President-elect Donald Trump’s first news conference in six months was a vintage performance. He was self-assured, aggressive, combative, at times willing to offend and at times trying to sound conciliatory. What it added up to was a reminder of the challenges he will face in gaining and maintaining full public trust once he is sworn in as president.
No president in memory has come to the brink of his inauguration with such a smorgasbord of potential problems and unanswered questions, or with the level of public doubts that exist around his leadership. Though he dealt with the issues directly on Wednesday, what he could not answer – what he cannot answer until he is in the Oval Office – is whether he can avoid having these kinds of questions plague and possibly debilitate his presidency over the next four years.
Trump and his advisers have dismissed much of the pre-inaugural controversy as part of an effort to delegitimize his election victory and undermine his presidency even before he takes office. Still, the questions swirling around him as he came to the lobby of Trump Tower were an unprecedented mixture of the personal, the financial and the substantive.
Has he been compromised by the Russians, the most explosive and newest of allegations? (He denied all as fake news.) Are he and his party in conflict over U.S.-Russia relations? Will he truly separate himself from his sprawling business empire in a way that avoids conflicts of interest? Can he and Congress find common ground on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act? Will he live up to the promises he made as a candidate?
The news conference put on display everything the country has come to recognize in Trump from the presidential campaign. For those who responded to his message from the start, for those who came to his side later in the campaign and for those who didn’t but are prepared to give him some benefit of the doubt, it was a performance that no doubt went down well.
Right from the start, he swung back hard against salacious and unsubstantiated claims of personal misbehavior contained in a document prepared by a former Western intelligence officer and now in the hands of the federal government. He aggressively chastised BuzzFeed for publishing the entire document online and CNN for promoting the story about its existence (though CNN did not publish the document).
On the business side, he introduced Sheri Dillon, a tax attorney with the firm Morgan Lewis, to walk reporters through the steps he is taking to try to assure the public that he will serve its interests as president and not those of the Trump Organization – and to explain why many of the ideas proposed by outsiders arguing for taking bigger steps were impractical and likely to create their own potential conflicts.
He said he is confident that he can keep his pledge to have Mexico pay for the border wall he intends to build, even if U.S. taxpayers initially foot the bill. He put Congress on notice that replacing Obamacare should go hand-in-glove with votes to repeal it. No easy task. He put drug manufacturers on notice that they cannot expect to do business as usual when he is in office. He offered the same message to companies that move production out of the country.
On those matters, Trump’s performance was at once giving no quarter to his tormentors, reminding his core supporters that he will make good on his campaign promises no matter what the skeptics may say, and at the same time trying to offer some reassurance to critics who worry about the possibilities for ethical abuses by the businessman turned president.
In other ways, Trump also seemed eager to show that he has been hearing the criticisms of how he has handled the transition. For weeks he has been dismissive of intelligence findings that the Russians mounted a comprehensive campaign to meddle in the election and did so with the expressed aim of undermining Hillary Clinton and thereby aiding Trump.
For the first time, he gave ground on that question, saying that he believed the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the private emails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. He also warned Russian President Vladimir Putin not to engage in such activities when he is president.
But with each step in that direction, he quickly walked back the other way. While he said the Russians were behind the hacking, he said the United States gets hacked all the time by foreign entities. Critics worry that he would cozy up to Putin. He said that “if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
He declared flatly that he has no business dealings with the Russians, but again held out against greater transparency about his business. He dismissed calls to release his tax returns, a posture that puts him at odds with past presidents who have routinely done so.
He claims that more can be learned by examining his financial disclosure statements, but financial tax experts disagree.
While he was willing to accept the intelligence findings that the Russians did the hacking during the election, he still appears far from calling a truce in what has been an ongoing war with the intelligence community. He as much as accused senior intelligence officials of leaking to the public. That fraught relationship ought to be a matter of grave concern – to Trump, to the intelligence community and most important to all Americans.
Despite his six-month hiatus from meeting with reporters, Trump appeared anything but rusty. He came to the lobby of Trump Tower ready to go on offense against his critics and his questioners. Yet remarkably, he offered kind words for news organizations – namely those that refrained from publishing the details of what it is claimed the Russians have gathered to compromise him. He recalled how much he had enjoyed the give-and-take in the campaign, which he said he stopped “because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.”
In eight days, Trump will take the oath of office. He will do so with the public far from confident that he is up to the job ahead. Gallup measured him on several questions asked about other presidents as they were entering office. Trump’s scores were notably low.
Not quite half of those surveyed said they have confidence he can handle an international crisis. That compares with 7 in 10 who expressed confidence in President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the weeks before their inaugurations. Just over half said they believe he can manage the executive branch effectively. For Obama and Bush, it was in the neighborhood of 8 in 10. And on whether Trump can prevent major scandals, just 44 percent said they were confident that he could do so, compared with 74 percent for Obama and 77 percent for Bush.
All presidents come to the Oval Office with questions about their ability to handle the complexities of the job. Obama arrived with limited experience on the national stage. George W. Bush took the oath after a contentious recount and controversial Supreme Court decision. Trump makes those situations look mild in comparison.
Public trust is the currency that all presidents must have to succeed. Trump might well have helped himself with his performance Wednesday, but there are enough challenges and questions surrounding him to make what is already an enormously difficult job all that much harder.
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