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Trump, Mocking Claim That Russia Hacked Election, at Odds with G.O.P.

By DAVID E. SANGER DEC. 10, 2016


Donald J. Trump walked onto the stage at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Friday, Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

 WASHINGTON — An extraordinary breach has emerged between President-elect Donald J. Trump and the national security establishment, with Mr. Trump mocking American intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election on his behalf, and top Republicans vowing investigations into Kremlin activities.

Mr. Trump, in a statement issued by his transition team on Friday evening, expressed complete disbelief in the intelligence agencies’ assessments.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Trump’s team said, adding that the election was over and that it was time to “move on.”

Though Mr. Trump has wasted no time in antagonizing the agencies, he will have to rely on them for the sort of espionage activities and analysis that they spend more than $70 billion a year to perform.

At this point in a transition, a president-elect is usually delving into intelligence he has never before seen and learning about C.I.A. and National Security Agency abilities. But Mr. Trump, who has taken intelligence briefings only sporadically, is questioning not only analytic conclusions, but also their underlying facts.

“To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his a prior assumptions — wow,” said Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the N.S.A. and later the C.I.A. under President George W. Bush.

With the partisan emotions on both sides — Mr. Trump’s supporters see a plot to undermine his presidency, and Hillary Clinton’s supporters see a conspiracy to keep her from the presidency — the result is an environment in which even those basic facts become the basis for dispute.

Mr. Trump’s team lashed out at the agencies after The Washington Post reported that the C.I.A. believed that Russia had intervened to undercut Mrs. Clinton and lift Mr. Trump, and The New York Times reported that Russia had broken into Republican National Committee computer networks just as they had broken into Democratic ones, but had released documents only on the Democrats.

The president-elect finds himself in a bind after strenuously rejecting for months all assertions that Russia was working to help him, though he did at one point invite Russia to find thousands of Mrs. Clinton’s emails.

While there is no evidence that the Russian meddling affected the outcome of the election or the legitimacy of the vote, Mr. Trump and his aides want to shut the door on any such notion, including the idea that President Vladimir V. Putin schemed to put him in office.

Instead, Mr. Trump casts the issue as an unknowable mystery. “It could be Russia,” he recently told Time magazine. “And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

The Republicans who lead the congressional committees overseeing intelligence, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security take the opposite view. They say that Russia was behind the election meddling, but that the scope and intent of the operation need deep investigation, hearings and public reports.

One question they may want to explore is why the intelligence agencies believe that the Republican networks were compromised while the F.B.I., which leads domestic cyberinvestigations, has apparently told Republicans that it has not seen evidence of that breach. Senior officials say the intelligence agencies’ conclusions are not being widely shared, even with law enforcement.

“We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and was considered by Mr. Trump for secretary of Homeland Security, said at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they do, we must respond forcefully, publicly and decisively.”

He has promised hearings, saying the Russian activity was “a call to action,” as has Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the few senators left from the Cold War era, when the Republican Party made opposition to the Soviet Union — and later deep suspicion of Russia — the centerpiece of its foreign policy.

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said there was little doubt that the Russian government was involved in hacking the D.N.C. “All of the intelligence analysts who looked at it came to the conclusion that the tradecraft was very similar to the Russians,” he said.

Even one of Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said on Friday that he had no doubt about Russia’s culpability. His complaint was with the intelligence agencies, which he said had “repeatedly” failed “to anticipate Putin’s hostile actions,” and with the Obama administration’s lack of a punitive response.

Mr. Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the intelligence agencies had “ignored pleas by numerous Intelligence Committee members to take more forceful action against the Kremlin’s aggression.” He added that the Obama administration had “suddenly awoken to the threat.”

Like many Republicans, Mr. Nunes is threading a needle. His statement puts him in opposition to the position taken by Mr. Trump and his incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has traveled to Russia as a private citizen for RT, the state-controlled news operation, and attended a dinner with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Nunes’s contention that Mr. Obama was captivated by a desire to “reset” relations with Russia is also notable, because Mr. Trump has said he is trying to do the same — though he is avoiding that term, which was made popular by Mrs. Clinton in her failed effort as secretary of state in 2009.

A president must sort out how to evaluate the evidence presented to him each day in the Presidential Daily Brief.

Mr. Obama, for example, came to question the C.I.A.’s analytic skills after being briefed not long after the 2010 uprising in Tunisia.

Mr. Obama asked what the chance was that the street protests would spread to Egypt; he was told “less than 20 percent.” Tahrir Square erupted within days.

Intelligence can get politicized, of course, and one of the running debates about the disastrously mistaken assessments of Iraq that Mr. Trump often cites is whether the intelligence itself was tainted or whether the Bush White House read it selectively to support its march to war in 2003.

But what is unfolding in the argument over the Russian hacking is more complex, because tracking the origin of cyberattacks is complicated. It is made all the harder by the fact that the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. do not want to reveal human sources or technical abilities, including American software implants in Russian computer networks.

This much is known: In mid-2015, a hacking group long associated with the F.S.B. — the successor to the old Soviet K.G.B. — got inside the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems. The intelligence gathering appeared to be fairly routine, and it was unsurprising: The Chinese, for instance, penetrated Mr. Obama’s and Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign communications in 2008.

In the spring of 2016, a second group of Russian hackers, long associated with the G.R.U., a military intelligence agency, attacked the D.N.C. again, along with the private email accounts of prominent Washington figures like John D. Podesta, the chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. Those emails were ultimately published — a step the Russians had never taken before in the United States, though the tactic has been used often in former Soviet states and elsewhere in Europe. That moved the issue from espionage to an “information operation” with a political motive.

One person who attended a classified briefing on the intelligence said that the investigators had explained that the malware used in the cyberattack on the D.N.C. matched tools previously used by hackers with proven ties to the Russian government. That sort of “pattern analysis” is common in cyberinvestigations, though it is not conclusive.

But the intelligence agencies had more: They had managed to identify the individuals from the G.R.U. who oversaw the hacking efforts. That may have come from intercepted conversations, spying efforts, or implants in computer systems that allow the tracking of emails and text messages.

In briefings to Mr. Obama and on Capitol Hill, intelligence agencies have said they now believe that what began as an effort to undermine the credibility of American elections morphed over time into a much more targeted effort to harm Mrs. Clinton, whom Mr. Putin has long accused of interfering in Russian parliamentary elections in 2011.

But to hedge their bets before the election, according to the briefings, the Russians also targeted the Republican National Committee, Republican operatives and prominent members of the Republican establishment, like former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

But few of those emails have ever surfaced, save for Mr. Powell’s, which were critical of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign for trying to draw him into a defense of her use of a private computer server.

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer, disputed the report in The Times that the intelligence community had concluded that the R.N.C. had been hacked.

“The RNC was not ‘hacked,’ ” he said on Twitter. “The @nytimes was told and chose to ignore.” On Friday night, before The Times published its report, the committee had refused to comment.

Scott Shane and Eric Lipton contributed reporting.

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