Donald Trump no longer denies that Russia orchestrated a cyber-attack against Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her party, according to his top advisers, who also blamed Democrats for the breach and falsely characterized the testimony of an intelligence chief to Congress.
Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told Fox News Sunday the president-elect “is not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign”.
“I think he accepts the findings,” Priebus said, referring to an FBI, CIA and NSA report on Russian interference in the election. A declassified version was released to the public on Friday, asserting that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, “ordered” the operation to get Trump elected. Trump received a classified briefing earlier that day.
Priebus then tried to diminish the effects of the hack, which was for the US an unprecedented campaign of releasing stolen emails, through proxies such as WikiLeaks, from selected candidates and staffers.
“When this whole thing started, it started from the Russians 50 years ago, in other words this is something that has been going on in our elections for many many years,” Priebus said. “It happens every election period.”
Putin has denied any role in the hacks. Trump himself has not said whether he accepts the CIA, FBI and NSA’s “high confidence” conclusion that Putin ordered the hack to undermine the legitimacy of the election and assist the Republican’s campaign.
During the election campaign, Trump sometimes contradicted and rejected statements made on his behalf by advisers. He has scheduled a press conference, after months of delay, for later this week.
Intelligence officials gave the president-elect a classified intelligence briefing on Friday. Two days later, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s State of the Union that the president-elect believes “Russia, China and others have attempted to attack different government institutions and businesses and individuals and organizations over a series of time”.
Conway also falsely said that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testified to Congress “that any aspiration to influence our elections failed”.
Intelligence officials have said there is no evidence that hackers tampered with voting machines, but on Thursday Clapper told Congress the agencies were not responsible for measuring the effect of the hacked emails on voter opinion.
“Alleged attacks … and aspirations to interfere with our democracy failed,” Conway insisted.
She did not acknowledge that, throughout the campaign, Trump and his aides frequently drew on stolen emails to cast aspersion on Clinton and Democrats. At his last press conference, in July, Trump said he hoped Russia would find and publish 30,000 emails from the private server used by Clinton when she was secretary of state. He later said this was a joke.
Conway instead said that quoting private emails was “equivalent” to quoting public remarks by Republican senators and governors. She added that Democrats were dislikable and should have had stronger security.
“We didn’t need WikiLeaks to convince the American people that they didn’t like her, didn’t trust her, didn’t find her to be honest,” Conway said, of Clinton. “She started it.”
Similarly, Priebus said Democrats “allowed” hackers to steal material.
Some Republicans were less sanguine. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham told NBC’s Meet the Press that although they, like leading Democrats, do not believe the hack alone cost Clinton the election, they do believe it sets a dangerous precedent for the legitimacy of future elections.
Both called for new sanctions and more assistance to Ukraine, which has for three years fought a grueling civil war against separatists backed by Russia.
“We should all, Republicans, Democrats, condemn Russia for what they did,” Graham said. “Most Republicans are condemning what Russia did. And to those who are gleeful about it, ‘You’re a political hack. You’re not a Republican. You’re not a patriot.’”
Graham said he hoped Trump would take “an opportunity to make Russia pay a price for interfering in our election so it will deter others in the future”.
McCain said he intended to investigate with colleagues in Congress, even if he is opposed by Senate or White House leadership.
“The Russians intended to affect the outcome of this election,” he said. “And if they were able to succeed doing that, then you destroy democracies. Because you destroy the fundamental which is free and fair election.”
Graham added: “You can’t go on with your life as a democracy when a foreign entity is trying to compromise the election process.”
President Obama echoed the senators’ remarks, telling ABC in an interviewbroadcast on Sunday that he worried about Republicans aligning themselves with Putin over other Americans.
“We have to remind ourselves we’re on the same team,” he said. “Vladimir Putin’s not on our team.”
Obama did not attribute Trump’s victory to the hack, but said he shared the intelligence agencies’ “high confidence” of Kremlin culpability.
“We have to do,” he said, “is to make sure that all of us think about how we approach our elections and our democracy not only to secure them from vote tampering, but also to make sure that we understand when propaganda is being churned through the system.”
The US and Russia both interfered in foreign elections throughout the cold war, through active and indirect measures, but Obama noted that the Kremlin has increasingly tried to undermine governments, for instance in Kiev, through the internet.
The strategy, the president said, exacerbated a culture where “everything’s true and everything’s false. You know, nothing is settled. Everything is contested”.
Trump has not called for an inquiry into the hack, but on Friday instead asked Senate and House leaders to investigate a voluntary leak to the press about the intelligence briefing. On Sunday, Conway repeated his call to keep classified information out of the news.
“We cannot have people in positions of keeping us all safe and knowing classified information or intelligence information, we can’t have them leaking to the media,” she said.