The White House Thursday addressed the joint intelligence report that found Russia had attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, more than five months after the report’s conclusions were made public. First, on Twitter, President Trump dismissed the concerns about Russia as a “big Dem HOAX” and suggested that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, did little to confront the problem. White House aides then clarified Trump’s remarks and said he believes there was Russian meddling but is certain it did not affect the outcome of the race.
Trump had previously suggested that the questions about Russia’s involvement in the election were overblown and “fake news.” As recently as Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer declined to answer a question at the White House briefing about whether Trump believes Russia interfered in the presidential race. Spicer said he and Trump had “not sat down and talked … about that specific thing.” Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, frequently deflect questions about contentious issues by saying they haven’t spoken to the president about them.
The public version of the intelligence community’s election assessment, which was released in January and was compiled by all 17 of America’s intelligence agencies, concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the campaign interference. According to the report, the Russian effort included email hacks on the campaign of Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee. The agencies said information from those hacks was released to hurt the Democrats and boost Trump, but the report specified that it “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
On Thursday, shortly before Sanders was scheduled to hold a briefing, Trump sent out a series of tweets about Russian intervention where he described it as “a big Dem HOAX!” and a “big Dem scam and excuse for losing the election!” Trump pointed to the fact the DNC did not turn over its computer servers to the FBI to look at for evidence. The bureau has said it was able to get the information it needed from computer security firms that analyzed those servers. Trump also alluded to former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee where Johnson said he was not aware of evidence Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.
In the Thursday briefing, Sanders was asked whether Trump’s tweets were meant to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election. She referred to prior statements from Trump and said he was clear it “probably was Russia.”
“I believe that the president said even back in January and I’ll read the statement from then, that he thinks it’s a disgrace, thinks its an absolute disgrace. ‘As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,’” Sanders said. “I think he’s made it clear and been consistent that, while everyone agrees the result of the election wasn’t influenced, he thinks that it probably was Russia.”
The intelligence community report did not include any assessment of whether Russian hacking actually influenced the election result.
Sanders went on to say Trump is very concerned about protecting “the integrity of the electoral system” and pointed to his support for voter identification laws and a commission on “voter integrity.”
Yahoo News asked Sanders if in dismissing the hacking issue as a “big Dem HOAX!” Trump was implying that members of the intelligence community who compiled the report had colluded with the Democrats. Sanders clarified that Trump was not referring to the “hack itself” as a hoax, and that his tweets were directed at insinuations that the Russian intervention called his election victory into question.
“I think that the reference in the hoax is about the fact that they’re trying to delegitimize his win in the election process and less about the hack itself. I think he’s said several times now that he believes that Russia was part of it,” Sanders said. “Some of those same members have said that they don’t think it influenced the election, and I think that’s what a lot of this process is about. It’s about trying to make excuses for why Democrats lost and the president … has been pretty clear on where he stands with that.”