President-elect Donald Trump emerged from a meeting with the nation’s top intelligence officials Friday declaring that the session had been “constructive,” but offering no indication that he would back down from his assertions that U.S. spy agencies have been wrong about Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Instead, Trump said in a statement issued just minutes after the high-level meeting ended that whatever hacking had occurred “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Trump’s statement seemed designed to create the impression that this was the view of the intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr., and CIA Director John O. Brennan, who had met with him.
But weighing whether Russia’s intervention altered the outcome of the 2016 race was beyond the scope of the review that the nation’s spy agencies completed this week. And Clapper testified in a Senate hearing Thursday that U.S. intelligence services “have now way of gauging the impact…it had on the choices the electorate made. There’s no way for us to gauge that.”
Trump’s statement came after his first face-to-face encounter with the leaders of intelligence agencies whose work he has repeated disparaged. Others who took part in the meeting included FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers.
All four of the spy chiefs have endorsed a classified report that was briefed to Trump and circulated in Washington this week that concludes that Russia used a combination of aggressive hacking, propaganda and “fake news” to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
Trump appeared to acknowledge that hacking of Democratic and Republican computer networks had occurred, but was apparently not prepared to accept the consensus view of U.S. spy services that Russia sought to help him win.
“I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the intelligence community,” Trump said. He acknowledged that Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee.”
Trump proposed only one concrete step, saying that he would appoint a team charged with delivering a plan within 90 days of his swearing in for protecting U.S. networks from cyberattack. But he offered no details and said that the “methods, tools and tactics we use to keep America safe should not be a public discussion.”
The session was seen as an early indicator of whether Trump could reach some sort of accord with U.S. intelligence agencies or is determined to extend his increasingly bitter feud with America’s spies and analysts into his first term.
In an interview with the New York Times before Friday’s briefing, Trump said the focus on Russian hacking “is a political witch hunt.”
In Thursday’s testimony, Clapper appeared to take aim at Trump and the stream of social media insults he has aimed at the intelligence community over the Russia issue.
“There is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers, to include policymaker number one, should always have for intelligence,” Clapper said. “But I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”
The meeting, which was requested by Trump, comes on the heels of a series of revelations about Russia’s role and motivations in last year’s campaign.
The Post reported in December that the CIA and other agencies had concluded that Russia sought not only to disrupt the election and sow doubt about the legitimacy of American democratic institutions but also to help Trump win.
U.S. intelligence agencies based that determination on an array of interlocking intelligence pieces, including the identification of known “actors” with ties to Russian intelligence services who helped deliver troves of stolen Democratic email files to the WikiLeaks website.
U.S. spy agencies also monitored communications in Moscow after the election that showed that senior officials in the Russian government, including those believed to have had knowledge of the hacking campaign, celebrated Trump’s win and congratulated one another on the outcome.
Trump has rejected intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusions about Russia, saying it could just as easily have been China or some guy in New Jersey.
Trump has seemed to court conflict with U.S. intelligence agencies on several fronts. During his campaign he vowed to order the CIA to return to the use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation measures widely condemned as torture. Since his surprise win, Trump has skipped the majority of the daily intelligence briefings made available to him, saying that he has no need for sessions that he finds repetitive.
But the president-elect softened his message on Thursday, saying on Twitter that he is a “big fan” of intelligence, although, as has been his practice, he set off the word “intelligence” in quotes.
Trump’s designated national security adviser, retired lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn, has often participated in the president-elect’s intelligence briefings. If he attends on Friday it could add to the tension and drama: Flynn was fired by Clapper in 2014 as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.