Post Obama and Pre-Trump Status Report: Jan. 11th, 2016

Americans yearn for reassurances from Donald Trump at today’s press conference

Jan. 11th, 2016 – Washington Post 202 by James Hohmann

* * * *

THE BIG IDEA: Always eager to portray himself as a victim, Donald Trump proved (or violated) Godwin’s Law Wednesday by invoking the specter of Nazi Germany as he stepped up his attacks on the intelligence community.

The president-elect’s latest early-morning tweetstorm came in response to the news that he was presented last week with a classified report which summarized unsubstantiated allegations that Russian intelligence services have compromising material and information on his personal life and finances. (Keep reading for all the latest developments.)

Trump called it a “witch hunt” last night and then, after sleeping on it, doubled down:

Whatever post-election honeymoon Trump had with the American people is coming to an early and abrupt end. The Quinnipiac survey, which was in the field from Thursday through Monday night, finds perceptions of Trump taking a hit over the past six weeks. Just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president-elect. Narrow majorities say that Trump is not honest and does not care about average Americans, while 62 percent agree that he is not level-headed. Just one-third of voters believe that he is. Only 12 percent believe Trump will be a “great” president, while 30 percent say he will be a “good” president, 20 percent say he will be “not so good” and 32 percent say he will be “bad.” A plurality says Trump’s election has made them feel “less safe.”Then he cited Russia’s own denials as validation:

— This is why the often-postponed press conference Trump will finally hold in New York today is so important. It really could set the stage for the opening weeks of his presidency.
He is scheduled to appear before hundreds of reporters at 11 a.m. in the lobby of Trump Tower. It has been six months since Trump gave a formal news conference, during which he made headlines by inviting Russian hackers to release Hillary Clinton’s private emails. The ostensible purpose is to announce how he intends to disentangle himself from his businesses to avoid possible conflicts of interest. (Robert Costa and Philip Rucker preview what’s sure to be a chaotic event.)– The flurry of tweets coincides with a new Quinnipiac University poll that shows two in three American voters believe Trump should close his personal Twitter account when he takes office next week. Even 45 percent of registered Republicans think this. Voters in every gender, age and racial group want him to close the account. “140 characters may not be enough to tell Donald Trump just how much Americans want him to knock off the tweeting,” said Tim Malloy, the assistant director of the Q-poll.

— Yesterday’s 202 asked readers to email ideas for questions that could be posed to Trump at the presser. Collectively, you sent thousands of suggestions. Some were extraordinarily thoughtful, even moving. (Thanks for being so engaged and so woke.)

Naturally, most of the questions pertained to what the Russians might have on Trump. But what was most striking was the number of folks from across the ideological spectrum who wonder whether the incoming president will ever start behaving in a way that could even nominally be described as presidential. Many of you recalled Trump’s promise on election night to be a president for all Americans. You wondered why he is not following the one-president-at-a-time tradition that every previous president-elect has honored.

Robert G. Kaiser, a former managing editor of The Post, spoke for many when he said he’d like to ask Trump: “Could you give us your definition of ‘presidential’ behavior? Does it include personal score-settling such as your angry tweets this week about Meryl Streep? Do you think your personal behavior should be in any way constrained by the fact that you will soon sit in the office that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Dwight David Eisenhower?

“Isn’t it beneath your dignity and the dignity of your office?” echoed Richard H. Kohn, a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Maybe this is a lame question,” Peter Haeussler emailed, “but why doesn’t he act presidential? Why does he take all criticism so personally and not reflect on policies and direction?”

“Not since the Vietnam era has the country appeared to be so divided,” added Luke Popovich of the District. “How would your presidency breach this divide and will you make this a priority?”

Fifty-four percent of the electorate voted for someone else in November, Katherine Whiteside noted. She wants to know what policies Trump will pursue to reassure these folks or maybe even demonstrate that they made a mistake.

I received many poignant emails from readers who are deeply concerned about what will happen to people they care deeply about. James Paul Hunter, who teaches at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois, relayed that one of his students, an American citizen who is of Jordanian descent, came to him concerned that Trump will have him deported. “I asked him why he believed he would be deported, knowing full well that the student was a citizen,” Hunter recounted. “My student answered, ‘Mr. Trump’s lack of respect for rules scares me. I believe Trump will throw all the Muslim people out of the country because he thinks he can.’ Mr. Trump, how do you convince this high school senior that you are going to be his president and defend his rights as an American Muslim?

