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On Intelligence And Russian Hacking, Are Trump And His Team Missing The Point?

President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., last month. He met Friday with top U.S. intelligence officials about Russian interference in the election.
Evan Vucci
President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., last month. He met Friday with top U.S. intelligence officials about Russian interference in the election.

Updated at 3:31 p.m. ET after briefing

After casting doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. intelligence (even referring to it as "intelligence"), President-elect Donald Trump was briefed Friday by the nation's top intelligence officials on their investigation into Russia's hacking attempts and interference in the U.S. presidential election.

Director of National Security James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey briefed the president-elect on their findings at Trump Tower early Friday afternoon.

In a statement after the meeting, Trump called it a "constructive" meeting, but none of it seemed to convince him that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's and Clinton campaign officials' emails and broader attempts to try to influence the election. Instead, he noted "Russia, China" and "other countries" are "consistently" trying to hack into U.S. installations.

Computer servers at the Democratic National Committee were hacked by Russia, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Alex Brandon / AP
Computer servers at the Democratic National Committee were hacked by Russia, U.S. intelligence officials say.

And he made sure to get in this point: "There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election."

Trump and his team continue to express doubts over accepting even the basic premise that Russia is responsible for the hacks and seem focused on the politics of opponents' motivations.

Earlier Friday, Trump dismissed the focus on Russian hacking as a "political witch hunt."

"China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names," Trump said in an interview with the New York Times. "How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt."

Trump was talking about a breach of Office of Personnel Management computers two to three years ago. Other federal agencies and government outlets have been compromised as well — and those were reported on. But none of those events saw emails leaked publicly by a foreign adversary with the intent to influence an election.

Trump and his team continue to defensively rail against the "mainstream media," seemingly believing that the real goal is to delegitimize Trump's win. Trump is going to be the next president. He won. But national security is bigger than politics.

Trump has expressed his anger on Twitter that a part of the report was leaked to The Washington Post and NBC News on Thursday night, including that U.S. intelligence "picked up senior Russian officials" celebrating Trump's win on election night, and that the U.S. has identified the Russians who provided the stolen Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, which published them. Trump tweeted that he is asking House and Senate committees to investigate the leak.

The intelligence community agrees that Russia is responsible for hacking DNC and Clinton campaign official emails and leaking them to WikiLeaks. NPR has also confirmed that intelligence officials agree that Russia was doing so in an effort to undermine American democracy and with the hope that their efforts would elect Trump — though they didn't expect it would actually happen.

The intelligence report, which was presented to President Obama on Thursday, is expected to show the extent of Russia's attempts to influence the election's outcome.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, Clapper said that hacking the committee's computers and campaign chief John Podesta's emails was just part of the Russian campaign, saying, "It also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news."

Trump, who has been skeptical of reports of Russian involvement in the election, questioned how NBC got "an exclusive look into the top secret report he [Obama] was presented."

Appearing on CBS This Morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called it "disappointing" that there were leaks of the report to the media before "we actually have a report on the alleged hacking."

Conway also asserted that "people want a lot of America to see, to believe that Russian hacking influenced the election."

On CNN, Conway continued to express doubt about the evidence, even contending that "the idea that somehow conclusive evidence has been out there in the public domain, provided to the president-elect is — is simply not true."

That ignores the fact that Trump has been declining daily intelligence briefings and is one of two people, President Obama being the other, who could ask to see all of the evidence.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security stated unequivocally on Oct. 7 that Russia was behind the hacks — and that the move was ordered by the highest levels of the Russian government.

Conway also insistently contended, despite the findings of the intelligence community and without having seen the evidence, that Russia didn't want Trump elected.

"The Russians didn't want him elected," she boasted in that same CNN interview. "You know why? Because he has said very clearly during the campaign and now as president-elect that he is going to modernize our nuclear capability, that he's going to call for an increase in defense budget, that he's going to have oil and gas exploration, all of which goes against Russia's economic and military interests."

So what's really going on here? It appears what's getting under the skin of Trump and his officials is their view that the real implication with all this is to imply, if not say outright, that Russia handed Trump the election, thereby delegitimizing his presidency.

"They got beaten very badly in the election," Trump told the Times. "I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan. They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it's a witch hunt. They just focus on this."

Conway contended Friday morning in that CNN interview that "people are conflating alleged Russian hacking with the actual outcome of the election. It's just nonsense."

Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer echoed that frustration on Fox this past weekend, when he said there was "zero evidence" that Russia influenced the outcome of the election.

"The way the mainstream media is playing it up is that [Russia] had an influence on the election," Spicer said. "There is zero evidence that they actually influenced the election."

Whether the leaked emails actually mathematically helped Trump is likely immeasurable, but that is beside the point. Trump has refused to acknowledge Russia's role. Instead, he has consistently, over several months, in fact, cast doubt that it was Russia at all, blaming it on a 400-pound man possibly in New Jersey, or maybe it was China or maybe no one understands "the computers" at all. "I think we oughta get on with our lives," Trump said.

But what Trump, as the future president, seems to have trouble accepting is that this is a national security issue, not a political one. Instead, the Trump team continues to focus, be driven by and be defensive about the politics.

Trump's team seems incapable of compartmentalizing and messaging on this basic point: that accepting the premise that Russia is responsible is not the same as saying it handed Trump the presidency.

Maybe Trump began some acceptance of this Friday. He also told the Times, "With all that being said, I don't want countries to be hacking our country."

Trump said he had "tremendous respect" for the intelligence community, but right now, the country is in a very strange position of having an incoming American president who, it seems, would rather believe adversaries over American intelligence when it contradicts his predisposed world view — or is in line with his domestic political opponents.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 18, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we say that the 17 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community have concluded that Russia intervened in the American presidential election. While it is correct that the conclusion in January was issued by the director of national intelligence, who speaks for all U.S. intelligence agencies, the work that led to the conclusion was done by three of the 17 — the CIA, FBI and NSA. In addition, we said the Oct. 7 announcement was by the 17 intelligence agencies; that announcement was by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.