Trump touches on Russia, tax returns, vets in 1st news conference as President-elect

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump held his first full news conference since winning the 2016 presidential election Wednesday morning in midtown Manhattan.

The last time Trump held a news conference, he was plunging into a heated general election campaign with Hillary Clinton and suggested Russia could help dig up some of his rival’s emails.

Trump said for the first time he believes Russia was behind hacking ahead of the election.

“I think it was Russia,” Trump said.

He added that Russia is not the only nation that hacks US targets and accused Democrats of not having sufficient cybersecurity programs.

Trump’s first news conference was opened with his spokesman, Sean Spicer, slamming a “political witch hunt” following reports that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Trump.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence also slammed the reports before introducing Trump.

“I do have to say and I must say that I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies,” Trump said. “But maybe the intelligence agencies which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they did that. A thing like that should never have been written, it should never have been had and it certainly should have never been released.”

The news conference follows exclusive reporting by CNN on Tuesday that classified documents presented last week to President Barack Obama and Trump included the allegations about Russia. The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and drew in part from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible.

The FBI is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.

The news conference comes at an intense political moment as key Cabinet nominees face a grilling on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The event, delayed from December, was scheduled for Trump to outline how he will address questions about possible conflicts-of-interest related to his vast business empire. After taking a handful of questions, Trump turned the event over to Sheri Dilon, an attorney who was on hand to discuss Trump’s business interests.

More than a test

The news conference amounts to more than a test of his familiarity with policy questions and the duties and responsibilities that a President must shoulder. Coming hours after Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago, the news conference reinforces a sense of historic change pulsating through Washington. It also provides hints about the demeanor and attitude he will adopt as commander-in-chief and head of state, potentially shedding light on how he envisions his new role.

Trump will enter the White House with the most estranged relationship with journalists of any new President in recent memory after repeatedly branding the press “dishonest” and using it as a foil during his campaign and transition.

Still, the news conference represents Trump’s most extended appearance before the American people since the election and will go some way to showing whether he will adopt his trademark brazen, confrontational style as president.

Trump will enter the presidency from a position of political strength, given that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and so far have shown little inclination to probe his finances or ethical questions. With that in mind and having shown little desire to reach out to the majority of voters who did not chose him in November, Trump may feel under little pressure to modify his approach as he prepares to take office.

Trump defied the normal rules of politics, for example, on disclosure about his wealth and assets by refusing to release his tax returns during the campaign. But the question of how his business holdings around the globe can be squared with his wider obligations as President without raising questions of conflicts-of-interest threatens to cast a shadow over the Trump presidency.

The President-elect has indicated he will not divest his interests as called for by some ethics campaigners. The fact that his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are in line to control the family empire also creates a gray area over the extent to which he plans to separate himself from his business as president.

Still, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, announced substantive steps to do just that on Monday, including the divestment of some of his assets, shares in buildings and his ownership of the New York Observer newspaper as he prepares to take on a senior adviser role in the White House.

He also announced at the news conference that he has selected David Shulkin, current Undersecretary of Health, to be his nominee to head the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs. Trump said Shulkin is “fantastic” and will do a “truly great job.”

The president-elect focused on veterans’ issues during the presidential campaign. He says veterans have been mistreated under the Obama administration and promises to straighten things out.

The VA secretary post was one of two Cabinet posts Trump still has to fill. Agriculture secretary is the other one.