A group of students at Mounds Park Academy in Saint Paul, Minnesota, sent a list of questions they came up with. At the top: “How will you use your ‘bully pulpit’ to combat the apparent rise in hate in the United States?

Lynda Tran, a Democrat who works at 270Strategies, is the daughter of immigrants and has two young children. “My darling five-year-old daughter is not a partisan — but she’s a proud young American and a remarkably observant and empathetic soul,” Tran wrote. “While she was brought up in an Obama household and hit the doors for our current president as a toddler, she did so with the sense that the Commander-in-Chief is someone to be respected, admired, and honored — much like the American flag she loves so much. … In all seriousness, if I could ask Trump one question, it would be: On and now off the campaign trail, you have, not infrequently, resorted to name-calling … Our children have literally been watching. How do you suggest we explain that behavior to our youngest Americans, and how do you intend to be a better role model for them, and for all of us?

Many 202 readers are current and former diplomats from both parties. They are deeply troubled by the Trump transition’s decision to tell all non-career ambassadors that they must resign on Jan. 20. Traditionally, an ambassador stays in the post until his or her successor arrives. By custom, many ambassadors also stick around until the end of the school year so that their children’s education does not get messed up.

“As a pediatrician and a parent, I believe deeply that ‘leading by example’ is crucial, both in terms of personal behavior and in terms of creating financial and professional success in your life,” Karen Lewis emailed. “I am not sure if you are looking through this lens. For example, having lived overseas, I know how hard it is to move mid-year with children in school. How do you justify your personal decision for your family to remain in New York City as much as possible until Barron finishes his school year, while demanding the immediate return of U.S. ambassadors with their families prior to the inauguration, with no exceptions?

— The sense that Trump does not believe the rules apply to him – that he’s the living, breathing personification of a double standard – is pervasive. One reader who asked to stay anonymous emailed: “I have recently gone through a security clearance as a requirement for employment with the federal government. Among the many questions that I was asked for a Public Trust security clearance, which is pretty low level, were the following: 1) Had I had any contact with foreign nationals? 2) Did I have any outstanding debts that I was in arrears on? 3) Have I paid my taxes in the past seven years? 4) Have I ever left the country and where did I go? I went to Canada in 2004 and was questioned on the following: a) What did I do in Canada while I was there? b) Did I meet or befriend any foreign nationals while I was on the trip? c) Was I convicted of a crime while I was in Canada? 5) I was asked about my employment history for the last 15 years. There are more questions that were asked, but I wanted to point out that, at a Public Trust clearance level, I don’t handle classified documents. And yet, my clearance questions/requirements seem way more rigorous than President-elect Trump’s clearance requirements.

— Here are other suggested questions for Trump that came up again and again—

On his self-dealing: In November, you told the IRS that the Trump Foundation had broken laws against “self-dealing” in the past. What, specifically, were the violations you were admitting to? Have you paid any penalties or penalty taxes to the IRS or the state of New York because of legal violations by your foundation? (David Fahrenthold)

On his personal finances: How can you assure American citizens that you will not use the office of the president for financial gain — for you and/or your family? (Benjamin Sparks)

On his taxes: The question of releasing your tax returns has hung over your campaign and now the transition. In order to dissipate the cloud while giving the American people a chance to better understand your achievements, why don’t you release your tax returns from the years prior to any years currently under audit by the IRS? (Paul Levit of Arlington)

On his cabinet picks: Since “draining the swamp” was a central theme of your campaign, why have you tapped six major campaign donors and fundraisers to serve in senior positions in your administration, including the top donor to your private foundation? Aren’t these exactly the kind of appointments you warned that Hillary Clinton would make if she were elected? (Matea Gold has written more on this.)

We can debate the accuracy of your claims that you opposed the war in Iraq, but let’s accept your stated opposition as fact. This really separated you from your primary challengers, and you claimed it showed your judgment in foreign affairs was superior. So how come your cabinet does not include any advisors who also were against the 2003 invasion? (Andy Hill)

You have not appointed any Hispanics to your cabinet, and you’ve put a relatively small number of women in top positions. Hillary Clinton promised that half her cabinet would be women. Is your administration going to be diverse enough?

