The United States Intelligence Community has officially concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 United States elections. An intelligence community assessment stated, "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments."
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), representing 17 intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and leaked its documents to WikiLeaks. In early January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a Senate committee that Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign went beyond hacking, and included disinformation such as the dissemination of fake news often promoted on social media. Six federal agencies have also been investigating possible links and financial ties between the Kremlin and Trump's associates, including his advisers Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Putin "personally directed" the operation. Several cybersecurity firms stated that the cyberattacks were committed by Russian intelligence groups Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. In October 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama used the red phone line to directly contact Putin and issue a warning to him regarding the cyber attacks. Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks.
Obama ordered a report on foreign interventions in the 2016 elections. U.S. Senators called for a bipartisan investigation. President-elect Donald Trump initially rejected the report, saying that Democrats were reacting to their election loss, and attacked the intelligence agencies in a transition team statement. Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence and supported a bipartisan investigation, which was started by the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 24, 2017. On December 29, 2016, the U.S. expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russia-owned compounds, and broadened existing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals. On March 20, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified to the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI has been conducting a counter-intelligence investigation about Russian interference since July 2016, including possible coordination between associates of Trump and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly accused Hillary Clinton, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, and Clinton accused Putin of having a personal grudge against her. Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia, said that "[Putin] was very upset [with Clinton] and continued to be for the rest of the time that I was in government. One could speculate that this is his moment for payback." NBC News reported: "Several former Obama administration officials said that when Clinton was secretary of state, she was by far the most aggressive and outspoken U.S. official when it came to countering Putin's efforts to consolidate his power domestically, and to expand his sphere of influence in the region and beyond. And when she left government, they say, Clinton became even more combative".
According to Russian security expert and investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, one of the reasons Russia might try to sway the U.S. presidential election is perceived antipathy between Clinton and the Russian government. Soldatov stated that according to Russia, the U.S. is "trying to interfere in our internal affairs so why not try to do the same thing to them?"
In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) first stated that the Russian hacker groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear had penetrated their campaign servers and leaked information via the Guccifer 2.0 online persona.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released approximately 20,000 emails sent from or received by DNC personnel. A few days later, at a televised news conference, Trump invited Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's deleted emails from her private server during her tenure in the State Department, saying "Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing". He also tweeted: "If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!" Trump's comment was condemned by the press and political figures, including some Republicans; he replied that he had been speaking sarcastically. Several Democratic Senators said Trump's comments appeared to violate the Logan Act, and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe added that Trump's call "might even constitute treason".
On October 7, 2016, WikiLeaks started releasing series of emails and documents sent from or received by Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. Podesta later blamed Russia for hacking into his email and claimed the leaks had "distorted" election results.
The International Business Times reported that the United States Department of State planned to use a unit formed with the intention of combating disinformation from the Russian government, and that it was disbanded in September 2015 after department heads missed the scope of propaganda before the 2016 U.S. election. The unit had been in development for 8 months prior to being scrapped. Titled the Counter-Disinformation Team, it would have been a reboot of the Active Measures Working Group set up by the Reagan Administration. It was created under the Bureau of International Information Programs. Work began in 2014, with the intention of countering propaganda from Russian sources such as TV network RT (formerly called Russia Today). A beta website was ready, and staff were hired by the U.S. State Department for the unit prior to its cancellation. U.S. Intelligence officials explained to former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler that the Obama Administration decided to cancel the unit, as they were afraid of antagonizing Russia. A State Department representative told the International Business Times after being contacted regarding the closure of the unit, that the U.S. was disturbed by propaganda from Russia, and the strongest defense was sincere communication. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel was the point person for the unit before it was canceled. Stengel had written in 2014 that RT was engaged in a disinformation campaign about Ukraine.
Andrew Weisburd and Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, Clint Watts, wrote for The Daily Beast in August 2016 that Russian propaganda fabricated articles were popularized by social media. They wrote that disinformation spread from government-controlled outlets, RT and Sputnik to pro-Russian accounts on Twitter. Citing research by Adrian Chen, they compared Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. election to Soviet Union Cold War strategies. They referenced the 1992 United States Information Agency report to the U.S. Congress, which warned about Russian propaganda called active measures. They wrote active measures were made easier with social media. Institute of International Relations Prague senior fellow and scholar on Russian intelligence, Mark Galeotti, agreed the Kremlin operations were a form of active measures. The Guardian wrote in November 2016 the most strident Internet promoters of Trump were paid Russian propagandists, estimating several thousand trolls involved.
