Donald Trump faces a crucible Wednesday as two dramas play simultaneously on two stages, thrusting to the fore many of the controversies that have swirled around him since November’s election.
How he and his allies perform could set the course for the early weeks of his presidency.
In New York, Trump will hold his first news conference since the summer, tangling with reporters he frequently derides and confronting the flash points of his transition phase. He is expected to announce how he intends to disentangle himself from his businesses to avoid possible conflicts of interest, and he is likely to face questions about Tuesday night’s explosive reports about compromising information that Russia may have gathered about Trump.
In Washington, one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet nominees — his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who as ExxonMobil chief executive had extensive dealings with Russia and other adversarial countries — is among those who will face scrutiny at their Senate confirmation hearings.
It is poised to be a whirlwind day of political whiplash, with a new season and cast of the Trump show set to premiere. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are on edge about the unexpected as they ready an ambitious agenda, seeking to avoid distractions or unintentional distance between them and the president-elect.
“We’re quickly moving away from a transition and taking one step closer to governing,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said.
Senate Republican leaders worked closely with the Trump transition team to schedule confirmation hearings with many at first set to be held on the same day — a move designed, several Republicans said, to move nominees quickly and to avoid any one becoming a damaging news storm.
That plan has already run into problems. Hearings for some Trump picks, such as education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, have been postponed until after this week amid Democrats’ complaints about the lack of time to vet the candidates’ financial records and backgrounds.
How smoothly Wednesday runs in New York and Washington could indicate whether Republicans — who will soon control both chambers of Congress and the White House — can stay united and govern efficiently, and whether they can successfully coexist with Trump’s relentless and extemporaneous personality.
Trump is scheduled to appear before hundreds of reporters at 11 a.m. in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. His turn at the lectern will signal how much hostility he still harbors toward the media, whose coverage of his rallies and disruptions initially gave rise to his candidacy, only to become one of his favorite punching bags.
It has been six months since Trump gave a formal news conference, during which he made headlines by inviting Russian hackers to release Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s private emails.
Trump has delayed his post-election news conference for weeks as he worked with his lawyers and advisers to restructure his businesses and separate them from his public duties, both to satisfy ethics experts and meet the expectations of voters. Asked about some of these matters on Monday, Trump told reporters to stay tuned.
“We’ll talk about it on Wednesday,” the president-elect said. “All I can say is it’s very simple, very easy.”
Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said Trump plans to “lay out the case for how he’s going to resolve a lot of this” at Wednesday’s event.
“He’s going to lay out the steps that he’s taken to go above and beyond what’s required,” Spicer said. “Because he is going to be president, he doesn’t need to do this, but he’s going to do it.”
Trump’s allies are eager to see him turn the page on questions about conflicts of interest to focus on governing.
“The more transparency, the more open, the more responsive he is to the press and the American public,” the better, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I wish I knew what it was like to be a billionaire, but I don’t. So I don’t know how complicated it’s going to be to unwind, but he’s got to get into specifics.”
Wednesday’s moment — Trump at center stage with no script, answering whatever questions come his way — is rife with complications for congressional Republicans. Lawmakers will be watching to see whether he trumpets their political tune on taxes and health-care policy as well as a readiness to do difficult legislative work, or goes astray on other issues such as the Russian cyberattack or Trump’s feud with actress Meryl Streep.
“This is going to be the introduction of Donald Trump the president,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser. “What you don’t want is that Alec Baldwin ‘Saturday Night Live’ caricature. . . . He has to make sure he leaves the impression that he is ready on Day One to start making America great again.”
The tone in which Trump speaks about Congress will also be considered by members, many who barely know him. Already busy and at times tense about legislative roadblocks ahead, they have widespread concerns about the pace Trump expects from Congress and how quickly he wants to make sweeping changes during his administration.
Trump and his team are building warm relations with Republican congressional leaders, of whom they have long been wary. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met privately with Trump on Monday in New York to discuss the upcoming confirmation hearings, among other topics. And House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) worked with Trump’s senior advisers into the night Monday at the Capitol, over platters of Italian noodles and salad, for more than two hours of preliminary talks on tax reform, which is a priority for the speaker and his members.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has watched presidents up close for five decades, said of Trump: “A lot of people are interested in every doggone thing that he says.” He predicted that Trump’s answers on the “foreign policy problems popping up on a regular basis” were of high interest to fellow Republicans, and that he is particularly focused on what Trump might say about Russia and intelligence matters.
Other Republicans are less eager to hear Trump delve into such topics. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, slightly raised an eyebrow when asked what he wanted to hear from Trump on foreign policy — a possible indication that Senate Republicans and Trump are not formally coordinating their messages.
“Russia? I thought he was going to talk about his finances,” Corker said. When told the news conference likely would be wide-ranging, Corker said, “I don’t know if I want to get into that.”
For Trump, news conferences are like sport. He loves the thrill of it, the bright lights and the combat. Throughout the campaign, he would swat back questions with a mix of assertiveness, misdirection and defiance, jousting with network correspondents and offering pitched commentary about their reporting and questions.
“I think Donald Trump will be Donald Trump,” said Barry Bennett, a former adviser on Trump’s campaign who recently founded a Washington lobbying practice. “If someone asks a stupid question, he’s going to say it’s a stupid question. I would expect a blunt, unbridled Donald Trump.”