The intelligence community’s focus on Russia as the source of cyberattacks on Democrats during the presidential campaign is “a political witch hunt,” President-elect Donald Trump told The New York Times on Friday.
Trump’s interview came hours before he was due to be briefed by US spy chief James Clapper on the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s role in the hacks, which targeted the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names,” Trump told the Times, referring to the breach of computers at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in late 2014 and early 2015. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
The interview marks the latest in a series of attempts by the president-elect to downplay the intelligence community’s findings that Russia orchestrated the hacks with the intention of influencing the outcome of the presidential election.
Trump has promoted the idea that the hacks could have been carried out by a “14-year-old” or “a guy sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.” He has also floated the idea that the CIA’s conclusions could be wrong, based on past faulty intelligence assessments involving the Iraq War.
“These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction,” Trump said in a statement last month. He made that point again to the Times, saying that the “weapons of mass destruction was one of the great mistakes of all time.”
Trump denied on Friday that he has a strained relationship with the intelligence community, saying that he expects “to have a very, very good relationship” with intel officials.
But on Tuesday, Trump tweeted that it was “very strange” that “the ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday.”
“Perhaps more time needed to build a case,” Trump said, though intelligence officials countered that the meeting had always been scheduled for Friday.
On Wednesday, Trump again cast doubt on the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind the hacks. He cited a Fox News interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who said Russia did not feed the stolen documents to the self-described transparency organization.
“Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless?” Trump tweeted. “Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
On Thursday, three intelligence officials told Reuters — citing a final CIA report on the hacks that will be released in a public version on Friday — that the agencies had identified Russian officials who fed the documents to WikiLeaks through third parties at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s instruction.
In any case, Trump told the Times that he thinks the focus on the Russian hacks stems from his opponents’ embarrassment at having lost the election.
“They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” Trump said said. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”
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