In a followup article, together with colleague J. M. Berger, Weisburd and Watts said they had monitored 7,000 pro-Trump social media accounts over a two-and-a-half year period, and found that such accounts denigrated critics of Russian activities in Syria and propagated falsehoods about Clinton's health. Watts said the propaganda targeted the alt-right movement, the right wing, and fascist groups.
On November 24, 2016, The Washington Post echoed Watts' findings that Russian propaganda exacerbated criticism of Clinton and support for Trump, via social media, Internet trolls, botnets, and websites denigrating Clinton. Watts stated that Russia's goal was to "erode faith in the U.S. government". The Post cited similarity with online propaganda methods previously researched by the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the RAND Corporation.
In June and July 2016, cybersecurity experts and firms, including CrowdStrike, Fidelis, Mandiant, SecureWorks and ThreatConnect, stated the DNC email leaks were part of a series of cyberattacks on the DNC committed by two Russian intelligence groups, called Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, also known respectively as APT28 and APT29. ThreatConnect also noted possible links between the DC Leaks project and Russian intelligence operations because of a similarity with Fancy Bear attack patterns.
In December 2016, Ars Technica IT editor Sean Gallagher reviewed the publicly available evidence, and wrote that attribution of the DNC hacks to Russian intelligence was based on clues from attack methods and similarity to other cases, as the hacking was tracked in real time since May 2016 by CrowdStrike's monitoring tools. SecureWorks stated that the actor group was operating from Russia on behalf of the Russian government with "moderate" confidence level, defined as "credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence".
At the Aspen security conference in summer 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Vladimir Putin wanted to retaliate against perceived U.S. intervention in Russian affairs with the 2011–13 Russian protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in the 2014 Ukraine crisis. In July 2016, consensus grew within the CIA that Russia had hacked the DNC.
In a joint statement on October 7, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed confidence that Russia had interfered in the presidential election by stealing emails from politicians and U.S. groups and publicizing the information. On December 2, intelligence sources told CNN they had gained confidence that Russia's efforts were aimed at helping Trump win the election.
On December 9, the CIA told U.S. legislators the U.S. Intelligence Community had concluded, in a consensus view, that Russia conducted operations to assist Donald Trump in winning the presidency, stating that "individuals with connections to the Russian government", previously known to the intelligence community, had given WikiLeaks hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta. The agencies further stated that Russia had hacked the RNC as well, but did not leak information obtained from there. These assessments were based on evidence obtained before the election. According to an unnamed official, the intelligence community did not believe that Moscow’s efforts altered the outcome of the election.
On December 15, 2016, two senior intelligence officials told NBC News they were highly confident that Vladimir Putin personally directed the operation, citing new evidence obtained after the election from "diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies". They said Putin's motives started as a "vendetta" against Hillary Clinton, and grew into a desire to foment global distrust of the U.S. Officials made similar statements to CBS, ABC News and Reuters. According to those statements, the operation began with a low-level effort to penetrate Democratic and Republican computer systems, Putin became personally involved after Russia accessed the DNC, and such an operation "had to be approved by top levels of the Russian government". U.S. officials said that under Putin's direction, the goals evolved from criticizing American democracy to attacking Clinton, and by the fall of 2016 to directly help Trump's campaign, because "Putin believed he would be much friendlier to Russia, especially on the matter of economic sanctions". White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Obama foreign policy advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes agreed with this assessment, saying operations of this magnitude required Putin's consent.
In June 2016, the FBI notified the Illinois Republican Party that some of its email accounts may have been hacked. In December 2016, an FBI official stated that Russian attempts to access the RNC server were unsuccessful. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, RNC chair Reince Priebus stated they communicated with the FBI when they learned about the DNC hacks, and a review determined their servers were secure. On January 10, 2017, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI "did not develop any evidence that the Trump campaign or the current RNC was successfully hacked." He added that Russia succeeded in "collecting some information from Republican-affiliated targets but did not leak it to the public".
