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Confusion in a time of Trump

From the release of a British ex-spy’s unverified dossier to the president-elect’s continuing refusal to release his tax returns, this week’s news prompts myriad issues and questions.

President-elect Donald Trump speaking during Wednesday's news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

How much should we lower the bar of our expectations for President-elect Trump?

I would say not much, but it’s hard not to get sucked into lowering standards when someone who has done so much to lower expectations has nonetheless won the permission of the Electoral College to occupy the Oval Office.

Take Wednesday’s press conference for example. He had one. Good for him. He hadn’t held a press conference for six months. That’s pitiful and totally unprecedented in modern presidential history. Does anyone care other than the press? I don’t know. It’s not a constitutional requirement or anything. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Lincoln never held a press conference (because the presidential press conference hadn’t been invented yet). But why does Trump avoid them? Because he’s a control freak and he can tweet whatever he wants without having to take questions? Because he prefers to be showered with adulation rather than pestered by skeptical reporters? Since we don’t really expect him to level with the public, why do we care? I’m confused.

As you undoubtedly know by now, a rumor has been circulating for a while that Russian intelligence had some dirt on Trump. The Russians call it “Kompromat,” for “compromising material.” You probably know what some of the rumored dirt is by now. At the time of the press conference, most of the media had still declined to specify the nature of it, because they were trying to be fair and cautious and not circulate unconfirmed dirt.

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(By the end of yesterday, even the staid ol’ New York Times was fairly specific about what the rumors were and how they got dug up and put in a dossier, but it still calls the rumors “unverified.” The Times story says, “Late Wednesday night, after speaking with Mr. Trump, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, issued a statement decrying leaks about the matter and saying of [ex-British spy Christopher] Steele’s dossier that the intelligence agencies have ‘not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable.’ “)

Before that, CNN had alluded to the dossier, without specifying what it was, but had reported that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed both Pres. Obama and Pres.-To-Be Trump about rumors that were circulating. Trump publicly berated CNN at the news conference for its role in elevating the story, called it a “fake news” outfit and refused to allow their reporter to ask a question (even though CNN keeps trying to point out that it withheld the salacious nature of some of the rumors, pending verification.

Should we have some sympathy for Trump as the target of unconfirmed dirt that became public, or is it full speed ahead until the allegations (which both he and the Russians say are false) are either proven or disproven? I’m confused.

But this is the same Donald Trump who rose to political prominence in party by peddling a lie, tainted with racial undertones, that his predecessor was unqualified to be president because he was born in Kenya. Trump peddled it for years despite never having anything remotely resembling facts to back up his rumor, and, to my knowledge has never apologized. Instead, when he finally decided to stop peddling his lie, he claimed credit for clearing up the rumor that he had started. Kind of a race-baiting public service, as he portrayed it. Are we now supposed to sympathize with a dirt-peddler who is now outraged at having dirt about him peddled? I’m confused.

(KellyAnne Conway went on CNN last night and had an epic, through-smiling-eyes-and-gritted-teeth verbal brawl with Anderson Cooper about CNN’s role in the Kompromat story. You can watch that video here in this link. It’s pretty amazing on an emotional level and Cooper was struggling mightily against what appeared to be a howling anger as he tried to get the unflappable Conway to at least acknowledge that CNN had not published anything it couldn’t back up.)

Back to the news conference: Trump finally delivered the long-promised plan to shelter himself from potential ethical problems arising from his vast fortune. (At least he claims it’s vast. He’s never divulged the details, and exaggerating is one of his specialties.) As he loves to claim, he’s under no obligation to do anything about potential conflicts of interest between his businesses and his job as president (because the ethics laws make an exception for the president). So he’s going to put his sons in charge and then not discuss any business matters with them.

Government ethics gurus from both parties call this plan ridiculous. (I’m no ethics guru, but for starters, who’s going to enforce that no-talking rule with his sons?) So, should we give him a point for doing something about this problem when he’s not legally required to, or should we be more concerned that the something he’s doing is totally inadequate to reassure the public that he won’t be leveraging his presidency to enhance his net worth? I’m confused.

Trump was also asked whether he would have a replacement ready for the Affordable Care Act before he repeals it. His answer:

It’ll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially, simultaneously. 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.

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So we’re gonna do repeal and replace, very complicated stuff. And we’re gonna get a health bill passed, we’re gonna get health care taken care of in this country. You have deductibles that are so high, that after people go broke paying their premiums, which are going through the roof, the health care can’t even be used by them because their deductibles bills are so high.

Obamacare is the Democrats’ problem. We are gonna take the problem off the shelves for them. We’re doing them a tremendous service by doing it. We could sit back and let them hang with it. We are doing the Democrats a great service.

So as soon as our secretary is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan. And it was actually, pretty accurately reported today, The New York Times. And the plan will be repeal and replace Obamacare. We’re going to have a health care that is far less expensive and far better.

So, should we be reassured, on behalf of those who will lose their health insurance when Obamacare is repealed, that Trump has some kind of replacement in mind that will kick in the same day or same week or could be same hour? (During the campaign, Trump generally said only that his plan was to “take down the lines between the states.”) Or should we be worried about whether such a plan, an improvement on Obamacare in every way, actually exists on a planet with a breathable atmosphere?

Trump was challenged once again by a reporter to release his tax returns (as all recent presidents have done) to put to rest various questions about his finances and potential conflicts of interest. He replied for the zillionth time that he would not, because his most recent returns are under audit and added that while reporters are obsessed with his returns, the public has no interest in them. On this one, I’m not confused. Trump is hiding something and it must be pretty bad. The fact that the returns are under audit is actually an additional reason the public should know what he is hiding. And, by the way, contrary to his statement that the public isn’t interested, a big majority of Americans say in polls that he should release them.

If you would like to read a full transcript of the press conference, the New York Times has one here., went over some Trump’s purported factual statements from the press conference. As has happened once or twice before, he comes across as not a couple of bricks shy of a real stickler for factual accuracy. The full factcheck is here. The first item goes like this:

*Trump falsely claimed that there are “96 million really wanting a job and they can’t get [one].” There are roughly 96 million people not in the labor force, but that includes retirees, students and others who don’t want jobs. Only 5.5 million of them want work.

Have a great day.