Please describe the vetting process that your transition team has had in place for evaluating potential appointees and nominees. (Greg Belcamino of New York City)

On replacing Obamacare: You have a gift for breaking down complicated issues into simple solutions, like “build a wall.” When you repeal Obamacare, can you explain in a simple but justifiable way how your replacement will be better and cheaper for Americans? (John Ringstad of Woodstock, Md.)

What will happen to the millions of people insured under expanded Medicaid programs when Obamacare is repealed? (Mary Hoffman of New Mexico)

Other agenda items: What current agreements exist with the Mexican government that provide assurances to the American taxpayer that we will get reimbursed for constructing the border wall? (Ron Tollefson)

Your economic team and congressional leaders have begun negotiating tax reform. Will any acceptable tax plan be revenue neutral? If the new law cuts current revenues in the expectation of higher economic growth and tax collections in the future, for the near-term will you require dollar-for-dollar cuts in federal spending or will you support increased deficits? (Larry Kahn)

Finally, on Russia: Is there any indication that your representatives were communicating with Russian officials during the campaign? Have you or staff been questioned about it by federal agents?

Vladimir Putin feared Hillary Clinton more than you. Why? (Bradford Lyerla)

Yes or no, do you either personally or through any of your business interests owe any financial debt to any Russian financial institution or Russian individual? (Chris Tobkin of Vancouver, Wash.)

As president, will you maintain sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and trying to influence our election? (Dan Tkach of Centennial, CO)

Have you seen “The Manchurian Candidate”? Do you play solitaire? (Richard Cohen)

– A classified report delivered to Trump and Obama last week by top U.S. intelligence officials contained unverified allegations that Russia has “compromising” information about the personal life and finances of the president-elect. Greg Miller reports: “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 said that while the FBI had so far not confirmed the accuracy of the claims, U.S. officials had evaluated the sources relied upon by the private firm, considered them credible, and determined that it was plausible that they would have first-hand knowledge of Russia’s alleged dossier on Trump.” The allegation adds a disturbing new dimension to ongoing concerns about Moscow’s efforts to undermine American democracy.

THE DETAILS:

–The origins: “The appendix summarized opposition research memos prepared mainly by a retired British intelligence operative for a Washington political and corporate research firm. The firm was paid for its work first by Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals and later by supporters of Mrs. Clinton. The Times has checked on a number of the details included in the memos but has been unable to substantiate them.” (New York Times)

— Why are they telling Trump now? “One reason the nation’s intelligence chiefs took the extraordinary step of including the synopsis in the briefing documents was to make [Trump] aware that such allegations involving him are circulating among intelligence agencies, senior members of Congress and other government officials in Washington,” CNN’s Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper and Carl Bernstein report.

— What did Team Trump know and when did they know it? “The two-page synopsis also included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

— Siren: FBI officials applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court last summer in order to monitor four Trump team members suspected of “irregular contacts” with Russian officials, but the FISA court turned down the application, asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to “narrow its focus,” according to the Guardian’s Julian Borger. “According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.”

— In July, Trump adviser Carter Page reportedly held a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, head of the Rosneft state-owned oil company and a long-serving Putin lieutenant. From Borger: “Page also allegedly met Igor Divyekin, an internal affairs official with a background in intelligence, who is said to have warned Page that Moscow had ‘kompromat’ (compromising material) on Trump.”

— Putin is playing the long game, via the Guardian: “One report, dated June 2016, claims that the Kremlin has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years, with the aim of encouraging ‘splits and divisions in (the) western alliance.’ It claims that Trump had declined ‘various sweetener real estate deals offered him in Russia’ especially in developments linked to the 2018 World Cup finals but that ‘he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.’ Most explosively, the report alleges: ‘FSB has compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.’”

— A Putin spokesman today dismissed as an “absolute fantasy” allegations that the Kremlin collected compromising information on Trump. David Filipov reports: “The Kremlin has no compromising dossier on Trump, such information isn’t consistent with reality and is nothing but an absolute fantasy,’ Dmitry Peskov, who handles Putin’s day-to-day communications, told journalists. Peskov, whose own alleged role in overseeing and effort to undermine [Clinton] is described in the report, on Wednesday dismissed the dossier as a ‘complete fabrication’ and said the Kremlin ‘does not engage in collecting compromising material.’”

