With senior Republicans all but begging President-elect Donald Trump to accept and act on intelligence agencies’ unanimous finding that Russia interfered in the recent presidential election, over the weekend, Trump and his closest advisers continued to blatantly misrepresent the contents of the intelligence services’ public statements.
A joint report from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency left no doubt that US officials believe that Russian agents, acting on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, stole information from prominent Democrats and the Democratic National Committee and delivered it to WikiLeaks, which made the information public. Further, they are also unanimous in their belief that Russia did so with the express intention of harming Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump.
The report is also very specific about what the three agencies did not try to do.
On the very first page of the report is this unambiguous statement: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
That has not stopped Trump and his inner circle from brazenly and repeatedly claiming the exact opposite.
“Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
On Sunday, Trump’s former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway appeared on several talk shows and discussed testimony that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Clapper, after making it plain that the Intelligence Community believes with absolute certainty that Russia interfered in the election to hurt Clinton and help Trump, was asked if the agencies had determined whether or not the effort was successful.
Here’s what Clapper said: “The intelligence community can’t gauge the impact [Russia's efforts] had on the choices the electorate made.”
Here’s how Conway characterized his testimony: “Mr. Clapper, in his testimony, made very clear on Thursday, under oath, that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed.”
Also on Sunday, Conway addressed the written report in which the intelligence agencies specifically said they were making no determination whatsoever about whether the hacks impacted the outcome of the election.
“They did not succeed in throwing this election to Donald Trump,” Conway said. “That is very clear in this report.”
The thin reed that Conway and Trump appear to be grasping onto is the finding that there was no actual Russian hacking of the machines used to tally votes nationwide. But there is nobody claiming there was, and it beggars credibility to claim that that is the only way to influence the outcome of an election.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who will serve as Trump’s White House Chief of Staff, also made the rounds on Sunday. And while he didn’t claim that the intelligence agencies found there was no impact, he did repeatedly contradict another of their specific findings.
Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News, he said that Trump accepts the general finding that Russia was hacking computers in the U.S. during the election, but characterized it as a run-of-the-mill piece of espionage.
“This is something that's been going on in our elections for many, many years, both the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians. It happens every election period,” he said. Priebus made similarly dismissive comments about the attacks in an interview on CBS later Sunday morning.
But that’s exactly the opposite of how the intelligence agencies characterized Russia’s interference in the November 8, 2016, election.
The attacks and leaks to the media, they said, represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.” Further, they added, “Moscow’s use of disclosures during the U.S. election was unprecedented.”
In an appearance on Meet the Press, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunchly conservative Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered his theory of why Trump and his advisors seem determined to undercut the findings of the Intelligence Community.
Trump, he said, appears “worried” that any further investigation into Russia’s influence over the election might “undermine his credibility and legitimacy” as president. However, Graham said, “I haven’t heard any Democrat of prominence say ‘We doubt Donald Trump won.’”
The point of an investigation, he said, is to send a message to Russia that further interference in U.S. elections is unacceptable and will be met with harsh punishment.
“If after having been briefed by our intelligence leaders, Donald Trump is still unsure as to what the Russians did, that would be incredibly unnerving to me because the evidence is overwhelming,” Graham said. “All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered and to push back...It was Democrats today. It could be Republicans in the next election.”
If Trump fails to do that, Graham said, “that will shake me to my core about his judgment.”