President-elect Donald Trump has made plenty of news since he won the election, but the coming week should be the most important of the pre-inaugural period by far, a moment when tweets and mixed signals could give way to greater clarity about the incoming president and his administration.
For weeks Trump has been mostly out of sight, heard from mostly in random, 140-character bursts that have rattled cages from Capitol Hill to corporate boardrooms to world capitals. But for all the running commentary, Trump’s transition has been particularly opaque. Over the next week, he and many of his Cabinet nominees will all be out in public, providing answers that could start to bring his administration into sharper focus.
The focal point will be Trump’s news conference Wednesday in New York, with two issues uppermost: how he answers questions about the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails; and how he explains the steps he plans to take with his business enterprises to avoid conflicts of interest as president.
Confirmation hearings are scheduled for a slew of his Cabinet picks, so many there won’t be enough television screens to accommodate them all. They include two of the most controversial nominees: Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state; and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the early Trump supporter named to be attorney general. The many confirmation hearings are likely to be overshadowed by Trump’s event, but they deserve as much attention as can be given.
The coincidence in timing for Trump’s news conference couldn’t have been written better by a Hollywood scriptwriter. The president-elect hasn’t met with the press corps for a full-fledged question-and-answer session since last July (days after the first DNC emails were leaked by WikiLeaks), when he approvingly called on the Russians to find and reveal emails from Clinton’s private server.
“They probably have them,” he said that day. “I’d like to have them released.” He has sung a different song about the Russians since then. Could he have imagined that questions about Russian interference with the election would be front and center as he prepares to take the oath of office?
Trump’s decision to delay until next week a scheduled December news conference puts him up against the release of a declassified version of the intelligence findings that pinned the orders to interfere in the election squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin and that ascribed the Russians’ motivation as intending to hurt Clinton and help him. That leaves Trump open to more pointed questions about the Russians’ role and motivations and his confidence level — or lack thereof — in the intelligence community he will soon oversee — all of which he has avoided since winning the presidency.
Nothing has caused more consternation — among leading Republicans and more broadly — than the president-elect’s disparagement of the intelligence community’s findings.
Trump’s written statement after being briefed on the findings did pay respect to the men and women in the intelligence community and called for stepped-up efforts to combat future cyberattacks. Republicans found reasons to be reassured by what he said, but some will need to see more.
Notably, however, Trump stopped short of declaring he now accepts that the Russians were solely responsible for what happened during the campaign, the DNC hacking and other nefarious activities. He also claimed incorrectly that the intelligence report said the interference did not affect the outcome of the election. The report drew no conclusion on that point.
Trump also will have an opportunity to explain why he resisted the conclusions of the intelligence community, why he gave more credence to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks (Trump said later that wasn’t his intent) and whether the new report has changed his perspective in any significant ways.
Led by Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Republicans have sought to put Trump in a position of having to choose between the U.S. intelligence community that Trump will soon oversee and Assange, who says that the information he released did not come from the Russians. Trump has been determined to avoid being pinned down.
Trump’s motivations for his multiple tweets questioning whether the Russians were to blame are not clear. Is he worried that any suggestion of Russian interference aimed at helping him diminishes his victory? He told Mike Shear of the New York Times that the whole issue is part of a “political witch hunt,” presumably designed to delegitimize his presidency.
Trump would like the whole issue to go away, but there was enough history before the hacking to raise questions about why he has treated Putin with such respect. Is that friendly posture a genuine effort to recast U.S.-Russian relations with a goal of making them more productive — without making concessions to an adversary?
Is Trump’s reluctance caused, perhaps, by business relationships with Russians that he does not want jeopardized or exposed? He has said no, but the full extent of his business arrangements isn’t fully known. Is he, in some clever way, playing Putin on his way into the Oval Office with some clear strategic purpose? Should Putin be nervous about getting what he wished for: a Trump presidency?
Meanwhile, Tillerson will be going through his own grilling before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His relationship with Putin while serving as chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil has put Republicans such as McCain on edge, fearful of a pro-Russian tilt in the new administration.
Tillerson’s private conversations on Capitol Hill, described by some of the senators with whom he met, have conveyed the impression that he will state clearly that he understands the difference between protecting the interest of shareholders and protecting the interests of the country.
But where will that leave him with respect to the president-elect in his assessment of Putin, Russian aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the value of sanctions imposed and how U.S. policy could or should change after eight years of the Obama presidency? That’s ultimately up to Trump, but will Tillerson act as a counterbalance or cheerleader for the instincts that the president-elect has shown up to now?
Sessions can expect a modicum of senatorial courtesy, given his long tenure in that chamber, but however polite, his hearings will expose some of the rawness that remains in the aftermath of the election. No nomination has brought about more opposition from the base of the Democratic Party, particularly in the civil rights community. Although Sessions’s nomination appears in no danger, his allies have worked strenuously to counteract the opposition and smooth his path.
Beyond those hearings, Trump’s choices for the departments of Homeland Security, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Commerce, Labor and the CIA will have their moments in the public spotlight.
Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have set some clear priorities, along with GOP congressional leaders, starting with the dismantlement of the Affordable Care Act, several executive orders on Day 1 designed to reverse some of President Obama’s actions, and a focus on job creation and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Still, there is much that remains unsettled, both about those priorities and with other sensitive issues. Details will have to come eventually. How long will the president-elect, who has said many times he wants to be unpredictable, wait to begin to provide more answers?