From Trump to Tillerson: Wednesday’s 5 critical political events

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Today is one of the craziest, most unpredictable news day that Washington has seen in ages.

There are numerous cabinet confirmation hearings simultaneously happening, a presidential press conference, rumors of collusion between Trump and Putin emissaries, and an unverified bombshell report accusing Russia of attempting to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump with embarrassing financial and sexual evidence.

To put it all in context, here’s a recap of the five biggest events happening in the nation’s capital today.

1. Trump-Russia scandal widens

Building on months of whispers around the Capitol, CNN and Buzzfeed burst open a story Tuesday evening detailing unverified reports that Russia has been laying the groundwork to “compromise” Mr. Trump for the past five years.

The information, condensed into a two-page report by intelligence agencies but never physically turned over to Mr. Trump, originated in a 35-page dossier compiled by a retired British intelligence officer, and eventually made its way into the hands of no less than several news organizations, political campaigns, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and FBI Director James Comey.

A section of the report claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s staff courted Mr. Trump with the intent of luring him into compromising personal and professional positions. The report states that Trump’s “conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored” by Russian agents.

Furthermore, the unverified dossier claims that associates of Mr. Trump and the Russian president maintained contact and exchanged information during the recent election, sparking an alarming legal discussion of possible collusion.

The president-elect dubbed the report “fake news” that amounts to a “political witch hunt.”

He seemed to also accuse the intelligence agencies of leaking this information to embarrass him, asking, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

This is problematic, to put it mildly, for Mr. Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community going forward.

Mr. Trump has taken pains to side with Russia and repeatedly undercut America’s intelligence agencies over the past several months in their investigations into Putin-directed efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, leading to heightened suspicions on Capitol Hill about a Trump-Putin connection.

2. Trump’s first press conference in 167 days

Reporters got their first crack at questioning President-elect Trump today during his first press conference since winning the White House.

It’s been 167 days since Mr. Trump’s last presser, according to NPR’s count.

That’s a really, really long time in the world of presidential transitions.

At the press conference, held in New York City, Mr. Trump attempted to assuage concerns over the unverified memos linking him to Russia.

It was a group of “sick people that put that crap together,” declared Mr. Trump.

“I am extremely careful,” Mr. Trump told reporters, saying he’s well aware of Russian intelligence’s practice of capturing embarrassing moments on hidden cameras.

As for purported sex acts caught on tape, “I’m also very much of a germaphobe, believe me.” Trump quipped.

The incoming president also speculated the intelligence agencies leaked the information, calling it a “blot” on their record.

The President-elect made news by admitting that Russia was probably behind hacking during the 2016 campaign but insisted other countries are guilty of the same methods.

“Hacking is bad,” said Trump, but “look what was learned from that hacking” about Hillary Clinton receiving questions prior to a Democratic primary debate with Bernie Sanders.

Most Presidents-elect speak to the press quickly after winning their election and eagerly roll out their cabinet nominees followed by media inquiries.

Not so for Trump.

He’s preferred to sound off on Twitter and occasionally answer shouted questions as he strolls in and out of elevators and golf clubs.

Wednesday’s presser was originally slated to key in on how the billionaire plans to divest (or at least partially untangle) himself from his business interests during his presidential tenure, but the public’s focus shifted radically with the disclosure of the dossier involving Mr. Trump and Russia.

3. Tillerson’s rocky audition for State Department

Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson became the second member of the incoming Trump cabinet to testify before Congress on Wednesday.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO recently stepped down from the company where he worked for 41 years and will receive more than $170 million in stocks.

Tillerson was handpicked by Mr. Trump for his reputation as a global dealmaker but has set off alarm bells with some senators concerned about his close personal and professional ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson broke ranks with Mr. Trump’s soft-on-Russia strategy, calling out a “resurgent Russia” which he says “poses a danger” to international stability.

In a further departure from his boss, Tillerson conceded that intelligence agencies are likely correct in finding that Putin would have personally approved the Russian hacking operation during the 2016 campaign that was aimed at tipping the election in Mr. Trump’s favor.

This statement likely improved Tillerson’s odds of clearing the Senate by cleaving to conventional knowledge and rejecting Trump conspiracy theories, but other moments left the SOS nominee looking unprepared.

Tillerson laid part of the blame for Russia’s invasion of Crimea at President Obama’s feet by saying it happened “in the absence of American leadership” and refused to say Russia was guilty of war crimes in Syria, where thousands of innocent civilians have reportedly been killed by Syrian and Russian bombs.

In another startling exchange, Tillerson said that he and Mr. Trump have never discussed a policy to deal with Russian provocations.

4. AG nominee Sessions faces ire of colleagues

Sen. Jeff Sessions sat for the second day of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve him to become the country’s next attorney general.

In a breach of long-standing Senate protocol, the Republican Alabama senator will face critical testimony from one of his own colleagues, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Booker and House Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) plan to call out Sessions for lingering concerns over law enforcement and racial disparities.

On his first day of testimony, Sessions called past allegations of racism “damnably false.”

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Sessions will get a committee vote and then head to the floor for approval by the full Senate, which is likely to occur next week before Mr. Trump is inaugurated.

5. Trump cabinet delays

Senate Republicans planned to flood the zone this week with Trump cabinet nominees, keeping the spotlight off any one individual.

That didn’t work out so well.

Cabinet nominees are required to undergo a nonpartisan ethics review prior to being confirmed, but several of Mr. Trump’s picks still haven’t submitted all their paperwork.

The man charged with overseeing these ethics reviews called the development a “great concern.”

The delayed proceedings, now totaling four, according to The New York Times, are as follows:

• Betsy DeVos (Education)
• Andrew Puzder (Labor)
• Mike Pompeo (CIA)
• Wilbur Ross (Commerce)

The Office of Government Ethics is charged with fully investigating cabinet nominees’ potential conflicts of interest.

Some of Mr. Trump’s choices are billionaires with extensive financial networks that require careful vetting.

“The nominees are behind schedule because the Trump transition did not follow the usual practice of clearing the President-elect’s choices for potential ethical conflicts or security issues before sending their names to the Senate,” reports The Atlantic.

These delayed confirmation hearings should occur within the next two weeks.

If their respective agencies are left without a formal leader following the Trump inauguration, a senior-ranking agency staffer will serve as acting director.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales