WASHINGTON >> President-elect Donald Trump accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia tried to interfere in the American presidential election, his incoming White House Chief of staff said Sunday.
“I think he accepts the findings,” Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” ”He’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign.”
Intelligence officials allege that Moscow directed a series of hacks in order to help Trump win the White House. Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about Russia’s role and has declined to say whether he accepts the meddling was done on his behalf.
On Friday, U.S. intelligence briefed the president-elect on their conclusions that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House. Priebus attended along with Trump. In an interview with The Associated Press after the briefing, Trump said he “learned a lot” from his discussions with intelligence officials, but he declined to say whether he accepted their assertion about Russia’s motives.
An unclassified version of the report directly tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to election meddling and said that Moscow had a “clear preference” for Trump in his race against Hillary Clinton. Trump and his allies have bristled at any implication that the meddling helped him win the election. He won the Electoral College vote with 306 votes, topping the 270 votes required to become president.
Accepting those findings would be a positive step — but not enough, said one leading Senate Republican who is calling for more sanctions against Russia.
“He’s going to be the defender of the free world here pretty soon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump critic, said in remarks broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ”All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back. It could be Iran next time. It could be China.”
The pushback from Graham comes during a consequential week for Trump, who will become the nation’s 45th president on Jan. 20.
On Wednesday, Trump is expected to hold a long-delayed press conference on how he’s organizing his global business empire to avoid conflicts of interest while he’s president. He has taken sporadic questions and done interviews, but it’ll be his first full-fledged news conference since July 27.
That same day on Capitol Hill, the Senate is holding at least nine hearings on Trump’s Cabinet and other nominees, a pace set by the Republican majority that Democrats have complained is too fast. The government ethics office says several of Trump’s Cabinet choices have not completed a full review to avoid conflicts of interest.
Trump has repeatedly sought to downplay the allegations against Russia, alarming some who see a pattern of skepticism directed at U.S. intelligence agencies and a willingness to embrace the Russian leader. On Friday after receiving a classified briefing on the matter, Trump tried to change the subject to allegations that hadn’t been raised by U.S. intelligence. “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!”
He then declared in a series of tweets on Saturday that having a good relationship with Russia is “a good thing, not a bad thing.” Trump added, “only ‘stupid’ people or fools” would come to a different conclusion.
Trump had earlier urged Americans to get on with their lives. Graham retorted in the broadcast Sunday:
“Our lives are built around the idea that we’re free people. That we go to the ballot box. That we, you know, have political contests outside of foreign interference.”
There has been no official comment from Moscow on the report, which was released as Russia observed Orthodox Christmas.
But Alexei Pushkov, an influential member of the upper house of parliament, said on Twitter that “all the accusations against Russia are based on ‘confidence’ and suppositions. The USA in the same way was confident about (Iraqi leader Saddam) Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.”
During the election, Trump praised the Russian strongman as a decisive leader, and argued that the two countries would benefit from a better working relationship — though attempts by the Obama administration at a “Russian reset” have proved unsuccessful.
At the same time, intelligence officials believe that Russia isn’t done intruding in U.S. politics and policymaking.
Immediately after the Nov. 8 election, Russia began a “spear-phishing” campaign to try to trick people into revealing their email passwords, targeting U.S. government employees and think tanks that specialize in national security, defense and foreign policy, the unclassified version of the report said.
The report said Russian government provided hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The website’s founder, Julian Assange, has denied that it got the emails it released from the Russian government. The report noted that the emails could have been passed through middlemen.
Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid “trolls” to make nasty comments on social media services, the report said. Intelligence officials say Moscow will apply lessons learned from its activities in the election to put its thumbprint on future elections in the United States and allied nations.
The public report was minus classified details that intelligence officials shared with President Barack Obama on Thursday.