Top Trump Advisors Struggle to Explain His Response to Russia Report

Donald Trump's continued refusal to outright acknowledge Russia's involvement and intent in the U.S. election left his top surrogates with little room to wiggle.


President-elect Donald Trump’s top advisers on Sunday blamed the victim in light of an intelligence report suggesting that the Russian government conducted a hacking campaign in order to help elect Trump and damage Hillary Clinton’s chances.

Ultimately, Trump’s surrogates could not explain why Trump has not directly condemned Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee. Earlier this week, the president-elect issued a vague statement downplaying Russia’s impact on the election. He blamed “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people” for cyberattacks, and vowed to “aggressively combat and stop” hacking activities.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect accepts the conclusion that Russia was behind the cyberattacks that targeted the DNC and Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, but blamed the DNC for its alleged lack of cybersecurity.

“He’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” He added that the Russian government has the “primary” responsibility for the hacks.

“But we also have a problem when we have a major political institution that allows foreign governments into their system with hardly any defenses or training,” Priebus, the outgoing chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, calling the DNC a “sitting duck.”

Kellyanne Conway, who will be a counselor to the president in the new White House, also deflected by making a false claim about the intelligence community's assessment.

“Mr. Clapper in his testimony made very clear on Thursday under oath that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed,” Conway said on CNN's “State of the Union,” referring to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. “We're talking about this because we had embarrassing leaks from the DNC emails.”

Clapper did not say this. He told members of Congress on Thursday that it was not possible for the intelligence community to assess what specific electoral effect the Russian intervention might have had.

Later in the interview, Conway contradicted herself, acknowledging that the WikiLeaks documents, which were allegedly stolen from the DNC by the Russians, did have an effect on the campaign.

“It was quite embarrassing to watch her closest advisers question her judgment and question whether she would ever find her voice,” Conway said. But she added that polling showed for some time that Clinton was not viewed as trustworthy by the American public, and that “has nothing to do with Moscow.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator and former GOP presidential candidate, said it was a “mistake” for some Republicans to celebrate the WikiLeaks revelations.

“To those who are gleeful about it, you’re a political hack; you’re not a Republican, you’re not a patriot,” Graham said on “Meet the Press.” “If this is not about us, then I’ll never know what will be about us. Because when one party is compromised, all of us are compromised.”

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Graham said he and Sen. John McCain will soon introduce new sanctions targeting Russia’s economy and its energy sector.

“We’re going to give President Trump an opportunity to make Russia pay a price for interfering in our elections so it will deter others in the future,” Graham added. “I hope he will take advantage of it.”

Graham’s Republican colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, predicted that Trump would be a president who acts firmly against Russia’s interests.

“The best way to look at the president-elect’s attitude toward the Russians is look at the incoming national security leaders: General Mattis, General Kelly, Congressman Pompeo, Senator Coats—none of these are people who are in any way conflicted about the view that the Russians are not our friends and are a big problem,” McConnell said.

The intelligence community’s unclassified report, which was released on Friday, contained strong-worded language about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement and intentions. But it did not back up its claims with new evidence.

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report says. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The FBI and CIA said it has “high confidence” in those findings, while the NSA has “moderate confidence.” Both Trump and President Barack Obama were briefed on a top-secret version of the report.

Susan Hennessey, a former NSA official, told The Daily Beast that the unclassified report leaves “big looming unanswered questions, including the ones no one really wants to ask”—that is, whether an American citizen who may have been connected to the Trump campaign “had knowledge of or participated in the operation.” There is currently no evidence of such a connection, but Graham said on “Meet the Press” that he believes there is an ongoing investigation into those potential links, adding: “I don’t want to speak for them.”

Last month, the Obama administration announced a series of sanctions against Russia in response to the cyberattacks. Many Democrats and a substantial number of Republicans, like Graham and McCain, are now considering legislation to impose additional sanctions against Russia.

“Yes, it would great if Russia were an ally. It's not realistic,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning. “The Russians in my view have a very malign purpose around the world, and one we need to fight back tooth and nail.”