On October 31, 2016, The New York Times stated that the FBI had been examining possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did not find any clear links. At the time, FBI officials thought Russia was motivated to undermine confidence in the U.S. political process rather than specifically support Trump.
During a House Intelligence Committee hearing in early December, the CIA said it was certain of Russia's intent to help Trump, but the FBI said "it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals". On December 16, 2016, CIA Director John O. Brennan sent a message to his staff saying he had spoken with FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and that all agreed with the CIA's conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the motive of supporting Donald Trump's candidacy.
On March 20, 2017, FBI director James Comey confirmed to Congress, during a public testimony, the existence of an FBI investigation into Russian interference and Russian links to the Trump campaign, including the question of whether there had been any coordination between the campaign and the Russians. He said the investigation began in July 2016 and was "still in its early stages". Comey made the unusual decision to reveal the ongoing investigation to Congress, citing benefit to the public good.
On December 29, 2016 the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an unclassified Joint Analysis Report titled "GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity". It gave new technical details regarding methods used by Russian intelligence services for affecting the U.S. election, government, political organizations and private sector.
The report included malware samples and other technical details as evidence that the Russian government had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Alongside the report, DHS "released an extensive list of Internet Protocol addresses, computer files, malware code and other 'signatures' that it said the Russian hackers have used." An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung discussed the difficulty of proof in matters of cybersecurity. Persons quoted in the article told the paper that the unclassified evidence provided by the Joint Analysis Report did not provide proof of Russian culpability. One analyst told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that U.S. intelligence services could be keeping some information secret to protect their sources and analysis methods.
Former hacker Kevin Poulsen, writing for The Daily Beast, stated that while there is solid evidence of Russia's interference, the incompleteness of the report encouraged "Trump-friendly conspiracy theorists". According to The Daily Beast, the report "was widely criticized by cybersecurity experts for being little more than a hodge-podge of random Internet Protocol addresses and code names for hacker gangs suspected of having ties to Moscow."
On January 6, 2017, after briefing the president, the president-elect, and members of the Senate and House, U.S. intelligence agencies released a de-classified version of the report on Russian activities. The report asserted that Russia had carried out a massive cyber operation on orders by Russian President Putin with the goal to sabotage the 2016 U.S. elections. The agencies concluded that Putin and the Russian government tried to help Trump win the election by discrediting Hillary Clinton and portraying her negatively relative to Trump, and that Russia had conducted a multipronged cyber campaign consisting of hacking and the extensive use of social media and trolls, as well as open propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms. A large part of the report was dedicated to criticizing Russian TV channel RT America, which it described as a "messaging tool" for the Kremlin.
On March 5, 2017, James Clapper said, in an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that, regarding the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, "We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, 'our,' that's N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that included in our report. … Whether there is more evidence that's become available since then, whether ongoing investigations will be revelatory, I don't know," adding "It is to everyone's interest to get to the bottom of this."
On January 18, 2017, McClatchy reported that an investigation into "how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win" had been conducted over several months by six federal agencies: the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Justice Department, the FCEN and representatives of the DNI. The New York Times confirmed this investigation into Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone on January 19, 2017; the eve of the presidential inauguration.
On March 1, 2017, the New York Times reported that, in the last days of the Obama administration, "there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the [American] government..." The information was filed in many locations within federal agencies as a precaution against future concealment or destruction of evidence in the event of any investigation.
Members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee traveled to Ukraine and Poland in 2016 and learned about supposed Russian operations to influence their elections. U.S. Senator Angus King said tactics used by Russia during the 2016 U.S. election were analogous to those used against other countries. King said the problem frustrated both political parties. On November 30, 2016, seven members of the committee asked President Obama to declassify and publicize more information on Russia's role in the U.S. election. Representatives in the U.S. Congress took action to monitor the national security of the United States by advancing legislation to monitor propaganda. On November 30, 2016, legislators approved a measure within the National Defense Authorization Act to ask the U.S. State Department to act against propaganda with an inter-agency panel. The initiative was developed through a bipartisan bill, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, written by U.S. Senators Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Chris Murphy. Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden said frustration over covert Russian propaganda was bipartisan.
