In an extraordinary rebuke of the intelligence agencies he will soon lead as president, Donald Trump broke with his predecessor on Friday and rejected the conclusion that Russia had sought to help him by meddling in the U.S. election.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump transition team said in a unsigned press release. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and “Make America Great Again.'”
The Trump team’s highly unusual statement came after the White House revealed that President Barack Obama has ordered a “deep dive” into the cyberattacks that plagued this year’s election — and news reports suggested that some agencies had already reached conclusions that Trump might find uncomfortable.
Obama has asked the intelligence community to deliver its final report before he leaves office, raising the prospect that agencies may conclude that a foreign power successfully altered the trajectory of the Nov. 8 election just days before Trump’s inauguration.
The review will put the spate of hacks which officials have blamed on Russia “in a greater context” by framing them against the “malicious cyber activity” that may have occurred around the edges of the 2008 and 2012 president elections, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said during Friday’s briefing.
“This will be a review that is broad and deep at the same time,” he added.
The Washington Post reported on Friday evening that the CIA had determined in a secret assessment that the Russian government had interfered in this year’s election not just to rattle confidence in the system but specifically to help elect Trump, whose fiery response came just hours later.
In an interview days earlier with Time magazine, Trump flatly rejected intelligence agencies’ preliminary finding that Russia had hacked Democrats’ computer and email systems to influence the election. “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” he said. Asked directly if those conclusions were motivated by partisan politics, he replied: “I think so.”
The White House’s announcement follows repeated demands from congressional Democrats for more information about the digital assault that destabilized the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through much of the election. Schultz insisted the review was “unrelated” to these requests, however.
At a Friday morning event, Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, explained that the country had “crossed into a new threshold.”
“It is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what this means, what has happened and to impart those lessons learned,” she said at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
It’s not clear how much of the report will be made public, or what actions it might lead to, a potential point of irritation for lawmakers who have urged the Obama administration to publicly strike back against Russia and to declassify more information about the election-season hacks.
Schultz vowed to “make public as much as we can.”
“Obviously, you can imagine a report like this is gonna contain highly, you know, sensitive and even classified information,” he added, noting that Congress and “relevant stakeholders,” such as state election officials, would be briefed on the findings.
But Schultz did say the review would not spare any country that has digitally meddled in a U.S. election.
In 2008, the campaigns for both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama were bombarded by suspected Chinese hackers, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The digital intruders were reportedly after internal policy papers and the emails of top advisers.
And in 2012, Gawker reported that hackers had broken into Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s personal Hotmail account after correctly answering his backup security question: “What is your favorite pet?”
“We will be looking at all foreign actors and any attempt to interfere with the elections,” Schultz said.
The Obama administration in early October accused the Russian government of directing a digital campaign to disrupt the U.S. election. As part of this effort, U.S. officials said Moscow-backed hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other political organizations.
Emails and documents from some of these groups ended up leaking online through WikiLeaks and other suspicious websites and hackers that researchers alleged were fronts for Russian intelligence services.
Hackers reportedly linked to Russia also breached the personal email accounts of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and several Democratic staffers.
At Friday’s event, Monaco struck an ominous tone about internet-related dangers, calling them among the most significant national security issues facing the new administration. President-elect Donald Trump’s team will “inherit a rapidly growing threat in this space across all dimensions,” she said, including intrusions from both “hacktivists” and “criminal actors.”
Trump, however, has repeatedly rejected the intelligence community’s conclusion about the election-related cyberattacks, arguing that the allegations were politically motivated.
The president-elect’s ongoing denial of Russian involvement may have, in part, spurred Obama to act. Administration officials told NBC News that “Obama is concerned that Russia will go unpunished for the behavior unless he acts.”