It was a whirlwind week in politics with seven cabinet confirmation hearings, Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, Barack Obama’s farewell address, Congress completing the first steps of Obamacare repeal, and even a big surprise for outgoing Vice President Joe Biden.
We waded through all of that action to find the eight most important takeaways this week:
1. The Russian threat continues to emerge (and Trump continues to downplay it): A senior U.S. official told NBC News that FBI Director James Comey alerted President-elect Trump to the existence of a dossier of unverified allegations about his ties to Russia last week. The news of the dossier resulted in Trump only deepening the rift between himself and the intelligence community by blasting them for leaking the information and asking, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Both Russian officials and Trump have denied that Moscow has any compromising information on the incoming president.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Trump did acknowledge for the first time that Russia was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other political groups, though he continued to mention other countries engage in cyber warfare. He then later said “it could be others” who were behind the DNC attack. "Hacking's bad and it shouldn't be done,” Trump said. “But look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hack."
2. Trump’s ethics plan hasn’t satisfied his critics: Trump’s first press conference since being elected only led to more criticism and questions about how the businessman will handle his finances while in office. He announced his sons would manage the Trump Organization and he would not divest or create a blind trust. Despite a prior promise of “no new deals,” the Trump Organization will continue domestic transactions approved by an ethics adviser while only ceasing to make deals outside the country. Those guidelines fell well short of what many ethics experts were hoping to see from the president-elect, including the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. “Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” he said. “The presidency is a full-time job and he would've had to step back anyway.”
3. Trump’s cabinet picks have contradicted him on several issues: Some of the president-elect’s most high profile cabinet picks contradicted him this week on key issues, leaving even more questions about how the incoming administration will handle key issues. Tillerson called Russia’s taking of Crimea an act of force, said he opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and called climate change a serious threat. Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis said the U.S. must honor the Iran nuclear agreement and called NATO “vital.” Trump’s choice to head the CIA, Mike Pompeo, said Wikileaks is not credible and expressed confidence in the intelligence community. And attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions said he does not support the type of outright ban on Muslims that Trump once advocated for during the campaign.
"All my Cabinet nominee are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!" Trump responded on Twitter.
4. We’re going to keep talking about Clinton’s emails: Exactly 15 months ago Bernie Sanders memorably declared that the American people were “sick and tired” of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s “damn emails.” Well, we heard a lot more about them since that time and we’re going to continue to hear even more as the Justice Department Inspector General reviews how the FBI handled the investigation. The announcement was lauded by Clinton allies who feel the department’s handling of the investigation tiled the election towards Trump in the final days.
5. Rex Tillerson’s nomination is in trouble: Sen. Marco Rubio left Tillerson’s confirmation hearings unimpressed with how the nominee for secretary of state views Russia. Tillerson declined to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal during a fierce line of questioning from the Florida senator. If all the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Rubio vote against Tillerson, his nomination dies. However, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons has signaled a potential openness to vote FOR Tillerson based on his concerns over who else Trump might choose.
6. Jeff Sessions' isn’t in trouble: Despite opposition from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sessions is likely to be easily confirmed. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has pledged to support Trump’s pick for attorney general and no Republicans have said they would vote against him. This comes despite Sen. Cory Booker’s history making testimony against his Senate colleague.
7. Obama warned that the state of America’s democracy isn’t so strong: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own,” President Obama warned during his farewell address on Tuesday. It was a cautionary note in an otherwise uplifting speech that comes as Americans prepare for an unpredictable commander-in-chief who is causing all sorts of uncertainty even before being sworn in.
Trump continues to question the intelligence community as more reports about his ties to Russia emerge. Michael Flynn, his incoming national security adviser, phoned Russia’s ambassador multiple times after the Obama administration announced sanctions on Russia, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Trump tweeted Clinton is “guilty as hell” after an inspector general announced it would review how the FBI conducted its investigation into the handling of Clinton’s emails. That has all contributed to just 44 percent of Americans saying they approve of Trump’s performance so far. Obama sat at 83 percent approval at this time eight years ago.
8. The Obama-Biden bromance is real: The meme-generating duo has been fun to watch since they first stepped into the White House. But political ambitions and realities have historically kept the relationships between presidents and vice president at best professional, and at worst antagonistic. But Thursday proved Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will go down in history as one of the best POTUS-VPOTUS relationships of all time when Obama surprised a teary-eyed Biden by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “My family is honored to call ourselves honorary Bidens,” Obama said, adding that Biden is the “best Vice President America has ever had.”