NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump is facing his most important day since the election.
His news conference, Trump’s first since winning the election, was already looming as a significant rite of passage for someone who is undergoing a transformation from rabble-rousing candidate to the next American President. But new allegations involving Russia are sure to inject an extra charge.
The news conference, expected to begin at 8 am PT in midtown Manhattan, follows exclusive reporting by CNN on Tuesday that classified documents presented last week to President Barack Obama and Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.
The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and drew in part from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible.
The FBI is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
The Trump transition team declined repeated requests for comment Tuesday, but Trump previewed his response on Twitter Wednesday morning.
“Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.” Very unfair!” he tweeted.
The news conference comes at an intense political moment as key Cabinet nominees face a grilling on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The event, delayed from December, was scheduled for Trump to outline how he will address questions about possible conflicts-of-interest related to his vast business empire. But if he opens the session to free-flowing questions from reporters, he is also likely to face scrutiny over the Russian claims as well as his refusal to accept intelligence agency consensus that Moscow interfered in the election, his request for Congress — not Mexico — to initially pay for a border wall, his plans to replace Obamacare and other detailed domestic and foreign policy questions.
More than a test
It will amount to more than a test of his familiarity with policy questions and the duties and responsibilities that a President must shoulder. Coming hours after Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago, the news conference will reinforce a sense of historic change pulsating through Washington. It will also provide hints about the demeanor and attitude he will adopt as commander-in-chief and head of state, potentially shedding light on how he envisions his new role.
“This is a possibly a useful throat-clearing exercise for Mr. Trump to start trying out some of the themes of the presidency,” said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali.
“He is as likely not to use it as he is to use it. At the moment, there is very little difference between the pre-election messaging of Mr. Trump and the transition messaging of Mr. Trump,” said Naftali, who also teaches at New York University.
Trump will enter the White House with the most estranged relationship with journalists of any new President in recent memory after repeatedly branding the press “dishonest” and using it as a foil during his campaign and transition.
Still, the news conference represents Trump’s most extended appearance before the American people since the election and will go some way to showing whether he will adopt his trademark brazen, confrontational style as president.
“I would be very surprised if there is any change in his demeanor,” said David Caputo, a specialist on the Presidency at Pace University, New York. “Look at what he has done since the election. There has not been any change. If there is going to be a change, I would expect that it would happen after the inauguration, and after he is convinced it is not going to work.”
Caputo argued Trump will likely reason that he was elected to challenge the political system and establishment and that he would therefore see little reason to honor conventions in Washington.
“This is going to be an individual who is convinced that he is correct that the old system is corrupt and has to be changed. I think he will use the news conference accordingly,” Caputo said.
Trump will enter the presidency from a position of political strength, given that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and so far have shown little inclination to probe his finances or ethical questions. With that in mind and having shown little desire to reach out to the majority of voters who did not chose him in November, Trump may feel under little pressure to modify his approach as he prepares to take office.
Trump defied the normal rules of politics, for example, on disclosure about his wealth and assets by refusing to release his tax returns during the campaign. But the question of how his business holdings around the globe can be squared with his wider obligations as President without raising questions of conflicts-of-interest threatens to cast a shadow over the Trump presidency.
The President-elect has indicated he will not divest his interests as called for by some ethics campaigners. The fact that his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are in line to control the family empire also creates a gray area over the extent to which he plans to separate himself from his business as president.
Still, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, announced substantive steps to do just that on Monday, including the divestment of some of his assets, shares in buildings and his ownership of the New York Observer newspaper as he prepares to take on a senior adviser role in the White House.
It is unclear if Trump will go as far, however, though he said Wednesday he was ready to disentangle himself from his business obligations.
“All I can say is, it’s very simple, very easy. Sure I’m ready, been ready for a while. (It’s) going to be very, very easy to do,” Trump told reporters.
Closing down foundation
Trump has announced that he will close down his charitable foundation, which is under investigation by the New York attorney general’s office. A Trump aide did not respond to a request Wednesday to provide a list of other steps he has already taken to avoid business conflicts while he is in office.
However, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that the issue would come up Wednesday.
“The President-elect will address how he’s handling the transfer of his business to folks around the country and getting Americans back to work and spur American growth,” Spicer said.
As well as those issues, the President-elect is also under pressure to demonstrate he has a real plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, as a debate rages on Capitol Hill about the timing and character of an alternative to President Barack Obama’s signature law.
His remarks will also be closely watched around the world, as foreign governments struggle to get a fix on Trump’s foreign policy intentions, including his vow to improve relations with Russia, make allies shoulder more of the cost of their own defense and his brewing confrontation with China.
While Trump’s appearance is set to dominate media coverage on Wednesday, it is not the only consequential test for the administration.
Several Trump cabinet nominees, including his pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson are facing confirmation hearings.
Tillerson will come under pressure to explain the friendly personal relationship that he forged with Russian President Vladimir Putin and positions on climate change and human rights that he took while leading the energy giant.
When the appointment was announced it appeared that Tillerson could have trouble being confirmed, but his embrace by senior members of the Republican foreign policy establishment appear to have significantly improved his chances.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker on Tuesday argued that Tillerson should not be seen as a departure from establishment thinking on Russia, which many senators view as a resurgent US enemy.
“I don’t get the sense his views on Russia are out of the mainstream at all,” Corker told CNN’s Manu Raju in an interview on Monday. “Obviously on both sides of the aisle, people will ask that question when he’s here.”