Donald Trump’s relationship with the news media has always been contentious, but his first major press conference in months gave a preview of the conflict to come once he reaches the White House.
A key moment came when Trump refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, after the network published the bombshell report on Tuesday that intelligence officials, in briefing the president-elect, included a 2-page summary of a 35-page dossier that made unsubstantiated claims that Russians held compromising information about him.
“Since you are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question?”
“I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” Trump said.
Trump did call later on another CNN reporter — Jeremy Diamond — but he blasted media outlets that he claims traffic in “fake news.”
“They are very, very dishonest people,” Trump said.
Afterward, CNN’s Jake Tapper said that the Trump team was conflating what CNN was reporting with what BuzzFeed posted later on Tuesday, the full dossier of unverified information. Tapper called that BuzzFeed posting “irresponsible,” and was clearly irked that the site’s reporting was being mixed up with CNN’s more careful story, which did not include the dossier or the allegations made in it.
Trump actually started his press conference by praising the outlets that chose not to report the contents of the uncorroborated dossier, saying that he had “great respect for news and freedom of the press.” He even said that those organizations that avoided the dossier’s allegations were “up a notch” in his mind.
But he also called out BuzzFeed, calling them a “failing pile of garbage” for posting the dossier, a move that almost immediately triggered a snarky series of social media memes and hashtags. It undoubtedly helped Trump use more of his time blasting the media and less of his time addressing lingering questions about Russia and its role in the 2016 election.
Perhaps more disconcerting for the future of administration-press relations is that Acosta later said that Trump’s incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, threatened to throw him out of the press conference if he again tried to demand that the president-elect call on him.
Trump also gave an explanation for why he had gone so long without a press conference, after holding so many before he captured the nomination. “We stopped giving them because we were getting inaccurate news.” Perhaps it’s a signal of how the Trump White House will judge whether to hold such press conferences when he is president.
The purpose of this press conference was for Trump to outline his plan for how he will avoid conflicts of interests, given his vast business holdings. His solution is to transfer his assets to a trust that will be run by his sons, Don and Eric, with transactions overseen by an independent ethics officer. The plan falls short of calls for Trump to divest or to put his assets in a blind trust, but one of his attorneys, Sheri Dillon, argued that such solutions were unworkable.
“President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” she said.
She said that Trump “knows that he owns Trump Tower,” but still made the case that conflict of interest laws do not apply to the president.
But Russia still overshadowed the press conference. Trump called it a “disgrace” that the dossier was posted, but he also asked, “Does anyone believe that story?” He also noted that he was a germaphobe. He was referring to the dossier of unverified information, and the claim that Russia holds embarrassing information on him, including embarrassing details gathered while Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013.
Moreover, Trump said that whenever he leaves the country, he tells his staff, “Be very careful because in your hotel rooms you will always have cameras… You better be careful or you will be watching yourself on nightly television.”
He blasted intelligence sources for leaking the 35-page dossier, setting up a contentious relationship not just with the media, but with the various agencies that will report to him.
Trump did acknowledge that “as far as hacking, I think it was Russia.” But he still noted that other countries, like China, also were intent on hacking U.S. assets.
“I have no deals with Russia,” Trump insisted. “I have no deals that could happen with Russia because we stayed away.” He declined, though, to release his tax returns, and argued that the American public wasn’t interested, anyway.
As with Trump press conferences of the past, there was plenty of promotion and petulance — and there is little reason to believe that will be any different when he gets to Washington. “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” he said.
He also promised that the Jan. 20 inauguration would have “great talent, incredible talent,” but he did not name any Hollywood celebrities on the bill. He singled out one industry figure for praise — Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter — for advising him on veterans issues.
It was all good theater. But what was striking was that even though this press conference stretched more than an hour, so many questions remained unanswered. At the end, he was asked whether any of his campaign staffers had contacts with the Russian government, but he did not address it.
Update: The reporter who asked the final questions, ABC News’ Cecilia Vega, reported that as Trump was walking away from the press conference, told reporters that neither he nor his team had contact with Russian agents.
— CNN (@CNN) January 11, 2017