WASHINGTON ― In a dispute between Russian intelligence services and the U.S. intelligence community, the next president of the United States appears to be coming down squarely on the side of the Russians.
In a series of five tweets over 12 hours late Tuesday and early Wednesday, Donald Trump continued his attacks on the U.S. analysis that the Russians helped him win the White House ― this time quoting the founder of the Russian-aligned Wikileaks group that worked to undermine Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by publishing a series of stolen emails.
“Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ - why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!” Trump tweeted at 7:22 a.m. Wednesday, referring to emails stolen from the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer tried to downplay the significance of his boss quoting Assange as a credible source. “He’s just stating what Assange has stated publicly,” Spicer said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters.
But Trump did not merely note what Assange said, but actively suggested that Assange should be believed. In a tweet a half-hour later, Trump described media coverage about the issue as “more dishonest than anyone knows.”
And Tuesday night, Trump wrote: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” ― thereby casting aspersions on the U.S. intelligence agencies that have been investigating Russia’s actions for months.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, asked Wednesday if he could explain what Trump meant, allowed that he could not. “I can’t. And fortunately, that’s not my job,” he said.
Earnest and other officials denied there was any change to a scheduled Friday briefing to Trump and his aides from the CIA, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence.
“In addition to directing them to compile the report, the president directed the intelligence community to both brief the contents of the report to relevant members of Congress on Capitol Hill and to the president-elect and his team, to make sure that they understood exactly how serious this is,” Earnest said.
“I think the real question that looms is a question that’s been raised by some of the public comments or tweets from the president-elect, which is just simply: Who are you going to believe?” Earnest said. “On one hand you’ve got the Russians, and the aforementioned Mr. Assange. On the other side, you’ve got the 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government, outside cyber experts that have taken a look at the situation, you’ve got Democrats on Capitol Hill, you’ve got Republicans on Capitol Hill, and at least one adviser to Mr. Trump expressing concern about Russia’s malicious activity in cyberspace in the context of the election.”
One former National Security Agency analyst said the consensus view among U.S. intelligence holds there is no real difference between Assange and the Russians ― pointing out Assange’s role in finding NSA leaker Edward Snowden sanctuary in Moscow. “The only real debate is when the relationship began,” said John Schindler, who added that by 2013, Wikileaks essentially had become a mouthpiece for Russian intelligence. “This is not complicated.”
On that point, Earnest pointed out that the Oct. 7 report by the Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s election-related hacking specifically implicated Wikileaks.
“So there’s a pretty stark line that’s been drawn and the president-elect will have to determine who he’s going to believe,” Earnest said. “And the decision that he makes about that I think will have long-term consequences for the way he chooses to govern the country.”
On New Year’s Eve, Trump said he would reveal on Tuesday or Wednesday information he has about the hacking “that other people don’t know.” It’s unclear when or even whether Trump will now do this, although on Tuesday he tweeted that he plans to hold a news conference on Jan. 11.