Trump concedes Russia interfered in campaign, but casts some doubt

New York Times News Service

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday conceded for the first time that Russia had carried out cyberattacks against the two major political parties during the presidential election, but he angrily rejected unsubstantiated reports that Moscow had gathered salacious personal and financial information about him that could be used for extortion.

In a chaotic news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan nine days before he is to be sworn in as the nation’s 45th president, Trump compared U.S. intelligence officials to Nazis, sidestepped repeated questions about whether he or anyone in his presidential campaign had had contact with Russia during the campaign, and lashed out at the news media and political opponents, arguing that they were out to get him.

“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump said, his first comments accepting the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials that Moscow interfered in the election to help him win. But the president-elect expressed little outrage about that breach and seemed to cast doubt on Russia’s role moments after acknowledging it, asserting that “it could have been others also.”

He also quoted a Kremlin denial Tuesday night of reports that it had gathered damaging information to compromise Trump. “They said it totally never happened,” Trump said of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his government. “I respected the fact that he said that.”

President-elect Donald J. Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, Jan. 11, 2017. The event is his first formal news conference since July. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

The news conference displayed the showmanship, combativeness and sensitivity to criticism that Trump exhibited throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and underscored his reflex to rebut any criticism or question about his conduct. In his maligning of the nation’s intelligence agencies, journalists and Hillary Clinton, the president-elect indicated that he will conduct himself the same way in the White House.

Using the same boastful tone that characterized his campaign rallies, Trump asserted that his victory in November had vindicated his view that he should not release his tax returns, an issue that he said only the news media cared about, not the public.

“I won,” he said. “I don’t think they care at all.” In Pew Research Center poll this month, 60 percent of respondents said Trump should release his returns, although just 38 percent of Republican respondents said he should.

Some moments bordered on bizarre for the next president of the United States. Trump spoke of his awareness as a businessman that there were hidden cameras in hotel rooms in Moscow and other foreign capitals. He called himself “very much of a germaphobe,” in an apparent effort to discredit unsubstantiated claims about sex videos with Trump and prostitutes in a Russian hotel. “Does anyone really believe that story?” he said, calling it “phony stuff” that “never happened.”

At one point, Trump got into a confrontation with a correspondent for CNN, which was among the first to report on the allegations, saying to him, “You are fake news.” Moments later, though, Trump called on another CNN correspondent.

Trump voiced only faint concern about what U.S. intelligence officials said was a campaign by Putin to meddle in American democracy. He reserved his sharpest condemnation for U.S. intelligence officials who he said had failed to keep secret the accusations that could be damaging to him.

Asked whether he believed Putin had directed the hacking effort to help him win the presidency, the president-elect said, “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia.”

“He shouldn’t be doing it,” Trump said later of the Russian president. “He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it.”

Of the intelligence officials who will soon serve him, Trump said: “I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done, and did do.”

The hourlong news conference — Trump’s first in nearly six months — touched not only on reports of espionage and attempted blackmail, but also on potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s vast business empire and questions about domestic policy.

The glut of pent-up questions for the president-elect gave him an advantage in navigating the exchange; he interrupted inquiries about Russia’s hacking to introduce a lawyer, Sheri L. Dillon, who spoke at length about how Trump would organize his business affairs and explain why he was not divesting from his global business empire. “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” Dillon said.

President-elect Donald J. Trump takes questions from reporters at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, Jan. 11, 2017. The event is his first formal news conference since July. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Trump offered glimpses of his plans for his first days in office, including pledging to choose a Supreme Court nominee within two weeks of Inauguration Day to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia and to invite journalists to watch a series of “signings” at the White House, an apparent allusion to the several executive orders he has promised to sign to roll back major pieces of Obama’s agenda.

Calling himself “the greatest job-producer that God ever created,” Trump pledged to continue leaning on American companies to keep jobs in the United States. He took particular aim at the pharmaceutical industry, which he said “has been disastrous” and had been “getting away with murder” on drug pricing. Taking on a powerful lobby that Republicans have long defended, Trump said he wanted the federal government to use its purchasing power to negotiate drug prices for Medicare and Medicaid — a proposal long favored by Democrats.

But he broke starkly with Democrats over the Affordable Care Act as he repeated a promise to submit a plan to repeal and replace the law “essentially simultaneously,” as soon as Rep. Tom Price, his choice to be secretary of health and human services, is confirmed. Trump had described the plan in an interview on Tuesday with The Times.

“Obamacare is the Democrats’ problem,” Trump said Wednesday. “We could sit back and let them hang with it. We are doing the Democrats a great service.”

He also insisted, despite repeated denials by Mexican officials, that Mexico would pay to build a wall on the southern border of the United States to block foreigners from entering illegally. Trump said Vice President-elect Mike Pence was working with federal agencies to begin construction quickly, and asserted that Mexico would ultimately reimburse the cost through a tax or other payment.

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico reiterated Wednesday that his country would not pay for the wall, although he said Mexico would invest in more border security.

The marble-lined lobby of Trump Tower was crowded with more than 250 journalists, jostling for seats in front of Trump’s lectern and a backdrop of 10 American flags. On the sidelines stood senior members of his White House team, including Stephen K. Bannon, who will serve as his chief counselor; Kellyanne Conway, who will be a senior adviser; and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who will also hold the title of senior adviser.

A table in front of Trump was a table stacked with manila folders that he said contained a portion of the companies being put into a trust to be controlled and run by his eldest sons, Eric and Donald Jr., and a trustee.

They stood to his side along with his daughter Ivanka Trump, who also announced Wednesday that she would sever ties with the Trump Organization and her own company.

Closing the news conference, Trump even got in a veiled plug for his former reality show, “The Apprentice” — he remains an executive producer of the current version, “Celebrity Apprentice” — by saying that if his sons did not manage his empire well while he served as president, he would tell them, “You’re fired.”