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Trump Escalates Standoff With U.S. Intelligence Over Russian Hacking Claims

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump suggested that the DNC's carelessness led to the hack of their e-mails.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump suggested that the DNC's carelessness led to the hack of their e-mails.

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Donald Trump has escalated his standoff with U.S. intelligence agencies over an alleged Russian cyber-campaign to meddle in the presidential election, ahead of congressional hearings and his scheduled briefing on the matter this week.

In a January 4 tweet, Trump repeated WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's assertion that Russia was not the source of leaked e-mails that were widely seen as having damaged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the November 8 election.

"Julian Assange said 'a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta' -- why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!" Trump wrote, referring to Clinton campaign chief John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee, whose stolen e-mails were published by WikiLeaks before the vote.

Assange repeated his claim in a January 3 interview with Fox News, contradicting the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which has publicly accused the Russian government of directing the campaign to influence the U.S. electoral process.

Media reports quoted unidentified CIA and FBI officials as saying that intelligence assessments had concluded that the alleged Russian effort was aimed at tilting the election toward Trump.

The New York real estate developer has repeatedly said he wants to repair ties with Moscow that were badly strained over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Both the Russian government and Trump have dismissed that conclusion as absurd, and President Barack Obama's administration has yet to release details backing up the allegation that Moscow tried to help Trump with the stolen e-mails.

'Sycophant For Russia'

The Republican president-elect's apparent endorsement of the WikiLeaks founder's assertion was his latest -- and to many in Washington, his most astounding -- public challenge of the U.S. intelligence conclusions on the affair.

Trump has repeatedly cited the faulty CIA intelligence that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the basis for his skepticism about Russia's alleged role in the hacks.

Defenders of Assange and Trump have deployed the same argument and said that the contents of the leaked e-mails -- including ones that showed some Democratic officials favoring Clinton over primary rival Bernie Sanders -- were more important than their provenance.

Senior Republican officials criticized Assange, whose organization has been under investigation by U.S. authorities for publishing classified government documents.

"I have really nothing [to say] other than the guy is a sycophant for Russia. He leaks. He steals data and compromises national security," Paul Ryan, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said in a January 4 radio interview.

Current and former U.S. officials have expressed increasing concern at Trump's public dismissal of the conclusions of the intelligence agencies that he will oversee when he takes office on January 20.

Evelyn Farkas, who resigned last year as the Pentagon's top Russia official and supported Clinton in the election, said career civil servants in the Defense and State departments were "really alarmed" by Trump's approach to the U.S. intelligence establishment.

"The policy people who work in the Pentagon and in the State Department, they absolutely accept the intelligence assessments of their colleagues in part because they are also privy to some of the raw intelligence and other pieces of analysis that go into the ultimate findings," Farkas told RFE/RL.

Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) told CNN in a January 4 interview that it was "very disturbing" that Trump was giving credence to Assange's claims.

The WikiLeaks founder "has a history of undermining American interests," said Graham, who has been a vocal critic of Trump's hesitance to believe Russia was behind the cyberattacks. "I hope no American will be duped by him. You shouldn't give him any credibility."

Congressional Hearings And Trump Briefing

The dust-up over Assange comes a day before a hearing into the Russian hacking allegations by the Senate Armed Services Committee. In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service last week, the committee's Republican chairman, John McCain, urged tougher action against Moscow.

"There are a lot more stringent measures we should take," McCain said. "After all, it was an attack on the United States of America and an attack on the fundamentals of our democracy. If you destroy the elections, then you destroy democracy."

Also on January 5, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is set to brief a closed hearing of Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Obama administration's newly announced sanctions in response to the hacking.

The White House also expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to what Washington calls a campaign of harassment of its diplomats in Russia.

On January 6, Trump is slated to receive a formal briefing on Russia's alleged effort to interfere in the election. Tensions over the meeting emerged between Trump and U.S. officials on January 3, when the president-elect suggested it had been postponed due to deficient evidence of Russian involvement.

"The 'Intelligence' briefing on so-called 'Russian hacking' was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

U.S. officials, however, denied that the briefing had been pushed back, saying it had always been scheduled for January 6.

Ryan, the Republican House speaker, said in his radio interview that the briefing will "hopefully" get Trump "up to speed on what has been happening and what Russia has or has not done. And he'll be better informed on that."

Obama has ordered a full report on the alleged Russian cyber-campaign to be completed by January 20.

CIA Director John Brennan said in a January 3 TV interview that the report "is in its final throes of production."

"The intelligence in there will be exactly what the president asked for, a comprehensive and thorough review about what happened during our recent election and Russian involvement," Brennan told PBS.

He added that the report "will address what Russia was doing, how it was doing it, and how we know that."

With reporting by Politico, CNN, and PBS
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.