— Trump continued to lash out on Twitter:— Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, accused of possibly meeting with Russian operatives in Prague in one of the reports, tweeted a picture of his passport cover, saying he has “never been to Prague in my life.” “The entire report is inaccurate,” he told Politico. “It’s just another attempt to malign Mr. Trump and I find it interesting how they released this information one day prior to Mr. Trump’s press conference.”— Trump loyalists also sprung to the president-elect’s defense by dismissing the news as unsurprising:

— As top U.S. spy chiefs testified at a rare open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, some GOP lawmakers appeared to side with the president-elect as they attempted to get intelligence brass to conclude that while Russia may have intervened to help Trump, it did not succeed. Karoun Demirjian reports: “This goes on constantly…on a scale of one to 10, we’ve seen a number of 10s, this one doesn’t come close to a 10,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said. ‘Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business …’ [Meanwhile, FBI Director] James Comey told senators that though Russians had not manipulated the vote totals, they had successfully hacked their way into some voter registration data at the state level, and could thus ‘potentially’ manipulate voter information in the future to cause ‘chaos.’

A key moment during the hearing came when Ron Wyden asked if the FBI is investigating links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Despite arguably tipping the election to Trump with his public announcements about Clinton on the eve of the election, Comey said with a straight face: “I would never comment on investigations – whether we have one or not – in an open forum like this, so I really can’t answer one way or another.”

Another chilling quote: “The next worrisome trend in the cyber business will be the compromise of the fidelity of information … whether it’s for a criminal purpose or political purpose,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said. “This is well within the realm, I think, of possibility.”

— House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist, said last night that he “hadn’t seen the memos,” adding that the issue was not discussed in the Gang of Eight briefing. Asked how damaging the implications could be for Trump, Nunes told reporters: “I would not jump to any conclusions here. This seems maybe taken a little out of context.” (Wall Street Journal)

— Seth Meyers had a contentious back-and-forth with Kellyanne Conway about the news. Bethonie Butler writes up the exchange: “Well guess what hasn’t happened, Seth,” Conway began. “Nobody has sourced it. They’re all unnamed, unspoken sources in the story and it says it was based on a Russian investigator.” Meyers here interjected to note that it was a MI6 British investigator. Undeterred, Conway continued: “And I have to say as an American citizen, regardless of your party … we should be concerned that intelligence officials leak to the press and won’t go and tell the president-elect or the president of the United States himself … They would rather go tell the press.” “But the press report was about them going to the president,” Meyers replied. “And it says that they never briefed him on it, that they appended two pages to the bottom,” Conway said. “I believe it said that they did brief him on it,” Meyers said. “Well, he has said that he is not aware of that,” Conway replied. (Watch it here.)

THE LATEST NEWS FURTHER RAISES THE STAKES FOR REX TILLERSON TODAY:

— Day two of Senate confirmation hearings begin today, with lawmakers gearing up to grill secretary of state nominee and CEO Rex Tillerson, Ed O’Keefe and Anne Gearan write: The 64-year-old Texan, recommended to [Trump] as a dark horse candidate but with no government experience, will have his first chance to address concerns that the company he headed, ExxonMobil, put profits ahead of human rights, environmental and policy concerns, and that he has cozy relations with authoritarian leaders.”

Hearings are expected to last most of the day. “It’s going to be long,” warned Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker. It is also not clear that any Democrats on the committee will vote to approve him.

— The most interesting man to watch today in Tillerson’s hearing? Marco Rubio. Paul Kane explains why: “The Florida Republican is likely to reveal what kind of future he wants in [Trump’s] Washington, and there are two broad possibilities[:] He could play a lead role in trying to torpedo Trump’s pick for the nation’s top diplomat, by turning his question-and-answer sessions with Tillerson into an aggressive attack on the nominee’s economic ties to Russia … Or Rubio could be, well, more diplomatic, tempering his questions about Tillerson’s global philosophy … and paving the way for an easy confirmation. Rubio’s fellow hawks on national security issues will be watching closely to see which path he takes. Several of them have joined Rubio in criticizing Tillerson’s credentials, but Rubio is the most prominent among them on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is tasked with vetting the oil titan’s qualifications. That puts equal pressure on Rubio to voice that perspective — and to be careful about his relationship with the incoming administration.”

