By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK – President-elect Donald Trump dismissed a controversy over Russian hacking during the 2016 U.S. election campaign as a “political witch hunt,” the New York Times reported on Friday before U.S. intelligence agencies were to brief him on the matter.
The midday briefing coincided with deep tension between U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican Trump, who has disparaged their conclusions that Russia staged cyber attacks to interfere in the election by hacking Democratic Party institutions and campaign staff of his opponent Hillary Clinton.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names,” Trump said in a telephone interview with the New York Times, referring to the Office of Personnel Management breach in 2014 and 2015. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
Trump’s questioning of the intelligence agencies’ conclusions have not only drawn the ire of Democrats but also fellow Republicans. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans who took part in a Senate hearing with U.S. spy chiefs on Thursday, have called for further congressional inquiries.
Trump told The New York Times the motivation for the attention on Russian cyber attacks was because the Democratic Party lost the election.
“With all that being said, I don’t want countries to be hacking our country,” the newspaper quoted Trump as saying before the briefing, details of which have not yet been made public. “They’ve hacked the White House. They’ve hacked Congress. We’re like the hacking capital of the world.”
Russia denies the U.S. government’s allegations of hacking during the election campaign.
Trump’s comments appeared to contradict the views expressed by two of his senior aides on Friday morning that he would have an open mind about the issue when he meets top U.S. intelligence officials in Trump Tower in New York.
Trump would question the heads of the top U.S. intelligence agencies about their methods and conclusions, said spokesman Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, who will be a counsellor to Trump when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.
“He’s prepared to listen and understand how they got to the conclusions they did,” Spicer told ABC on Friday, saying Trump has “a healthy skepticism of everything.”
Conway said it was too soon for Trump make a judgment even as he has repeatedly tweeted this week about the hacking issue.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation are expected to attend Trump’s briefing on the hacking issue. An unclassified version of their report is expected to be released as early as later on Friday.
Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told lawmakers on Thursday he was resolute in his conviction that Russia was responsible for the hacking and pushed back against Trump’s criticism.
“There’s a difference between healthy skepticism … and disparagement,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said, however, that he did not believe that Russian hacking had actually changed any vote tallies.
The U.S. agencies, which concluded months ago that Russian intelligence agencies had directed the hacking of the Democrats, said in their final intelligence report that they had identified the Russian officials who fed the hacked material to WikiLeaks through a third party, according to senior U.S. officials.
Democratic President Barack Obama received his briefing on the final report on Thursday, after last week moving to punish Moscow by expelling suspected Russian spies and imposing sanctions.
The Senate Intelligence Committee said it would hold a hearing on Tuesday with the intelligence chiefs.
Trump on Twitter has called himself a “big fan” of intelligence agencies while also casting doubts that Russia targeted former secretary of state Clinton, in order to sway the Nov. 8 election in his favor.
In what could be an effort to discourage government officials from talking to the media about the allegations, Trump on Friday said he would ask congressional panels to investigate NBC’s receipt of top secret information, apparently referring to the report on Russian hacking to influence the election.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters he was confident that no information was leaked by the White House.
Jack Langer, a spokesman for the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had no comment on Trump’s tweet because the congressional panel had not received an official request.
Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, responded to Trump on Twitter, suggesting his request was a sideshow: “Of all issues implicated by Russian active measures, this is what you want to investigate? This is your top priority for intel committees?”