It has been a nearly a month since President-elect Donald Trump promised – in a tweet – to hold a press conference "to discuss the business, Cabinet picks and all other topics of interest." Confirmation hearings for his cabinet were already underway when, on Wednesday, he followed through and took questions from the press. It was his first such interaction with the media, which he has repeatedly accused of being "dishonest," in 167 days. By NPR's tally, he tweeted 1,605 times over that period.
The conference came at a particularly fraught time for Trump, who stars in a memo that a British intelligence expert wrote to Trump's political opponents during the campaign, and that BuzzFeed published Tuesday. The document contains more than one factual error, and its claims are unconfirmed, but they have generated a media maelstrom by alleging "extensive conspiracy between TRUMP's campaign team and Kremlin," which "has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years." The document also alleges that Trump promised to question NATO allies' defense spending and and de-emphasize Russia's annexation of Crimea in exchange for the political boost provided by the country's alleged hacking of Democratic leaders (Wikileaks, the document argues, was used as a front for the sake of "plausible deniability"). Allegations of Trump's bizarre sexual escapades in Russia, allegedly filmed by Russian intelligence agents, also feature.
Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer opened Wednesday's press conference by rejecting the "highly salacious and flat-out false information," which he called a "sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks." Trump reiterated his denial, which he had tweeted earlier in the day, that Russia had any financial or other leverage over him.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
In regard to the sexual allegations, Trump asked, "Does anybody really believe that story?" and insisted that he was a "germophobe." He appeared to allow that Russia probably carried out the hack on the Democratic National Committee's servers, which he had previously denied, but reminded reporters of the Chinese hack on the Office of Personnel Management, which went unnoticed for at least a year and was announced in June 2015. The breach saw the theft of millions of federal employees' personal information.
Trump repeated several times that if Russian President Vladimir Putin "likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability." He insisted that Russia would respect him more than his predecessor or general election opponent. He declined to state categorically that no one on his team had been in contact with Russia during the campaign.
Much of the press conference focused on Trump's relationship with the press. He sparred with the New York Times and the BBC, and refused to take a question from a CNN reporter, calling the outlet "fake news." The term has gained currency along with a proliferation of media outlets with real-sounding names – the "Denver Guardian" – that have posted fabricated stories to social media. Apparently due to the market's demand, most of these stories have either praised Trump or accused Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing, including murder.
ACs, Drugs, Cars and Planes
Trump recounted his recent successes in convincing companies such as Ford Motor Co. (F), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. (FCAU) and United Technologies (UTX), which owns air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier Corporation, to keep or expand production in the U.S. He promised that "a lot of car companies are going to be moving in" and threatened to levy damaging border taxes on companies that produce cars in Mexico for the U.S. market. He described the border as "an open sieve" and reiterated promises that Mexico would pay for the border wall in the process.
He called on General Motors Co. (GM) to follow these companies' example. CEO Mary Barra said Sunday in response to a critical tweet from Trump that the company planned to continue producing Chevrolet Cruze hatchbacks in Mexico.
Trump also repeated his criticism of Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) for its F-35 program, which he said was behind schedule and plagued by cost overruns.
Pharmaceutical companies, shares of which swooned during the campaign in response to criticism tweeted by Hillary Clinton, came under fire from Trump, who said the industry was "getting away with murder" and has "a lot of lobbyists." He accused drug companies of moving offshore, likely a reference to the practice of corporate inversions, in which companies use mergers to shift their tax bases to lower-rate jurisdictions. The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB), which had been trading in line with its previous close, quickly fell 3.8%.
Conflicts of Interest and Tax Returns
Trump provided more details on his plans to avoid potential conflicts of interest between his role as a businessman and his role as president. His attorney Sheri Dillon offered an in-depth explanation of his plans to ensure that "he is not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit." Management of the Trump Organization will be turned over to a trust managed by his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and Trump Organization executive Alan Weisselberg; his daughter Ivanka, who controversially sat in on a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and whose husband Jared Kushner was appointed senior adviser to the president on Monday, will not have involvement in the business.
The Trump Organization will not pursue any new foreign deals while Trump is in office, and any deal or action that could compromise Trump's ability to govern in the interest of the country would be subject to written approval by a newly appointed ethics adviser. Any payments by foreign governments to Trump's hotels will be donated to Treasury. Besides the Trump Organization's illiquid assets, such as hotels and golf courses, the trust will invest in liquid assets such as cash and Treasuries – as well as, perhaps, a diversified portfolio "that is consistent with the regulations from the Office of Government Ethics."
In response to calls for Trump to liquidate his assets or place them in a blind trust, Dillon argued that Trump should not have to suffer the financial repercussions of a "fire sale," and that he cannot "unknow" key aspects of his business, making a truly blind trust impractical. Trump will only see the profit-and-loss statement of the organization as a whole – not those of its individual businesses – and will not learn of new deals unless "he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV."
Trump shot down a request to release his tax returns, saying that he was under audit and "the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters." (According to a poll conducted in August, however, the majority of Republicans wanted Trump to release his tax returns.) He did not answer questions about potential conflicts of interest in his cabinet, which will include former Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) CEO Rex Tillerson if he is confirmed by the Senate.
Trump promised his audience that they would be "very proud" of the replacement he plans for Obamacare, but did not specify what it might look like. He said that he would release a plan once his secretary was confirmed, presumably referring to his pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia Congressman Tom Price. "We're going to have a health care that is far less expensive and far better" was as specific as he got.