President-elect Donald Trump used his first post-election news conference on Wednesday to acknowledge that Russia hacked Democratic Party email systems, refuse to divest his business holdings, and vow to unveil a replacement for the 2010 health care law in a few weeks.
Nine days before he is to be sworn in, Trump started subdued but then turned defiant, engaging in an angry exchange with a CNN reporter and refusing to answer his question. “Not you. Not you. Your organization is terrible. Quiet. Quiet. Don’t be rude. You are fake news,” Trump shot at correspondent Jim Acosta.
Acosta, with a raised voice, responded that Trump’s behavior was “not appropriate.” The night before, CNN prominently featured a report on a purported appendix to a U.S. intelligence assessment that concluded the “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years.”
It was far from the only noteworthy moment. The president-elect and his lawyer sidestepped questions on a range of issues, including whether he will roll back the Obama administration’s recent sanctions on Russia for its alleged hacking of Democratic Party email systems. Trump said he does not believe the administration’s penalties went too far, but he took no position on next steps.
Trump did seem ready to point the finger squarely at the Kremlin, saying, “I think it was Russia.” But he then added: “I think we get hacked by other countries and other people,” including China. And he again engaged in victim-blaming, charging that the Democratic National Committee had weak cyber defenses while praising the Republican National Committee for having stronger safeguards.
Trump said he hopes to get along well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying a warm relationship would be “an asset, not a liability.”
He asked rhetorically if reporters believed erstwhile Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would have been tougher on Russia had she won the election. “Give me a break,” he said, with a vigorous shake of his head.
Trump, separately, again declined to release his tax returns to dispel concerns about possible business dealings inside Russia, but he asserted he has “no deals in Russia.”
Trump continued his verbal feud with U.S intelligence agencies, saying the document about Trump being “cultivated” by Moscow’s intelligence service might have been leaked by those very agencies. Such a move would create “a tremendous blot” on the agencies’ records, Trump added.
Trump also appeared to address the growing number of Republican lawmakers expressing concern about the prospect of repealing the 2010 health care overhaul before their party produces a replacement plan.
He said he intends to propose a replacement plan “shortly” after Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price is confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary.
“It’ll be repeal and replace,” he said. The so-far undefined replacement plan could be unveiled “the same day or week” that Price takes office, he said, before adding that it might even come in “the same hour.”
On Capitol Hill, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told reporters that he thinks Trump “has no concept of how difficult this task will be.”
Describing the health care law as a “complete and total disaster,” Trump said the system the law put in place is “imploding.” He said the health system will go through a “catastrophic” 2017 because of Obama’s law.
“The easiest thing to do is let it implode in 2017,” he said, adding that such a move would allow the Republican Party to implement just about any replacement plan it wanted. Instead, Trump vowed to move much faster.
The lengthiest segment of the news conference was devoted to a plan the incoming president laid out that his camp says will prevent conflicts of interest stemming from his privately owned company, The Trump Organization, and its far-flung holdings.
Trump announced that his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, will run the company once he is sworn in as president — though he will continue to own it. His lawyer, Sheri Dillon, told reporters that Trump plans to step down from all official roles and duties. The company and its individual businesses will be placed in a trust.
But Trump won’t set up a blind trust, nor totally divest his holdings, as many ethics experts had recommended. And at the end of the press conference, he signaled a desire to return to the The Trump Organization once he leaves the presidency.
“You cannot have a totally blind trust” when there is an operating business, Dillon told reporters, adding that the president-elect “cannot unknow” that he owns things like Trump Tower. She also said Trump will only learn about new deals through the media, and that the firm would limit its activities to inside the United States. She did not address what topics would be off-limits for discussion between Trump and his children, who are extremely close to their father.
Government watchdog groups and ethics experts were quick to criticize Trump’s plan.
“President-elect Donald Trump has failed his ethics test. Now, America will suffer the consequences,” Robert Weissman, president of the liberal Public Citizen, said in a statement. “There is only one way to avoid the conflicts of interest that will engulf his presidency and America: He must sell the family business.
“Unfortunately, President-elect Trump has today declined to take this simple step,” Weissman added. “The measures he plans to put in place will do nothing to solve the most serious conflict problems.”
Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group, called Dillon’s notion that Trump will have zero knowledge of his company’s dealings “absurd.”
“He will know what they are and what legislation, regulations, or actions will benefit or hurt them,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “He’s not worried about conflicts of interest because the statutes don’t apply to the president. If that sounds familiar, it was the position Nixon took when he told David Frost, ‘When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.’ Just because it’s not illegal, does not mean it is right or moral. Every decision he will make as president will be followed by the specter of doubt.”
Norman Eisen, a former Obama White House ethics official, told MSNBC that the business and ethics arrangement Trump laid out would set up a “constitutional crisis” the moment he is sworn in.