Donald Trump unleashed a firestorm of invective against “shameful” news outlets and the “disgraceful” behaviour of the intelligence agencies, in a feisty press conference as he attempted to demolish salacious allegations concerning his dealings in Russia.
Coming just nine days before he enters the White House as the 45th president of the United States, Trump staged his first encounter with the world’s media since last July, admitting that he had actively avoided subjecting himself to press scrutiny in recent months on the grounds that we had been “getting quite a bit of inaccurate news”.
The much-anticipated question-and-answer session had been originally called to demonstrate how he would avoid conflicts of interest between his business empire and his public duties – but the event was heavily overshadowed by overnight news that the FBI had been handed unverified but potentially damaging intelligence, including claims of his alleged sexual impropriety in a Moscow hotel room.
In a bravura, boastful performance, Trump lashed out at specific news organizations, notably CNN and BuzzFeed. CNN reported that Trump and Obama had been briefed about a summary of a memo on Trump’s alleged links with Moscow but BuzzFeed went a step further in publishing extensive details of the document that claimed Russian operatives had gathered compromising material against him.
The person who produced the dossier detailing the allegations against Trump was named on Wednesday as 52-year-old former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who co-founded the London-based firm Orbis Business Intelligence.
Trump called the dossier “fake news” and said political opponents whom he denounced as “sick people” had “put that crap together”.
He reserved his choicest attack for the intelligence agencies who he blamed for the leak: “It was disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that proved so false and fake to get out. That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done, and did do. That information was false and fake,” he said.
But James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, said on Wednesday night that he had told Trump that the intelligence community had not been responsible for the leaking of the documents.
“I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security,” he said in a statement.
“I emphasized that this document is not a US intelligence community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the [community].”
Trump’s press conference, held in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue was crammed to overflowing with journalists. Details were provided at the event of the steps that Trump is taking to avoid conflicts of interest, including handing over management of the Trump Organization to his sons Eric and Donald Jr.
But the gathering was dominated by Russia, its influence on the US election and Trump’s connections.
He admitted publicly for the first time on the hacking operation which led to demoralising leaks for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats: “I think it was Russia.”
But he was quick to defend the mutual admiration he and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have exchanged. “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability,” he snapped.
The latest twist in Trump’s road to the White House had come after CNN reported that intelligence chiefs had appended a two-page synopsis about Russian material on Trump to their report on Russian hacking of the 2016 election.
The Guardian verified that the veteran Republican senator John McCain had personally handed the evidence to the FBI chief, James Comey, at a 9 December meeting.
Then BuzzFeed decided to publish the full 35-page memo while conceding it was “unverified and potentially unverifiable”. The document was drawn up by a former counter-intelligence official working as a consultant on behalf of Trump’s Republican rivals in the presidential primaries and then for a group supportive of Hillary Clinton.
Trump, who spent much of his time during the long presidential campaign excoriating what he called the “crooked media”, seized the chance to go on the attack. In what might amount to his most brutal and personal assault on individual news organizations, he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage” and warned: “They are going to suffer the consequences, they already are.”
He also reserved some of his wrath for CNN, which initially broke the story of the intelligence memo, refusing questions from a correspondent, dismissed with a wave of the hand and the exclamation: “Not you, not you, your organization is terrible. I’m not going to give you a question, you are fake news.”
The president-elect was dismissive of the memo at the center of the storm, insisting that the “alleged sexual impropriety” outlined in it didn’t happen and could not have happened as he always warned those around him on foreign tours such as the Miss World competition in Russia to be wary of hidden cameras that would get them put on television. He added, earning guffaws from reporters: “I’m also very much a germaphobe by the way, believe me.”
John McCain confirmed on Wednesday that he had handed the documents alleging secret Trump-Moscow ties to Comey.
“Late last year, I received sensitive information that has since been made public,” McCain said in a statement. “Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the director of the FBI. That has been the extent of my contact with the FBI or any other government agency regarding this issue.”
The FBI had already received the documents by October. They were sent by the western former counter-intelligence official who had been hired in the spring of 2015 to do research on Trump on behalf of his political opponents.
The FBI had sought a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance court to monitor some US citizens in Trump’s entourage suspected of covert contacts with Moscow, according to a well-informed source. There are also reports that a warrant was finally granted in the autumn, which the Guardian has been unable to confirm.
Russia said the claims of a Russian intelligence gathering operation targeted at Trump were “complete fabrication and utter nonsense”. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said the Kremlin “does not engage in collecting compromising material”.
Trump seized on that at his press conference before turning to his plans for his first days in office.
Standing at a podium in front of a line of 10 American flags and flanked by some of his closest family and advisers – his children Donald Jr, Ivanka and Eric on his right, his chief strategist Steve Bannon and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on his left – Trump gave a flavor of the breakneck speed at which he intends to operate when he finally gets through the door of the White House on 20 January. He rattled out several major projects that he promised to get under way virtually immediately, in a broadside that will instill yet more anxiety among liberals across the country.
He pledged to unpick his predecessor’s landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, within moments of gaining power. Though experts have predicted it will be a fraught and drawn-out process to “repeal and replace” the health insurance program, Trump promised the scrapping and the replacing would happen “almost simultaneously”.
He said he would announce his nomination for the empty ninth seat on the US supreme court within two weeks of taking office. And he said he would begin to start building a border wall – “it’s not a fence, it’s a wall” – right from the off. Though that meant his campaign pledge to get Mexico to pay for the structure would have to come after the event as reimbursement, he said: “I want to get started. I don’t want to wait a year and a half.”
He also vowed within 90 days of the initiation of his presidency to have a report prepared into how to combat hacking of the US government and businesses. “That includes Russia, China, everybody …”
Despite the attacks inspired by the Russian furore, the transition team did carve out time to present their case for how conflicts of interest would be mitigated under the new administration. Trump appeared alongside a table bedecked with scores of files which he said represented each of his many assets that were now being separated from him.
With the assistance of a commercial lawyer who has been advising the president-elect, the transition team announced several steps that it insisted would sever ties between Trump and his business empire. Investments and business assets in the Trump Organization would be put into a trust before inauguration day and he would resign from all his positions in the firm; management of the company would be transferred to his sons Donald Jr and Eric; an ethics adviser will be appointed to scrutinize all new deals and transactions that could potentially arouse fears of conflict of interest; and no new foreign deals would be undertaken for the duration of his presidency.
New domestic deals would be allowed but only after ethical vetting. He also claimed to have recently turned down the chance of a $2bn deal in Dubai.
Critics are unlikely to be satisfied by the package of measures, as they fall far short of a full divestment by Trump of all his financial assets or placing them in a blind trust. Democrats led by Elizabeth Warren in the US Senate on Monday moved legislation that would force him to do so.
One particularly knotty issue is that of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, close to the White House, that was opened shortly before the election. Since the election it is reported to have increased its room rates and is proving popular among foreign diplomats visiting the US capital. It was announced that profits from foreign government officials staying at the hotel would be donated to the US treasury.
In his usual bullish style, Trump said that if he wanted to he could run both the Trump Organization and the country “better than anybody. But I don’t want to, it wouldn’t look good.”
He was equally scathing about the latest call on him to release his tax returns. When a reporter said that the people cared about seeing the returns, he fired back: “I don’t think so, I won.”
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