Texas Monthly’s Loren Steffy emphasizes the Russia connection: “Tillerson’s crowning achievement was negotiating Exxon’s 1996 agreement to find oil around Sakhalin Island on the eastern coast of Russia. [But] by 2011, BP, Shell and most other western companies … had been kicked out by Vladimir Putin. Exxon, however, remained, and inked another deal [with] Putin himself coming to watch the signing. [Now], the challenge for Tillerson is translating his skill at negotiating business deals, which tend to be more narrow in scope and focus on specifics such as generating a return for shareholders, into the broader foreign policy negotiations required for a secretary of state.”

— In a copy of his prepared opening remarks, Tillerson does not address concerns about his business ties or relations with Putin. Josh Rogin previews: “In his first public remarks as [Trump’s] nominee to be secretary of state, former ExxonMobile chief executive Rex Tillerson will say he believes Russia is “a danger” and that NATO allies are right to be alarmed by its aggression. But he makes no mention of Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election campaign or the future of U.S. sanctions. Tillerson blames the Obama administration primarily for the failure of the United States so far to confront Russian aggression. He will argue that where possible, the United States should explore cooperation with Russia, such as with the fight against terrorism. But where Russian actions are threatening to the U.S. or our allies, we should push back, he will testify. [Still], those comments could go a long way to allying senators’ concerns that Tillerson, who has a long business relationship with Russian leaders, including [Putin], might be too eager to pursue closer ties with Moscow.”

POTUS SAYS GOODBYE:

— It felt like a cross between a campaign rally and a wake: President Obama used his farewell address in Chicago last night to deliver high-minded remarks in which he acknowledged the threats facing American democracy but pressed forward with a more optimistic vision for the nation’s future. Juliet Eilperin and Greg Jaffe report: “The president was speaking to multiple audiences in Chicago. He sought to unite a country that has grown more cynical and divided over the course of his presidency by reminding Americans of all that they have in common. He worked to rally his supporters, who failed to back [Clinton], his chosen successor, in sufficient numbers. And he sought to make a case for historians that the last eight years had produced lasting, positive change that would not be undone by his successor. To that end, Obama’s speech focused, in part, on recounting and celebrating his accomplishments for a crowd in the auditorium that included many of his most loyal staffers who had journeyed to Chicago…

“In his victory speech, Obama promised a cheering crowd of supporters that ‘the best is yet to come.’ [And] on Tuesday, the president, whose approval rating has surged even as his party’s fortunes have suffered, tried to lay out an optimistic vision to a deeply partisan crowd fearful of a Trump presidency. “Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody,” he said. “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”

Read the transcript of the speech here. Watch it in full:

Watch Obama’s farewell speech, in full


— “Tempering the disappointment of his supporters and soothing their anxiety has become, in his waning days in office, Obama’s last, unexpected campaign,” David Nakamura writes
“He capped his remarks by tapping the lectern with his right hand, a superstition he started in the 2008 campaign. This time, however, it was not emphatic and urgent, but rather soft and understated, the restrained final gesture of a president who once symbolized hope but was departing the national stage at a time of unpredictable change.”Chris Cillizza calls it Obama’s “pep talk for democracy”: “That Obama felt compelled to give a speech that functioned as a defense of the basic principles — and enduring strengths — of our democracy speaks to the political climate in which he took the stage. The solution Obama offered was the same one he had touted since a frigid day in Springfield, Ill., in early 2007: True democracy isn’t about the leaders, it’s about the people. Only you can change the world you live in. I’ll be there with you, but you need to do it for yourself. ‘Yes we can,’ he said in the speech’s final moments. ‘Yes we did.’ The arc of that message is one no one could have foreseen. The country’s first black president elected and reelected. Then the election of a man whose entire existence runs counter to the ideas Obama tried to raise up over the past eight years. What Obama seemed to be saying is that if I can do this — hand the baton to Trump — then you sure as hell can do your part to ensure the continued vibrancy our political system.”

— The Obamas are good parents, cont.: Sasha skipped her dad’s speech so she could stay at the White House to prepare for a test at Sidwell Friends this morning. (Boston Globe)

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