January 8, 2017 7:41 am
Updated: January 8, 2017 12:25 pm

Donald Trump defends Russia outreach after US intel criticism

WATCH: Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain urge President-elect Donald Trump to punish Russia for hackings.

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NEW YORK – U.S. intelligence officials are convinced that Russia meddled in the presidential race. But that hasn’t changed President-elect Donald Trump’s call for warmer relations with Moscow.

Trump declared in a series of tweets on Saturday that “only ‘stupid’ people or fools” would come to a different conclusion.

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“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he stated from Trump Tower, adding: “We have enough problems without yet another one.”

American intelligence officials on Friday briefed the president-elect on their conclusions that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election in order to help him win the White House. An unclassified version of the report explicitly tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to election meddling and said that Moscow had a “clear preference” for Trump in his race against Hillary Clinton.

Trump has repeatedly sought to downplay the allegations, alarming some who see a pattern of skepticism directed at U.S. intelligence agencies and a willingness to embrace Putin.

There has been no official comment from Moscow on the report, which was released as Russia observed Orthodox Christmas.

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But Alexei Pushkov, an influential member of the upper house of parliament, said on Twitter that “all the accusations against Russia are based on ‘confidence’ and suppositions. The USA in the same way was confident about (Iraqi leader Saddam) Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.”

Margarita Simonyan, the editor of government-funded satellite TV channel RT who is frequently mentioned in the U.S. report, said in a blog post: “Dear CIA: what you have written here is a complete fail.”

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During the election, Trump praised the Russian strongman as a decisive leader, and argued that the two countries would benefit from a better working relationship — though attempts by the Obama administration at a “Russian reset” have proved unsuccessful.

At the same time, intelligence officials believe that Russia isn’t done intruding in U.S. politics and policymaking.

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Immediately after the Nov. 8 election, Russia began a “spear-phishing” campaign to try to trick people into revealing their email passwords, targeting U.S. government employees and think tanks that specialize in national security, defence and foreign policy, the unclassified version of the report said.

The report said Russian government provided hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The website’s founder, Julian Assange, has denied that it got the emails it released from the Russian government. The report noted that the emails could have been passed through middlemen.

Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid “trolls” to make nasty comments on social media services, the report said. Moreover, intelligence officials believe that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its activities in the election to put its thumbprint on future elections in the United States and allied nations.

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The public report was minus classified details that intelligence officials shared with President Barack Obama on Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press after the briefing, Trump said he “learned a lot” from his discussions with intelligence officials, but he declined to say whether he accepted their assertion that Russia had intruded in the election on his behalf.

Trump released a one-page statement that did not address whether Russia sought to meddle. Instead, he said, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” and that there “was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”

Intelligence officials have never made that claim. And the report stated that the Department of Homeland Security did not think that the systems that were targeted or compromised by Russian actors were “involved in vote tallying.”

Trump has said he will appoint a team within three months of taking office to develop a plan to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”

On Saturday, he said he wanted retired Sen. Dan Coats to be national intelligence director, describing the former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee as the right person to lead the new administration’s “ceaseless vigilance against those who seek to do us harm.”

Coats, in a statement released by Trump’s transition team, said: “There is no higher priority than keeping America safe, and I will utilize every tool at my disposal to make that happen.”

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Jim Heintz contributed to this report from Moscow.

© 2017 The Associated Press

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