In so many ways, Wednesday’s event made it feel as though nothing had changed at all since the summer. We were back at Trump Tower, the atrium decked out with 10 American flags set before a sky blue curtain and a lectern stamped with the Trump seal—only now, of course, it says, “president-elect.”
He embellished, deflected, and flat out lied. He attacked the press, even yelling at one reporter and accusing him of being “fake news.” But every once in a while, as Trump made a half-hearted attempt to quell concerns about himself and his businesses, the enormity of the role he’s about to assume became clear, and everything felt much different.
Spokesman Sean Spicer kicked off the press conference by taking to the lectern to condemn the gossip of the moment, published Tuesday evening by BuzzFeed. “It’s frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible for a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign to drop highly salacious and flat-out false information on the internet just days before he takes the oath of office,” Spicer said to the dozens of members of the media and tv cameras, his anger palpable.
BuzzFeed had taken the controversial step of publishing in full a document of wholly unverified allegations, some of them sexually explicit and some of them already disproven, against the president-elect. The information was said to be collected by a former British intelligence official, and many other journalists and news organizations had decided, over a period of months, that because the claims couldn’t be proven, they shouldn’t be published. When CNN reported, Tuesday afternoon, that senior U.S. intelligence officials had briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump about the content of the dossier, BuzzFeed took the extra step of making the entire thing a matter of public record.
Trump and his ilk were not pleased, with Trump himself comparing the move to something that might be done in “Nazi Germany” and calling it “fake news.”
And it was in the shadow of this murky scandal that Trump held his first press conference since late July. The event had initially been scheduled to take place in December but was canceled a few days prior. Ostensibly, it was intended to allow Trump an opportunity to explain how he planned to address the potential (and likely) conflicts of interest that might arise due to his international brand, which includes real estate, hotels, and licensing the Trump name. But BuzzFeed’s decision and the mayhem it wrought was making Trump and the media unfocused. As was the fact that, since it’d been so long since he’d answered any questions, there was so much ground to cover: Why did he undermine U.S. intelligence to defend Russia? Why was he enlisting a vaccine denier to lead a task force on vaccines? How could his kids run his business in a blind trust if that meant, by definition, the trust wasn’t blind?
“It’s a very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis,” Trump said, falsely, when he first took to the lectern. He then added a bizarre claim: “I think we probably, maybe, won the nomination because of news conferences.”
He began by “thanking” the news outlets who weren’t BuzzFeed or CNN for coming “out so strongly against that fake news.” He said, “I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that.”
He added that some outlets had been “so professional” that his opinion of them had improved.
He gave a brief version of his standard stump speech—jobs, outsourcing, healthcare and drugs, veterans—promising, as he often has, to “be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.” He added that he was looking forward to his inauguration, which he said would be “a very, very elegant day… very, very special, very beautiful.”
While questioned by the press, Trump couldn’t decide if he thought Russia had hacked the Democrats. First he said, “as far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” before adding that “other countries” and “other people” could have also been responsible.
He reiterated that assertion later on, along with his Twitter-assertion that publishing the unproven allegations against him was “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” He called BuzzFeed, “a failing pile of garbage” and promised they would “suffer the consequences” for what they did.
As for a specific allegation made in the dossier and published by BuzzFeed, involving Russian women, a bed, and an unconventional sex act, Trump said, cheekily, “I’m also very much a germaphobe, believe me.” Although, in 2015, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m not germaphobic.”
Although he added that he always knew cameras, tiny ones, were festooned in hotel rooms and even went as far as to warn his pageant contestants about the phenomenon when they went abroad. Trump didn’t explain if such cameras were in his own international hotels.
He touted his chummy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “an asset, not a liability” and promised the country wouldn’t hack the United States once he’s assume office because then Russia will “respect” us.
But when it came to the topic of his business interests, Trump’s answers only led to more questions.
It started when they tumbled from the gilded elevator in Trump Tower’s lobby like an overgrown litter, delivered in two parts.
First: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, and Rudy Giuliani, the president-elect’s most trusted advisers. With the exception of the former mayor of New York, they are responsible for his election, and now they’re preparing to assume central roles in the incoming administration. They made their way to their marks, stage left, and they chatted amongst themselves while they waited for the doors to part once again.
When they did, out marched Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and the president-elect himself. Eric and his father dressed identically in dark suits, crisp white shirts, and red ties that hung just a bit too long. Meanwhile, Don Jr. looked the part of an ’80s Wall Street villain, all gelled hair and gleaming pastels, while Ivanka dressed for summer despite the January chill, in a green shift dress with bare arms and legs.
Jared stood with the staff—a departure, as he normally stands next to his wife, the incoming first daughter. But things had changed. It was announced earlier this week that the cherubic real-estate baron would serve as a senior White House adviser to his father-in-law.
Trump was as unconcerned and confident as ever about his unprecedented predicament.
He won’t, he said, divest from his holdings. Instead, he’ll turn over the business to Eric and Don Jr. “They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me,” he said. Meanwhile, Ivanka has stepped down as the head of her company and will focus on her children rather than the Trump organization—a claim that felt particularly funny given the setup of the press conference: The blue curtain that served as the backdrop didn’t quite conceal Ivanka’s fine jewelry storefront, where her diamond creations, like her custom engagement ring, can be bought right before you stop over at Gucci.
Trump then trotted out his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, and referred to a table stacked with manila folders, which he said were filled with “just some of the many documents” he’d signed related to turning his business over to his kids.
Dillon made a series of questionable claims, beginning with the fact that Trump’s “empire” is “not dissimilar to the fortunes of Nelson Rockefeller when he became vice president.”
“The conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president and they are not required to separate themselves from their financial assets,” she said, not mentioning the long tradition of presidents doing so regardless.
Dillon argued that asking Trump to divest fully and sell everything was unfair. She said, dubiously, that doing so “would not eliminate the possibilities of conflicts of interest” but “would exacerbate them.” She added that without “rights to his brand” the value of his business would decline “and create a fire sale.”
Dillon promised that, as to not violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Trump would donate the profits from “foreign government payments” to his hotel, located near the White House, to the United States Treasury. “This way,” Dillon claimed, “it is the American people who will profit.”
In reality, this creates a clear pathway for foreign governments and dignitaries to bribe the president-elect—and it violates the clause, which states that gifts must be rejected, not diverted to charity.
“President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” Dillon said—although she didn’t explain why the interests of Trump’s company should be put before the interests of the country.
That question is likely to arise again and again in the Trump era.