Russia carried out a comprehensive cybercampaign to upend the U.S. presidential election, an operation that was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and “aspired to help” elect Donald Trump by discrediting his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a report released Friday.
The report depicts Russian interference as unprecedented in scale, saying that Moscow’s assault represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort” beyond previous election-related espionage.
The campaign was ordered by Putin himself and initially sought primarily to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, “denigrate Secretary Clinton” and harm her electoral prospects. But as the campaign proceeded, Russia “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and repeatedly sought to elevate him by “discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
The document represents an extraordinarily direct and detailed account of a long-standing U.S. adversary’s multi-pronged intervention in a fundamental pillar of American democracy.
Trump emerged from a briefing on the report by the nation’s top intelligence officials Friday seeming to acknowledge for the first time at least the possibility that Russia was behind election-related hacks. But he offered no indication that he was prepared to accept U.S. spy agencies’ conclusion that Moscow sought to help him win.
Instead, Trump said in a statement issued just minutes after the high-level meeting ended that whatever hacking had occurred, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Trump’s statement seemed designed to create the impression that this was the view of the intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and CIA Director John Brennan, who had met with him.
But weighing whether Russia’s intervention altered the outcome of the 2016 race was beyond the scope of the review that the nation’s spy agencies completed this week. And Clapper testified in a Senate hearing Thursday that U.S. intelligence services “have no way of gauging the impact . . . it had on the choices the electorate made. There’s no way for us to gauge that.”
Trump’s statement came after his first face-to-face encounter with the leaders of intelligence agencies whose work he has repeatedly disparaged. Others who took part in the meeting included FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers.
All four of the spy chiefs have endorsed a classified report that was briefed to Trump and circulated in Washington this week that concludes that Russia used a combination of aggressive hacking, propaganda and “fake news” to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
Trump appeared to acknowledge that hacking of Democratic and Republican computer networks had occurred, but was apparently not prepared to accept the consensus view of U.S. spy services that Russia sought to help him win.
“I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the intelligence community,” Trump said. He acknowledged that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber-infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee.”
The session was seen as an early indicator of whether Trump could reach some sort of accord with U.S. intelligence agencies or is determined to extend his increasingly bitter feud with America’s spies and analysts into his first term.
In an interview with the New York Times before Friday’s briefing, Trump said the focus on Russian hacking “is a political witch hunt.”
In Thursday’s testimony, Clapper appeared to take aim at Trump and the stream of social-media insults he has targeted at the intelligence community over the Russia issue.
“There is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers, to include policymaker number one, should always have for intelligence,” Clapper said. “But I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”
The meeting, which was requested by Trump, comes on the heels of a series of revelations about Russia’s role and motivations in last year’s campaign.
The Post reported in December that the CIA and other agencies had concluded that Russia sought not only to disrupt the election and sow doubt about the legitimacy of American democratic institutions but also to help Trump win.
U.S. intelligence agencies based that determination on an array of interlocking intelligence pieces, including the identification of known “actors” with ties to Russian intelligence services who helped deliver troves of stolen Democratic email files to the WikiLeaks website.
U.S. spy agencies also monitored communications in Moscow after the election that showed that senior officials in the Russian government, including those believed to have had knowledge of the hacking campaign, celebrated Trump’s win and congratulated one another on the outcome.
Trump has rejected intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusions about Russia, saying it could just as easily have been China or “some guy” in New Jersey.
Trump has seemed to court conflict with U.S. intelligence agencies on several fronts. During his campaign, he vowed to order the CIA to return to the use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation measures widely condemned as torture. Since his surprise victory, Trump has skipped the majority of the daily intelligence briefings made available to him, saying that he has no need for sessions that he finds repetitive.
But the president-elect softened his message on Thursday, saying on Twitter that he is a “big fan” of intelligence, although, as has been his practice, he set off the word “intelligence” in quotes.
Trump’s designated national security adviser, retired lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn, has often participated in the president-elect’s intelligence briefings. If he attends on Friday, it could add to the tension and drama: Flynn was fired by Clapper in 2014 as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.