Republican U.S. Senators stated they planned to hold hearings and investigate alleged Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. elections. By doing so they went against the preference of incoming Republican President-elect Trump, who downplayed Russian interference. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr planned investigations of Russian cyberwarfare. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker planned a 2017 investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham indicated he would conduct an investigation during the 115th Congress. On December 11, 2016, top-ranking bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate issued a joint statement responding to the intelligence assessments Russia influenced the election. The two Republican signers were Senators Graham and McCain, both members of the Armed Services Committee; the two Democratic signers were incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. They said Russian interference was deeply troubling and a bipartisan concern.
In a response to Trump's disregard for the U.S. intelligence assessments on Russia, McCain said: "The facts are there", and called for a special select committee of the U.S. Senate to investigate Russian meddling in the election. Republican Senator and Intelligence Committee member James Lankford agreed that investigation into Russian influence on the elections should be cooperative between parties. According to McCain, Russia's meddling in the election was an "act of war." Republican Senator Susan Collins said a bipartisan investigation should improve proactive cyber defense. Outgoing Senate Democratic Caucus leader Harry Reid said the FBI covered up information about Russian interference in a bid to swing the election for Trump. Reid accused FBI Director James Comey of partisanship, and called for his resignation.
On December 12, 2016, Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell disagreed with Trump and expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence. McConnell added that investigation of Russia's actions "cannot be a partisan issue" and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was "more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter". The next day, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) announced the scope of the committee's official inquiry. Senators McCain, Graham, Schumer, and Reed issued a joint bipartisan statement on December 18, urging McConnell to create a select committee tasked with undertaking a "comprehensive investigation of Russian interference" and developing "comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge."
In a December 14, 2016 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Graham said Russians hacked into his Senate campaign email, adding that the FBI contacted his campaign in August 2016 to notify them of the breach in security which occurred in June to his campaign vendor. On December 15, Graham stated that in order for Trump's nominee for United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to earn his confirmation vote, Tillerson would need to acknowledge his belief Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. On December 16, Burr denied that the CIA was acting on political motives and stated that intelligence employees "come from all walks of life and hold views across the political spectrum". The committee issued a release emphasizing they earnestly took into consideration the fact that both the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were in agreement a bipartisan investigation should take place.
The Senate Intelligence Committee began work on its bipartisan inquiry on January 24, 2017.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, commented on Putin's aims, and said U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned with Russian propaganda. Speaking about disinformation that appeared in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, Schiff said there was an increase of the same behavior in the U.S. Schiff concluded Russian propaganda operations would continue against the U.S. after the election. He put forth a recommendation for a combined House and Senate investigation similar to the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.
Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said external interference in U.S. elections was intolerable. Ryan said an investigation should be conducted by U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman Representative Devin Nunes, and stated interference from Russia was troubling due to Putin's activities against the U.S. On December 12, 2016, Nunes emphasized that at the time he had only viewed circumstantial evidence Russia intended to assist Trump win. On December 14, Nunes requested a formal briefing tp gain more information about assertions officials had revealed to the media; the DNI refused, citing the ongoing review ordered by President Obama.
In January 2017, both the House and Senate intelligence committees launched investigations on the Russian meddling into the presidential election, including possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. In February, General Michael T. Flynn, Trump's pick for National Security Adviser, resigned after it had been discovered that he had been in touch with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, discussing the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.
On February 24, 2017, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Russia meddled with the U.S. election and was in contact with Trump's team during the presidential campaign, saying that it would be improper for Trump's appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to lead the investigation. On February 27, 2017, Nunes said "As of right now, I don’t have any evidence of any phone calls. It doesn't mean they don't exist ... What I've been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there."
On March 19, 2017, Schiff told Meet the Press that, despite denials from intelligence officials, there was "circumstantial evidence of collusion" between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as "direct evidence of deception." He added that "there is certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation." On March 22, 2017, Schiff stated that he had seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin.
