President-elect Donald Trump acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he believes Russian operatives hacked the Democratic Party during the election, but he continued to dispute intelligence reports that Moscow acted to help him win.
"I think it was Russia," Trump said at a news conference in New York when asked who was responsible for the public leaks of Democratic emails during the campaign.
But Trump emphasized that he believes Russia also would have released damaging information about him had they obtained such information.
He angrily denounced news reports that U.S. officials had obtained an unsubstantiated dossier of potentially compromising personal information Russia has allegedly gathered about him, citing denials from the Kremlin that it has any such intelligence.
U.S. officials reportedly included a two-page summary of the dossier in classified briefings of Russia's meddling in the election to President Obama and, separately, to Trump last week. Trump and his aides, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, called the leaks of the information a smear campaign that aimed to damage Trump politically.
"It's a disgrace that that information would be let out," Trump said. "I saw the information; I read the information outside that meeting. It's all fake news – phony stuff. It didn't happen."
Trump also addressed questions about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has expressed a desire to improve bilateral relations.
"If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that's an asset not a liability," Trump said. "I don't know if I'll get along with Vladimir Putin . . . but even if I don't does anyone in this room think Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Putin than me? Give me a break."
Trump made his remarks in his first news conference as president-elect, ending a period of 167 days since he has fielded questions from the full media contingent. Past winners of the presidency have traditionally faced the media much earlier.
An estimated 250 journalists were crowded into the lobby of Trump Tower, where Trump aides had set up 10 American flags in front of a blue curtain.
During the news conference, Trump announced that he has tapped David Shulkin, a physician who is currently serving in the Obama administration as VA undersecretary, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. And he detailed plans to shift his business assets into a trust managed by his sons and give up management of his private company, a step that will help the businessman move closer to resolving potential conflicts of interest.
He also again resisted the idea that he should release his tax returns, saying "the only ones that care about my tax returns are the reporters" and suggesting the public does not care about the issue.
Earlier in the day, Trump had charged via Twitter that his "crooked opponents" are trying to undermine his electoral victory. He accused the intelligence community of leaking the information to get in "one last shot at me," saying, "Are we living in Nazi Germany?"
At the news conference, Pence and Sean Spicer, who has been tapped to be White House press secretary in Trump's administration, also denounced news organizations for their reports on the unsubstantiated dossier.
Trump and his aides took particular aim at CNN, which broke the story that intelligence officials had included it in their briefings, and BuzzFeed News, which published a copy of the dossier in full. Trump refused to allow a CNN reporter to ask a question.
"You are fake news," Trump said to the reporter, Jim Acosta, who had shouted out in an attempt to be called upon.
The president-elect called BuzzFeed "a failing pile of garbage."
"It's a disgrace what took place, and I think they ought to apologize to start with," he said.
U.S. officials said that intelligence agencies have not corroborated the allegations contained in the dossier but believed the sources involved in the reporting were credible enough to warrant inclusion of their claims in the highly classified report on Russian interference in the presidential campaign.
Earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for Putin called the allegations that Russia has collected compromising information about Trump an "absolute fantasy."
Soon after, Trump tweeted: "Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is 'A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.' Very unfair!"
Speaking Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Trump adviser Reince Priebus called the BuzzFeed report "phony baloney garbage." He denied that Trump had engaged in compromising behavior in Russia and that Trump aide Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague to meet with Russian officials. Both allegations were contained in the document published by BuzzFeed.
"There was no craziness in Russia. There was no meeting in Prague," Priebus said. "It is not an intelligence document. Cohen has never been in Prague. And all of this stuff isn't even fit to print in the New York Times."
In an interview Tuesday night with NBC News, Obama said that he had not seen the reports and declined to comment on classified information.
On immigration, Trump insisted he will build a wall – not a fence – along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, reiterating that Mexico will "reimburse" the United States for the cost after it is initially funded by taxpayers. Republican leaders in Congress have been working with Pence and other Trump aides to develop legislation to start the process, which is projected to cost billions of dollars.
"Mexico, through some form . . . will reimburse us," Trump said. "That will happen. Whether it's a tax or whether it's a payment."
"What's the difference" if the payment is a reimbursement, Trump added. "I want to get the wall started. I don't want to wait a year and a half until I make my deal with Mexico."
Wrapping up the news conference, Trump pointed to a work table piled with a massive stack of folders bursting with papers that was set up next to the lectern.
The documents related to his business holdings, Trump said, and they represented some of the assets he would turn over to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric to oversee under the new arrangement in which he will not be involved in management decisions.
"I hope at the end of eight years I'll come back and say, 'Oh, you did a good job,' " Trump said, before falling back on a catchphrase he made famous on his television show, "The Apprentice."
"Otherwise," he added, "if they do a bad job, I'll say, 'You're fired.' "
Drew Harwell, Jena McGregor and John Wagner contributed to this report.