U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has dismissed the idea that Russia hacked into the recent presidential election process, received a full briefing Friday from top U.S. intelligence officials. Trump later released a statement calling the meeting “constructive” and said that he has “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation.”
However, he did not explicitly endorse the view of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computers and then released damaging information to aid Trump’s bid to become U.S. president.
In the statement, Trump said Russia, China, other countries, groups and individuals are constantly engaged in hacking against U.S. government, business and political organizations. However, he said these efforts had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.” Trump said he would appoint a team to give him a plan within 90 days after taking office to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”
In an unprecedented move for a president-elect, Trump has been highly critical of intelligence agencies. In an interview Friday morning with The New York Times, Trump called the controversy surrounding Russian hacking during the election a “political witch hunt” being carried out by opponents who are still upset about losing to him.
“They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” Trump said. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”
While Trump expressed concerns about state-sponsored hacking, he accused his political adversaries of ignoring past examples of countries hacking the United States.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names. How come nobody even talks about that?” Trump said, referencing a computer breach in 2014 and 2015 of the Office of Personnel Management computer system that led to the pilfering of millions of sensitive documents.
Speaking to reporters Friday morning at the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has seen part of the classified report on the Russian hacking and called it “stunning in its conclusions.”
Pelosi said she hoped to see more of the report, but noted the importance of secrecy when it comes to security matters.
“As a long-time intelligence person, I know we have to respect sources and methods,” she said, mentioning that a portion of the report will be made public later Friday.
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday there is currently “no plan” for President Barack Obama and Trump to discuss the intelligence briefing, which Obama received Thursday, but he said he “wouldn’t rule out” a conversation.
“If the president-elect calls the president … he’ll [Obama] call him back,” Earnest said.
Multifaceted Russian campaign
On Thursday, America’s top intelligence officials testified the evidence is firm that Russia interfered with the November presidential election, but they say there is no way to tell if it helped Trump win.
“The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections, theirs and other people’s,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we have never encountered such a direct campaign to interfere with the election process as we have seen in this case.”
Clapper told the senators that Russia undertook a “multifaceted campaign” that included not just hacking and leaking Democratic Party emails, but also “classical propaganda, misinformation, fake news.”
Clapper said he cannot know for sure if the Russian leaks of sensitive information influenced the choices voters made on November 8. He did say Russia did not interfere with the vote counting or the final result.
Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Late Thursday, The Washington Post reported that, according to U.S. intelligence, senior Russian government officials jubilantly celebrated Trump’s win and regarded it as a geopolitical win for Moscow.
The Post says those Russian officials include some who may have had direct knowledge of the hacking.
“The Russians felt pretty good about what happened on November 8 and they also felt pretty good about what they did,” the newspaper said, quoting a senior U.S. official.
After NBC later spoke with the same unnamed official and published a similar report, Trump responded on Twitter by questioning why a news organization received the secret report before he did.
“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 tweeted.
Alexandra Vacraux, executive director at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University, told VOA she was in Moscow in December, where she said she met with “quite a few Russians” who were happy Trump won the election and optimistic about his coming presidency.
Vacraux said it wasn’t that the Russians were excited about Trump’s policy ideas, but instead were relieved that Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, did not win.
“They were convinced Hillary Clinton had regime change in Russia as one of her main objectives,” Vacraux said.
She said that many of the people in Putin’s administration thought Clinton was responsible for instigating protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 following reports of election irregularities across Russia.
Coats tapped for DNI job
Trump is expected to name a new director of national intelligence to replace Clapper when the president-elect takes office later this month.
Trump’s pick, former Senator Dan Coats, is a former ambassador to Germany who served two years in the army before he represented the state of Indiana in the U.S. Senate from 1989 until 1999 and again since 2011. Coats declined to run for another term in last November’s election.
Ousting Obama’s ambassadors
News reports also suggest that Trump is poised to call all of Obama’s foreign ambassadors home before Inauguration Day, marking a major shift from past precedent.
Both Politico and The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, report that the Trump transition team sent a letter to the ambassadors ordering them to leave their foreign posts “without exception” before January 20, when the president-elect takes office.
According to an unnamed source in the Times, the move is not meant to be political, but to keep the transition on schedule.