Donald Trump’s first press conference in six months, planned to respond to concerns about potential conflicts of interest regarding his business dealings, was a welcome development. Unexpectedly, however, it followed hard on eye-raising reports about Trump’s relationship with Russia. While the conference provided Trump an opportunity to explain his business plans and resolutely deny the most explosive allegations against him, it did little to put either matter to rest.
The Russia furor stems from revelations that U.S. intelligence officials recently met with Obama, Trump and eight top leaders of Congress to tell them of unverified reports that Russia may be in possession of explosive and damaging material against Trump, raising questions of whether he has been or could become a victim of blackmail.
That the meeting took place at all is astounding. That the information has been circulating for months and neither agents nor tipped-off reporters have been able to corroborate or disprove it is unnerving.
So it was against this backdrop of high drama that the president-elect stood before reporters Wednesday. On balance, his performance raised more questions — and stirred deeper worries — than it resolved.
He denied the existence of any blackmail material. The source material for the intelligence agencies’ concerns is simply fabricated, he insisted. And when pressed about repeated assertions by the CIA, the FBI and others that Putin ordered the hacks on the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to help him win the election, he finally admitted what everyone around him has been saying for weeks, even months: “I think it was Russia,” he said.
But in the same breath, Trump said the fact that Putin had decided to use espionage to push a Trump candidacy was good for America. If Putin already likes him, he said, then that will make it all the easier for America to have a stronger relationship with its one-time foe.
When asked directly whether any member of his campaign team or other delegate had met with Russian officials during the campaign, Trump did not answer.
We don’t know whether the most egregious reports about Trump and Russia are true. But we do know that they were serious enough to trigger a formal, top-level meeting with the White House and leaders in Congress.
As this newspaper has noted previously, the questions about Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia have already done damage. His nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, faced withering — and appropriate — scrutiny Wednesday by senators from both parties at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
America deserves to know the full truth about Russia and its relationship with Trump — including whether our next president has been the victim of a smear campaign. The investigation into the allegations must continue beyond Jan. 20, when Trump will be sworn in.
Unfortunately, Trump used his conference to bash both the press and the intelligence community, using ever-sharpening rhetoric. As a candidate this looks like bluster. As president, it looks like someone trying to intimidate the very institutions who will be tasked to investigate whether these allegations about him and Russia are true.
Amid these serious questions, Trump still managed to lay out plans to surrender direct control of his vast business empire, in an attempt to respond to concerns about conflicts of interest once he becomes president.
Frankly, his proposals were more far-reaching than we expected. Still, his plans don’t go far enough. He will hand over management of his hundreds of companies to a troika comprised of two sons and a longtime executive. But because he will continue to own the businesses, every decision he makes as president that boosts his firms’ bottom line pads his own wallet, too.
That’s an unnecessary cloud over all his decisions, and will do neither he nor the country any good.
Trump should both release his taxes and liquidate his domestic and foreign holdings, so they at least can be put into a blind trust and insulate his administration from constant questions about conflicts of interest.
Clarification on Jan. 12, 2017 at 2:40 p.m.: Due to an editing error, this editorial has been updated to make more clear that President-elect Donald Trump should liquidate both his domestic and his foreign holdings.