At ten past eleven on Wednesday morning, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and some other flunkies of Donald Trump emerged from an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower. Packed into a smallish space that had been turned into a makeshift room were about two hundred reporters, a few dozen supporters of Trump, and some Secret Service agents. A couple of minutes later, Trump, three of his children—Ivanka, Donald, Jr., and Eric—and the Vice-President-elect, Mike Pence, stepped out of the same elevator. The first indication that this wasn’t going to be your typical Q. & A. session came when Trump’s supporters loudly applauded his entrance. The second came when Sean Spicer, Trump’s squat spokesman, marched up to the podium and tore into BuzzFeed, the news site, which, on Tuesday night, had published an opposition-research dossier that claimed that the Russian government had obtained compromising information on Trump, including a video that purportedly showed him engaging in “perverted sexual acts” with prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. “The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks,” Spicer said. “The report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple.” Actually, CNN didn’t publish the dossier, which, reportedly, was written by a former British-intelligence agent. CNN reported that the U.S. intelligence services, in briefing Trump last week, had brought the dossier to his attention and told him they were investigating claims that the Russian government had been trying to compromise him. This, surely, was a legitimate news story. But once BuzzFeed posted the raw document online, and the term “golden showers” started trending on Twitter, the Trump team saw a chance to fight back and to divert attention from other claims in the dossier, such as an allegation that Trump operatives had met regularly with Russian officials during the campaign. Pence, who followed Spicer to the lectern, began, as he always does, by praising Trump, saying his “energy and vision” were inspiring. (Pence didn’t get where he is today without knowing how to kowtow to his boss.) Then he, too, attacked the media, saying that some of its members were seeking to “delegitimize this election.” Pence added, “You know, I have long been a supporter of a free and independent press, and I always will be. But with freedom comes responsibility.” In a fairer world, someone would have got up and pointed out the numerous unsubstantiated claims that Trump has made over the past few years, including his “birther” attacks on President Obama, his insistence that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated 9/11, and his claim that he can’t release his tax returns because he is under audit. (The I.R.S. has said an audit is no impediment to releasing tax information.) But this didn’t happen. Instead, Trump himself took to the podium and expanded on Spicer and Pence’s remarks. Without providing any evidence to back up his claim, Trump suggested that the intelligence agencies had leaked the dossier to the press, saying, “It would be a tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that. A tremendous blot, because a thing like that should have never been written . . . and it should certainly never have been released.” Then Trump changed tack, praising the media outlets that hadn’t reported the contents of the dossier, and saying, with a perfectly straight face, “I just want to compliment many of the people in the room. I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that. But I will tell you . . . that I’ve just gone up a notch as to what I think of you.” There was perhaps good reason for Trump’s ebullience. The flap over the dossier, the contents of which even BuzzFeed conceded it couldn’t verify, had overshadowed what was supposed to be the real reason for the press conference: an announcement about what, if anything, the President-elect intended to do to separate himself from his far-flung businesses. Evidently, he wasn’t in any rush to move on to that issue. After boasting about how he was already browbeating manufacturing companies to keep their plants in the United States, and pledging to bludgeon the drug companies into reducing their prices, he took some questions, most of which were about Russia. About the only bit of news that the questioners coaxed out of Trump was an acknowledgement that it was, indeed, Vladimir Putin’s government that hacked the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic targets. Even that acknowledgement was a grudging one, though. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump said. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And . . . when we lost twenty-two million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China.” It helps Trump that he is utterly shameless. Far from flinching when he was asked whether, during his visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow, he had done anything that might make him vulnerable to blackmail, he delivered a lecture on the dangers of hidden surveillance, especially in hotel rooms. “You have cameras in the strangest places,” he said. “Cameras that are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful, or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television. I tell this to people all the time.” Only after talking and joshing for at least half an hour did Trump get down to the supposed business of the day. And for this, he introduced a Washington lawyer, Sheri Dillon, who took the podium and said that Trump had “directed me and my colleagues at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius to design a structure for his business empire that will completely isolate him from the management of the company.” As if to assure the folks at home that she and Trump had taken this directive seriously, Dillon pointed to six piles of manila folders and papers that were sitting on a table next to the podium, saying, “Here is just some of the paperwork that’s taking care of those actions.” This didn’t demonstrate anything at all, of course, except that lawyers generate a lot of paperwork, and the arrangements that Dillon outlined were much as expected. Eschewing the advice of ethics experts who served in the Administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump isn’t going to sell his assets and place the proceeds in an independently managed blind trust, which is what some previous Presidents have done. Instead, he will only resign from his companies and place his assets in a trust that will be run by his two sons and one of his longtime executives, Allen Weisselberg. In addition to these steps, Dillon said, the Trump Organization had agreed not to make any foreign deals during Trump’s Presidency. Any domestic deals would require the approval of an “ethics adviser,” who would “analyze any potential transactions for conflicts and ethics issues.” Dillon didn’t identify who this individual would be. Lastly, she added, Trump’s company would hand over to the U.S. government any profits it made from foreign governments staying at its hotel—presumably she meant Trump’s new hotel in Washington, an apparent concession to concerns that some of the revenues from this business might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Despite Dillon’s best efforts to put a positive spin on things, it was immediately clear that the pledges she had extracted from her client amounted to not very much. As President, Trump will still own his businesses, which will be run by his sons and a loyal retainer. Dillon also conceded that Trump will receive regular financial updates on how Trump, Inc., is doing, although she insisted this was actually an important concession, because the updates would be restricted to the empire as a whole rather than individual business lines. (Norman Eisen, the top ethics lawyer in the Obama Administration, was unimpressed. “Tragically, the Trump plan to deal with his business conflicts announced today falls short in every respect,” Eisen told MSNBC. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption.” Later in the day, Walter Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, which had urged Trump to divest fully from his businesses, called his proposals “wholly inadequate,” and said that they failed to “meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the last four decades have met.”) After Dillon had finished her presentation, Trump gave her a congratulatory handshake. He then took some more questions. As Trump picked out questioners from a variety of networks and news organizations, CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was sitting in the front row, tried to ask him if he would state categorically that nobody in his campaign had met with the Russians. “Your organization is terrible,” Trump said, cutting off Acosta and turning to another questioner. When Acosta persisted—”Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance?” he said—Trump shut him down again and said, “You are fake news.” This petulance was all of a piece with how Trump behaved during the campaign. When news organizations reported things he didn’t like, he lashed out at them and, in some cases, denied them reporting credentials. When news organizations did things that met his favor, he praised them and rewarded them with interviews. Perhaps the biggest thing that came out of the news conference was the confirmation that Trump will take this contemptuous attitude toward the media with him into the White House. To many journalists and civic-minded Americans, the President-elect’s hostility toward the media is an assault on the First Amendment and a threat to democracy. From his point of view, berating the media is virtually a no-lose proposition: he enjoys it, his supporters react positively to it, and, so far, he has shown an ability to rebound from virtually anything that is published about him. In dismissing Acosta, he had also avoided, for the moment, the question about possible contacts between his associates and Russia. Cecilia Vega, of ABC News, took another shot at it, asking Trump whether he could “stand here today, once and for all, and say that no one connected to you or your campaign had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the Presidential campaign.” Vega went on, “And, if you do indeed believe that Russia was behind the hacking, what is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?” Trump gratefully answered the second part of the question and ignored the first bit. “He shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it,” he said, referring to Putin. “Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it. You will see that.” On that empty note, Trump wrapped things up and said that if his sons didn’t do a good job running his companies, then, after eight years, he would tell them, “You’re fired.” It was intended as joke, but the joke was on all of us. Eight years.
CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS