Trump keeps stiff upper lip as US report details Russia hacking – Politico
U.S. intelligence officials on Friday laid out a stark case — both publicly and privately in Trump Tower to the president-elect — that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed a massive cyberattack to “undermine public faith” in the democratic process and to “harm” Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Donald Trump.
Trump doesn’t appear sold.
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It was a high-stakes day in which Trump met face-to-face with top U.S. intelligence officials whom he’s spent months mocking for their assessment that Russia directed cyberattacks on Democratic targets to help tip the election in Trump’s favor — a conclusion that threatens to undermine Trump’s victory.
Now that the intelligence community has made its assessment official, sharing the details of their report with President Barack Obama, Trump and the public, Trump is maintaining a defiant posture, asserting that officials did not conclude the hacks swayed the election his way.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said in his statement after meeting with intelligence officials.
The declassified report from the CIA, FBI and NSA, however, didn’t even weigh in on the issue.
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report stated.
The clear dispute adds more fuel to the simmering feud between U.S. intelligence officials and the president elect less than two weeks before Inauguration Day, an unprecedented clash pitting national security up against Trump’s own insecurities.
“It’s really remarkable to have someone who’s never been a consumer of intelligence products, who has no idea about the cycle of gathering intelligence, trying to claim with credibility he knows what’s going on. He doesn’t,” said Thomas Sanderson, the director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It suggests … he simply doesn’t want to agree with the finding that Russia was behind this because it delegitimizes his campaign win.”
Trump’s stiff statement came after the president-elect and his allies spent much of the day front-running the meeting and the report, downplaying Trump’s ties to Russia and calling on lawmakers to investigate leaked details of the report to news outlets.
Trump himself Friday morning called all the attention paid to the hacks a “political witch hunt,” motivated, he claimed, by his political rivals and their sour grapes over his surprising win.
“They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” Trump said of his political opponents in an interview with the New York Times. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”
Just before 1 p.m., the full slate of intelligence chiefs arrived at Trump Tower: FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and NSA Director Mike Rogers. While Trump has not called out them by name on Twitter, he’s repeatedly disparaged their work, even claiming that his briefing had been delayed because they needed more time to build their case against Russia.
Trump’s three-paragraph statement on Friday, issued at 2:34 p.m. after the meeting wrapped up, began on a conciliatory note.
“I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the Intelligence Community this afternoon. I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation,” Trump said in the opening of the carefully crafted statement which pivoted quickly to the declarative statement at the heart of Trump’s effort winning the ongoing public relations battle over the legitimacy of the election that he won—after he spent months last fall, preparing for a loss, asserting that it would be “rigged.”
After noting that a number of foreign entities try to penetrate U.S. targets, Trump said that there had been similar attacks against the Republican National Committee but that those attacks failed because of the RNC’s “strong hacking defenses” — a topic the intelligence community did not address in Friday’s report.
This was the first time Trump acknowledged the possibility that Russia had hacked several American targets, including the DNC, something the nation’s top intelligence officials concluded in October.
He said he will appoint a team upon assuming the presidency responsible for creating a plan within the first 90 days of his administration to combat cyberattacks.
Since October, the intelligence community has uniformly stated that Russia was behind those attacks, but Trump has been unwilling to concede that conclusion, pointedly casting doubt on the intelligence community at nearly every turn.
In a sign of the high tensions surrounding Friday’s meeting, both U.S. officials and Trump’s team attempted to get ahead of the meeting by airing their side of the story. Both the Washington Post and NBC News spoke to U.S. officials Thursday night, detailing at least some of the evidence proving Russia was behind the cyberattacks. That the evidence was made public before his briefing provoked Trump to respond on Twitter.
“How did NBC get ‘an exclusive look into the top secret report he (Obama) was presented?’ Who gave them this report and why? Politics!” Trump tweeted. He followed that post with one on Friday, writing that “I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.”
Trump’s allies on Friday also pushed the idea that the focus on Russian hacking was part of a larger agenda to discredit Trump’s victory, and that Trump was simply expressing healthy skepticism about intelligence.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, engaged in a contentious interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who pressed Conway on whether Trump was “sheltering” Russia.
“He’s not sheltering Russia, and don’t you say that again,” Conway shot back.
She also stated emphatically that “Russia didn’t want Trump to win the election” and said, “The idea that somehow conclusive evidence has been out there in the public domain … is simply not true.”
Instead, she said that the uptick in attention paid to the Russian cyberattacks is a direct result of Trump’s victory and the work of “those out there who are trying to delegitimize his presidency, review the election results and you know it.” Those looking to undercut the incoming administration will fail, Conway said, simply because of Trump’s decisive victory.
The report released Friday afternoon provided sweeping conclusions of Putin’s direct interest in tipping the election in Trump’s favor.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” said the report, which is a declassified version of a longer, classified document the intelligence agencies prepared at Obama’s request.
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” it continued.
The report also said the Russian government developed “a clear preference” for President-elect Donald Trump as the campaign went on, and eventually “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
In another sign of how seriously U.S. officials are taking election-related vulnerabilities, the Department of Homeland Security on Friday designated the electoral system as “critical infrastructure.”
DHS head Jeh Johnson said the move would make protecting polling places, election machines, voter databases and other information technology a formal cybersecurity priority for the department.
In the wake of the release of the report on Friday and Trump’s reaction, House Speaker Paul Ryan distanced himself from the president-elect on Russia’s alleged tampering, saying Moscow tried to “meddle.”
“Russia has a track record of working against our interests, and they clearly tried to meddle in our political system,” Ryan said in a statement. “I strongly condemn any outside interference in our elections, which we must work to prevent moving forward.”
Trump has long been criticized for his warm overtures to Putin, which has rankled many Russia hawks in Congress.
The president-elect and Putin have continued their praise of each other since Trump’s surprise win in November, and Trump’s choice of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — who was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin — as secretary of state also alarmed those critical of Russia’s autocratic ruler.
Putin has denied that Russia directed the hacks of the DNC and the private email account of Podesta, which produced embarrassing emails that proved distracting for Clinton’s operation.
“Everyone’s talking about who’s done it. Does it really matter that much? What matters is what’s inside this information,” Putin said at an economic forum in Moscow in October.
“There’s nothing there benefiting Russia,” he added. “The hysteria is simply to distract the American people from the contents of what the hackers have posted.”
Those statements came shortly after DHS and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the first time publicly blamed Russia for the hacks and concluded the country was trying to interfere in the U.S. election.
Trump, however, said he had no reason to believe that conclusion.
In a December interview with Time magazine, when it named him man of the year, Trump said he did not agree with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was behind the hacked documents that ended up on WikiLeaks.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump said.
Trump also appeared to side with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this week that Russia wasn’t the source of the DNC and Podesta emails.
On the eve of Trump’s intelligence briefing, Clapper and other officials defended their assessment on Russia’s involvement, telling members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the intelligence community “will ascribe a motivation” for why Putin would have directed cyberattacks against the U.S. when it releases its report.
Clapper also said Trump’s rhetoric about intelligence agencies is alarming American allies. “I’ve received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts about, you know, the disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community, or I should say what has been interpreted as disparagement of the intelligence community,” he said.
He added about Trump: “I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”