THE MORNING PLUM:
Today Donald Trump is set to hold a press conference, and the stakes have soared in the wake of CNN’s report that Trump was briefed on potentially compromising material amassed on him by Russian intelligence. The claim that such material was amassed — as well as the underlying material itself — are both unverified. However, the story is reportedly seen as plausible by our intelligence community, and the IC reportedly thinks the source for it — a former British intelligence official — could plausibly have had knowledge of such activities.
You should exercise extreme caution about such intel leaks. However, the broader set of known facts here give rise to legitimate questions for Trump — and they overlap with another major ongoing story, i.e., the one concerning what he will do with his global business holdings and how he will address the potential conflicts of interest they create. Here are five questions he should be pressed on today:
1) Do you support a full, independent probe into all aspects of the story involving alleged Russian meddling in our election? If not, why not, given that such a probe would presumably vindicate what you’ve said?
Trump initially cast doubt on the IC’s finding of this meddling. And in a tweetstorm this morning, Trump claimed the latest CNN report shows the IC is leaking “fake news” to discredit him. Elsewhere Trump’s advisers have suggested he supports congressional investigations into alleged Russian interference, but it’s likely GOP leaders will limit those inquiries. Why not support a full, independent probe that might settle every aspect of this to public satisfaction, including his own claims about the IC’s current conduct?
Also, was Trump actually briefed on the possibility that Russian intel amassed compromising info? It’s unclear precisely what Trump is even denying here — and his top adviser is saying he wasn’t even told about this. Let’s try to settle that, too.
2) Why won’t you release your tax returns, given that they would presumably prove your own contentions about major aspects of this story to be correct?
Trump claimed today that he has “no deals, no loans, no nothing” with Russia, and that Russia “has never tried to use leverage over me.” Trump’s tax returns would go a long way towards proving that to be true. And this demand stands on its own, independent of the latest charges: Trump should also release his tax returns because it will make it easier to evaluate whether conflicts of interest are taking place involving his business holdings.
3) How will you assure that the businesses in which you have an ownership interest on January 20th are not getting any foreign government payments or other foreign government benefits?
That last question was suggested to me by Norman Eisen, the former ethics watchdog under Obama. Today Trump is expected to say that he is merely transferring control of his holdings to his two sons, while retaining a stake in them. That will do little or nothing to alleviate the possibility of conflicts or corruption. But beyond this, as Eisen suggests, if he does opt for something so limited, Trump needs to be pressed on why this arrangement doesn’t leave an opening for foreign governments or companies controlled by them to try to influence him.
The question is not: Will you be influenced by such efforts? Rather, it’s: Why are you opting for an arrangement that allows foreign entities to try to influence you, when there are more meaningful steps you could take to avoid this, and why should the public stand for it?
4) If you are going to retain an ownership stake in your businesses, and if your sons are going to run them, why not offer a full public accounting of them, to bolster public confidence that no conflicts or corruption are taking place?
Because of our lack of knowledge of the full range and details of Trump’s global holdings, in many cases we simply will not be aware if conflicts of interest — or outright corruption — are or might be taking place. Nor will we even be able to tell whether Trump’s businesses stand to benefit from his policy choices. Ethics experts have pointed out that greater voluntary transparency on Trump’s part would go some way towards correcting this problem, even if it would be less ideal than the full divestment and blind trust that some experts want to see.
5) Is it your position that under any GOP replacement for Obamacare, no one who currently has health coverage under the law should lose it?
The other day, Trump transition adviser Kellyanne Conway flatly declared that the incoming Trump admininstration’s bottom line on any GOP replacement for the ACA is this: “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance.” Is that Trump’s position? Republican congressional leaders will not say whether people will lose coverage under their replacement. Is Trump okay with that? Will he demand that any GOP replacement ensure that no one lose coverage? Will he fight Republican efforts to scale that coverage back?
If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information — known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” — that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House….U.S. officials…determined that it was plausible that [the former British intel official] would have firsthand knowledge of Russia’s alleged dossier on Trump.
While the story and the underlying claims remains unsubstantiated, what this appears to mean is that they are being taken seriously and remain a concern going forward.
* EFFORT TO EVALUATE ACCURACY OF CLAIMS CONTINUES: CBS News reports:
U.S. intelligence is in the process of corroborating the details of what the Russians may have, but the officials tell CBS News that the former British investigator and his network is credible.
It’s perfectly plausible that this story will take many more turns.
* KELLYANNE CONWAY DISMISSES CLAIMS: Top Trump transition adviser Kellyanne Conway said last night that Trump did not actually receive the briefing on the new material:
“He has said that he is not aware of that…we should be concerned that intelligence officials leaked to the press and won’t go and tell the president-elect or the president of the United States.”
Well, either Trump was briefed on it or he wasn’t. Intel officials say he was. Perhaps Trump simply wasn’t listening to — or didn’t retain — what he was told?
* RUSSIA DENIES THE CHARGES: NBC News reports that a Kremlin spokesman is rejecting the allegations:
“The Kremlin does not have compromising information about Trump,” he said, according to Russian state-run news agency TASS. “It’s a total hoax, absolute fabrication and utter nonsense. The Kremlin does not collect compromising information.”
Oh. Glad that’s settled.
* THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY: Trump seizes on Russia’s denial:
To which Boston Globe reporter James Pindall responded: “Quoting the Kremlin probably isn’t what you should be doing right now.”
* REX TILLERSON FACES A BIG GRILLING TODAY: Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, faces his confirmation hearing today, and USA Today reports he’ll likely be grilled by Republicans on his ties to Russia:
Several Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — have joined Democrats in expressing concern about Tillerson’s close business relations with Russia. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will likely question Tillerson about his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yes, but Tillerson also must be asked about his belief in climate change and his support for the Paris climate accord, and pressed on how he will advise climate denier Trump on both of those.
* TV ADS PITCH GOP’S OBAMACARE REPLACE PLAN: CNN reports that the American Action Network, an outside group funded by allies of Speaker Paul Ryan, is spending $1 million on ads claiming that Republicans have a plan to replace the ACA:
“Imagine a new path forward,” the glossy spot says, rattling off basic GOP health care principles. “House Republicans have a plan to get there, without disrupting existing coverage.”
Of course, there isn’t actually any real replacement plan yet, let alone any indication Republicans could unite behind one. Maybe the new plan is to run ads claiming there’s a plan?