Representatives of President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday adopted the same line as the Kremlin with regard to U.S. intelligence agencies’ claim that Russia interfered in the recent presidential election: The assessment of senior U.S. intelligence officials shouldn’t be believed unless they present direct evidence.
With U.S. intelligence agencies all in agreement that the Russian government sponsored the computer hacking of Democratic Party institutions and officials during the 2016 election as part of an effort to help Trump, the Kremlin has offered a blanket denial.
In a conversation with reporters on Friday, Dmitry Peskov, the chief spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, put it this way: “They should either stop talking about that or produce some proof at last. Otherwise, it all begins to look unseemly."
The Trump transition team apparently found that a pretty compelling argument because when they were dispatched to the Sunday talk shows over the weekend, they essentially sang the same tune.
“Where’s the evidence?” demanded Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager, in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Why, when CIA officials were invited to a House Intelligence briefing last week did they refuse to go? Instead, they’re talking to the media. That undermines our national security and our intelligence operations.”
Conway was referring to an agency-wide memo from Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan that was provided to The Washington Post on Friday. In it he wrote, “Earlier this week, I met separately with FBI [Director] James Comey and DNI Jim Clapper, and there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”
In general, intelligence agencies of any stripe are reluctant to reveal the evidence they use to draw their conclusions. Their assessments don’t have to be tested in a court of law, so publicizing specific information they have obtained is generally seen as creating an unnecessary risk of revealing their sources and intelligence gathering methods.
President Obama on Friday said that he has demanded a comprehensive report from the Intelligence Community on the Russian hacking and promised that he would make as much information public as practicable.
But that hasn’t satisfied the Trump transition team, which is increasingly given to suggesting the reports of the Kremlin’s interference in the election are simply an effort to delegitimize the President-elect’s victory.
“If the CIA and if director Brennan and others at the top are serious about turning over evidence to we the American people then they should do that,” Conway said.
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, took a similar tone.
“If there is this conclusive opinion among all of these intelligence agencies, then they should issue a report or they should stand in front of a camera and make the case," he said. “I think that these guys should be straight with the American people and come out and say it," said Priebus.
Priebus repeatedly insisted that the reports about Russian involvement were all coming from anonymous “third parties” and suggested that until Comey and Clapper themselves say so in public, nobody can be sure that they believe it.
Host Chris Wallace pointed out that the latest news came from the CIA director himself directly reporting his conversations with other senior intelligence officials.
“Do you think he’s lying?” Wallace asked.
“I don’t think he is,” Priebus answered, in a tone that suggested he was still open to the possibility. “But it sure would be nice to hear from everybody.” He went on to say that the CIA director’s word alone was not enough to give him confidence that he was getting the true assessment of the intelligence community.
To be fair to Team Trump, the conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community have not always been correct. The conclusion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which led directly to the Iraq war, is the most obvious example. They have also not always been above politics -- the FBI’s COINTELPRO program in the 1960s and 70s was very active in disrupting domestic political movements.
For two of Trump’s most senior advisers to openly suggest that the Intelligence Community could be working to mislead the American people is pretty remarkable. But at this point, it is clear that Conway and Priebus are just representing the perspective of their boss. Trump himself has repeatedly said that he doesn’t believe the findings of the intelligence community and has said that he believes the findings are politically motivated.
But the increasingly open war between the intelligence community and the incoming president is, at the very least, completely unprecedented and, in the view of many, dangerous.
In an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “For the president-elect to continue to give the Russians deniability is deeply damaging to the country. He is doing damage to himself and to his ability to lead the country when he becomes president. We are going to have a national security crisis at some point. It may be very early in the administration or it may be later but it's going to come and he is going to need to rely on the intelligence community.”
Schiff went on to specify that he was referring to the likelihood that, in a crisis, Trump would find himself explaining what he viewed as a necessary response by informing the American people of the findings of the Intelligence Community. That will be hard to do, he said, if Trump continues to characterize its members as political hacks.