RFE/RL WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump on January 6 called the furor over alleged Russian hacking a “political witch hunt” and requested a congressional investigation into leaks from a classified intelligence report.
Trump’s media offensive came just hours before he was briefed by U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials who accuse Russia of trying to influence the November 8 presidential election by stealing and publishing Democratic party e-mails.
Trump later said he had a “constructive” meeting with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey, though his statement did not indicate whether he now agrees with the intelligence community that Russia directed the hacking campaign.
Trump’s statement echoed his previous statements that Russia, China, or other actors could have been behind the intrusions, and he asserted that the hacking had “no effect on the outcome of the election.”
In an interview with The New York Times shortly before the briefing, the Republican president-elect repeated his skepticism of Russia’s involvement in the hacking, which is widely seen as having damaged the campaign of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Contradicting the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, Trump has repeatedly said that other states or individuals could have been behind the breaches.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names,” Trump was quoted by The New York Times as saying, referring to the theft of millions of federal government personnel files in 2014 and 2015. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
Trump, who has said he wants to improve ties with Moscow, has also dismissed reports citing unidentified U.S. intelligence officials accusing Russia of trying to help him win the election with the hacking campaign.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the cyberattacks.
Later on January 6, Trump called for a congressional investigation into an NBC News report featuring details from the classified intelligence report — ordered by President Barack Obama — about the alleged Russian hacking campaign.
The NBC News report on January 5 cited two unnamed intelligence officials reportedly involved in preparing the intelligence assessment, parts of which could be made public as early as January 6.
The intelligence document concludes, among other things, that the hacks were payback for the Obama administration’s questioning of Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy as Russia’s president, NBC News said in its report.
Several media outlets in addition to NBC reported contents of the classified report that had been delivered to Obama earlier on January 5.
There was no immediate response from congressional leaders, Democrat or Republican, to Trump’s call. Many lawmakers in both parties have endorsed the conclusions of intelligence agencies that Russia-government-backed hackers stole e-mails from U.S. political organizations.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington after Trump’s tweet that he feels “confident” that the White House did not leak details of the report to the media.
In the statement released after the 90-minute meeting at his Manhattan office, Trump said that he was satisfied with the information he had received from the officials on the investigation.
The statement, however, did not specifically address the findings that the Russian government directed the hacks, instead stating only that Russia, China, and others were “consistently trying to break through the cyberinfrastructure” of U.S. government institutions.
Those targets, Trump said in the statement, included the Democratic National Committee, whose internal e-mails were later published by WikiLeaks, embarrassing top party officials. Wikileaks has denied it obtained the files from Russia.
Trump insisted, however, that hackers had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
Earlier on January 6, aides to Trump said the president-elect would have an open mind when he is briefed on the matter at his office in Manhattan.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told ABC News that the incoming president is “prepared to listen and understand how they got to the conclusions they did” but added that Trump has “a healthy skepticism of everything.”
Kellyanne Conway, who is set to serve as a counselor to Trump when he assumes office on January 20, told CBS television that “we do not want any foreign government to interfere in this country.”
“At the same time, let’s wait until the president-elect receives the briefing of this fresh, new material,” she said.
Trump’s briefing came a day after Clapper told a Senate committee that intelligence agencies were even more “resolute” now about the Russian hacking than in October, when an initial report was released.
“I think there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers…should always have for intelligence, but I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said.