Both James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, concluded Russian officials were behind email hacks that discredited the Democratic National Committee and drew daily negative attention to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the final weeks of the election.
But President-elect Donald Trump thinks two of the nation’s highest-ranking intelligence officials had political motives for making that assessment, which was detailed in a statement released in October.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump said of Clapper and Johnson’s conclusions in a new Time magazine interview. Asked if he thought their findings were politicized, Trump replied, “I think so.”
“Any time I do something, they say ‘oh, Russia interfered,’” Trump continued. Regarding the hacks, he said, “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
Intelligence officials are “stunned” by Trump’s comments, NBC News reports, adding that while both Clapper and Johnson were appointed by President Obama, “Clapper’s career as a non-partisan spy spans five decades.”
Trump plays dumb
In their October statement, Clapper and Johnson wrote that “the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”
Their evidence? The hacks “are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”
“Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there,” Clapper and Johnson added. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
While Trump’s direct rebuke of top intelligence officials has raised eyebrows, he’s consistently played dumb about Russia. Trump reportedly was briefed by intelligence officials about Russia’s involvement in the hacks as early as August, but repeatedly expressed skepticism about whether Russians were really involved afterward. He’s signaled support for policy positions that would benefit Russia — such as reevaluating and possibly lessening the United States’ commitment to NATO — and has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him “a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Trump reiterated his openness to closer ties with Putin in the new Time interview, saying, “Why not get along with Russia? And they can help us fight ISIS, which is both costly in lives and costly in money. And they’re effective and smart.” His choice for national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, will be helpful in that regard. At an event in Russia last December where Flynn blasted President Obama and said he didn’t know whether the 2013 sarin gas attack in Syria was a “false flag,” he sat at the same table with Putin. Flynn has refused to answer questions about who paid him for the appearance.
GOP senator plans to investigate
There’s nothing inherently wrong about getting along with Russia. But the intelligence community’s assessment of the role officials there may have played in manipulating the election for Trump’s benefit isn’t merely an anti-Trump talking point pushed by liberals.
On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) told CNN that he will investigate Russian hacking.
“I think Trump should take a real tough tone with Russia, because if he doesn’t, you’re going to allow Russia to begin to break apart alliances,” Graham said.
Graham’s comments come a day after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and a group of Democratic congressman sent a letter to President Obama urging the administration “to brief [the] full House on Russian interference” in the election.
“The integrity of democracy must never be in question, and we are gravely concerned that Russia may have succeeded in weakening Americans’ trust in our electoral institutions through their cyber activity, which may also include sponsoring disclosures through WikiLeaks and other venues, and the production and distribution of fake news stories,” the letter says.
During an MSNBC appearance on Tuesday, Schiff called Trump’s comments in the Time interview “deeply disturbing.”
Russia “would love to sow doubt about their involvement in our campaign and the president-elect is giving them the most phenomenal cover,” Schiff said.
There's overwhelming evidence of Russian hacking of our elections. By denying it Trump has essentially become a propaganda piece for Kremlin pic.twitter.com/3yTY04xNiq
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) December 7, 2016
Even Vice President-elect Mike Pence has indicated he takes Russia’s alleged election interference more seriously than Trump. In October, Pence said, “I think there’s more and more evidence that implicates Russia, and there should be serious consequences if Russia is violating the privacy and security of the American people.” Pence then dodged a question about why Trump is dismissive of Russia’s role.