U.S. President Obama and Vladimir Putin had a discussion about computer security issues in September 2016, which took place over the course of an hour and a half. During the discussion, which took place as a side segment during the then-ongoing G20 summit in China, Obama made his views known on cyber security matters between the U.S. and Russia. Obama said Russian hacking stopped after his warning to Putin. One month after that discussion the email leaks from the DNC cyber attack had not ceased, and President Obama decided to contact Putin via the Moscow–Washington hotline, commonly known as the "red phone", on October 31, 2016. Obama emphasized the gravity of the situation by telling Putin: "International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace. We will hold Russia to those standards."
On December 9, 2016, Obama ordered the U.S. Intelligence Community to investigate Russian interference in the election and report before he left office on January 20, 2017. U.S. Homeland Security Advisor and chief counterterrorism advisor to the president Lisa Monaco announced the study, and said foreign intrusion into a U.S. election was unprecedented and would necessitate investigation by subsequent administrations. The intelligence analysis would cover malicious cyberwarfare occurring between the 2008 and 2016 elections. CNN reported that an unnamed senior administration official told them that the White House was confident Russia interfered in the election. The official said the order by President Obama would be a lessons learned report, with options including sanctions and covert cyber response against Russia.
On December 12, 2016, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was critical of Trump's rejection of the idea that Russia used cyberattacks to influence the election. Earnest contrasted Trump's comments on Twitter with the October 2016 conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community. At a subsequent White House press conference on December 15, Earnest said Trump and the public were aware prior to the 2016 election of Russian interference efforts, calling these undisputed facts. United States Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on December 15, 2016, about President Obama's decision to approve the October 2016 joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Kerry stated the president's decision was deliberative and relied upon information cautiously weighed by the intelligence agencies. He said the president felt a need to warn the U.S. public and did.
Obama was interviewed about the Russian covert operation on December 15, 2016 in an interview with National Public Radio journalist Steve Inskeep for the next day's Morning Edition program. Obama said the U.S. government would respond via overt and covert methods. The president said the government would be better able to speak to motive behind the Russian operation after the intelligence report he ordered was completed. Obama emphasized Russian efforts caused more harm to Clinton than to Trump during the campaign. At a press conference the following day, President Obama highlighted his September 2016 admonition to Putin to cease engaging in cyberwarfare against the U.S. Obama explained that the U.S. did not publicly reciprocate against Russia's actions due to a fear such choices would appear partisan. He said the U.S. would respond in order to send an unambiguous symbol to the world that there were harsh consequences for such interference. President Obama minimized conflict between his administration and the Trump transition, stressing cyber warfare against the U.S. should be a bipartisan issue.
On December 29, 2016, the U.S. government announced a series of punitive measures against Russia that were said to be "the biggest retaliatory move against Russian espionage since the Cold War" and "the strongest American response yet to a state-sponsored cyberattack". Namely, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on four top officials of the GRU and declared persona non grata 35 Russian diplomats suspected of spying:[Note 1] they were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. Further sanctions against Russia were announced, both overt and covert. A White House statement said that "Russia's cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government." President Obama said "these actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm US interests in violation of established international norms of behavior."
On December 30, two waterfront compounds used by families of Russian embassy personnel were shut down on orders of the U.S. government, citing spying activities: one in Upper Brookville, New York, on Long Island, and the other in Centreville, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. They had served as luxury retreats for various Russian diplomats over several decades.
On December 30, 2016, commenting on his eventual decision to refrain from retaliatory measures, Russia′s president Vladimir Putin released a published statement that his government, while reserving its legitimate right to respond adequately to "the new unfriendly actions by the outgoing U.S. administration" undertaken to "further undermine U.S.–Russia relations", would not "stoop to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen' diplomacy"; he also invited all the children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to New Year's and Christmas celebrations at the Kremlin. The statement went on to say that Russia would take "further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations depending on the policy that the administration of President D. Trump conducts".
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The Trump administration asked but was unsuccessful in getting help from the FBI in countering news reports about alleged contacts with Russia. Later, a communications aide contacted Senator Richard Burr and Representative Devin Nunes, who chair the Senate and House intelligence committees. Burr said he preferred to not answer questions, adding to the Associated Press that he had done nothing to jeopardize his investigation. Nunes spoke with The Wall Street Journal. Both officials were asked to push back press reports.
