President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday adamantly 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 such material had been released.
The incoming president, in his first news conference since late July, firmly chided news organizations for publishing the material late Tuesday night.
"I think it's a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information, I read the information outside of that meeting," he said, referring to a classified briefing he received from intelligence leaders.
"It's all fake news, it's phony stuff, it didn't happen. It was gotten by opponents of ours," Trump declared in his first news conference since late July.
Trump, vice president-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer were defiant as they denounced reports that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about the incoming president. Trump said the report never should have been released and thanked news organizations that showed restraint.
Asked about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump boasted that it is an improvement over what he called America's current "horrible relationship with Russia" and did not criticize the Russian leader for any interference in the election.
"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."
A U.S. official told The Associated Press Tuesday night that intelligence officials had informed Trump last week about an unsubstantiated report that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.
Trump and President Barack Obama were briefed on the intelligence community's findings last week, the official said.
James Clapper, current Director of National Intelligence, released a statement on Wednesday night expressing his profound dismay" at the leaks, while expressing his belief they did not come from the intelligence community.
"The [U.S. intelligence community] has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions," Clapper said.
Conflicts of interest
Nine days from his inauguration as the nation's 45th president, Trump used the previously planned news conference to detail how he planned to avoid conflicts of interest related to his sprawling global business empire.
He also announced that he would nominate David Shulkin to lead Department of Veterans Affairs, elevating him from his current role as VA undersecretary.
Trump's business will continue to pursue deals in the United States, though not abroad, while he is president, and he will relinquish control of the company, according to a lawyer who worked with the Trump Organization, who spoke to reporters partway through the news conference.
Trump will put his business assets in a trust and take other steps to isolate himself from his company, said Sheri Dillon of the Morgan Lewis law firm.
The announcement appeared to contradict what Trump had said in a tweet last month — "no new deals" while in the White House.
The plan also falls short of what some government ethics experts have urged Trump to do — sell his assets and put the cash in a blind trust overseen by an independent manager, as many recent presidents have done.
Dillon said that was not practical, and that Trump "should not be expected to destroy the company he built."
Also, some ethics experts had worried that a complete divestment would take too much time and prove too complicated, given that much of Trump's wealth is tied up in real estate that can't be sold quickly and that his business interests are so sprawling. Trump has stakes in 500 companies in about 20 countries.
The organization will be run by Trump's two adult sons and a longtime business executive, Trump said.
The director of the federal government's ethics agency said Wednesday that he isn't a fan of Trump's plan to maintain his business empire by turning it over to his sons instead of selling off all his corporate assets and placing remaining profits in a government-approved blind trust.
U.S. Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub said Trump's solution to a potential cascade of ethics conflicts spurred by his global business holdings breaks 40 years of precedent by presidents from both parties.
Shaub, a 2013 Obama appointee, openly pleaded with Trump to reconsider his plan before his inauguration. Shaub said Trump should agree to "divestiture," a process under which he would sell his corporate assets and place the profit in a blind trust administered by a neutral trustee approved by the OGE.
As for the intelligence story, media outlets reported on the document late Tuesday, and Trump denounced it on Twitter before his news conference. He suggested he was being persecuted for defeating other Republican presidential hopefuls and Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election.
The dossier contains unproven information about close co-ordination between Trump's inner circle and Russians about hacking into Democratic accounts as well as unproven claims about unusual sexual activities by Trump among other suggestions attributed to anonymous sources. The Associated Press has not authenticated any of the claims.
Trump refused to take some questions about the report, and at one point admonished a reporter from CNN. The U.S. network was among the first news organizations to reveal some of details of the report on Tuesday.
"I'm not going to give you a question — you're fake news," Trump said to CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
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The network said later the Trump team is using more salacious coverage by another news organization, BuzzFeed, "to deflect from [our] reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations."
"We are fully confident in our reporting," CNN said in a statement.
Trump also said he plans to put forth a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court "probably within two weeks" of his inauguration, and that the Republicans' replacement for Obamacare will be in place "essentially simultaneously."