Team Trump took troubling reports alleging that Russian intelligence interfered with the presidential election in a way we have come to expect from the president-elect: as a personal insult undermining his win.
"These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," the transition team said in a statement. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.'"
Then on Monday, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller pivoted to the media — implying that the coverage is merely drumming up a non-story.
“Going back to this overall narrative that is in the news right now, I think really clearly what this is is an attempt to try to delegitimize President-elect Trump’s win,” Miller said at the transition team’s daily press conference Monday. “First, after the election it was the recount nonsense, then it was discussion of the popular vote, and now it’s anonymous, off-the-record sources with conflicting information, trying to raise other issues. But really, where we are as an incoming administration is getting ready to serve the American people and hit the ground running.”
He continued, “That might upset some people that are bitter their candidate lost in November.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has questioned Russia’s involvement in the election. It was a common line of attack from the Democrats, and Trump always responded to allegations surrounding Russian engagement with a shrug.
Now he and his surrogates are making it a more definitive wag of the finger — so much so that Trump equated the allegations to a conspiracy theory.
Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
As conservative columnist and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro pointed out, the less controversial approach to these serious reports would be to be concerned “about Russian interference in our election and still think Trump would have won without that interference.” (Brietbart itself dismissed the report as “left-wing ‘fake news.’”)
That was not the Trump team’s approach. Rather, Trump is claiming this news is not to be trusted. Why? He wants people to know that he won, regardless of an unprecedented interference from international intelligence.
Trump’s team has been denying Russian interference since the beginning
At the first presidential debate, Trump refused to acknowledge that Russia was behind the Democratic National Committee hacks. Instead, he came up with a lot of alternatives.
"It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people," he said during the first presidential debate. "It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."
Now, even when presented with more concrete reports, his team is doubling down on its refusal to accept the intelligence agencies’ reports. To admit Russia helped Trump reach the White House would delegitimize the Trump movement and undermine the political revolution he is so proudly touring the country touting.
“The entire report is based on unnamed sources who are perhaps doing something they shouldn’t be doing by speaking to reporters or speaking out of line,” future Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC’s This Week.
Republican National Committee spokesperson Sean Spicer said he hasn’t seen any direct evidence that the Russian hacking allegations had any impact on the election. (While impact on voting habits is in a way unmeasurable, the Clinton campaign’s post-election blame has largely been placed on Comey’s decision to reopen an investigation into Clinton’s emails and Russian interference.)
"What proof does anyone have that they effected the outcome? Because I've heard zero," Spicer told CNN's Michael Smerconish. "Show me what facts have actually shown that anything undermined that election."
John Bolton, a Trump ally who has been floated as a possible State Department figure, said the allegations sound more like something out of the Obama White House than from an intelligence agency — something not backed up by any reported information.
“It’s not at all clear to me just viewing this from the outside that this hacking into the DNC and the RNC computers was not a false-flag operation,” Bolton said. “The question that has to be asked is why did the Russians run their smart intelligence service against Hillary’s server but their dumb intelligence services against the election?”
And Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, called the notion that this elevated Trump to the presidency “laughable” and “ridiculous.” As Conway’s Twitter bio states, “We won,” and to their team, even entertaining another idea would weaken that victory.
The one person who has not made news on the subject is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who notably contradicted Trump on this very subject in the vice presidential debate in October.
"I think there's no question that the evidence continues to point in that direction. There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America," Pence said then.
Though Trump’s inner circle seems to be fortifying itself against what it calls partisan attacks, other Republican officials aren’t so willing to dismiss the CIA’s conclusion. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell backed an investigation into the idea that Russia had interfered, and noted Russia critics John McCain and Lindsey Graham also said they found the report disturbing enough to be of further inquiry.