Insisting it’s time “to move on,” President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday he will nonetheless meet next week with leaders of the intelligence community “to be updated on the facts” of alleged Russian cyberattacks.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he said in a statement. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
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Trump has long been skeptical of the widely accepted consensus from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election with cyber intrusions against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email account,. Trump and his transition team have dismissed such reports as Democratic efforts to delegitimize Trump’s presidency before he even takes office.
Trump’s comments follow the White House’s announcement of sanctions against Russia. It’s unclear whether Trump plans to reverse the sanctions as president. In the past, he has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and indicated that the U.S. will have a warmer relationship with Moscow under his leadership.
“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” President Barack Obama said in a statement, which warned that more retaliatory measures may be on the way. “These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”
Trump’s transition team had signaled that the president-elect would support a congressional probe into Russia’s alleged cyberattacks if the intelligence community provided clear evidence that the Kremlin meddled in the presidential election.
The Department of Homeland Security and FBI released a joint report Thursday dubbed Grizzly Steppe that “provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. Government, political, and private sector entities.”
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer, specifically, had called on the intelligence community to offer proof of the Russian government’s interference.
“If we’re gonna make such broad, sweeping claims about the involvement of anybody in the legitimacy of an election and the integrity of our election systems, then I think we need to have the intelligence community come forward publicly and on the record and make it clear exactly how this happened and who was responsible for it,” he told CNN.
“Right now, we continue to get unsourced media accounts for what the activity is, and I think that’s not — that’s not acceptable,” he continued. “If truly there is someone to blame, then I think that we should have Congress notified, go through the appropriate congressional hearings, get the intelligence community — as they did in October — come out very publicly with the findings that they have.”
Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper publicly blamed the Russian government in October for cyber intrusions against U.S. political organizations and persons that they maintained were authorized by “Russia’s senior-most officials.”
The DHS and FBI report was an expansion of the October assessment and came as part of the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s interference. The White House has suggested Putin himself directed the attacks, and CIA Director John Brennan reportedly told his workforce this month that he, Clapper and FBI Director James Comey were all in agreement that Russia meddled to boost Trump into the White House.
Obama announced sanctions Thursday against “the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.” They include the closure of two Russian compounds and the expulsion of 35 Russian intelligence operatives and, according to Obama, are also a response to the harassment of American diplomats “by Russian security services and police over the last year” in Moscow.
A spokesman for Putin said Russia, which has continued to deny responsibility for the cyberattacks, regrets the sanctions and will consider retaliating against the U.S., according to The Associated Press.
The president said his administration will send a report to Congress on Russia’s meddling “in the coming days.” Congress has not been briefed on the Russian cyber intrusions but will convene on Tuesday.
Trump’s repeated denial was a clear break with members of his own party, though some Republicans have tried to defend the president-elect’s skepticism. House Speaker Paul Ryan applauded the White House’s “overdue” response, calling Obama’s executive order “an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia.”
“Russia does not share America’s interests,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability in the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blamed the Obama administration for failing to dissuade Russia from attempting to hack America’s cybersecurity systems or harass U.S. diplomats. But he commended the sanctions as a positive step.
“Sanctions against he Russia intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming,” he said. “As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.”
While South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested this week that 99 of the 100 U.S. senators accept that Russia meddled in the presidential election, Trump remained dubious as recently as Wednesday night.
“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he told reporters Wednesday when asked about sanctions against Russia.
He blamed computers for complicating “lives very greatly” and argued that the “age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.”
Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain echoed Ryan in a joint statement that also announced their intention to spearhead a push for stronger congressional sanctions against the Kremlin.
“The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama Administration today are long overdue,” the senators said. “But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy. We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.”
Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have expressed support for congressional investigations. Ryan, however, backs an ongoing House Intelligence Committee probe into cyber threats from foreign entities, and McConnell has dismissed calls for a select committee, instead highlighting the Senate Intelligence Committee as the appropriate panel to conduct a review.
Former Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, an adviser to Trump’s transition team and former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said “it’s very, very healthy” for Trump “to be skeptical and put pressure on the intelligence community to make sure that they put forward great information.”
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that the Russian government simply did what American media failed to do.
“If anything, whatever they might have done was to try to use information in a way that may have affected something that they believed was in their best interest,” he told MSNBC. “But the bottom line: If they succeeded — if Russia succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.”