focus on one task — being president. He must take seriously the weight of what is facing him. Given his performance Wednesday, it’s not clear all of that has sunk in yet.