Trump calls Russia hacking allegations a ‘political witch hunt’

Team Trump is now lashing out at the idea that Russia tried to tip the election in Trump’s favor, with the president-elect himself labeling it a “political witch hunt” just ahead of his highly anticipated intelligence briefing on evidence that Russian forces hacked Democratic targets to aid the real estate mogul.

“They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” Trump said of his political opponents in a Friday morning interview with the New York Times. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.” Trump pointed to other issues, like the Chinese attack into the Office of Personnel Management and the move by Democratic National Committee interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile to give Hillary Clinton advance notice of Democratic primary debate questions, as equally troubling subjects that receive relatively little coverage.

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Later Friday, Trump is to receive a briefing by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA director John Brennan, and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers on a new U.S. intelligence report that lays out why officials believe Russia meddled in the election to assist Trump.

The declassified parts of the report are due to become public as early as Friday afternoon.

In a sign of the high tensions, both U.S. officials and Trump’s team have attempted to front-run the meeting by airing their side of the story.

After U.S. officials spoke to The Washington Post and NBC News late Thursday, citing evidence of senior Russian officials celebrating Trump’s win, the president-elect expressed his displeasure on Twitter.

“How did NBC get ‘an exclusive look into the top secret report he (Obama) was presented?’ Who gave them this report and why? Politics!” Trump tweeted.

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Friday morning, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway went further during a contentious interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who pressed Conway on whether Trump was “sheltering” Russia.

“He’s not sheltering Russia, and don’t you say that again,” Conway shot back.

She also stated emphatically that “Russia didn’t want Trump to win the election” and said, “The idea that somehow conclusive evidence has been out there in the public domain … is simply not true.” Instead, she said that the uptick in attention paid to the Russian cyberattacks is a direct result of Trump’s victory and the work of “those out there who are trying to delegitimize his presidency, review the election results and you know it.” Those looking to undercut the incoming administration will fail, Conway said, simply because of Trump’s decisive victory.

“I don’t want to relitigate the election, because we won,” She said as Cuomo tried to talk over her. “No, I don’t want to relitigate the election. We won and that says a lot. That finishes many sentences.”

When Cuomo suggested during that same interview that it was “troubling” that Trump might be ignoring the assessment of the intelligence community, Conway replied “no, it’s not” and added that the CNN anchor was “making conclusions up.”

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Conway denied that Trump has disparaged intelligence officials, despite having mocked them on Twitter.

“President-elect Donald Trump has great respect [for] the intelligence community. We’re very happy that the top intelligence officials will be here at Trump Tower today to give their own briefing to the president-elect,” Conway said.

She also questioned why U.S. officials are trying to get out ahead of the public release of the hacking report, and expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s decision to expel 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States to punish the country for the cyberattacks.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime supporter of Trump’s and a finalist to be his vice president, said Friday on Fox News that the president-elect should be “both skeptical and frankly pretty angry” when he meets with the heads of the intelligence community.

“The report gets to NBC before it gets to Donald Trump? I mean, what the devil is going on here? To what degree is this a political charade to allow Democrats to blame the Russians rather than Hillary for her defeat?” Gingrich said. “The whole thing is a mess.”

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Trump has long been criticized for his warm overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has rankled many of the Russia hawks in Congress.

The president-elect and Putin have continued their praise of each other since Trump’s surprise win in November, and Trump’s choice of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — who was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin — as secretary of state also alarmed those critical of Russia’s autocratic ruler.

Putin has denied that Russia directed the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the private email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, which produced embarrassing emails that proved distracting for Clinton’s operation.

“Everyone’s talking about who’s done it. Does it really matter that much? What matters is what’s inside this information,” Putin said at an economic forum in Moscow in October.

“There’s nothing there benefiting Russia,” he added. “The hysteria is simply to distract the American people from the contents of what the hackers have posted.”

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Those statements came shortly after the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the first time publicly blamed Russia for the hacks and concluded the country was trying to interfere in the U.S. election.

Trump, however, said he has no reason to believe that conclusion.

In a December interview with Time magazine, when it named him man of the year, Trump said he did not agree with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was behind the hacked documents that ended up on WikiLeaks.

“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump said.

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He has continued to disparage the intelligence community, including this week, claiming that intelligence officials pushed back his briefing because they needed more time to make their case.

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday, using strategic quotemarks.

Trump also appeared to side with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this week that Russia wasn’t the source of the DNC and Podesta emails.

On the eve of Trump’s intelligence briefing, Clapper and other officials defended their assessment on Russia’s involvement, telling members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the intelligence community “will ascribe a motivation” for why Putin would have directed cyberattacks against the U.S. when it releases its report.

Clapper also said Trump’s rhetoric about intelligence agencies is alarming American allies. “I’ve received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts about, you know, the disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community, or I should say what has been interpreted as disparagement of the intelligence community,” he said.

He added about Trump: “I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”

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