The Russian government repeatedly denied any involvement in the U.S. presidential election. Already in June 2016, in a statement to Reuters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov "completely ruled out" any connection of Russian government bodies to the DNC hacks that had been blamed on Russia. When a new intelligence report surfaced in December 2016, Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, rejected the accusations again, calling them "silly". When ABC News wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the covert operation, Peskov called this report "amusing rubbish that has no basis in fact". On December 16, 2016, Peskov called on the U.S. government to cease discussion of the topic unless they provide evidence to back up their assertions. According to The New Yorker, while "Russian officials on all levels have denied the hacking allegations," a pro-Kremlin MP justified them as a possible counterpunch to U.S. "meddling" in foreign elections via color revolutions.
At the Valdai forum in October 2016, Vladimir Putin denounced American "hysteria" over accusations of Russian interference. During his December 23 press conference, Putin deflected questions on the issue by accusing the U.S. Democratic Party of scapegoating Russia after losing the presidential election, saying they should "know how to lose with dignity." He also remarked that the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in state elections and wondered if Russia was deemed responsible for this as well.
As of March 2017[update], the FBI is investigating Russian involvement in the election, including alleged links between Trump's associates and the Russian government. British and the Dutch intelligence have given information to United States intelligence about meetings in European cities between Russian officials, associates of Putin, and associates of then-President-elect Trump. American intelligence agencies also intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates. The New York Times reported that multiple Trump associates, including campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other members of his campaign, had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016, although officials said that so far, they did not have evidence that Trump's campaign had co-operated with the Russians to influence the election. Manafort said he did not knowingly meet any Russian intelligence officials.
Since July 2016 Donald Trump's team has issued at least twenty denials concerning communications between his campaign and Russian officials. Several of these denials turned out to be false, as seven of Trump's associates or advisers (including Page) have had such contacts. Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions have subsequently confirmed the contacts after having initially denied them. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN that the "electoral process" was not discussed during these meetings, and that the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had also met with “people working in think tanks advising Hillary or advising people working for Hillary” during the campaign.
Former ambassadors Michael McFaul and John Beyrle have said they are "extremely troubled" by the evidence of Russian interference in the US election, and both support an independent investigation into the matter, but have dismissed as "preposterous" the allegations that Kislyak participated in it, particularly though his meetings with the Trump campaign. "Kislyak's job is to meet with government officials and campaign people," McFaul stated. "People should meet with the Russian ambassador and it’s wrong to criminalize that or discourage it."
Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell has stated that he has seen no evidence of collusions between Trump and the Kremlin. "On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all," Morell said.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence under President Obama, said there was no evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives as of January 2017 when the intelligence community issued its report on the subject.
National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn was forced to resign after it was revealed that on December 29, 2016, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions. The New York Times on March 2, 2017 reported that Kislyak met with Michael T. Flynn and Jared Kushner in December 2016 to establish a line of communication with the Trump administration. Flynn was paid $45,000 by Russia Today for a 2015 talk and provided an all expense paid 3 day trip paid by Russia.
In March 2017, it was revealed that while still a U.S. Senator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early and prominent supporter of Trump's campaign, spoke twice with Russian ambassador Kislyak before the election – once in July 2016 and once in September 2016. At his January 10 confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, he stated that he was not aware of any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, adding that he "did not have communications with the Russians". On March 1, 2017, he said that his answer had not been misleading, stating that he "never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign". On March 2, 2017, after meeting with senior career officials at the Justice Department, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In February 2017, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump stated that he had "no meetings" with Russian officials during 2016 but two days later backtracked and said that he "did not deny" meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in the same year. Page's reversal occurred after the news reports which revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had likewise met with Kislyak. In March of 2017, Page was called on by the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
Roger Stone, an adviser to Donald Trump, admitted in March 2017 that during August 2016, he had been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, who is believed to be tied to Russian intelligence and who has claimed to be behind the hack of the DNC.
