Editorial: Donald Trump and the art of misdirection

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President-elect Donald Trump takes a question at press conference Wednesday at Trump Tower in New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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If there is any chance that Russia has salacious material and information that could be used to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies are obligated to investigate every twist and turn of those allegations, regardless of whom Trump installs at the top.

Already, playing the same dodgeball games he resorts to when asked about business conflicts of interest, Trump is signaling that he won’t, as president, support further investigation. At a press conference full of artful misdirection on Wednesday, he reframed the Russian threat as a general problem of computer hacking by foreign powers. He said he would put “the greatest computer minds anywhere” in a room together and “form a defense.”

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But don’t be misled. The clear and present threat, a little more than a week before Trump is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president, is not the general threat of foreign hacking, as real and significant as that problem is. The explosive question raised by the latest news reports, a question that must be resolved, is the extent to which Russia and the Trump campaign engaged in secret communications during the election, and whether Russia has compromising materials about Trump.

Trump’s likely new team to head the nation’s intelligence apparatus, including Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas as director of the CIA and former Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana as director of national security, have a patriotic obligation to run down every lead, whatever their new boss might prefer.

On Tuesday, the news organization BuzzFeed reported claims that Russian spies had gathered compromising material on Trump’s personal life and finances. The allegations have not been corroborated by U.S. intelligence sources, nor have news reporters been able to substantiate them, which is why news groups before BuzzFeed declined to report them. But U.S. intelligence agencies consider the claims credible enough that they included them last week in highly classified briefings with both Trump and President Barack Obama.

Trump will need the best information and advice of U.S. intelligence agencies to make countless decisions as president, from how to respond to a North Korean nuclear threat to how to combat ISIS. But instead he has chosen to go to war with the intelligence agencies. Irate that somebody leaked details of the claims involving Russia, he complained that “this is something Nazi Germany would do.”

Trump was equally less than forthright at his news conference when describing how he will shield himself from financial conflicts of interest as president by handing his companies over to his sons to run. It is absurd to pretend that he would be “completely isolated” — his lawyer’s words — from business decisions. Or are we to believe that he and the boys would never, ever talk things over on the links at Mar-a-Lago?

Trump’s lawyer says it would be unfair to expect Trump to sell his businesses, but we can’t see why. Nobody forced him to run for president. At minimum, Trump should put his businesses in a blind trust run by somebody other than his sons or a pal.

The common thread here is Trump’s refusal to come clean when he must. He could resolve many questions about both his  ties to Russia and his potential financial conflicts of interest simply by releasing his tax returns, but he never will. When asked about that again on Wednesday, he said he is still being audited by the IRS, as if that mattered.

“The only ones who care about my tax returns are reporters,” Trump said.

Not likely.

“My two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company,” Trump said a few minutes later. “They’re not going to discuss it with me.”

Even less likely.

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