President-Elect Trump's First Presser: Russian Hacking, "Fake News" Narratives Dominate
The president-elect hadn't held a press conference in 168 days.
Donald Trump emerged from the upper floors of his gilded Trump Tower to take questions from reporters in his first press conference in 168 days. The proceedings kicked off cordially enough, but the presser devolved into a circus that included the mogul signing off from the event referencing his "You're fired" line from his Celebrity Apprentice days.
To start, Trump acknowledged that it's been a while since he's held a press conference. And then noted: "I think we maybe won the nomination because of news conferences," presumably referring to the much-criticized unfiltered wall-to-wall coverage that cable news gave him during the campaign.
He then thanked some members of the media for not publishing details of the salacious and unsubstantiated report that Russia has gathered compromising information on Trump, including being in the company of prostitutes and requesting golden showers. On the latter, he noted that he's "a very big germ-a-phobe."
"I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies, who knows...," he said, and declined to publish it. And then added that if the U.S. intelligence community did leak the report, it would be a "tremendous blot" on the agencies.
The news organizations that did not publish the report were "so professional," he continued. They have "just gone up a notch" in his estimation, though many of them did not always treat him fairly, he said.
Trump has called the report, which has apparently been circulating in journalistic and political circles since last fall, "fake news" in a Tweet on Tuesday. U.S. intelligence agencies have not substantiated the claims in the report, but considered them explosive enough that they briefed both President Obama and Trump on the information. The Kremlin has denied that it has compromising information on Trump. A report on national state-run television network Rossiya 1 seemed to blame the report, or the leaking of it, on Obama.
Trump said he has no dealings with Russia whatsoever and also said he does think Russia was responsible for the hack on the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta. It was a reversal of his original stance on the issue. And then, referring back to the report again, he noted that he was in Russia many years ago with the Miss Universe pageant. "And I told many people be careful," he said, "because you don’t want to see yourself on television. They have cameras all over."
But he said that if Russian president Vladimir Putin prefers Trump, that should be considered "an asset." When a reporter pressed him on why he does not release his tax returns to prove that he has no dealings in Russia and other countries that may be at odds with U.S. interests, he became impatient and said that reporters care about his tax returns but voters do not. This caused a stir on Twitter, where real people chimed in that they do in fact want to see his tax returns.
The Russia question came up over and over again. And at one point, Trump characterized Buzzfeed as "a failing pile of garbage" and then lashed out at CNN for "building up" the report, though CNN did not publish the contents of the report. When CNN reporter Jim Acosta attempted to ask a question, Trump shut him down: "You are fake news!" he shouted as Acosta protested.
After the press conference wrapped at 12:16 p.m.ET, CNN's Jake Tapper took issue with Trump's assertion that CNN published details from the unsubstantiated report. "When Mr. Trump went after our own Jim Acosta, saying he’s fake news and he isn’t going to call on him, what I suspect you’re seeing here is an attempt to discredit legitimate responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration with irresponsible journalism, which hurts us all," said Tapper. "And the media, going forward, should keep that in mind."
Shortly thereafter, CNN released a statement that Tapper read on the air: "CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than Buzzfeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. The Trump team knows this. They are using Buzzfeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations. We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week. We made it clear that we were not publishing any of the details of the 35-page document because we have not corroborated the report’s allegations. Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting, we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate."
Acosta later appeared to explain that he was attempting to ask Trump if there was contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians "in the context of the campaign." He noted that an ABC News reporter did indeed pose the question during the press conference, but Trump did not answer. As Trump was heading to the Trump Tower elevators after the press conference several reporters pressed him to answer the question, said Acosta. "He said, no, that nobody associated with him or his campaign was in contact with the Russians during the context of that campaign," said Acosta, adding that Sean Spicer, Trump's incoming White House press secretary threatened to throw him out of the press conference.
Trump arrived at the press conference with his family and vice-president-elect Mike Pence. A table with stacks of manila folders was set up next to the podium. At about 11:40 a.m.ET, Trump turned over the press conference to his tax lawyer, Sheri A. Dillon, to explain the legalities of Trump's separation from his business dealings. As he wandered away from the podium, reporters continued to shout questions at him.
In New York, all three broadcast stations broke in to regular programming to air the press conference. Spicer kicked off the press conference with a preamble about the salacious report. He characterized Buzzfeed as a "left wing blog" and its editors' decision to publish the report "outrageous" and "a sad a pathetic attempt to get clicks." He also criticized CNN and said the network also published information from the report, though the network did not publish details. And he praised the New York Times for not publishing the details in the unsubstantiated report.
The press conference was ostensibly scheduled so that Trump could explain how he would separate himself from the vast business holdings of the Trump Organization while he is president. He was originally schedule to meet with the media in December, but that press conference was canceled three days before it was to take place. Trump has said his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., will run the company. This week, Trump named his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser. Kushner, who inherited a sprawling real estate portfolio from his own father, plans to divest some of his holdings in order to assume the role. But some ethics experts have questioned whether such an appointment runs afoul of federal anti-nepotism laws.