President-elect Donald Trump called his meeting with the nation’s top spies “constructive” Friday, but held off on publicly naming Russia as the perpetrator of last year’s election-related hacks on Democratic groups.
His comments came after weeks of questioning assertions and accusations of political motivation toward the nation’s intelligence community, and just an hour before the U.S. government released a declassified report accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering an “influence campaign” against the American democratic order. Russia’s campaign involved the hacks, strategic leaks of sensitive information, the dissemination of fake news, and the use of internet trolls, the report states.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the joint-FBI, CIA, and NSA report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated. “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.”
FBI Director James Comey, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan traveled to Trump’s office in New York to provide him with a top-secret version of the report, including the sources and methods that helped assign the blame to Russia. But while adopting a more positive tone toward their work, Trump didn’t publicly acknowledge the results.
“I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the Intelligence Community this afternoon,” Trump said. “I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation.”
Trump and his senior leadership team have been on the defensive over the hacks for months, as some Democrats have tried to use the interference to undermine the legitimacy of his electoral win. But even top Republicans are confident in ascribing responsibility to Russia, and that the leaks of damaging documents to Wikileaks were designed to weaken 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, as they sent her campaign into a protective crouch. Intelligence sources told TIME’s Massimo Calabresi they are confident that Russian hackers gained damaging information on Republicans, but declined to release it during the election season. The DNI report states that the FBI and CIA have “high confidence” that Putin and Russia intended to boost Trump’s chances, while the NSA has “confidence” in that assessment.
In an interview with TIME in November, Trump said of Russia, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered.” He told the New York Times Friday that the focus on Russia amounted to “a political witch hunt.” His comments came after he received multiple briefings from the intelligence community about their conclusions on the hacks into the Democratic National Committee and the personal email of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The latest briefing, from the highest-ranking officials yet, comes after the conclusion of a comprehensive report into Russian interference in the election ordered by outgoing President Barack Obama.
Trump’s public statement after the meeting seemed to conflate the sponsorship of the damaging leaks with the question of whether they impacted the election result, as he has denied that any of the hacking affected the outcome.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said. “There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.”
Trump’s refusal to name Russia as the source of the hacks has drawn criticism from members of his own party, who have promised to scrutinize his Cabinet nominees over their views on Russia.
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that Russia “clearly” tried to meddle in the nation’s political system. “I strongly condemn any outside interference in our elections, which we must work to prevent moving forward,” he said, adding that the report should not be used to undermine Trump’s victory. “We cannot allow partisans to exploit this report in an attempt to delegitimize the president-elect’s victory. Donald Trump won this election fair and square because he heard the voices of Americans who felt forgotten.”
Trump’s statement called for a review of the nation’s plans to stop cyberattacks to be completed within 90 days of him taking office on Jan. 20.
“Whether it is our government, organizations, associations or businesses we need to aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks,” Trump said. “I will appoint a team to give me a plan within 90 days of taking office. The methods, tools and tactics we use to keep America safe should not be a public discussion that will benefit those who seek to do us harm. Two weeks from today I will take the oath of office and America’s safety and security will be my number one priority.”