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Trump Addresses Russia, Ethics Concerns in Wide-Ranging Press Conference

President-elect Donald Trump announced Thursday that he would relinquish the management of the Trump Organization to his sons, but he will not divest or create a completely blind trust. In a wide-ranging press conference, his first in six months, Trump also slammed unverified reports that Russia has compromising information on him.
Image: President-elect Donald Trump speaks with journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, New York on Jan. 9.
President-elect Donald Trump speaks with journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, New York on Jan. 9.Albin Lohr-Jones / EPA

President-elect Donald Trump held his first press conference in nearly six months on Wednesday, lambasting the circulation of unverified allegations about his dealings with Russia while continuing to advocate for a warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump did not specifically address questions regarding whether members of his staff were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. When a reporter repeated that question to Trump afterwards as the president-elect approached the elevator to exit the room, he answered "No."

Trump, whose public comments in the wake of the election have been limited to a handful of media interviews and daily Twitter missives, also turned the podium over to an attorney who outlined his plans to shift the management of his company to his sons. But he will not create a blind trust or fully divest of his assets. In an interview with MSNBC shortly after the press conference, ethics expert Norm Eisen called the arrangement "a guarantee of scandal, corruption and controversy."

Trump's remarks come just one day after CNN and other outlets, including NBC News, reported that briefing materials prepared for President-elect Trump included unverified reports that Russia has compromising information on him. Hours later, Buzzfeed published an unverified dossier claiming to detail Russia’s efforts to cultivate Trump -- including by direct interactions with Trump surrogates -- and to collect compromising information about him. The document has not been authenticated by Buzzfeed, NBC News or any other media outlet. Trump's team and a Russian spokesperson have vehemently denied the accusations.

Related: The 10 Questions We Have for Donald Trump

Here's what Trump said in the hour-long news conference:

On Russian hacking

Trump first acknowledged that he believes the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other political groups were conducted by Russians, but he quickly pivoted to mentioning other nations that engage in cyberattacks.

"As far as hacking, I think it's Russia. But we also get hacked by other countries and other people and I can say that," he said.

And later in the press conference, he appeared to walk back his statement about Russian responsibility for the hacks, saying "it could be others."

He continued to repeat the damaging information about Hillary Clinton's campaign exposed by the hacks. "Hacking’s bad and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hack," he said.

While he declined to weigh in directly on intelligence assessments that indicate that Putin himself ordered operations to aid Trump’s victory, Trump reiterated his favorable language about Putin during the campaign, saying “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”

He suggested that if Putin was responsible for the hacking, "he shouldn’t have done it. I don’t believe he’ll be doing it more, now."

On his conflict of interest issues

Trump's team formally announced at the press conference that he is relinquishing his management of the Trump Organization to his sons and that an ethics adviser will be appointed to its management team to review all new transactions.

But he also will not divest or create a completely blind trust -- the solutions overwhelmingly endorsed by ethics experts to eliminate the risk that the president’s assets could become ripe for corruption and influence-peddling.

And after promising last month that there would be “no new deals,” Trump’s team said Wednesday that the Trump Organization would not engage in any new foreign transactions but new deals within the United States would be approved with the sign-off of the new ethics adviser, who is yet to be named.

An attorney who briefed reporters before the press conference also said that, although his team maintains that payments made to his hotel properties do not violate the emoluments cause, Trump will “voluntarily” donate to the United States Treasury all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotels.

Ethics experts are already deriding the arrangement as untenable.

"This does not address the emoluments clause concerns, this does not address the conflict concerns. This is using the language of ethics without addressing the actual ethics concerns," said Kathleen Clark, an ethics specialist at Washington University Law School.

On his business dealings

Trump said that he received an offer "over the weekend" to conduct a $2 billion deal in Dubai but that he turned it down.

"I don't want to take advantage of something," he said, adding that as president he is not subject to the conflict of interest laws that apply to most federal employees.

"I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. I don't like the way that looks but I would be able to do that if I wanted to," he said.

On his tax returns

Trump continued to maintain that he cannot release his tax returns because they are being audited.

"The only ones who care about my tax returns are the reporters," he said.

On the CNN and Buzzfeed Reports

Before Trump even took the stage, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Vice President-elect Mike Pence both denounced Buzzfeed's report from the podium as false and irresponsible.

Spicer called both the Buzzfeed and CNN reports a "sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks," noting that Buzzfeed's own report had acknowledged errors in the unsubstantiated document.

Upon taking the stage, Trump briefly praised news organizations that did not report on the dossier and warned that it would be "a tremendous blot" on the record of intelligence agencies if they were responsible for circulating the document.

"A thing like that should have never been written, it should never have been had and certainly should never have been released," he said, later saying the memo was written by "sick people [who] put that crap together."

Trump also refused to take questions from news organizations whom he felt had reported inaccurately on his relationship with Russia, calling Buzzfeed “a failing pile of garbage,” and telling a CNN reporter “you’re fake news.”

On health care

Trump pledged to gut Obamacare and replace it with new legislation “essentially simultaneously,” a break with congressional Republicans who have cautioned that complex new health care legislation will take time to negotiate and complete.

“It will be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously,” Trump said. “It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day, could be the same hour.”

Naming a Veterans Affairs chief

Trump announced that he has selected his pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. Shuklkin currently serves as an undersecretary at the department.

“We looked long and hard,” Trump said. We interviewed at least 100 people, some good, some not so good,” he said. “We think that this selection will be something that – with time – will straighten it out.”

NBC's Benjy Sarlin contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story identified Kathleen Clark as an ethics specialist at the University of Washington Law School. She is an ethics specialist at Washington University Law School.