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Trump’s Responses to Allegations of Russian Connections

At his first press conference since July, President-elect Donald Trump faced questions from reporters on  the shocking allegations concerning his presidential campaign’s possible connections to the Russian government and any leverage Russia may have over him personally. He answered a few of them and evaded others. Below I’ve tried to match his answers to the list of questions Ryan Goodman and I came up with before the press conference began.

1. To your knowledge, did anyone associated with your campaign have an exchange of information with Russian government officials or their intermediaries before November 8, 2016?

Trump did not answer this question during the press conference. The reporter who asked, attached to it a question about Russian hacking, which Trump focused on in his response, allowing him to avoid the first part of the question about contacts with Russia leading up to the election. The press conference was then adjourned immediately following his non-response.

CNN’s Jim Acosta also tried earlier to ask it, but Trump yelled at him, “Your organization is terrible…You are fake news.” After the press conference was over,  you could hear a reporter repeatedly yelling the same question at Trump as he exited. Reporters then followed Trump to the elevators in Trump Tower after the press conference, and apparently finally got Trump to say: No, no one on his team had any contact with the Russians.

More broadly, Trump described CNN and Buzzfeed’s reporting as “fake news,” calling the contents of the report “false.” 

Trump’s spokesperson Sean Spicer also denied the allegations included in the report, describing them as “flat out false information.” Spicer directly addressed the allegations made against Paul Manafort (Trump’s former campaign chairman), Michael Cohen (attorney for the president-elect), and Carter Page (a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign), whom the unsubstantiated memo claimed had contacts with Russian intermediaries.

“Carter Page is an individual who the President-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign. Paul Manafort has adamantly denied any of this involvement and Michael Cohen, who is said to have visited Prague in August and September did not leave or enter the United States during this time. We asked him to produce his passport to confirm his whereabouts on the dates in question and there was no doubt that he was not in Prague.

In fact, Mr. Cohen has never been in Prague.”

The Trump campaign announced Page, a former investment banker who worked in Moscow for three years, as a foreign policy adviser in March. It was also in March that Trump himself specifically listed Page as one of the people advising him on foreign policy during an on-the-record interview with The Washington Post. Page was one of the targets of an FBI investigation this summer into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The New York Times reported in October that no direct link was found at the time. In September, Page said he was taking a leave of absence from the campaign, and described the accusations against him as “complete garbage.”  

2. Are you aware of any FBI investigation into contacts between your campaign and the Russian government? Are you fully cooperating with any investigation by law enforcement agents? If an FBI investigation is ongoing, will you allow it to continue once you take office?

Trump was not asked this directly but he was asked what would happen if the intelligence community found out that any of these allegations were credible.

Trump simply said, “There’s nothing they could come back with.”

3. If you released your tax returns it would provide verifiable evidence of your claims that you have no compromising financial ties to Russia. It is now a matter of national security for you to reassure the American public and U.S. allies of the falsity of these allegations. Will you now release your tax returns?

Trump maintained that he had no ongoing or upcoming deals with Russia and no outstanding loans with the country. As for his taxes, Trump said, “I’m not releasing the tax returns because as you know, they’re under audit.” Trump repeated this excuse on the campaign trail, but there is no reason why an IRS audit would prohibit the releases of his returns. What’s more, the American voters might not have been as concerned about his tax returns in the run-up to the election, but that is different than the concerns raised in the current situation.

Still, Trump said, “the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters.”

4. On Tuesday night, your adviser, Kellyanne Conway, told Seth Meyers that you were “not aware” of being briefed by intelligence officials of the allegations in the former MI6 agent’s unsubstantiated memos. Were you briefed by intelligence officials about the content of the allegations on Friday? When was the first time you heard about the claims contained in the memos, which have reportedly been circulating around Washington for several weeks?

“These readings as you know are confidential, classified, so, I’m not allowed to talk about what went on in a meeting,” Trump said. “We had many witnesses in that meeting, many of them with us. And I will say, again, I think it’s a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information; I read the information outside of that meeting. It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen. And it was gotten by opponents of ours, as you know, because you reported it and so did many of the other people. It was a group of opponents that got together — sick people — and they put that crap together … I read what was released and I think it’s a disgrace. I think it’s an absolute disgrace.”

5. Will you trust the U.S. intelligence community to provide you nonpartisan, professional intelligence when you are President?

Trump said the intelligence agencies are “vital and very, very important.” He said he wants them to come back with a report in 90 days about the election-related hacking, but also “hacking defense” more broadly.

His displeasure with the intelligence community was also apparent. He tweeted earlier in the day: “It was disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace, and that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”

6. The unsubstantiated memo says that your lawyer, Michael Cohen, held a secret meeting with Russian officials in Prague in August 2016. You retweeted Mr. Cohen’s statement that he has never in his life been to Prague. Can you assure the American public that Mr. Cohen never met with Russian officials during your campaign, regardless of the location where such a meeting might have taken place?

Spicer repeated that Cohen had never been to Prague in his life and cited a new report where Cohen said he was at the University of Southern California with his son at a baseball game, and another where it seems the dossier was referring to a different Michael Cohen. Trump said that Cohen had not even been out of the country during the period in question.

7. You tweeted that the Russian government’s spokesperson said the memo is a “total fabrication” and “utter nonsense.” The Russian spokesperson also said, “The Kremlin does not engage in collecting compromising information.” Do you believe that Russia never engages in collecting compromising information on foreign leaders? Do you generally think the American public should trust the Russian government when it says it has not engaged in unfriendly or hostile actions against the US?

Trump: “President Putin and Russia put out a statement today that this fake news was indeed fake news. They said it totally never happened. Now, somebody would say, ‘Oh, of course he’s gonna say that.’ I respected the fact that he said that. I’ll be honest, I think if he did have something, they would’ve released it; they would’ve been glad to release it.”

He went on to say, “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed. If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”

8. Would you fire anyone in your organization if they had contacts with Russian government intermediaries during the campaign and had not properly informed you?

Trump wasn’t asked this.

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About the Author

Deputy Managing Editor of Just Security, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, Former Senior Reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).