On October 31, 2016, a week before the election, David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, reported that an unnamed former intelligence officer had produced a report (later referred to as a dossier) based on Russian sources and had turned it over to the FBI. The officer, who was familiar to the FBI and was known for the quality of his past work, was later identified as Christopher Steele. The FBI found Steele and his information credible enough that it considered paying Steele to continue collecting information but the release of the document to the public stopped discussions between Steele and the FBI. Corn said the main points in the unverified report were that Moscow had tried to cultivate Donald Trump for years; that it possessed compromising or potentially embarrassing material about him that could possibly be used to blackmail him; and that there had been a flow of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which involved multiple in-person meetings between Russian government officials and individuals working for Trump. The dossier also claimed that the Kremlin's goal had been to "encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance".
On January 10, 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to Obama and Trump the previous week included allegations that Russian operatives possess "compromising personal and financial information" about Trump. CNN stated that it would not publish specific details on the memos because they had not yet "independently corroborated the specific allegations." Following CNN's report, BuzzFeed then published a 35-page dossier that it said was the basis of the briefing. It included unverified claims that Russian operatives had worked with the Trump campaign to help him get elected. It also alleged that Russia had collected "embarrassing material" involving Trump that could be used to blackmail him. Trump denounced the unverified claims as false, saying that it was "disgraceful" for U.S. intelligence agencies to report them.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted January 5–9, 2017, showed that 55% of respondents believed that Russia interfered in the election, while 36% believed it did not and 10% were undecided. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll that was conducted January 12–13, 36% of respondents said that the cyberattacks had an effect on the outcome of the election, 45% that they had no influence, while 20% had no opinion. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted January 12–15, 51% of respondents said they believed Russia intervened in the election through hacking, but only 26% said that Trump would have lost the election had the hacking not occurred, with opinions largely split on partisan lines.
As of February 2017[update] public-opinion polls showed a partisan split on the importance of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Independents, and 25 percent of Republicans, for a total of 53 percent, wanted a Congressional inquiry into the alleged communications in 2016 between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian government officials. Quinnipiac University found that 47 percent thought it was very important (18 percent somewhat important, 12 percent not so important, and 20 percent not important).
On December 15, 2016, Hillary Clinton gave a gratitude speech to her campaign donors in which she reflected on Putin's motivations for the covert operation. She partially attributed her loss in the 2016 election to Russian meddling organized by Putin. Clinton said Putin had a personal grudge against her, and linked his feelings to her criticism of the 2011 Russian legislative election, adding that he felt she was responsible for fomenting the 2011–13 Russian protests. She drew a specific connection from her 2011 assertions as U.S. Secretary of State in 2011 that Putin rigged the elections that year, to his actions in the 2016 U.S. elections. Clinton said that by personally attacking her through meddling in the election, Putin additionally took a strike at the American democratic system. She said the cyber attacks were a larger issue than herself personally, and called them an attempt to attack the national security of the United States. Clinton noted she was unsuccessful in sufficiently publicizing to the media the cyber attacks against her campaign in the months leading up to the election. She voiced her support for a proposal put forth by U.S. Senators from both parties, to set up an investigative panel to look into the matter akin to the 9/11 Commission.
The RNC said there was no intrusion into its servers, while acknowledging email accounts of individual Republicans (including Colin Powell) were breached. Over 200 emails from Colin Powell were posted on the website DC Leaks. Chief of staff-designate for Trump and outgoing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus appeared on Meet the Press on December 11, 2016, and discounted the CIA conclusions. Priebus said the FBI had investigated and found that RNC servers had not been hacked. When asked by Chuck Todd whether Russia interfered in the election, Priebus stated that despite the conclusion of intelligence officials, he still didn't "know who did the hacking."
Prior to his presidential run, Donald Trump made statements to Fox News in 2014 in which he agreed with an assessment by FBI director James Comey about hacking against the U.S. by Russia and China. Trump was played a clip of Comey from 60 Minutes discussing the dangers of cyber attacks. Trump stated he agreed with the problem of cyber threats posed by China, and went on to emphasize there was a similar problem towards the U.S. posed by Russia: "No, I think he's 100% right, it's a big problem, and we have that problem also with Russia. You saw that over the weekend. Russia's doing the same thing."
