The mystery surrounding British reports on Russia-Trump ties will have major ramifications.
US President-elect Donald Trump has angrily denied reports that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him, calling it a “tremendous blot” on the record of the intelligence community if it had released such material.
In his first media conference since winning the November 8 election, Trump called the unconfirmed allegations “phony” and attacked news organisations that published the reports.
“It’s all fake news,” Trump said on Wednesday. “It didn’t happen,” he added.
“I think it was disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so fake and so false out … that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done, and did do.”
ALLEGATIONS OF COMPROMISING MATERIAL
The unverified dossier on Trump was compiled by a former Western intelligence operative as part of an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client who opposed Trump, and later funded by Democrats, according to Mother Jones, which published an article about the report in October and said the operative had turned over the report to the FBI.
The New York Times reported that the operative had previously worked for British intelligence.
Bill Schneider, public policy professor at George Mason University, emphasised that the information, by the acknowledgement of the intelligence services, had not been verified.
“We don’t know exactly what’s in it, we don’t know the details,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Russia is not above doing that sort of thing, using that sort of information to its own advantage, but a lot of Americans regard it as interesting because they are puzzled by the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin; why is it so close, why does Vladimir Putin seem to have a hold over Mr Trump, and why was he so influential in this election,” Schneider said.
The dossier that emerged late on Tuesday was first reported by CNN. BuzzFeed published the full document.
Two US officials said the allegations, which one called “unsubstantiated”, were contained in a two-page memo appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election that was presented last week to Trump and to President Barack Obama.
“Trump responded as you would expect him to do,” Al Jazeera’s James Bay, reporting from New York, said.
“He went on the attack against the intelligence community and against the news media, in particular two parts of the news media that were responsible for publishing more detailed stories on this.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Russia also rejected the claims and said they were aimed at damaging Moscow’s relations with Washington.
“The Kremlin does not have compromising information on Trump,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, calling the claims a “total fake” and an “obvious attempt to harm our bilateral relations”.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Moscow, said there was “a lot of disgust” in Moscow over the allegations that Russia drafted an incriminating and compromising dossier on Trump.
“The Kremlin has been using pretty fiery rhetoric, calling it a ‘hoax’ … and [is] sad as people are raising hysteria for this ‘continuing witchhunt’.”
Asked about his relationship with Putin, Trump called it “an asset, not a liability” and an improvement over what he called America’s current “horrible relationship with Russia”.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset, not a liability. I don’t know if I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin – I hope I do – but there’s a good chance I won’t.”
The former reality star, however, acknowledged for the first time that Russia likely hacked the Democratic National Committee and the emails of other top Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.
“Trump did go as far as admitting that perhaps Russia had been involved in hacking during the election campaign but his criticism of Russia was again very muted,” Al Jazeera’s Bays said.
“He said he had no current deals with Russia and no current investments with Russia, but of course we could not get into any of the detail of that.”
In the wide-ranging – and often chaotic – news conference, Trump also vowed to forge ahead with plans for a wall on the southern US border after taking office. He said, however, that Mexico would reimburse the US for the cost.
“I could wait about a year and a half until we finish our negotiations with Mexico, which we’ll start immediately after we get to office, but I don’t want to wait,” Trump said.
“We’re going to start building,” he said. “Mexico in some form – and there are many different forms – will reimburse us and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall.
“That will happen. Whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment.”
The real estate developer also used the news conference to describe how he will separate himself from his global business operations to avoid conflicts of interest once he takes office.
Trump pointed to piles of documents on a table at the front of the stage that he said he had signed “turning over complete control” to his sons – Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump – in order to prevent a conflict of interest when he becomes president on January 20.
“It was a bit of a stunt,” Al Jazeera’s Bays said, “but I think there’s going to be a lot of criticism because it’s really not very clear how much of a divorce this really is.
“He says he won’t be speaking to them about the business but … clearly [it would be] very hard for anyone to actually police that.”
The 70-year-old Trump, who is the wealthiest man to become US president, has been beset by accusations of conflict of interest ever since beating his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The Trump Organization, which includes a network of hotels, golf clubs and luxury residential towers stretching across 20 countries, is not listed on the stock market, and thus releases no public statistics.
Trump has thus far not released his tax returns, meaning relatively little is known about the extent of its interests.
“He was also asked again about that and he said he wouldn’t be releasing them for a simple reason: he won the election,” Bays said.