Trump condemns leaks

He denies Russia contact, vilifies the media

Posted: February 17, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump took a wide variety of questions during a 77-minute news conference Thursday, sometimes sparring with reporters, sometimes using a more playful tone.

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Thursday angrily denounced "criminal" leaks for taking down his top national security adviser after less than a month and reviving questions about his own ties to Russia.

He denied that his campaign aides were in touch with Russian officials before last fall's election. "Nobody that I know," he said in the first full-length news conference of his presidency.

In the 77-minute event, the president slammed "bad court" of appeals judges for blocking his refugee and immigration executive order, and denied that his White House is paralyzed by chaos and infighting among top advisers.

"I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos -- chaos," he said. "Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can't get my Cabinet approved."

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Trump said there has never been a president "who in this short period of time has done what we've done." He blamed any problems on the news media and on former President Barack Obama's outgoing administration. "I inherited a mess at home and abroad," he said.

Standing in the stately, chandeliered East Room of the White House, Trump lambasted the "out of control" media. He jousted with reporters, repeatedly interrupting their questions and singling out stories on which he disagreed.

Despite Trump's declarations, his first month in office has been marked by controversy. His executive order on immigration sparked protests and court challenges.

On Monday, he asked for the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn after revelations that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia.

The next day, The New York Times reported that multiple Trump advisers were in touch with Russian intelligence advisers during the election campaign.

Trump panned Tuesday's report as "fake news" and said he had "nothing to do with Russia."

"I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia," Trump said. "I have no loans in Russia. I don't have any deals in Russia. President [Vladimir] Putin called me up very nicely to congratulate me on the win of the election. He then, called me up extremely nicely to congratulate me on the inauguration, which was terrific. But so did many other leaders, almost all other leaders from almost all of the country. So that's the extent."

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The president more clearly defended Flynn's calls with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. during the transition period after Trump's November victory. Trump said that while he did not tell his adviser to discuss sanctions with the envoy, "I would have directed him if he didn't do it."

The president said that while Flynn was "just doing his job," he was "not happy" that the adviser had misled the vice president. Trump knew that Flynn had given Pence an inaccurate accounting of his discussions with Russia, but the president did not tell Pence for about two weeks, according to a timeline supplied by the White House.

"He didn't tell the vice president of the United States the facts," Trump said of Flynn. "And then he didn't remember. And that just wasn't acceptable to me."

The president is expected to soon announce Flynn's replacement. Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a senior executive at Lockheed Martin, who was rumored to be vetted by Trump for the position, turned down the offer, people familiar with the decision said.

As the administration continues to deal with the fallout from Flynn's resignation, current and former U.S. officials said the former national security adviser denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies.

Lying to the FBI is a felony, but any decision to prosecute ultimately would lie with the Justice Department.

A spokesman for Flynn said he had no response. The FBI declined to comment.

Flynn spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after Trump's election, and denied for weeks that the December conversation involved sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in response to Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.

In a recent interview with The Daily Caller, Flynn said he didn't discuss "sanctions" but did discuss the Obama administration's expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, which was part of the sanctions package announced Dec. 29.

Two days after his Jan. 24 interview with the FBI, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Donald McGahn, Trump's White House counsel, about the contents of the intercepted phone call. Yates and other officials were concerned that Russia could use the mischaracterization of the call to blackmail the national security adviser and did not think it was fair to keep Pence in the dark about the discrepancies, according to officials familiar with their thinking.

Criticism of media

At Thursday's news conference, Trump repeatedly sought to steer questions away from his and his advisers' potential ties with Russia, saying that attention should instead be focused on why a stream of classified information is making its way into news reports.

"The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake, because so much of the news is fake," Trump said.

In taking questions, he said the "greatest thing" he could do was "shoot" a Russian spy ship lingering off the East Coast of the United States. Also, he said -- inaccurately -- that his Electoral College victory in the presidential election was the largest of any president since Ronald Reagan, and then dismissed that inaccuracy, saying he'd been "given that information."

Trump also said his administration would submit a replacement plan for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in early to mid-March, and should have a tax overhaul package around the same time.

"Tax reform is going to happen fairly quickly," Trump said. "We're doing Obamacare. We're in final stages."

Trump repeatedly blasted the "fake news" media, calling it at one point the "very fake news" media.

"The media is trying to attack our administration because they know we are following through on pledges we made, and they're not happy about it for whatever reason," he said.

Throughout the news conference, Trump alternated between showering the media with scorn and taking a more playful tone.

At one point, he insisted that he was enjoying himself. "I'm not ranting and raving -- I love this," he said. "I'm having a good time doing this."

He sparred with reporters, particularly those he knows by name from television news. He jokingly told CNN's Jim Acosta that he had checked whether he was related to Alexander Acosta, the dean of the Florida International University law school, who is Trump's new pick to lead the Labor Department.

The news conference was billed as a chance for Trump to announce the nominee.

Trump said Acosta, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, has had a "tremendous career."

If confirmed, the son of Cuban-American parents would be the first Hispanic member of Trump's Cabinet.

The nominee earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard College and received a law degree from Harvard Law School. He previously worked at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis and taught at the George Mason School of Law.

Trump's announcement came on a day when senators were scheduled to question his first choice for the labor post, fast-food chief executive Andrew Puzder, in confirmation hearings. Puzder withdrew his nomination Wednesday as support wavered from Republicans and scrutiny of his personal life was stepped up.

Democrats and labor groups had been concerned about Puzder's opposition to wage and labor regulations, but it was his support of an immigration overhaul and the revelation that he once hired an illegal alien to work in his home that ultimately cost him GOP support.

Unlike Puzder, who has a long background in business and a history of opposing government regulations, Acosta has public-service experience.

Campaign rally

Separately, Trump announced a campaign rally Saturday in Florida -- 1,354 days before the 2020 election.

The early politicking comes after Trump filed his paperwork for re-election on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. By comparison, Obama didn't make his re-election bid for 2012 official with the Federal Election Commission until April 2011.

Saturday's Florida event will be Trump's first rally as president, although he arranged several "thank you" rallies after his electoral win.

The event is set to be held in an airport hangar in Melbourne, Fla., and it comes as he plans another weekend trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

Trump also said he would play golf this weekend with Ernie Els, a South African professional golfer. It will be Trump's third-consecutive weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the rally is "being run by the campaign." It follows an official trip today to South Carolina, where Trump is to visit a Boeing facility in North Charleston.

Michael Glassner, executive director of Trump's campaign committee, did not respond to questions.

Information for this article was contributed by Julie Pace, Ken Thomas, Darlene Superville, Eric Tucker and Julie Bykowicz of The Associated Press; and by Ashley Parker, John Wagner, Sari Horwitz, Adam Entous, Jonnelle Marte and Steven Mufson of The Washington Post.

A Section on 02/17/2017