In September 2016, during the first presidential debate, Trump said he doubted whether anyone knew who hacked the DNC, and disputed Russian interference. During the second debate, Trump said there might not have been hacking at all, and questioned why accountability was placed on Russia. After the election, Trump rejected the CIA analysis and asserted that the reports were politically motivated to deflect from the Democrats' electoral defeat. Trump's transition team drew attention to prior errors emanating from the CIA, namely stating: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." The intelligence analysts involved in monitoring Russian activities are most likely different from those who assessed that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Responding to The Washington Post, Trump dismissed reports of Russia's interference, calling them "ridiculous"; he placed blame on Democrats upset over election results for publicizing these reports, and cited Julian Assange's statement that "a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta."
After Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and announced further sanctions on Russia, Trump commended Putin for refraining from retaliatory measures against the United States until the Trump administration would lay out its policy towards Russia.
On January 6, 2017, after meeting with members of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump released a statement saying:
In the same statement, he vowed to form a national cybersecurity task force to prepare an anti-hacking plan within 90 days of taking office.
Referring to the Office of Personnel Management data breach in 2015, Trump told The New York Times: "China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names. How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt."
Two days later, Reince Priebus reported that Trump had begun to acknowledge that "entities in Russia" were involved in the DNC leaks. On January 11, 2017, Trump finally admitted that Russia was probably the source of the leaks, although he also said it could have been another country.
In July 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he had not seen evidence emails leaked from the DNC were traceable to Russia. In November 2016, Assange said Russia was not the source of John Podesta's hacked emails published by Wikileaks. On January 3, 2017, he said that a "14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta’s emails."
On January 6, 2017, Reuters reported on a secret briefing given to Barack Obama by U.S. intelligence agencies on January 5, and scheduled to be shown to Trump a few days later. According to this assessment, the CIA had identified specific Russian officials who provided hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks in an effort to influence the presidential election. The hacked material sometimes followed "a circuitous route" from Russia's military intelligence services (GRU), to third parties and then WikiLeaks, thus enabling WikiLeaks to claim that the Russian government was not the source of the material published on its website.
On December 10, ten electors, headed by Christine Pelosi, wrote an open letter to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding an intelligence briefing on investigations into foreign intervention in the presidential election. Fifty-eight additional electors subsequently added their names to the letter, bringing the total to 68 electors from 17 different states. The Clinton campaign supported the call for a classified briefing for electors, with John Podesta saying: "Electors have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution and we support their efforts to have their questions addressed."
On December 16, the briefing request was denied.
The CIA assessment, and Trump's dismissal of it, created an immediate and unprecedented rupture between the president-elect and the intelligence community. On December 11, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials responded to Trump's denunciation of its findings in a written statement, and expressed dismay Trump disputed their conclusions as politically motivated or inaccurate. They wrote that intelligence officials were motivated to defend U.S. national security. On the same day, The Guardian reported that members of the intelligence community feared reprisals from Donald Trump once he takes office. Questioned by The Guardian, two serving intelligence officers said they had not heard such concerns internally, one of them "noted that civil-service laws prevented Trump from launching a purge", while unnamed former officers stated that "retaliation by Trump [was] all but a certainty".
Former CIA director Michael Morell said foreign interference in U.S. elections was an existential threat and called it the "political equivalent" of the September 11 attacks. In a Washington Post op-ed, former NSA director and CIA director Michael V. Hayden wrote that Trump's attack on the Intelligence Community's findings diminished the chances that the incoming administration would use intelligence for logical policy-making decisions. Former CIA spokesman George E. Little condemned Trump for dismissing the CIA assessment, saying that the president-elect's atypical response was disgraceful and denigrated the courage of those who serve in the CIA at risk to their own lives. Another former CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, said that the dispute between Trump and the CIA was a hideous development and unheard of to occur publicly.
Independent presidential candidate and former CIA intelligence officer Evan McMullin criticized the Republican leadership for failing to respond adequately to Russia's meddling in the election process, "for fear of hurting Trump's chances". McMullin said Republican politicians were aware that publicly revealed information about Russia's interference was likely the tip of the iceberg relative to the actual threat.
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