On Wednesday, Donald Trump held his first press conference in more than half a year. He presented himself as the victim of a scurrilous dossier—compiled by a former intelligence operative and published by BuzzFeed—that recounted a series of allegations about Trump’s personal and financial ties to Russia, as well as purported collusion between Trump associates and associates of the Russian government. Trump used the dossier to shame the media and to deflect attention from credible evidence against Russia, most notably in an intelligence community report that was presented to Trump on Friday.
The press conference was a blizzard of evasions, diversions, hedges, excuses, rationalizations, and stonewalling. Trump’s arguments minimized the case against Russia, and several of his statements flatly contradicted the intelligence community’s report. A week before he assumes the presidency of the United States, Trump continues to behave like a press secretary for Russia. Here’s how he bobbed and weaved.
1. Russia did it … maybe. Trump was asked whether he accepted the IC’s assessment “that Vladimir Putin ordered the hack of the DNC.” He replied: “I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” Later, Trump hedged his answer. A reporter told him: “You said just now that you believe Russia indeed was responsible for the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, et cetera.” Trump disputed that description of his view. “It could have been others also,” he said.
2. Everybody does it. Several times, Trump diverted questions about Russia to other culprits. “It’s not just Russia,” he said. “Twenty-two million accounts were hacked in this country by China.” He complained that the media dwell on Russian hacking and “don’t report it the same way” when China does it. He ignored the distinction emphasized by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, in a Senate hearing on Tuesday: that Russia, unlike China or other cyberspying countries, deployed its hacked information “to influence the outcome of the election.”
3. It’s good that Putin likes me. A reporter noted the IC’s conclusion “that Vladimir Putin ordered it”—the hack—“because he aspired to help you in the election.” The reporter asked Trump, “Will you undo what President Obama did to punish the Russians for this, or will you keep it in place?” Trump responded by welcoming Putin’s support: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability. … Russia can help us fight ISIS.”
4. Nobody thinks Hillary Clinton would have been tougher on Russia. The IC’s report concluded that “Putin, his advisers, and the Russian Government developed a clear preference” for Trump over Hillary Clinton. The report said “pro-Kremlin figures” had praised Trump’s “Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine. Putin publicly contrasted the President-elect’s approach to Russia with Secretary Clinton’s ‘aggressive rhetoric.’” But Trump, in his press conference, contradicted that assessment. “Do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?” he asked the press, derisively. “Give me a break.”
5. Russia didn’t hold back anything on me or other Republicans. Intelligence officials summarized the dossier against Trump in an addendum to the report. Officials told CNN in a story published Tuesday—and cited by Trump at the press conference—that they had included the addendum “to demonstrate that Russia had compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties, but [had] only released information damaging to Hillary Clinton and Democrats.” The point of this discrepancy was to show “that Moscow intended to harm Clinton’s candidacy and help Trump’s.” But at the press conference, Trump brushed aside that assessment. He asserted that Putin had held back nothing. “If he did have something, they would’ve released it,” said Trump. “They would’ve been glad to release it. I think, frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it, just like they did about Hillary.”
6. Nothing in the dossier can be true. Trump ridicules the IC for its erroneous assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But it’s Trump, not the IC, who has adopted a firm belief about Russia and dismissed the possibility that intelligence might contradict it. On Wednesday, referring to the dossier, a reporter asked Trump whether he would “reconsider” his position if intelligence agencies concluded “that any of it is true.” Trump rejected that scenario out of hand. “There’s nothing they could come back with,” he said.
7. I won’t release documents that could falsify my denials. “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away,” Trump told the media. “I have no deals, I have no loans, and I have no dealings.” A reporter pressed him: “Will you release your tax returns to prove what you’re saying about no deals in Russia?” Trump refused. “I’m not releasing the tax returns, because, as you know, they’re under audit,” he said. That’s a bogus excuse: The IRS has said taxpayers are free to release their returns while being audited. But Trump brushed off the request anyway. “The only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters,” he said.
8. Focus on what’s in the hacked emails, not on who hacked them. Three months ago, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he wouldn’t “discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks.” The reason, Rubio explained, was that “these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process.” Trump has no such compunctions. At his last press conference, six months ago, Trump invited Putin to hack more emails: “Russia, If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” On Wednesday, he again turned the discussion from Russia to Clinton: “We talk about the hacking, and hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked! Look at what was learned from that hacking: that Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing.”
9. Russia’s enemies are my enemies. Unlike past presidents-elect, Trump continues to focus his hostility on domestic political rivals, not foreign adversaries. He persisted in that fixation when he was asked on Wednesday about a bill proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham—who had vied with Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—to impose further sanctions on Russia. “Lindsey Graham,” Trump mused. “I’ve been competing with him for a long time. He is going to crack that 1 percent barrier one day.”
Trump has engaged in this behavior all along. He has exploited the material Russia hacked and leaked. He has minimized Russia’s misconduct. He has disputed, and often scorned, evidence of its guilt. He has ignored U.S. intelligence. He has bragged about Putin’s admiration of him. He has mocked Democrats and Republicans who side with U.S. intelligence against Russia.
Trump may be right that the dossier published on Tuesday is garbage. But if the charge against him is that he defends Russia’s interests over America’s, you don’t need to read the dossier. All you need to do is listen to what he says.
Thanks to Tom Corbani and Lily Tyson for research assistance.