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President-elect Donald Trump entered his first press conference in six months facing hundreds of questions to address on his business and policies. He left with hundreds more.
Trump announced a new ethics plan to avoid conflicts of interest with his vast business holdings, but experts are already warning that it’s woefully inadequate and could violate the Constitution. He offered inconsistent answers on a variety of topics related to Russia and he provided limited guidance on health care reform, even as Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare are stalling over disagreements on the timing and substance of legislation.
Trump's remarks come just one day after CNN and other outlets reported that briefing materials prepared for — and presented to — the president-elect by U.S. Intelligence officials included unverified reports that Russia had compiled compromising information on him.
Hours later, Buzzfeed published an unverified dossier from a non-government source claiming to detail Russia's efforts to cultivate Trump — including by direct interactions with Trump surrogates — and to collect damaging material about him.
NBC News reported that the material in question was prepared for the briefing, but, according to a U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the briefing preparation, Trump was not personally briefed on that information, which was originally generated as part of anti-Trump Republican opposition research.
Here are some of the big questions coming out of Trump's first news conference as president-elect.
Does Trump’s ethics plan actually solve anything?
Trump brought a lawyer, Sheri Dillon, to outline a plan for the president-elect to avoid conflicts of interest as president and his team briefed reporters on its details before the event. But legal experts who have been raising the alarm about Trump's business for months say the new plan did little to address their concerns.
"The president-elect’s disregard for ethics and precedent and the Constitution in his press conference today is going to precipitate an ethics and a Constitutional crisis from the day he’s sworn in," Norm Eisen, a Brookings fellow and former White House ethics lawyer under President Obama, told MSNBC.
The main plank of Trump’s plan is to turn his business over to his sons to run, place his assets in a trust (but not a "blind trust" typically used by politicians), and appoint officers at his company to vet deals for potential conflicts.
This leaves major problems. Since Trump still owns his business empire, it’s possible for foreign actors or domestic interests to try and influence him by padding his company’s profits. Making matters worse, his sons, rather than an independent caretaker, still have direct control over his business, offering him very little distance from its operations.
Trump’s lawyers say he will not be allowed to request detailed information on his business, but someone could potentially buy a property at a high price, or arrange a favorable loan for his sons, or invest in a major project, and then tell Trump themselves.
"Foreigners and others will continue to be able to ingratiate themselves by doing business with Trump organizations, which enriches Trump," Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in ethics, told NBC News. "It’s really quite simple."
Oddly enough, Trump offered a perfect illustration of potential conflicts at his press conference by announcing that he had recently turned down a $2 billion deal from a Dubai investor. Under his plan, Trump’s companies would not invest in “foreign jurisdictions,” but there was no indication foreign actors couldn’t invest in Trump projects in the United States.
Trump also set forth a legal fight over the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which experts have warned prevents the president from receiving revenue from foreign governments through his companies. His lawyers argue this does not apply to “fair value exchanges,” like a stay at one of his hotels at normal rates, and added that he would turn “profits” from such stays over to the Treasury Department.
But ethics lawyers argue that Trump can’t accept any payments at all from foreign governments, not just those above “fair value.” There’s a good chance this dispute will spark legal challenges.
Finally, Trump offered no explanation as to how the public would be able to judge for themselves whether he or his business is affected by conflicts. He has yet to release his taxes — and reiterated at the press conference he had no plans do so — and has put out only limited information on his business operations and debts.
What is Trump’s stance towards Russia?
Trump’s transition has been roiled by ongoing fallout from what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a major hacking campaign ordered by Vladimir Putin to help boost his candidacy against Hillary Clinton.
When it came to hacking, Trump’s answers were confusing and it was difficult to tell how he will handle relations with Russia going forward.
On the one hand, he said for the first time that he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind hacks, but he added later “it could have been others.”
He said Putin “shouldn’t be doing it” and even suggested he might support sanctions levied by President Obama in response. But Trump also declined to condemn Putin and added “If Putin likes Trump, I consider that an asset.” Nor did he sound upset about a Russia cyberattack on American democratic institutions: Echoing his old campaign rallies, he urged the press to “look at what was learned from that hacking” of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
As for the report on alleged Russian efforts to compromise him, Trump called the claims “fake news,” blasted the press for reporting on them, and accused American intelligence agencies of leaking the material to undermine him. He also gave Russia credit for denying the report about their own alleged wrongdoing.
He also answered “no” to reporters when asked whether anyone tied to his campaign had contact with Russia and specifically denied a claim in the raw memo that his attorney Michael Cohen met Russian agents in Prague.
Much like his conflict of interests issues, Trump offered few ways to independently build confidence that he was free from Russian influence. He repeated that he had no loans or business ties with “Russia,” but did not pledge to provide any information that would confirm Putin had no financial leverage over him.
Nor did he suggest any kind of public inquiry that could issue a decisive report on Russian espionage. Democrats and some Republicans have called for a select committee or a blue-ribbon commission with subpoena power to investigate the matter.
What do Republicans do on health care?
Republicans in Congress are struggling to find a way forward on health care. GOP leaders want to pass legislation to repeal much of Obamacare immediately, but delay its implementation — possibly for several years — while they pass a replacement. Some key lawmakers worry they’re moving too fast, however, and that they should pass a replacement at the same time, or at least offer a blueprint for one.
Weighing in on the debate, Trump said he wanted a repeal bill and a replacement to occur “essentially simultaneously” and potentially even the “same hour.”
This is difficult to the point of impossible without significantly delaying the repeal process, possibly for years, which makes it hard to assess Trump’s statement.
For one thing, there is no consensus within the Republican Party as to their replacement plan, which will require a long list of complicated decisions and tradeoffs across an array of House and Senate committees. Trump offered few guidelines on his ideal plan on Wednesday, but said his Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price would provide more details later.
Even if they produce a plan, Republicans likely will not have the votes to pass it without Democratic support. The repeal bill is being advanced through reconciliation, a budget procedure that requires only a bare majority in the Republican-controlled Senate to pass. But the rules limit what types of changes can be made, meaning Republicans will likely need to enter into negotiations with Democrats to pass a permanent replacement.
Trump is not known for his command of health policy or the inner workings of Congress, so it’s not clear he understands the roadblocks preventing him from moving forward. But with the Senate preparing to vote on repeal as soon as late January, he’ll need to get acquainted with both fast.
How will Trump get along with the intelligence community?
Trump has feuded with America’s intelligence agencies throughout the transition, but relations reached a new low at his press conference on Wednesday when he accused them of leaking reports on Russia’s alleged blackmail campaign against him.
Reiterating an earlier tweet, Trump called their behavior “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”
He offered far more bile towards America’s spies than he did toward Russia’s intelligence services, even as he acknowledged their unprecedented hacking campaign against U.S. political targets.
In just 9 days, America’s spies will work for Trump on behalf of the American people. If Trump refuses their counsel, he could turn to conspiracy theories that flatter his worldview instead (something he was prone to often during the campaign). Poor relations with America’s intelligence community could also affect morale and recruitment at agencies or prompt more infighting over leaks and disputed reports.