Updated on January 11 at 5:05 p.m.
In his first press conference since July 2016, President-elect Donald Trump took only a few questions but made news on several fronts, saying he accepted the conclusion that Russia conducted hacks on top Democrats, bashing the press, and refusing once again to release his tax returns. Trump also refused to answer questions about whether any of his aides had been in contact with Russian officials, though he later said they had not as he departed the press conference.
During the press conference, Trump announced a plan he said would answer concerns about conflicts of interest between the government and his business interests, yielding the stage to an attorney to explain the arrangement.
The president-elect was in combative mode, scolding reporters and the intelligence community and dodging several questions. He was asked early on about a pair of stories that emerged Tuesday night—one, from CNN, saying that he had been briefed on a memo that said Russia agents claimed to have compromising information on him, and a second, from BuzzFeed, that posted a dubious dossier of allegations.
He blasted the publication of that dossier, and thanked news organizations that had not run it. “I read what was released, and I think it was a disgrace,” Trump said. He would not comment on whether he had been briefed on the material, saying briefings were classified, but he said the allegations contained in the memo and dossier were untrue.
But Trump said for the first time that he believed the Kremlin had conducted the hacks against the Democratic National Committee and others, but he downplayed that particular action as just one of many. “As far as hacking I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” he said. (He later added, in response to a separate question, that it “could’ve been others also.”) Trump offered an ambiguous read on the publication of private material, on the one hand blasting the leak of the dossier to the press—an action that he pinned, without proof and probably incorrectly, on the intelligence community—while at the same time suggesting that the hacking of the DNC was bad but somewhat mitigated because of the information it revealed.
The president-elect refused to answer questions about whether any of his aides had been in contact with Russian officials, as some reports have stated. In an extremely tense exchange, he dismissed dogged questioning from CNN’s Jim Acosta, saying, “You are fake news.” As he left the press conference, however, he answered another reporter who reprised the question, saying, “No.”
Trump insisted, despite copious reporting to the contrary as well as his own son’s statements, that he did not and never had business dealings in Russia. When a reporter asked him whether he would release his taxes to prove that, he once again demurred, claiming they are under audit. (He has not proved that claim, and the IRS says there’s nothing to prevent him from releasing taxes that are under audit.) Yet he also seemed to suggest that having won the election, he no longer had any incentive to release the returns. “The only ones that care about my tax returns are the reporters,” he said. “I mean, I won! I became president!” (A recent Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans would like Trump to make the documents public.)
The details of Trump’s plan to solve his conflicts of interest remain to be explored and parsed, though he made several peculiar comments during the press conference. He asserted, dubiously, that he has very little debt. He claimed to have been offered a $2 billion deal in Dubai over the weekend, but he said he’d turned it down—even though, he said, he had no obligation to do so. “I could actually run my business and run the government at the same time,” Trump said. He added, “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.” That’s an outrageous statement. While not all conflicts-of-interest laws apply to the president, the lack of legal constraints does not mean conflicts of interest cannot exist. Moreover, Trump is still subject to the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, among other rules.
Before taking questions, Trump boasted about companies opening new factories in the U.S., or canceling planned offshoring. Although he claimed credit, most of those decisions were made prior to his election. “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created, and I mean that,” he said.
And Trump promised to continue to throw his weight around. He thanked states that had voted for him on Election Day and seemed to suggest that those states would be rewarded. He attacked pharmaceutical companies for charging high prices, and said the federal government should bargain with them. Current federal law bars such negotiation for Medicare. While Democrats have long lobbied for greater bargaining power, pushing this argument could put the president-elect into conflict with Republicans in Congress, who have opposed bargaining.
Yet as much as the event was a chance for the press to address Trump, it was also a forum for Trump to address—and dress down—the press. The first speaker was incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who called the publication of the dossier “frankly shameful and disgraceful.” Next up was Mike Pence, who scolded reporters that “with freedom comes responsibility.” When Trump himself arrived at the lectern, he, too, attacked reporters.
“It’s very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on a nearly daily basis,” Trump said. “We stopped having them because we were getting a lot inaccurate news.”
He also thanked news organizations that had not published the dossier. “I have great respect for the news, and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that,” Trump insisted.